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A/N: You guys probably know by now that there's new artwork getting added to the SRU gallery all of the time, right? I've been commissioning a lot of artists to bolster the story's portfolio.

If you're keeping on top of this story, you might want to wait until after you read this chapter so as to not spoil yourself.

Also of interesting note: I took some time to try an amateur sight-reading of this chapter's first scene. You can find that here, if it interests you:

http:/saint-roku-university(dot)tumblr(dot)com/post/21339867224/this-is-me-doing-a-very-amateur-sight-reading-of


What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 80 - Into The Inferno


- Monday, March 21st, 2011 -

"Seriously! Can you believe this bullshit?" Korra grunted out to Mako, slamming the crinkled issue of {The Wayward Chronicle} onto the kitchen table in a huff.

Mako glared at the paper with ice-cold eyes. It was quite...wrinkled. He hadn't had a chance to read it yet. Mako did not like trying to read wrinkled things, and the newspaper was a very consistent part of his morning routine - being one of its writers, and all. Korra's rant continued.

"How could people even think that? The United Republic is...the coolest thing ever!"

"You...do realize that I have no idea what you're talking about...right?"

Korra blinked at him, wide-eyed. The coffee maker gurgled and sputtered in the background during their awkward, silent moment.

"It's...some idiots," she huffed, rolling her eyes. "I don't know!"

Mako sighed at Korra's hot temper and slid the unfortunately mistreated Monday paper along the table to his eyesight, gandering at the text while Korra attempted to articulate her concern.

"Saying shit like how the United Republic is a waste of money, and how they don't like feeling like the college is...invading their space, or...-" She wriggled a disinterested wrist around and trailed off. Mako rubbed sand from his eye as he skimmed while Korra drearily retrieved a mug for herself and poured some steaming, dark coffee into it.

Mako noticed this act, and requested, "Oh, would you mind pouring me some, too?"

Korra snorted a laugh through her nose.

"Yeeeah, I think you're a big boy, you can make it yourself," she discounted him with a teasingly sarcastic smirk, eyes squinted half shut as she sipped her black coffee right in front of him. He stared at her in this moment of childishness, finding himself both irritated yet charmed by her bold rudeness. She scratched at the side of her head, her hair pushed up into a messy bun. As she poked her head outside the kitchen window above the sink, Mako's eyes found themselves wandering down to her waist - she was wearing a pair of sweatpants, but when she leaned to look out the window, her shirt hiked up slightly, revealed a patch of sweaty lower back muscles and hips that arced out pleasantly.

Korra then lazily scratched at her butt cheek and yawned loudly as she went to sit back down, sniffing in a sharp breath of air.

How on earth such a well-built young woman could be so...immature...was beyond Mako.

"I'll...get right on that, then," he muttered tiredly, in response to her dismissal, getting up and preparing himself a drink. "So...About the restaurant...by 'some idiots' you actually meant...Mayor Kuei. Right?"

"Say what, now?" Korra mumbled, tilting her head to the side.

"The Mayor? Of Wayward?" Mako reiterated, his head twisting slightly in expectation.

Korra raised a brow, totally clueless, to which Mako sighed once again.

"The Mayor is the one in that newspaper article who's saying that he thinks the place you work at is a waste."

"Fuckin' politics," Korra growled, setting her mug down.

"Ya know, I hate to say it, but...he's got a good point," Mako confessed, dropping just a bit of coffee creamer into his mug.

"What?" Korra whined. "No way, Mako, don't tell me you're falling for that bull."

"Maybe if you actually read the paper instead of...-" Mako's fiercely formed eyebrow twitched. "-...crumpled it, you'd know what you were talking about."

"What's there to talk about?" Korra disagreed, tossing up her hand and letting it bump onto the table's surface. The gesture shook her own mug, nearly causing it to spill.
Grr, stupid woman...We don't need coffee stains...

"Korra," said Mako sternly, staring her right in the eyes as he sat down across from her. "I don't know if you've noticed - I mean, maybe things are better up the Great White North - but the economy's been pretty rough these days. Saint Roku University's been on a financial decline for the past few years. Less students enroll each year, and it's a pretty small, private college. They can't exactly afford to go spending money on frivolous things."

"Uh, OK," Korra spat out impatiently. "And your point is?"

"My point is, the United Republic maybe stands for some flowery ideals and everything, but it cost the school a lot of money to start up and it's taking away business from what few local places exist around here."

"We're...we're bringing the people from Wayward and the college community together, though," Korra insisted, not much interested in talks of finances.

"That's a nice assumption to make, Korra," Mako said with an unimpressed look, "But from what I've been hearing, a lot of things the school's been up to lately have been pushing it away from the town."

"Like...what?" Korra inquired, her stomach gurgling loudly from a mixture of hunger and doubt.

"Like the way all of that business with that shootout was handled back in the winter, and-"
"Shootout?"

"Ugh, yea, the two gangs and everything? Didn't you hear about that?"

"Oh, right," Korra mumbled. "The gang that...used to spend time in...the building I'm working at..."

"Yea, that would be the one," Mako advised. "Korra, something about that whole situation didn't seem right to me. I mean, some of the people involved walked away scot-free."

"Pff, yea, that's what happens when you let the lame-ass police around here deal with shit..."

"The point is, something about that...-"
Grriiiihhhhgggle.
"Jesus, Korra, would you...eat something?"

"Oh..." Korra rubbed at her abdomen sheepishly before gulping down more coffee and getting a bagel into the toaster.

This girl's an odd one. I don't get what Bolin sees in her beyond her looks. But, then again...this is Bolin we're talking about...

"Anyway," Mako went back to his discussion while Korra waited for her breakfast to toast. "Between how that gang violence got silenced so quick, and how the college seems to be coming up with private funding from who knows where, it just...Well, the school just makes me - er, makes people all around here, in town - think that something suspicious is going on."

Korra sucked in a deep breath through her nose and huffed out hot air.

"Mako, you can...think whatever you want. Honestly? I don't give a flying fuck. They pulled me down here outta my shit job working for a shit manager living in a shit apartment with no life. Like you said, economical...politics...problem. Thing. Whatever."

Mako's half-closed amber eyes washed his deadpan amusement over her and she slung her head back in aggravation.

"Whatever!" she repeated. "It's hard to hold a job, much less a decent one, so I'm not gonna be rockin' the boat, and I sure as hell don't like seeing...bear-o-cratic whatever-the-fucks who sit in comfy chairs all day-" She pounded her palm against her chest, leaning forth indignantly. "-telling people that my job is a waste!"

Mako looked down from his housemate and took a moment to drink in caffeine as he considered her perspective.

'Bear-o-cratic?' Ugh...Korra, Korra, Korra...You really are a bit of a blockhead, aren't you?

"And I mean, damn, the school? That school is what's keeping my family sane, OK? Sokka? Katara? My cousins? Their mom is gone, and that tore them up for years. My little cousin, she had, like, no friends in high school. That school is what gives her some kind of fucking anchor in the shit storm of life, so...I don't want to ever hear you sayin' bullcrap like that around me. Just...Keep it your self."

Korra snorted out a shaky sigh through her nose like steam from a kettle and began to angrily butter her bagel.

Wow. That...really pressed a button I didn't know was there. I thought Korra didn't really like her cousins that much...or colleges in general, for that matter.

"I...see your point," Mako conceded calmly. "I didn't...mean to...offend you."

Korra did a double take, rotating her head around, half a bagel in her hand. She took a bite out of it and stared at Mako's regretful frown.

"Yea?" she muttered, eyebrows furrowed as she maintained intimidation. "Well...Good. You didn't...offend me," she huffed in denial, rolling her eyes. "But...let's keep things that way."


"No, I'm-..." Zuko paused himself, breath in briskly, and sighed out his impatience before continuing. "Uncle," he slowly reiterated. "The names. Look at the names."

Iroh gaped at his forlorn nephew for a moment before lifting his pair of reading glasses over his eyes and surveying the highlighted, circled names from the articles Zuko had brought to his attention.

Hm. They did seem familiar.

"Mmm..." Iroh's stony fingers stroked his thinning beard. The ornate pendulum clock in his living room ticked back and forth, serving as the solitary noise they heard for a few moments as Iroh analyzed. "I think you may be right, Zuko," Iroh sighed, handing the folder of scanned pages back over. Zuko gawked at Iroh as the man leaned back on the couch, scratching his stomach thoughtfully. Dinner had been quite filling.

"That...That's it?" Zuko growled, his eyes sparking with concern as he whipped the manilla folder onto the coffee table before them. "Uncle, are you taking this seriously? What are we going to do about this?"

Iroh grimaced at Zuko's stress. Always getting so worked up about everything...The poor young man needed a vacation. Good thing spring break was coming up soon.

"Zuko, we can look into this tomorrow. But I must ask you: what is it that you expect me to do?"

Zuko's mouth opened, but he couldn't figure out to reply. This was an unexpected answer from Iroh. Uncle Iroh not knowing what to do? It was a foreign concept.

"I-...We need...to...do something," Zuko groaned, rubbing his tired eyes. "Azula's not any help in any of this. Didn't I tell you? I told you this would happen with her..."

"It is true that your sister seems to have lost her way, Nephew. But do not forget that you, too, have made your own mistakes and eventually overcame them."

"But what makes you so sure Azula is going to do the same?" Zuko sighed doubtfully.

"Nothing is certain," Iroh replied innocently, shrugging his shoulders as he gawked up at his own living room ceiling. The wavy textures running along its surface were soothing when matched with the gentle ticking his large clock's pendulum. "I merely have faith that - if anything - you, Zuko, will help her see the error of her ways. But, for that matter, what makes you so certain that this is even something we should be worried about?"

Zuko crouched over, dropping his elbows onto his knees, his hands sliding across the sides of his dry scalp.

"Something about this isn't right, Iroh," he breathed out. His teeth ground together beneath closed lips. His head twisted to his right to stare at his seemingly relaxed uncle. "Is there anything you aren't telling me?"

Iroh's gaze lost its air of ignorant serenity as the two Kurosawas exchanged their doubts without a word for a brief moment.

"I admit...-" Iroh began, a moan escaping him as he leaned forth, pushing his elderly frame to get up. Zuko immediately put out his arm, aiding the man's effort to rise to his feet. "-...it does seem highly suspect...But, in my experience...-" Iroh rotated his shoulder and it crackled stiffly as he sighed. "-...it is not wise to go chasing hurricanes - one is better off preparing for the storm than running headlong into it..."

As Iroh meandered down the hallway and toward his bedroom, he waved back to Zuko.

"I must retire for the evening, Nephew. I trust you will handle the meeting in my stead."

Zuko shook his head to himself and easily caught up to Iroh, clamping a hand on his shoulder.

"Uncle...Why are you ignoring this?" Zuko firmly demanded, his insides churning with doubt. "Why are you putting this on me?"

Iroh contemplated his reply for a moment. Zuko loved that - the way Iroh thought before he spoke. It was perhaps something he would do well to work on himself, especially if he had any hope of winning Azula over in all of this.

Iroh lifted his creaky, sturdy arm up and dropped it on the back of Zuko's wrist.

"Because, Zuko...I know you are ready. Someone has to make these things right." Iroh's head bobbed down as a confident smile overcame him. He patted Zuko's hand twice before slipping off toward his bedroom door. "That someone is you."


- Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011 -

{2/23/2011 - Hakoda}
{Today I was reminded of how much I deeply miss my family. And though Katara and Sokka may not be here with me, they are looking out for each other, and very soon, they will have their cousin Korra to keep an eye on them. I had forgotten about our family's name, so today, I re-learned something: the name 'Kesuk' means 'water & sky,' so now I like to think that, like those things, even while we are far apart we're still all true blue and connected as one vast whole.}

A long, thoughtful breeze of breath slid out from Katara's nostrils as she stared at the curves of her father's orderly handwriting in the journal she'd been holding onto. She gazed at the blank page to the right, as if staring would somehow make more words appear. She'd read through his handful of entries three times now since receiving the bound book from her brother. She lamented the fact that neither of them had added to their father's thoughts yet. The way Hakoda had written such simple, brief entries made Katara wary - she knew she'd want to just ramble on pointlessly. If she was going to write something in, she wanted it to be concise.

After a quick glance around the ACC, which was gradually becoming more active as lunchtime drew closer, Katara's eyes found themselves locking onto a single word in the entire section.

{Korra}

She found herself...a bit angry. Disgruntled. Why was that?

When was the last time Katara had made an effort to see Korra just for old time's sake? As family, as cousins...She couldn't even remember. Certainly before Korra had moved down to PA. That nagging feeling - no, no, it wasn't a nag, it was a...desire, a passion - to reach out and connect yanked at Katara's heart. She retrieved her phone from her desk and sent out a quick text.

[To: Korra]
[Hey, I was wondering if you had time to hang out tonight. Just you and me? I miss you.]
[Sent: 10:51am]

A short distance away, Toph was sprawled on her back, bare feet wedged inbetween the cushions of the corner of the couch she was on. Her laptop rested on her stomach, one arm propped under her neck, the other dangling off the couch's edge.

"What?" An awkward giggle. "Nahhh. No. Nobody like that."

["Really? Mm. I guess it is kinda soon...But, like...that spring dance is coming up, right?"]

After their musical make-up, Toph and Meng had rapidly slipped right back into consistent contact, only now Toph spent less time complaining and more time encouraging her younger cousin.

"What? Whhh-...There...there is...?"

Meng snorted out a laugh.

["Chyea, Tophie. How come I know about this and you don't?"]

"How come you know about this and I don't?" Toph chuckled, bemused.

["I heard about it from Aang - he sounded excited."]

"Ah...Well, Aang has someone to go with, sooo...Yea."

["There's no one you want to go to a dance with? Not a single guy?"]

"Pff...No way," Toph coolly rejected the notion. Fuck Sokka, he was all...flaunting himself with other girls, and...rrrr. She was better for him than that stupid air-head ditz, or that tightwad, no-nonsense Suki. But whatever. Like he was smart enough to notice...

["Huh. That's weird, coming from you, Tophie."]

"Eh?"

["Seems like there's always some guy you've got on your mind."]

Ffffffuuuck. She's right. Ughhhh, she's so right. Damnitall.

"Heh. Well...Not right now."

["Hm. I see. Hey, though - that dance is a few weeks away, right? Ya never know-ohhh~"] Meng taunted with her tone in a suggestive singing manner.

"Yea, yea, OK, all right," Toph sighed, a smirk on her face.

["I can see you're bluh-shing~"] Meng continued her jibing assault.

"What?" Toph squeaked, slapping her hand on her cheek. It didn't feel warm...ugh, but it was getting there..."

["Well, you are now, mwahaha..."]

"You're a little piss-ant," Toph growled with an embarrassed, toothy grin.

["Looks like you taught me well, Cousin!"]

Katara snickered at the two girls prodding each other verbally across the way before noticing she'd received a reply.

[From: Korra]
[Yea that sounds good, actually. Could use some chick time after living with these "men"]
[Sent: 10:53am]

[Reply]
[To: Korra]
[LOL I see. Sounds good. When and where?]
[Sent: 10:53am]

[From: Korra]
[I gotta close shop tonight so how about a lil before 10?]
[Sent: 10:54am]

[Reply]
[To: Korra]
[Cool! I'll come by UR at like 9:45.]
[Sent: 10:54am]

[To: Sokka]
[Hey, I need to use the car tonight.]
[Sent: 10:55am]

[From: Sokka]
[What for? Me and Aang were wanting to go out w/people tonight.]
[Sent: 10:57am]

[Reply]
[To: Sokka]
[I want to see Korra for a bit.]
[Sent: 10:58]

[From: Sokka]
[Fine, fine. We'll figure something out later. We'll be there in a sec for lunch.]
[Sent: 10:59am]


"Sorry, girl..." Korra scratched her nails along the base of Naga's ears, holding her over-eager body in place. "Mama's gotta go to work." A rough double-pat to Naga's side.

"Yarp! Yar-yarp!"

"I know, I know!" Korra chuckled. "Naga needs her walk. Don't worry." Korra stood up and cast her gaze to Bolin, who was tying his shoelaces. She continued to speak to her pup while observing Bolin's stocky body rise up. "Bolin here's gonna take care of you, so you be nice to him, all right?"

"Heh." Bolin grinned at Korra, standing with her hands on her hips, chest puffed out. The woman sure knew how to carry herself. "She'll be in good hands," he assured, smiling at the cheerfully panting puppy.

"I bet she will," Korra muttered, zipping up her hoodie. It was a bit cold tonight, so she was going to leave her obviously stylish but admittedly not-so-warm leather jacket at home. She paused, considering the evening that waited for her.

"What's up?" Bolin wondered, clipping Naga's leash onto her collar.

"Ehhh," Korra shook her head and whipped down her wrist. "Nothin', I just...am kinda nervous."

"Nervous? About what?"

"My cousin..."

"Errmmm..." Bolin scratched at his ear tentatively. "Why?"

"It's been a long time since we've hung out together - just us girls, ya know? I think I-...pfff. Just wondering if we can even get along on our own, is all."

"Ah..." Bolin nodded slowly. "It'll be good, you shouldn't worry so much."

Korra kicked the heel of her shoe against the archway of the living room entrance. She looked up at his encouraging green eyes and he grinned, giving her a thumbs up.

"If I can see how awesome you are, I'm sure your cousin's well aware of it."

Korra offered up a weak smile of gratitude, her arms crossed pensively.

"Thanks, Bolin. You're right." She smirked, her eyes flickering with sass. "I am pretty damned awesome, aren't I?"

Bolin took a couple steps toward her and jabbed a meaty finger just below her left collarbone.

"You, my friend, are one bad-ass motherfucker," he credited her, barely keeping a straight face. They both crumbled into snickers.

"Took you that long to figure it out, eh?"

"Ohhh, yes," Bolin facetiously explained, putting on a melodramatic tone. "Your luscious lips, feminine wiles, and deep, enchanting eyes have been luring me into a false sense of security all this time, but now I see your true colors, you dirty animal."

"Shut up, you dweeby Elvis imposter," Korra cackled, rustling his slicked back hair and pushing him away by his pectoral.

"A-thank-yuh-verymuch," said Bolin with his mocking impression, straightening his coat and readjusting his hair.

"Walk my dog," Korra commanded in an exhausted whine.

Bolin strolled over to the door, opening and gripping the leash as Naga dashed out and down the steps. He waved good-bye, and Korra swung her hand stiffly back, brow cocked at him. As soon as he set foot on the porch, he paused and shouted back through the doorway, pumping his fist into the air and wiggling his hips.

"Elvis has left the building!"

"Wh-?" Korra squinted at his randomness with borderline irritation, doing her best to hide her entertainment. "Walk my dog, dipshit!"

"Going now!" Bolin squawked, bounding down the stairs and out of harm's way.


"It's all good, Sis," Sokka insisted, pulling the car into the lot beside the United Republic as the only other car there, packed with a family of full stomachs, pulled out. "We'll just swing by somewhere in town and grab some ice cream or something, meet you back here in a bit."

"Sure..." Katara nodded, slinging her messenger bag over her shoulder as she stepped out of the car. "That sounds good."

From the backseat, Aang practically pressed his face against the window, admiring her attire today. She was wearing that lovely dark blue sweatshirt he liked so much - the one with the low cut that showed off her elegant shoulders. She'd worn it just for him today, and it was almost tragic that now she was leaving. Yes, it was only going to be a little while, but...he was just in a very attached mood today.

Women shouldn't be allowed to have shoulders that beautiful.

Katara noticed him admiring her from inside the car, a small spot of steam shrouding his face from the air seeping out of his nostrils. That's how close he was to the window.

"You," Katara teased, her voice carrying through the open car door as she pointed at her boyfriend, eyes aglow with affection. "Try not to freak out while I'm gone, Sweetie. Hee."

Aang rolled up his eyes, lulling his tongue out, and clutched at his heart in mock pain.

"NoOoOoOoooo," he whimpered pathetically, clawing his fingers at the window, smearing the trace fog he'd created. "My Precioussss," he hissed in a joking rasp. "We wantsss it, we needsss it."

Katara gave him a deadpan look while Toph grunted, "Oh, brother," from Aang's left. As Jane popped out of the other side of the car, winding around to take Katara's place in the front passenger seat. Katara delivered a soft rub on the shoulder as she passed by, then looked back to Aang, who was still flailing with mock insanity.

"All right, Gollum," she called out, voice muffled by the car now that the front door was closed. "Roll down your window."

Aang perked right up and did as he was told. Katara eagerly leaned her head in and Aang immediately slammed a kiss into her lips. They made it a single, quick gesture before loudly unlocking mouths and nuzzling noses before she leaned back out.

"Maybe that can tide you over a while, you big baby," jeered Katara with a sly smile.

Sokka cleared his throat quite loudly from the driver's seat.

"Poor Mr. Oogie Boogie," Jane scoffed at him. "Hold onto your shit - you're a bigger baby than Fancy-Dancer back there is." Toph chuckled at Jane's somewhat forced but fitting use of nicknames.

"See you in a bit, Katara," Aang bid her farewell with a small wave. She nodded them off and turned around, heading into the restaurant's back door as she listened to the familiar hum of their car speed off. It was quite quiet, she realized, as she passed through the rec room. Aang's wall art of colored graffiti arrows still impressed her every single time she pass by. As she entered the dimly lit main area, she realized that the place was about dead, with a couple tables of dirty dishes left unchecked. She checked her phone: [9:58pm] Well, no wonder. They were about closed.

"There you are, Kittie Kat!" Katara twitched from the shock of Korra's suddenly close voice, startling her. Where had she come from? Maybe she had been poking around the bar counter...? In either case, she was right there, ready to give her cousin a hug.

"H-hey!" Katara greeted back, choking from the pressure of Korra's hug as she was lifted into the air. Her messenger bag slide off and clattered to the floor, much to her dismay. The second she was set back down, she scooped it right back up, checking to ensure that her cargo was undamaged.

"So how ya been?" Korra asked with enthusiasm, overriding Katara's distraction.

"Oh, I-..." Katara walked over to the counter and set her bag upon it, dropping herself into a stool. She took a breath, tilting her head up and down as she finally met Korra's gaze, letting relief pass over her. "Good. I'm good!"

"Sweet." Korra plunked her rear end with less-than-graceful nonchalance into the stool to Katara's right, propping her head up with an elbow on the counter.

There was an uncomfortable, drawn out silence in which neither woman could decide on how to continue conversation. Then, the scrawny, short blonde boy burst out from the kitchen's double doors.

"I'm punched out for the night, Korra," he sighed out, glad to be done with another long shift.

"Cool, Dougie. Peace out." Korra waved him off as he whisked on by. He and Katara swapped the briefest of curious glances - both knowing of each other without genuine acquaintance - and he saw himself out, Korra locking the door behind him.

"So you're all closed up for the night?" Katara wondered as Korra sat back down.

"Meh, not quite," she huffed, chin in her palm with a grudge. "Waitin' for that weirdo who's been in the bathroom for, like, the past twenty fuckin' minutes. Must have some diarrhea or some shit." She paused, then her eyes squinted with stupid humor as she contained a laugh. "Snrk. Some shit. More like hella ..."

Katara grimaced at Korra's lowbrow remark, and she fished through her bag to pull out the journal, setting it on the counter.

"This is the family journal," she explained, sliding it over to Korra in an attempt to swap topics. "Did...did my dad tell you about it?"

Korra blinked at Katara's solemn face for a second before leafing through the paltry few pages worth of entries.

"Uhhh...Not much of a journal yet, is it?" she mumbled with a laugh that sharply steered into shaky territory at Katara's dagger look. "I-I mean...-" She fumbled for this disconcerting seriousness that Katara wore. "It's...just a couple pages..."

"Because we're supposed to fill it in, too," Katara explained. "The family. Everyone in our family. That includes you."

Korra was baffled, her mouth hanging out as she eked out traces of syllables.

"What are you getting at, Kittie K-"
"Please don't call me that," groaned Katara, as if Korra were committing some horrible act for the tenth time.

"Whuh...-? What's the problem?"

"I don't like that name, Korra. It brings back bad memories."

"Erm...O-OK, I'll...keep that in mind. Heh." Korra shrugged sheepishly.

"How's Dad doing?" Katara asked suddenly.

"Hakoda? Oh, he's...uhh...-"

"Not the best?"

"He's...fine. I mean, he's been better, but...he's been a lot worse, too, so..."

"Did you visit him before you left?"

"Uh...Well, sure, I needed some help getting things around, and-"
"Ah. So you just used him to help you."

"Uhhh..."

"Like you used Aang to get the job you have right now."

Katara's gaze remained fixed forward while she sniped shots at her cousin. Korra twisted her head to a forty-five degree angle, in-dignified by this talk.

"He spends all of his time protecting people, and he gives you a dog and helps you move and you don't even give the poor man a visit before you go and leave him that much more alone?" Katara was now staring at Korra with disappointment. Her words stung, but not hot like flames - rather, they were dull and grinding, like pebbles against one another.

"I...didn't have time."

"You could've made time for Hakoda...It's the least he deserves."

"I...guess you're right," Korra awkwardly conceded, unsure as to what kind of response her cousin was looking for.

Christ. At least Sokka was easier to pacify when he was in an odd mood, Korra could just give him-...Oh. Hey. "So...So, erh, Katara..." Korra shrugged her head to the wall before them. It contained a soda machine and a soft serve, but there was also a dispenser for on-tap booze that required a flash of ID when served. "You seem a bit down. You in the mood for a drink? 'Cuz I could hook you up and...-"

A dull silence. Katara's mood seemed to be deteriorating, which was very unnerving to Korra. Korra decided to take matters into her own hands and made a quick dash around the counter, making herself a cold mug of beer and pulling out a hard pear cider from the mini fridge below for her cousin. She cracked off the cap and slide it forth. Katara eyed it with her sudden dose of melancholy while her cousin came back to sit at her side. Korra raised up her mug, and Katara eyed it warily before giving in, grabbing her bottle and tapping it against Korra's.

Clink.

They both took a swig.

"Nice night for an escape...isn't it?" Katara remarked dryly, predicting their descent into inebriation. "Seems like it's always a nice night for one of those these days. If it's not Sokka, it's Toph. If it's not her, it's you..." Katara's nose wrinkled with some pent up frustration. "Everyone just running away from their problems?" She took a second gulp, the sweet, sour, and bitter beverage easier to consume than in the past. "Why did you even come here?"

"Eh?"

"Here. To Wayward. Why did you come? You know, at first I thought it was because of us. Me and Sokka..." Katara slurped from her bottle again, dropping it hard against the wood. "But you seem so possessed with your new life here. Being in charge. Being lusted after by those boys you live with..." Whoa. Low blow, cuz. Low blow... "You hardly know them..."

"Y-yea," Korra agreed, thrown off by Katara's gradual increase in attitude. "I wasn't-...I haven't...-"

"You just show up and flash your muscles and throw some old bullies around - and crack Sokka in the head, by the way - and all of a sudden you're the big girl in town, and you're oh-so-cool."

Korra coughed out an appalled laugh. Good thing she'd just swallowed beer right before.

"Whoa, whoa, back up...You're jealous? Feh!"

Katara dropped a brisk snort from her widened nostrils.

"I thought-...We thought...that you came to Wayward to keep an eye out for me and Sokka. Pff. I've been the one keeping an eye on him this entire time. If it wasn't for me, he might...be expelled by now, or...something."

"Listen." Korra knocked her mug down harshly, slashing her hand downward in a sharp motion. "Katara, you're my family n' shit. We're all good, and tight, and stuff. But I came here for myself. I came here to find my own path, as an adult. I need to start a new life, on my own."

"I know you do," Katara sighed. Oh, great, now she was going to show sympathy? "But it doesn't have to be alone alone...Ya know, lately it feels like...-" Katara quenched her urge for cider with a chug. "-...our parents' time has passed. My mother, and...so many of our relatives and...-" Her nostrils flared with embitterment. "-...people we once called 'friends'...are gone." Another sip. "Practically my entire generation is...is crushed with debts, the economy is garbage...It's time for us Kesuks - what's left of this family - to take on the responsibility of covering each other's backs and getting through all this. Helping give each other peace and balance and...sanity...in this messed up world."

Korra stared intently at her oddly forlorn relative. She knew Katara had seen worse days, and when she thought on it, Korra was inspired by all the good Katara made out of it.

"And...-" She exhaled shakily, drum-rolling her fingernails on the bottle in her hands. "And I don't just mean me, and Sokka, and you. I mean...'this family,' and that includes everyone that's a part of it, not just the ones who share our name." Hmm. Katara had always been pretty insistent on that idea - that family was what you made of it. Korra wasn't as sold on that, but...either way, Katara was her family.

"Kat...Are you feeling OK?" Korra mumbled in frustration. What was with this? She wasn't supposed to be playing babysitter. "You're actin' really weird on me."

Katara heaved out hot air before finishing off her cider.

"I'm sorry, Korra," she muttered, shaking her head. "I don't know, it's just been a long day, I've been thinking on...-" She circled the tip of her pinky around the bottleneck. "-...maybe some stuff I shouldn't be...I suppose I'm just scared of what's going to happen when this school year is over, what will happen when Sokka's the one on his own. And then a year from now when I'm finally done."

Korra pounded Katara's shoulder, eliciting a cough from the girl, letting her thick arm hang over the girl's bare shoulders.

"I hear ya, Katara. I've been there. But it gets better." Korra paused thoughtfully. "Eventually."

"Heh..."

"I'm sorry if I've been causing crap for you guys, and...you are totally right, I really need to try making an effort to...be a part of this 'family.' I'm not secluded all by myself up in Toronto anymore. It's a whole new world out here, and it scares the fuck outta me sometimes."

Katara smiled weakly and nodded with understanding, leaning over the gap between stools and embracing her cousin.

"I know it's tough, but you'll be a great manager at this place."

"Damn straight." Korra grinned, squeezing Katara back.

"And...You're going to be a great cousin, too. To me and Sokka, but...also to Aang, and Toph, and Jane. I know you'll have our backs if we ever need it. That's just how you are."

Korra felt her insides tighten. Emotions and feelings and warm-fuzzies weren't her thing...She always figured Katara couldn't stand her approach to things. But this sounded like Katara in fact appreciated her stiff presence for a change. And she had to confess that she was feeling a little damp in the eyes. Just for a second, though.

"Thank you," Korra gratefully expressed.

Korra finally broke away from the embrace of Katara's arms. A mere few feet away, the tall, oddball man who'd been in the bathroom was standing there, staring right at her with all three of his eyes - that freak with the tatt on the face. The eyeballs that were real were just as cold and mechanical in their gaze as the fake one tattooed into his skull.

"Christ!" she spat out, grabbing at her chest, ensuring her skipping heart was still beating. Katara whirled around, only to gasp in surprise herself, then relax when she realized it was just that customer Korra had mentioned. "Jesus, man," Korra sighed out, shaking her head. "Scared the fuck outta us." He stared at her, expression stoic and unmoving. "You just...creep around, scaring women for kicks or some shit?" Korra once again grasped for some semblance of humor, but he didn't react.

Katara was baffled by the hulk of a man, with his shaved head, expressionless eyes, forehead tattoo, and...Oh, God. His hand. What was wrong with his hand? His right hand looked...ulgh. She couldn't even tell. But it didn't look right. Infected? Badly burned? She felt for the poor man, what pain he could be enduring that very moment. It didn't look pleasant, and it explained his controlled, stern look.

The awkward silence after Korra's remark was unbearable by now, and Katara's sympathy for this stranger rapidly gave rise to fear as his stone-cold demeanor carried himself to their immediate proximity. Korra's body tightened, and she rolled up her sleeves, hopping out of her seat with balled fists, ready to swing.

The man breathed in deeply through his nose, his alarming pectorals clearly showing through his tight, gray sweater.

"Listen, pal, I don't know what yooofff!"
Whump!

Korra's attempt at intimidation was cut short as the air was knocked from her by a knee to her abdomen. In the second it took for Katara to shriek with shock, Korra panted from the lack of air. Still hunched over, she managed to clamp her hands on the brute's shoulders while he grabbed her by the ponytail and yanked her head back. Another focused knee strike rose, slamming Korra in the breasts and leaving her stunned. Katara, who had by now leapt from her stool in fright and had her hands clamped on her temples, gazed onward in confusion. Her body was paralyzed on the spot, jaw agape.

Korra wasn't going down without a fight, though she now found herself pinned against the countertop, one leg caught underneath the stool's metal support, the other thrashing at the man's shin. He held down both her arms, even resorting to using his less-than-healthy-looking hand to keep Korra in place.

"Get off her!" Katara managed to screech, her words ignored entirely.

The stranger took his left hand - the stronger one - and took the chance of lifting it up, blocking Korra's attempt at a jab with his meaty elbow before crashing his fist against her face.

"Stop it!"

Even in this entire process, the man was a cold statue in motion, barely reacting to anything his body was doing. That itself was perhaps just as horrifying for Katara to watch as was the aggression he expelled as he lifted the dazed woman in his grasp by both shoulders and slammed her head against the counter with a sickening 'bumff.' Next, he pushed her back toward the tables and heaved her onto one, her face coming down first. He carried this act out like a construction worker, indifferently tossing a sack of cement.

Katara flinched from the crash, which split the table in two, leaving Korra in a contorted pile, her eye black, nose bleeding, head bruised.

"What are you doing to her?" Katara shrieked in hysterics. "You're going to kill...-!"

The man had turned around, that freezing glare of emptiness now aimed at Katara, who suddenly found herself unable to breath, her sentence ending prematurely. Shaking like a leaf in a tornado, Katara wobbled backward, finding support on the counter behind her as his menacing footsteps approached. In that instant, she realized he walked with a bit of a limp - it made his advance that much more barbaric.

Confused, petrified, and struggling to muster up what adrenaline she could, Katara noticed her empty cider, and swiftly scooped it up, waving it like a club above her shoulder, ready to strike. She bared her teeth, sapphire eyes aglow with fight-or-flight, and just as he came within range, she took a swipe at him.

"Agh!" she grunted in pain at his retaliation.

He'd caught her wrist in mid-swing and twisted it aside, wrenching the bottle from her grasp. Before she had any time to react, her world went spinning when the bottle was shattered against the left side of her forehead. She met the floor in an instant, and while she writhed in pain, too dizzy to operate properly, her stomach was pounded by a shoe. Curled into a fetal position, her sight blurred and dim, her breath forced from her lungs, Katara was helpless to fight back as her skull was lifted by her hair and pounded into the wooden floor, turning her world black.


The car had screeched to a stop in the middle of the road as soon as they'd turned the corner. Sokka had to put his foot back on the pedal and get the car into the back corner of the lot, all the while dealing with hysterics from the other people in the car. Before he'd even come to a stop, Aang had unlocked and opened his door and bounded out, making a few dashing steps toward the horrific sight.

The United Republic was ablaze, billowing stacks of smoke and spewing flames from its rooftop. Some of its windows were shattered and puffing out clouds of black, while others glowing a fierce yellow and orange mix.

"Aang? What the fuck?" Toph growled with hostile irritation, clueless as to what in the hell everyone was getting so riled up about. She fumbled around with her door and managed to push her way out, feeling around the car's edge and rotating around its backside while Sokka and Jane piled out of the front seats.

"Shit-shit-shit," Jane was hissing to herself as she clambered out, eyes fixated on the fire. Could it have been them? Could they be behind this?

Sokka was without words - without a clever remark or a curse or any kind of verbal indication that he was acknowledging what he was seeing as reality.

One faint-hearted thought was racing through his mind in that instant: my family is in there.

"What the hell is that sound?" Toph growled, her voice raising an octave as the sudden weight of this unknown situation pressed on her. She pushed off of the car, hands stretched out as she searched for anyone to clasp onto.

"Fuh-huhh-huhhhck," Jane was whimpering in a panic. "What do we do? What do we do?"

Toph groped toward the voice and found her arms on Jane's bony back. The girl jumped at the touch, her mind reeling, but she realized who it was and let Toph's elbow lock with her own.

"Could someone tell me what the fuck is going on?" Toph cried out in pleading exasperation as she was pulled forward, the lot of them approaching the place.

Aang hadn't said a single word, but instead was pulling his black SRU hoodie up, its blue arrow cast down over his forehead.

"Aang, where are you going?" Sokka swiftly demanded as soon as he saw this gesture and the way Aang was picking up speed. "Aang?"

The noise from the flickering flames grew louder as they drew close, and Toph suddenly found herself choking on traces of smoke, the distinct smell of burning wood suffocating her.

"Did something happen?" Toph moaned, the confusion sending her heart into a spiral of fear. Was Katara hurt? Or...or dead, or something? What if Katara was dead? Hell in a handbasket, Sister-Face couldn't be dead. Not her Sister-Face.

"It's a fire," Jane managed to mumbled out, gawking with horror. "Place is on fire..."

As a chunk of smoldering wood broke off from the top portion of the building and clattered to the ground not more than twenty feet away from them, the group paused.

"Whhh...-?" Sokka smacked himself in the head, whipping out his phone. "We need to call 911!" he immediately realized, dialing the number on his phone.

Standing about thirty or forty feet from the place, Jane was dumbstruck, her brain twisting down corridors of guilt and shame. This was her fault somehow. She'd somehow brought this down upon her friends. It had to be, like...the Rough Rhinos. Right? Of course it was. Seeking revenge on Korra's intolerable backlash? What else could it have been? The waves of shame were so heavy that her body wasn't able to process movement when Toph tugged at her arm, swiftly losing her cool in the un-seeable face of this chaos.

Aang stared at the backdoor to the United Republic - the screen door was closed, but he noticed that the hard wooden door behind it was slightly ajar, dark clouds wisping out. Sokka barked into his phone, in the background, doing his best to remain calm. Sokka's words were blurred by the rumbling of flame, the crackling of burning wood, and the numbing fear buzzing through his mind. The dancing flames reflecting off of his eyes, which gradually narrowed as adrenaline began to course through him.

"Aang?" Toph cried out from behind him. She was stepping ahead of Jane, arms still linked, extending her hand out in the direction she'd heard his footsteps travel in. She shouted out with frightened anger. "What the fuck are you doing?"

Aang didn't reply, his eyes captured by the poster that hung on the barely open wooden door, its edges singed and curled from the heat. It was a poster for the college, depicting its four-colored logo motif, a blue arrow stretching downward from the 'R' in {SRU}.

Bumi's voice echoed in his mind.

"The arrow that symbolizes this school represents the idea of not looking upward and outward, but inward. Inside yourself."

"What?" Sokka roared into his phone with utter disbelief. "There could be people in here, what if...-? Why in God's name would it take...-? Yes, geez, get them here ASAP!"

Toph clawed her hand into Jane's arm, squeezing it tightly, baffled and lost in all of this commotion. Jane's arm was tense, tight, and shaking, offering Toph little comfort.

"What's going on?" Jane managed to ask in a huff.

"The fire department's already dealing with something!" Sokka growled out in a manic frustration as he punched keys on his phone with a twitching hand. "They said it's going to be a few minutes..." He pressed his palm into his forehead, completely at a loss, as he tried another number. The sound of a window shattering caused the lot of them to stumble back, startled, as glass sprinkled the gravel before them and fire flashed from within.

Fwooohhhsh!

"I don't think we have a few minutes," Aang darkly observed, gears churning in his brain as he decided what to do with the situation.

The heat from the building was already a bit more tense than it had been when they'd arrive a mere couple minutes before.

Toph's pale eyes were wide, awe-struck from the sensation of warmth against her pale, round face, threatening to sting it.

"Whoa..." she whispered, lips hung open. "That's a lot of fire...isn't it...?"

"Y-yea...It is," Jane muttered, three whole fingertips dinging into her eyebrow, flexing her skin up and down with fret. "Sokka," she called out, flicking up her wrist from her face. "Are Kat and Kor in there?"

"Yea," Aang darkly advised, turning his head back over his shoulder. "Katara would've called the second she left."

Jane bit her lip at this remark, because she knew it was accurate from experience.

"And she's not picking up," Sokka advised, his eyes watering up as he choked out having just tried dialing a third number. "Neither of them are," he explained through grit teeth, his heart racing with doubt.

Crreeeak.

Everyone's attention was redirected to the screen door Aang had just opened, his hand wormed into his hoodie's sleeve to stave off heat. Fabric was pulled up over his face to filter air as he shoved the wooden door open with his elbow.

"Get the fuck back out here, Aang!" Toph shrieked, voice cracking. Her mind was at least keen enough to have detected Aang's motions, and she did not approve. Jane was holding her back from shambling toward the unknown danger, but she thrashed and growled out in anguish. Clasping her arms around Toph's wriggling waist, Jane stared along with Sokka in complete bewilderment as their friend marched headlong into the inferno.

In her dazed confusion, Jane's grip slipped, and Toph stumbled forward, screaming Aang's name with a mixture of cursing. Jane and Sokka followed her, also beckoning through the smog.

"AANG! Fuck...AAAAANG!"
"Aaaaaaang!"
"Get outta there, Aang!"

"YOU MOTHERFUCKER, AANG! DON'T DO THIhffack! Keh-heff...!"
Toph slowed as she reached the door, coughing through the smoke she had walked into.

As a few pieces of smoldering roof panels clattered to the gravel on their left, Sokka heard a snapping sound from above, and looked up to see a chunk of the roof's gutter slipping. In an instinctive reaction, he lunged forth, pulling Toph back by the arm and tugging her away. Shielding her face with her forearms, Jane back-stepped as fiery rubble crashed down before them.

Having burst into tears from Aang's sudden decision, Toph regained her footing with Sokka's alignment and plunged her face into chest, painting his shirt with her tears. As she squeezed her arms around his waist like her life depending on it, she breathed hard and heavy, coughing from smoke and snot and dread. She was so useless right now. She couldn't do a damned thing to help the people she loved. It tore her apart from the inside out.

Sokka, fighting his own urge to blubber, stared at the building with disdain and rage, patting Toph's back in an attempt to get the hysterical woman to calm down. Toph was supposed to be the tough one with attitude, wasn't she? Even Jane seemed to be having more trouble coping with this than Sokka was. Was he supposed to be feeling more...fear? More worry? More grief? His heart somehow emptied from it all.

Sokka's brain was sucking his shallow well of hope dry, filling himself with every ounce of optimism and sense he could right now. They'd be OK. They'd get out, or the firemen would come save them, or...something.

"That crazy shithead!" Jane snapped, face in her palms as she paced in a circle, unable to process this act. "The fuck's he thinking?!"

Sokka watched as an inside wall buckled, collapsing in the hallway and blocking off the back exit.

"We should go around to the front," Sokka firmly explained, his voice as solid as a weathered brick. "Maybe they're getting out that way."

Aang, meanwhile, had thrown himself with determination into a precarious situation.

After shoving past the outer door, Aang made his way inward, squinting through the smoke. It was a small blessing - most of the fire was along the outside edges of the building, it seemed, making its way inward. Surveying it, Aang found it puzzling that the ceiling and walls seemed ablaze while the innermost portions of the floor were still in tact. He didn't have time to consider this. Faint cries from behind him faded into the rumble of flames as the walls behind snapped, and the way he came in was shut off. He was on his own now. Seeing the openings granted to him ahead, Aang pushed onward, eyes aching already from airborne ash. He wove his way around pool tables and chairs, scanning feverishly for any signs of life.

+ http:/www(dot)youtube(dot)com/watch?v=sWH87dq-Kds +

~I am so high, I can hear heaven~

His eyes caught the colorful mural he'd worked so hard to create, melting away.

~I am so high, I can hear heaven~

The rainbow of colors lit aflame enraptured him for a brief moment of reflection.

~Whoa, but heaven, no, heaven don't hear me~

His parents murdering each other. His family crashing off a cliff. Even this place - Wayward - wasn't safe.

~And they say that a hero could save us; I'm not gonna stand here and wait~

He glowered with heartbreak at his flickering mural, but left it behind - just like the rest.

~I'll hold on to the wings of the eagles; watch as we all fly away~

Hacking out through his hoodie, he worked through the main area, in shambles.

~Someone told me love would all save us~

Tables were lit up, walls were searing, everything was falling apart.

So many good intentions and memories crumbling to soot.

~But how can that be? Look what love gave us~

Everything he built, everyone he touched...it all found a way to destroy itself, didn't it?

~A world full of killing and blood spilling~

Korra's body, groaning, wheezing, sloppily pushing itself up its knees.

~That world never came~

He wasn't going to let that destruction happen anymore.

~And they say that a hero could save us; I'm not gonna stand here and wait~

Aang's hand, lifting her to her feet, slinging her over his shoulder.

~I'll hold on to the wings of the eagles; Watch as we all fly away~

She wobbled alongside him as he led her to the sweltering hot front door.

He reached his hand out, crying in agony as his calloused fingers boiled beneath hoodie fabric at the touch of hot metal, unlocking the doors.

Blood dripping over her wrathful scowl, Korra raised her less damaged leg to kick open the sturdy wooden doors, and Aang wrapped his body around her as they pushed through the flames that swept outward at them toward the fresh air like a dragon's maw.

"HaAgHhHh...?" Her voice, bellowing weakly from back inside.

~Now that the world isn't ending, it's love that I'm sending to you~

"Katara!" he called to her, plunging right back through the conflagration.

Snakk! Whubumff!

~It isn't the love of a hero, and that's why I fear it won't do~

He suddenly found himself slammed to the ground, his back pinned by a supporting pillar that had given way.

"Nnnghh...Aang...?"

"I'm...gah...here!"

~And they say that a hero could save us~

A deep, searing pressure had punched through his clothing, scalding his back.

~I'm not gonna stand here and wait~

He screamed from the pain, pushing himself up. The heavy, hot object blazed deeper into his skin.

~I'll hold on to the wings of the eagles; Watch as we all fly away~

He managed to unwedge himself from underneath the smoldering wooden rubble, light-headed from the smoke.

~And they're watching us (watching us)~

He hastily crawled to Katara, her body sprawled before him, the two of them choking from the fumes.

~They're watching us (watching us)~

Aang tugged his hood back on, pulling thick cloth back over his mouth.

~As we all fly away~

His overexerted muscles found new strength in order to pick up Katara.

~And they're watching us (watching us)~

Aching, sputtering, stifling, bleeding...

~They're watching us (watching us)~

...he marched through the collapsing building to the entrance.

~As we all fly away~

He gripped Katara tight as he sprinted through the outer wall of fire and into the night.

~And they're watching us (watching us)~

A small collection of residents was gathering, panicked and confused.

~They're watching us (watching us)~

Aang's friends were a wreck, eagerly watching the smoke-ridden doorway.

~As we all fly away...~

Ashes fluttered through the sky all around him, embers flickering like fireflies from hell.

"...Aang?"
"Did he...gugh...get her out?"
"You're shitting me!"
"AANG!"

Aang's form appeared from the smoke, eyes flashing with adrenaline-fueled pride.

Gasps, shouts, relief.

+ http:/destiny-smasher(dot)deviantart(dot)com/art/SRU-A-Hero-Can-Save-Us-297213539 +

+ http:/www(dot)youtube(dot)com/watch?v=yWnuQK0q2A0 +

Katara, held in Aang's arms, lifted her bloodied head from his chest to gaze up at his cold, determined expression, ash smudged over his cheeks.

He trudged forward, the nerves on his back squealing with agony.

Jane immediately helped set Katara down on the sidewalk while Sokka ripped Aang's hoodie from him, snuffing its traces of flame out.

Korra, resting on the curb, dazed.

Jane, hands on her friend's bloodied, ashen face, sobbing.

Toph, screaming, flailing her hands around Aang's aching body, shrieking with horror when she felt the burned patch of skin on his back.

Sokka, wrapping his arms around the both of them and squeezing tight, nervously laughing away his doubts.

Aang, craning his hooded head to look back behind them at the building's sign, its edges aflame.

{-tED REPUb-}

The United Republic was lost.


A/N: 'Hero' by Nickelback. 'Avatar Ending' by the Track Team.

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This chapter has references from ALL OVER the place, from Sozin's Comet to the Firebending Masters to early Legend of Korra stuff.

Suffice it to say, the plot has places it needs to go before the end, and this chapter serves a key role in getting the ball rolling on the overarcing stuff that will come together over time.
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What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 84 - Let Go</p>

- Saturday, April 9th, 2011 -

"Edward is her true love," stated Jinora with cold resolve, closing her {twilight} book and placing it on the stack she'd lined up on the coffee table.

"Nuh-uh!" squealed Ikki. "She shoulda gone with Jacob. He's a much better friend than Edward."

"Ikki, romance is not about being friends. It's about passion and love and drama." Jinora lifted the hardcover back up and tapped her finger against it. "That's why it happens like this in these books!"

"It is too about being friends!" Ikki protested, thrusting her fists in a fit. "Love is friendship on fire."

"Yea? Edward lit Bella's fire real hot. Jacob sure didn't."

"But...-! Yea, he did! Besides, Bella gets all dumb in the head around stupid Edward! She acts more like herself with Jacob..."

"Korra," Jinora chimed out, much to Korra's dismay. She'd been just fine over here in the kitchen, making dinner, pretending to be oblivious to the conversation. "What do you think?"

"Er, uh...-" Korra's mind went whirling, as this debate was hitting way too close to home for her comfort. "Huh? Sorry, I, erm...-" She twisted the sink on to rinse the freshly cut vegetables she had in the strainer. She raised her voice over the noise. "-...can't hear you right now! Making dinner!"

The bickering girls glared at each other heatedly as their younger brother sighed from his relaxed position on the recliner behind them. He was tapping buttons away at his PSP device.

"Know who she really shoulda been with?" Meelo casually offered, pausing his game. Both girls gave him disconcerted looks as he smiled slyly. "Alice."

"Ewwww!" Ikki screeched. Korra flinched with irritation at the sound as she turned off the water and began dumping veggies into the pot soup she was preparing. Meelo just grinned stupidly at them both, satisfied to have rustled up more bickering. he resumed his game playing, tuning them back out.

"That doesn't even make sense, you idiot!" Jinora cried. "Alice is a girl!"

"What's wrong with that?" Korra piped up at last, stirring a spoon through the bubbling pot. All three kids glanced over to her.

"Girls aren't supposed to fall in love with girls," Jinora said with some snippiness.

"Oh?" Korra was intrigued by the teen's stern perspective. "Well, sometimes they do, you know," Korra discounted her.

"Blech," Ikki winced to herself at the thought.

"Why? Have you?" came Jinora, piqued with suspicion as she made her way to the shoe rack by the front door. "Do you like girls? What about those boys you live with?"z

"Uh, well...-" Korra's face went blank as she considered an answer, sloshing the soup around from the next room. "Sometimes, yes, I do," she openly informed, recalling times gone by."And...I dunno, the guys I live with are nice, too, so, erm...-"

"Mm-hmmmm..." Jinora gave the back of Korra's head a slanted brow before tying up her shoes. "Well..." She eyed the clock hanging on the wall with a sigh. "I've got play practice, so I need to leave now."

"Guh!" Korra whirled round, a wet spoon still in hand. She pointed it through the air at Jinora, who was slipping a light jacket on. "Hey, whoa! You have your phone, right?"

Jinora patted her pocket with an amused smile.

"O-OK, good," Korra sighed out, realizing her overreaction. She wasn't here to babysit Jinora, anyway. "Uh..." A weak wave. "Have fun...? Or something?"

"Yup! Bye~" Jinora whisked herself out the door.

"Hmph!" Ikki protested to no one, arms crossed as she dumped herself onto the couch and picked up her own handheld gaming device: a pink DS Lite. Korra was at least relieved that the two kids would be occupied while she finished cooking dinner, but knew their mother wouldn't want them spending the whole evening in front of screens. When food was finally finished, and three bowls of soup were poured and set onto the empty kitchen table, Korra walked over to the kids. Staring over Ikki's shoulder from behind the couch, she watched with perplexation as the girl rubbed a stylus along her device's screen, scrubbing a puppy clean.

"Uhhh...Dinner's ready, guys," she informed them, scratching her head with some bewilderment.

"Whooooo!" Meelo bounded up, dropping his PSP onto the couch and flying for the dining room. Ikki closed her clamshell handheld and followed.

"Smells soooo goood~"

"Ha! Thanks." Korra joined them, and the three of them discussed the finer points of Spongebob Squarepants and Ben 10 - topics that made the kids sound like geniuses and Korra an imbecile. Afterwards, Korra enforced a homework session, per Pema's request. If they got their homework for Monday done now, they could spend the entire day with their father tomorrow. This was followed up with a few games of Go Fish. Korra found it to be refreshing - not as boring as she'd expected. And not as annoying, either, when she let herself relax. The kids seemed to take well to her, and if anything, it was quite invigorating to be making new acquaintances, especially with people who, in being so much younger, had such a different perspective. For a few hours, none of what had been stressing her out mattered: job, bills, men, even her cravings for cigarettes and sex seemed to get subdued in the experience of focusing on people besides herself for a change.

By evening, Meelo was passed out, and Ikki was in the girl's room playing with her virtual dog a bit in her bed. Jinora seemed to be running late, and a quick phone call revealed that practice was being held up that evening - which Pema had warned might happen given that it seemed to be a trend with the teacher that ran theater at the school. After finishing the brief call and double-checking on the other two kids, Korra finally gave herself some reprieve out back with the comfort of a cigarette on the back porch. It was in this moment that it all dawned on her, what an enjoyable day this had actually been, in its own way. When she'd finished, she quietly came back inside, a bit confused as to what to do next. She'd been advised to stay until Mr. Rabten came home, as it was expected he'd show up for his weekly visit before Pema got out of work.

When she'd re-entered, however, Korra could hear a man's voice coming from the study that was nestled in the front corner of the house. It was the congressman, all right: she definitely recognized his firm voice from the day they'd met at the hospital the week prior. It sounded like he was having a dire discussion of some sort, and Korra certainly didn't want to interrupt - all the same, her curiosity got the better of her, and she found herself waiting in the living room, garnering what she could from the muffled half of the conversation she could decipher.

"I understand, Mayor Kuei, believe me. But at a time like this? After what has just happened, with what is going on, I just believe that-...Mm...I'm sorry to say that I'm as much in the dark as you are, but-...Ah...Hm. I see...Well, that...does change a few things, I suppose, but-...No, no. Truly, Sir, I understand what you mean. It's simply...rather unfortunate." Ooh, some passive-aggressiveness there, Korra was picking up. "Mm...Yes...Well, I must say that I may not agree, but it is entirely your decision...Then I suppose we are. Good evening." Damn, that sounded a bit cold.

The conversation died at that point, leaving Korra wondering what it was about. Mayor Kuei, huh? Korra remembered that Mako had brought him up a few times in conversation. She had ended up sitting on the couch, listening intently by the end, and now that it was over, she rushed to get back on her feet and begin tidying up the living room. The congressman entered with a wary sigh, still dressed up in his suit.

"Oh." He noticed Korra's busybody presence. "Hello, Korra," he greeted. "Pema told me to expect you here - sorry to disappear like that as soon as I came in the door." He unclipped a bluetooth piece from his ear and set it with care in a desk drawer beside his study's entrance. "I was still handling a work-related call when I arrived."

"Heh," Korra shrugged sheepishly, shaking her head as she disposed of Meelo's snotty tissues he'd left on the living room carpet. "It's fine, Mr. Rabten, I, uh...I know how it goes."

"Tenzin." He unbuttoned his vest and tiredly draped it over the spine of the couch.

"Eh...?"

"Please, you can call me Tenzin, Korra." He kicked off his business shoes beside the recliner. "No need for formalities - you've been taking care of my children all day, after all."

"Oh, er...Yea." Korra nodded vigorously. "Everything went just fine, no problems at all. Jinora, though, she, er-"
"Haha, still at play practice, I presume?" Tenzin sighed with humor, adjusting the recliner and sitting himself down with an exhausted grunt, still in a button-down and tie. "That's expected."

"Ha, yea..." Korra nervously fumbled around the kitchen, ensuring she'd cleaned up after herself from dinner.

"There's no need to worry about anything," Tenzin insisted. "You're free to leave, you know. I'm a half hour late, and I'd hate to be keeping you from getting home."

"N-no, it's fine. I'm...-" Korra frowned in spite of herself. "-...not exactly in a rush to go anywhere."

"Ah. Right. Your...job situation. Of course." Tenzin recalled her recent life change and the loss of her employment - the very reason she was here, obviously. "...How are things going with you and the school?"

Korra grimaced, stuffing her hands into her jean pockets as she squirmed into the living room.

"Haven't heard from them since last week," Korra confessed nervously.

"Mm-hm." Tenzin frowned at this for a moment as he contemplated. "You know, I'm familiar with some of the folks at the college - I could always check in on things for you."

"R-really?" Korra's face glimmered with optimism. "Uh...Yea, OK. That...that'd be great. Um, if you could, I mean, I don't want to...cause so much trouble."

"It's not a problem," Tenzin insisted with a smile. "In truth, it's been a while since I've visited my friends there."

Korra smirked sheepishly back at him as she sat down on the couch.

"My wife tells me you and the other students seem to be recovering well from the incident."

"Yea..." Korra's face flashed with some despondent regret at her failure during the attack. "Bastard still hasn't been caught yet, though..."

"Mmm..." Tenzin's eyes wandered away for a moment, glazed over.

"We'll get him, though," Korra mumbled angrily, almost to herself, fingernails clawing across her denim. She caught herself, eyes wide, and chuckled awkwardly. "Me and the cops, I mean. That asshole needs to go down before he hurts anyone else."

Tenzin took a deep breath and nodded with some hesitation as he undid his tie. Korra was kind of shocked at his casual undressing in her presence, but looking at his face, she could tell the poor man was just exhausted.

"I suspect Lin is doing everything in her power to capture that madman - she's quite dedicated to her work. Quite dedicated."

"Huh...?"

"Oh, mm...My apologies - Chief Jia, I mean."

Korra's face twitched with some resentment.

"Oh...her," she eked out as politely as possible. "Yea..." Hm, that was weird, the way Tenzin and Lin had interacted back at the hospital, and the way he was talking about her right now. Like they went way back or...-

"I've known her for a long time," Tenzin sighed, leaning back in the chair. That explained that, then. "Wayward has had a pretty clean record in her time here - I'm certain that one way or another, she'll help bring that man to justice."

"Uhh...Right." Korra was a bit anxious as Tenzin almost seemed to be drifting off to sleep. "So, uh, Sir - I mean, Tenzin...-" She popped up from the couch. "You seem pretty tired, so...I should probably head out, eh?"

Tenzin slowly craned his head up to look at Korra drearily. Man, this was strange. Why was he so informal and everything? And that beard on his chin? Seemed pretty dicey for a politician to have...

"I suppose so," he chuckled with a yawn. "I'm sorry to keep you, it's just that...it's a change to pace to have a fellow adult to speak with outside of the work place, you see."

"Ha." Ironic, given Korra's recent solace in non-adult interactions. "But...what about your wife?"

"Regrettably, we...haven't seen much of one another lately," Tenzin confessed.

"Oh...Rrrrright. Sorry...Sounds like you have it rough at work lately, you were almost yelling back there on the phone, and...-" Eep. Ugh, idiot.

"Ah...So you...overheard a bit of that, did you?" Tenzin sighed, letting his head fall back.

"Y-yea, I, uh...I was just cleaning, here, and, uhh...-" Korra's face flinched with embarrassment, but Tenzin didn't seem to notice in his half-asleep state.

"It seems that the Mayor isn't terribly pleased with some of the goings-on around here lately, and he's quite insistent on not listening to reason," Tenzin explained with lament. Korra got the impression from the way Tenzin said this that it was a tiresome aspect of his existence - being the ignored voice of reason.

"Ah...That...sounds pretty complicated."

"Indeed..."

A heavy silence fell, and then the front door opened, Jinora quietly slipping inside.

"Hi, Korra," she instantly greeted. Korra nodded back, watching Jinora's flash of interest disintegrate into dissatisfaction as he father leaned the chair straight up. Her eyes flickered with some disdain which dulled at the subtle disappointment in her father's eyes. "Hello, Father."

"Jinora...How was practice, my Dear?"

Jinora turned her back to them, popping her shoes into the rack and hanging up her coat.

"Fine...I'm tired. Going to head to bed."

"Ah. All right."

"Good night," Jinora bid them both, swooping herself upstairs.

Korra opted to not comment on the obvious tension between them, instead getting herself to the door and slipping into her familiar leather jacket.

"I oughtta head out, it's starting to get late..."

"Of course."

"Uh, it was...nice looking after them today," Korra muttered.

"That's good. I'm sure Pema will need more help soon."

"Right...Thanks."

As Korra fumbled her way outside into the evening, she quickly got a cigarette into her mouth and lit it up, soothing her tired body in its toxins as she reflected on the amazing feat of going all evening without swearing a single time.


- Sunday, April 10th, 2011 - Katara's Birthday

Jane's head throbbed. The weekend had been a painful affair. Friday evening, Jane had met with Korra over beer. It had gone well enough, and it had been nice to catch up with the woman alone without needing to deal with group dramatics, which Korra was thankfully unaware of as of yet. Jane had managed to express to Korra a vague interest in trying to take matters regarding the Combustion Man into her own hands, and Korra seemed to reciprocate the notion. Korra wasn't really part of the 'group,' she was her own independent function. Jane was toying with the idea of letting Korra in on things with the Fighters, given how receptive she'd been at mere allusions to action, and Jane knew Korra could keep her mouth shut, setting her personal relations out of the way.

Unfortunately for Jane, maintaining those personal contacts in this situation just wasn't an option.

So here she was, residing at the Fire Cave bar. The musical performance for the evening was already finished and done with, and many had already filtered out, leaving the place somewhat barren. Jane surely didn't mind. Her head was pounding with a migraine, and still she drank. Her addled brain was swimming with conspiracy theories planted by Douglas, who seemed to be a different person than the freshman she had met months ago. Then again, it was somewhat expected in a sense - the beginning of college was often a do-or-die time that shaped a person a bit. It had done the same for Jane a couple of years back.

At the tail end of Jane's third drink, she was approached with an ice-cold voice.

"What are you doing here?"

A bit warm-faced from her beer, Jane sat up straight in her stool and turned her head to see a woman a bit older than her - early 30's, looked like. The woman had her dark brown hair back in a ponytail, her sharp jawline tilted up with disgust, dark eyes burning with condescension. She was familiar, as Smellerbee had seen her show up at the bar from time to time, occasionally helping out the bartender, Sneers, but always dishing out a little affection one way or another. It was Sneers' wife.

"Corey...?" Jane blinked with narrow eyes. "Er...I'm just...drinkin'."

Corey huffed and sat herself next to Jane, a half empty bottle firmly in her grasp.

"There a problem?" Jane grunted with a gulp of her draft. It was rather hoppy and bitter, but Jane was rather in the mood for that taste.

"So now that your old place is gone in a puff of smoke, you're all going to start taking over this place? Is that it?" Corey shot a dagger glare. Jane practically caught said dagger between grit teeth.

"Oh, fuck off...I didn't 'take over' shit."

"If it weren't for you creeps, my husband wouldn't be locked up..." Jane hadn't forgotten that Sneers had been caught up in Jet's illegal doings, and when everything had gone to hell, he'd caught the worst of it, being tossed in prison for his involvement. Some guilt swept over Jane as she recollected what she had done - and gotten away with - under Jet's command, or even how Johnny had avoided the long arm of the law. Sneers had turned out to be scape goat on the Fighters' side of the affair, being arrested along with a few others, some from the Rhinos.

"Your husband knew what he was getting into," Jane advised darkly. "No one made him do crap, he dug his own grave...just like Jet did."

Corey puffed out a dubious laugh through her nostrils.

"So your man gets let off the hook, and mine gets sent off."

"Not my fuckin' problem, lady...I left that shit storm after Jet died, so don't even pin any of that bullshit on me...'Cuz I'm on your damn side: The Fighters were a mistake, and we're all better off without them. Your husband was tryin' to get me to come back, you know."

Corey's nose wrinkled with disdain.

"Yea, that's right," Jane affirmed her status as the dominant member of this conversation. "So shut the hell up, and piss off."

"They got what was coming to them," Corey growled to herself in some weak counter.

"...Huh?"

"That fucking school, they deserved it. I'm glad someone burned that place down, serves them right for stealing that place from us. Turning it into another vanity project."

Jane took a sip, scratching her ear and staring at Corey with confusion.

"My husband lived a good life, an honest life, before Jack and that damned school corrupted him."

"Uh, pff...You mean Jet corrupted-"
"You stupid children, and your idiotic petnames. Jack. That psychotic spick. And to think I used to want my kids to go to that school? And they support a man like him?"

Jane was baffled. This woman was just assigning blame left and right.

"SRU? Uh, yea, pretty sure they didn't have anything to-"
"They're the cause of all this," Corey insisted, staring at Jane like she was an ignorant child. "How could you not...-?" Corey analyzed Jane's authentically puzzled expression before a shocked laugh escaped her. "Ha! So Jack never told you. Well, doesn't that sound just like him?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Back in the day - well, a few years back, you know...-" Corey gulped down the last of her beer. "-...the Freedom Fighters actually stood for what they advertised. Or they tried to, at least. I guess you wouldn't know because you weren't around...But I've been living in this town my whole life. Jack was a troubled young man when he moved into town - after his parents died, you couldn't blame the guy for coming to the Treetop every night, right? But he just kept coming. Every. Single. Night. And my husband - the bartender and manager and all - watched him hollow himself out. Fill that empty inside with booze. The money he was spending on all those drinks? It came from the school - some kind of pittance for him, because his parents had been tight with the administration or some nonsense. That crazy fool was leeching off of the school for a good while there. But my husband - back when he was a good man - he took that prodigal idiot under his wing, gave him work at the Treetop, until once day, he comes bragging about how he's going to start running this program in conjunction with the school: the college funds his organization, pays him so long as he hires student workers."

Jane stomach felt bloated, her aching brain punctured by a needle of truth. So that's why Jack specifically went after students so much in the first place.

Corey continued.

"So that's what Jack did: he hired kids from the school to help him arrange all of that community development bullshit he pretended to care so much for. Fighting for Freedom from 'The Man,'" Corey waggled air quotes. "Tsh. Load of crap. The Man was the one giving him the money in the first place. It made the school look all involved with Wayward's community, and it gave Jack people to boss around."

Christ. I used the Freedom Fighters to make myself feel like I was worth something. Looks like something that bastard and I had in common...

"But 'Smellerbee'..." Corey said the name with disdain. "You know exactly where that fool went. Jack lost his damned mind. Started using his little group for more than just community work. He started letting people from here in town - not the school - do some dirty work."

"Did...Sneers ever tell y-"
"'Sneers'...?"

"Er, I...I meant...Um...-"

"You never even knew his real name, did you?"

"Uhh..." Jane stared shamefully down at the countertop.

"You don't deserve to know it, if you never even bothered to ask."

Jane snorted bitterly, another drop of guilt dabbed onto the bloody cloth of regret.

"You ain't helpin' us? Whadda fuck, Smelly, ya don't-?"
"Don't call me that! Shit, Sneers, I'm not one of you anymore! My name is Jane. Jane Fitzpatrick."

Ugh. Bitch of the Year. I was so damn set on him calling me 'Jane,' but after a whole fucking year of knowing the guy...never even bothered to find out who he really was...

Jane cleared her throat, running her thumb over her brow.

"But...uhh...Did he ever...tell you what got Jehh-...Jack...so worked up?"

She was haunted by that disturbing glint in Jack's eyes that day they hid the body last fall.

"Can't fuckin' believe you, Jet..."

"Hey, listen, Smellerbee, he attacked me, OK?"

"Maybe if you weren't fucking stalking him, he wouldn't have done that! Ya think?" she attacked, eyes wide and tense.

"He was connected to them," insisted Jet, slightly hysteric. "I know he was!"

"What fucking proof do you have, Jet?"

"The men who came that night had tattoos just like his."

"That doesn't mean he was involved!"

"But it means he knows them."

Jane moaned with aggrevation to herself, hunched over on her bar stool. She couldn't decide if the sickness in her stomach came from the alcohol or the memories.

"Of course he told me," Corey answered Jane's question. "Jack lost his marbles trying to get revenge on the people who killed his parents."

"Y-yea...that's right," Jane affirmed, those terrifyingly obsessed eyes still burned into her brain. "Moron. Died 'cuz of how worked up he got over it...Just couldn't drop it, not even for his own good..."

"Ya just couldn't let it go, could ya?" Smellerbee growled, fists clenched, grime wedged in her fingernails. "Couldn't let it the fuck go!" she roared at Jet, kicking her tire again.

"Yea, well..." Corey shook her head thoughtfully. "Took them long enough, but once the college finally realized what Jack was really after, they cut him off. Told him to stay away from campus, leave the students alone, and find a new line of work."

"Wait..." Jane's brows furrowed with displeased realization. "You mean, so...the school paid to start the Freedom Fighters? And then cut Jack loose once he started wiggin' the fuck out?"

"Exactly. You look damn near out of it, 'Smelly,' I'm surprised you're keeping up, here."

{Local Citizen Vandalizes President's Office}
{- Jin Ackland}

{This past Monday night, marking the start of the school year, our beloved President Bumi's office received some unwelcome company in the form of offensive graffiti left by a local citizen from Wayward. The graffiti was spray painted across the window of the office and portrayed an offensive message that the President has requested we not share. A security guard stationed that night caught the young man fleeing the scene and identified him as Jack Chavez, founder of a local organization known as the 'Freedom Fighters.' According to Chavez, he had intended to "[..] leave a message telling the president how I feel about the way the administration is being run." Jack refused to comment on specifics, but President Bumi seemed unfazed by his expressive statement. If anything, he seemed humored by it.}

Jack had never gone into specifics about exactly why he was so pissed off with the school's president. Now Jane understood.

"I don't...-" Jane growled to herself. It was in ignorance, but also in rage over how that asshole had just been a giant tangle of lies and selfishness, all for the sake of vengeance and a sense of control. "Grugh. So that's why he was having us do all of that under-the-table shit...He was going broke."

"This is really an eye-opener for you, huh?" Corey sighed, shaking her head as she knocked her knuckle on the counter, calling for another drink. "How did you stand that creep?"

Jane bit her lip with stubborn regret. The taste of Jack's dry, whiskey breath had been washed clean away some time ago, thankfully. But the wounds of broken trust weren't so easily managed.

"He made me think I was worth caring about," Jane confessed quietly.

"Hmph." Corey was accepting another bottle from the bartender, who she seemed familiar with. "Guess my husband wasn't the only person that spick manipulated..."

"Yea," Jane seethed through her teeth, hoping Jet's fucking ghost would feel her rage and shiver in the afterlife. "Ya know what the saddest fuckin' part of all this is?"

"What's that?"

Jane guzzled down the rest of her drink and wiped her sleeve over her cold lips.

"All this dirty laundry, all this fuckin' bullshit...And then he gets himself killed. And for all that, all this...Ugh. And the bastards that made him lose his grip in the first place? They're still out there. Still fucking burning damn buildings down..."

"Mmph..." Corey fidgeted her hips around in her seat with disdain as she sought comfort. "Notice how that place gets trashed a month after that college buys it out and tries using it to make itself look good."

"Mm?" Jane scratched her head, pushing disheveled bangs to the side.

"SRU has enemies, is what I'm saying. And it's becoming clearer by the day."

"Sure seems that way," Jane dimly acknowledged. Jane couldn't help but consider the idea that Jet - the big puppeteer himself - had been getting his strings pulled the whole time. There was, coming up with conspiracy theories. But after what she had learned about Johnny recently, and the events involving him...It was simply where her mind was going. "So, er...Corey."

"Yea? I confuse you?" Corey grinned with snark, drinking from her second bottle.

"Ha. No, but...Jack. Where was he from? His folks, they were killed, right? What, uh...what happened? I could never get him to tell me, exactly..."

Corey shrugged.

"I remember that Jack moaned and groaned over it...damn sap. His family had just moved into Philly, I remember that. Trying to start a new life, and all. Everything went up in flames - literally. Their house was torched while-...Whoa. Wait..." Corey's head twisted to her side as she and Jane exchanged baffled looks.

"The Combustion Man," Jane darkly concluded. "Guy who caused this mess here in town? Fucking bet you it's related."

"But...how?"

Jane's solemn confidence withered.

"I...got no clue just yet..." Recognition lit her face. "Hey! But, uhh...You said Jack's folks were 'tight with the administration,' right?"

"Oh. Well...yea."

"How?"

"Sorry, I...don't really know the details."

"Gragh..." Jane pounded her palm onto the counter in disappointment. "You did say SRU has enemies, though," Jane clarified, wiggling an index finger up near her face.

"Hmph. Well...look at you, then," Corey muttered with a careful nod. "Guess I had you all wrong, Smelly. Smarter than you look."

"Yea." Jane smirked with some pride. "Er, hey." A glare. "What'd you just say?"


"Nah, Bro. Thanks. But we gotta get goin'." Haru waved to Sokka, waiting for his compatriot to wheel across the room.

"Where do you guys have to be?" Sokka mumbled, a bit confused as Teo pushed his wheelchair over to his friend.

"I got a test in the morning," Haru sighed, running his hand over his head.

"Yea, I've got some serious catching up to do for tomorrow, too," Teo lamented. "Been slacking off this weekend."

"Ah. Gotcha." Sokka nodded casually, taking a sip of root beer from his plastic cup. "Well, I'm sure my Sis was happy you guys made it."

"Yea, no problem."
"It was fun."

Sokka would've enforced the two give Katara a 'Happy Birthday' and a good-bye, but they'd been courteous enough to already do that without his prodding. This was almost not any fun - he was the Big Brother, but what fun was that when everyone was being polite and stuff? No one to put in line.

And yet despite that fact - everyone's courtesy - Katara just...didn't quite seem like herself. The past couple of days in particular, she'd been fairly short-tempered. Whatever was going on between her and Jane, that had to be the source. Her absence at Katara's birthday party served to solidify the notion that whatever the issue was, it was fairly dire.

"You OK?"

"Unh?" Sokka twitched, stirring himself out of his thoughts. He turned to see Ty-Lee, her timid expression of concern set upon a tilted head. "Ha. Yea, I'm good..." He took a swig of soda. "Staying out of trouble?"

Ty-Lee grimaced at the remark, crossing her hands around her waist with a pout.

"I haven't started any fights, if that's what ya mean..."

Sokka sighed at her frown. She really did seem a little torn up over it. She'd been keeping her distance from the group all week, ever since she'd elicited that explosion from Jane. If Sokka were a betting man, he'd put all his chips in on the idea that Ty-Lee could tell Katara was feeling down about Jane's lack of presence, and that she felt responsible for splitting the two up.

"That's good to hear," Sokka dusted her guilt off with some humor. "Good to see you're keeping that anger and rage in check for the sake of the party."

"Chyea," Ty-Lee half-heartedly laughed. "I just...-"
"It's OK, I get it," dismissed Sokka. He wasn't up for some touchy-feely talk right now. "Don't hold it against yourself so much, just...ya know...be more careful."

"Mm." A thoughtful nod.

Sokka nodded her to follow him back to the group.

"You had any cake yet?"

"Yes~" Ty-Lee's face lit up. "It was super yummy." Well, at least she was easy to please.

"Yea, who made this stuff?" Toph called out from her seat at the daisy chain of tables in Appa's they were occupying. She was working her way through her third slice. "It's friggin' good. I mean...fuck. So good." Aang laughed at her enthusiasm while she munched down another bite.

"I did, actually," Suki boasted from her seat down the line. She smiled with some satisfaction while Toph's chewing slowed to a stop.

"You bake?" came Zuko from across the table from Suki. He seemed surprised.

"A little bit on the side, here and there," Suki humbled herself. "I'm not really that good at it."

"Could've fooled me," Zuko muttered, impressed with what he'd just eaten.

"Yea, this is delicious," Mai complimented from beside Zuko.

Ty-Lee inserted herself into the empty space between Suki and while Sokka approached the table they had set aside for food. The two-liter soda bottles were practically empty by now, with only a bit of Pepsi left. As Sokka watched Bolin pour himself a cup, the Pepsi bottle joined its fallen brothers. The cake was nearly depleted, as well, with only about three or four slices worth residing on the pan.

Sokka took a moment to appreciate the crowd of happy folks lined up across multiple tables shoved together. Everyone was laughing, chatting, smiling, eating, drinking, and being merry. Except for the girl sitting at the head of the table to his right, anyway. She was looking down in her lap at her cellphone with distant eyes and a neutral expression.

[From: Meng]
[u better be havin a good bday kat! -hugz-]
[Sent: 8:48pm]

She sighed, not bothering to reply to this text, and closed the phone, dropping it beside her plate of half-eaten cake. Sokka noticed this, and approached her.

"Hey, Sis. You need anything?"

She blinked, her eyes widening, and she looked up at him, straightening herself up.

"Huh? No, I'm fine," she assured him with courtesy.

"Not hungry?" Sokka wondered, tipping his head to her unfinished cake, which was only her first slice.

"Yea, I'm...pretty full," Katara explained. "It's good, though." They exchanged analytical looks for a moment, reading each other before Sokka sat at her side and across from Aang.

"'Ey, Snoozles, finally come back, huh? Took ya forever. You get me some o' the Good Doctor or did you forget?"

Sokka's concern for his sister was carefully placed aside for a moment as he remembered why he'd gotten up in the first place.

"Nah, no dice, Dead-Eyes, we're all outta soda."

"Already?"

"Maybe if Bolin saved some for everybody else..." Mako shot his brother an irritated glare.

"Hey, I'm a growing boy!" Bolin attested, passing off Mako's scolding with humor.

"You're fuckin' twenty-six, Bo," Korra teased with an amused smirk. "Besides, I'm pretty sure pop doesn't make you grow up so much."

"I'm sorry, 'pop?'" Bolin jeered, propping a hand to his ear. "What is this 'pop' of which you speak? I do believe 'soda' was the form of beverage we were referring to."

As the trio bickered jokingly, and Zuko answered Suki's questions relating to his own history with the hobby of coffee and tea crafting, Toph thumped her fingertips against the table, drumming out a rhythm to herself with some impatience.

Aang seemed to be enjoying himself well enough, but he'd been kind of quiet tonight, too, clearly uncertain as to how to approach Katara's subdued melancholy.

"So..." Sokka nodded to himself with contemplation. "We wanna start the movie here in a bit? Probably wanna do that soon before people get too tired..."

"Sure," Katara complacently agreed, eyeballing the front counter of Appa's across the way.

"OK." Sokka's insides crawled at his sibling's far-off demeanor. She hadn't been actively depressed, just uncharacteristically reserved, with hints of solemn silence. "You want to come pick a movie while I set things up?" he offered. She shrugged, pulling herself up from the table and following him to the side room of Appa's where the pool table and flat screen resided.

As Sokka began plugging his Playstation 3 up to the TV, Katara sifted her hand with apathy through the pile of DVDs and Blurays in Sokka's backpack before giving up, her eyes cold and unfocused. As Sokka finished setting the TV up, he noticed his forlorn sister and gave pause.

"Uh...How about 'Rent', huh?" Sokka suggested. "Yea? That's a musical. You like that one." No response. "Or...or maybe 'Stranger Than Fiction'? Didn't you say that was one of your favorites, and...-?"

Katara's eyes rolled up to her brother with a look that read, Please stop talking.

Sokka swallowed hard and stood in silence for a moment or two.

"I'm...really sorry, Katara," he eked out. "I honestly thought...that she would show."

"She didn't," Katara snipped, her nostrils flared.

"Right...W-well, lots of other folks did, right? So, how about we just try and forget all that stuff for now. Huh?"

"Mm..."

"Katara?" She wasn't responding, just standing still, head bobbed. He approached her slowly.

"What did I do?" Katara whispered to him, her mind letting itself slip into the pit of thoughts she'd been hiding from her brother. She glared at him with intense eyes that flickered like candles in the wind. "H-how could I...have made the same mistakes...?" Her teeth clenched tight and she forced a sob to stay inside, letting her head drop onto Sokka's shoulder. Her hugged her tightly, giving her a moment to push out these self-doubts, get some of that crap out of the way so he could try inserting something better.

"You didn't make any mistakes, Katara," Sokka calmly pressed. "Jane's-...Well, I don't know. But she's a damned fool to leave behind a good thing. I'm sure it wasn't you."

"It's always me," Katara hissed, eyes squinted shut as she wallowed in self-loathing. Sokka struggled to prevent himself from rolling his eyes at her drama. She needed him to bear with her for a moment, here, and he was going to oblige. "I'm too...clingy. Needy. Controlling...You know how I get, Sokka..."

"Er..." Is this one of those moments where I'm supposed to agree, 'cuz you are right on that, or disagree, because...that's what you want to hear, or...?

"Toph even said so."

"What?" Sokka grumbled, irate that Toph, of all people, would criticize his sister's social habits. "Screw that, don't listen to her."

"No, but...she's right, I can be...that way."

"Katara, I'm pretty sure that the real reason Jane's ignoring us has to do with all that bullcrap with that gang. Not you."

Katara's head bobbed from side to side begrudgingly as she broke off from her brother's hug.

"Mmph," she snorted. "But...Why is she still hanging out with Korra?"

Sokka shrugged, scratching his hairy chin.

"Maybe if I hadn't...-" Katara's fingers clamped over her forehead.
"No, let's just...stop that," Sokka insisted calmly, grabbing her wrist and removing her hand from her face. "C'mon, Sis. Let's just let this stuff go for right now. OK?"

Katara's brows arched down, frustrated by what she perceived to be her brother dismissing her feelings. Examining his face, though, she made sense of it - even he was upset about the situation. And her dwelling on it was only making it worse, because seeing his little sister getting so hurt and upset, and there was nothing he could do about it...that probably wasn't doing anything good for Sokka. He'd worked to get this party set up, inviting everyone and coordinating with his boss so they'd have space in the restaurant, and here she was, wallowing in pity and regret instead of trying to enjoy the people who were there.

"You're right," Katara nodded solemnly, pressing back her depression. "Thanks, Bro."

"No problem. Now pick a movie already."

"Heh. Yes, Sir."

"I'm gonna round everyone up."

"Sounds good."

Sokka approached the table, observing the mess laid upon it.

"Meat-Head? That you?"

Sokka looked down at Toph's interest, her face twisted to her left. She had traces of frosting spattered across her lips. Charming.

"Yea, er...lemme get that for ya," Sokka offered, scooping up her waste, collecting his own, and disposing of it. Clapping his hands together, he called out to he lot of them. "Yo! People! Movie goin' on in a minute, here. Let's tidy up and relocate." A bustle of commotion, laughter, trash being dumped. Toph got herself up from her seat, drumming her fingers on the wooden chair as those around her filed along.

"You need any help?" Aang offered, having noticed Toph didn't have her cane on her - an oddly recurring theme lately.

"Uh, nah," Toph replied, still unmoving.

"OK." Aang started walking off, following the rest, but kept his eye on Toph as Sokka approached her.

"Hey, you coming?" he asked. Toph extended her hand, and Sokka rolled his eyes. He walked behind her, gripping her shoulders and prying her body from the chair, whirling it sideways.

"Erk! Hey! What's the deal?" Toph growled out, struggling to not trip over herself as she was pushed ahead.

"I'm not your escort," Sokka advised with some snark. "Maybe you should stop forgetting your stick all the time, since you're supposed to be Miss Independent, right?"

Aang smirked at the grumpy pout that formed on Toph's face as Sokka pushed her from behind. Hm. Interesting.

"Hiya, Hun..."

Aang's attention was swooped away from his friends and to Katara and she let out a gentle whimper, slipping her arms around his waist and enclosing him in her grip. He smiled with sympathy, knowing full well what was wrong, and kissed her head. He watched as Sokka and Bolin grabbed one side of the pool table, Korra and Mako on the other, and the lot of them lifted it back to a corner of the area, making space

"Hey," Aang whispered back to her while the others began pulling chairs into a makeshift mini theater.

"So..." Katara took a shaky breath, and Aang recognized that she was recovering from some stifled emotional ventilation. "After the party's done...you think we could spend time together?"

"Of course, it's your birthday."

"Oh...I-I mean, if you don't want to we don't need to, but...I was thinking more, like...you know...alone time."

Aang gave her an amused look, lips curving up.

"Snogging time," he clarified.

"Yes. That," Katara snickered quietly, with Sokka bellowing out for everyone to quiet down.

"Gee, I dunno," Aang coyly teased, pulling her wavy hair together behind her back. "Why would I ever want to kiss the most beautiful woman in the world? Who wants to do that? Obviously, I'd only do it out of obligation."

Katara rolled her eyes at his facetious picking and clasped his jawline with her fingertips, kissing him twice on the lips.

"-off all cell phones and refrain from any OOGIES unless you are the birthday girl."

"Or her boyfriend," Aang called out, and Katara nuzzled her face against his chest with a relaxing sigh.

"Uhhh...I guess that's OK," Sokka conceded with a flick of his wrist. "Now, then. Tonight's picture is...uh...-" Sokka frantically searched around his game console, confused as to the whereabouts of the case Katara had set beside it.

"Whatever this is!" Toph finished his sentence, flaunting the case above her head. Sokka swiped it from her and flicked her in the forehead with his middle finger before sliding the disc into the loading tray.

"This being 'Rent,' a musical tale of...er...AIDS." Awkward silence. "And-friendship-and-love!"

"Also, drugs," Toph piped up.

"Bohemia!" Bolin cried.

"Lighting candles," Korra slipped in a sly remark to Mako, elbowing him with a grin. He was staring down into his lap, however, distracted by his phone.

"~Bisexuals, trisexuals, ho-mo-sap-i-ens~" sang out Toph.

"What's a trisexual?" Ty-Lee asked Mai.

"Uh-oh," Zuko sighed. "This movie might give Ty-Lee ideas..."

"Heeyyyy, I'm a good girl," Ty-Lee whimpered.

"Sure you are," Mai playfully agreed with a smirk. Zuko offered an open palm to her, and she slapped her hand against his while Ty-Lee's lower lip puckered out with embarrassment.

Suki, left of Ty-Lee, looked on at this conversation with a disturbed expression as Sokka, having just started the movie, wedged Toph into a seat a row back, beside Bolin.

"'Ey, howdy," Bolin greeted, extending his hand, to which he received no response but a deadpan, aimless glare. Bolin 'smoothly' looped his hand up and through his hair. "Crazy party goin' on here, am I right?"

"Pretty pedestrian, actually," replied Toph, squirming in her seat with discomfort as she heard Sokka sit down in the row ahead, laughing at something Suki had said from his side.

"Ah, well..." Bolin shrugged , hunched over casually, his broad elbows set on his knees. "Sometimes some mellow relaxation is good for the soul, am I right?"

No. You are not right. So stop saying that, weirdo. Go away.

Bolin was off-put by Toph, who didn't seem to care much for what he was saying, and was picking out her nose with her pinky. He cringed at this and looked over to Korra, who was shaking her head at Toph with some disgust.

+ www(dot)youtube(dot)com/watch?v=hj7LRuusFqo +

"Mako," Korra turned to her right to get Mako's attention, but he was absorbed in tapping a text message into his smartphone. "Hey, no cellphones on," she whispered at him as the room filled with slow piano from the beginning of the film. Mako merely twisted his torso a bit, blocking her view.

"Yea, no texting," Zuko agreed in a hushed tone, leaning over to glare at Ty-Lee, who sheepishly winced with guilt as she rapidly finished her message and sent it off, closing her phone and tucking it inbetween her legs.

"So, this movie is...about AIDS?" Suki whispered over Sokka's shoulder.

"W-well, that's-...It was kind of a joke."

"Seems like a pretty insensitive joke," Suki remarked sharply, a quick stab of the dagger into Sokka's side.

"I don't get it," Zuko grumbled, lifting up a hand to the screen, which portrayed a row of people under spotlights, singing on a stage. "Is this a movie about theater performers, or...-?"

"Just watch it, Zuko," Mai patted his lap with a brow raised and a smirk.

"But why are they singing about random everyday things and numbers...?"

"Don't think so hard about it, 'kay? Just relax for a change."

As sweeping harmonies overcame the room, Zuko leaned back in his seat and smiled, wrapping his hand around Mai's.

Ty-Lee gazed with adoration at the characters on screen as specific elements of the film she recollected reminded her of her own wishes for the future.

Bolin smoothly sang along, one arm nonchalantly draped over the back of his chair. Korra laughed at him - that charming laugh through closed lips that went "Hm-hm-hm" that Bolin adored. Mako still stared down at his phone, seeming to tune out everything around him, though a small smile was teased out by whatever he was reading.

Toph hummed along, hands crossed over her waist, her eyes glazed over with longing.

Sokka's loafer tapped in beat to the song and he slapped his hand against the opposite leg in tandem, to which Suki frowned and asked him to stop.

Aang was clapping along as the rhythm picked up, and Katara was endeared as she watched him attempt to get her to join in.

"~Remember the...love~" sang Aang, his pitch a bit off, but his intent sincere. He and Katara sat side by side in the front row of chairs. "~Remember the...love~" He leaned against her, still clapping and singing. "~Remember the...love~" Katara giggled as his determination pressed on despite his faltering notes. "~Measure your life in luhh-uhhhhh-!" His voice screeched and cracked comically, and he completely failed to imitate the song's peaking note. Choking on his own failure, he and Katara laughed with each other, but he'd won her over, and she sang along with the last portion of the song.

"~Seasons of love...Measure your life; Measure your life in love~"


- Monday, April 11th, 2011 -

["Ty-Lee, that is nonsense. What would possibly make me want such tragedy to befall that piddling town? I have no investment in it one way or another as it is, but...at least it strangely seems to offer some kind of solace to you fools."]

Ty-Lee grinned at the way Azula quite indirectly expressed some kind of happiness for the few friends she possessed. That was something Ty-Lee consistently found fascinating and engaging about Azula: the woman talked almost in circles, as if intentionally attempting to confuse you. Ty-Lee often let herself get swept in the odd bafflement that was Azula-Talk. It left her dizzy, spinning - sometimes even queasy - like a verbal roller coaster. Not to mention that Azula managed to keep Ty-Lee guessing with her sharp wits and cool under fire mannerisms; Azula was the only person Ty-Lee consistently interacted with who seemed resistant to her micro-expression lie-detecting sensibilities.

"Hee. Yea. You miss it here, doncha?"

["Hardly. That school was nothing but a waste of time. I learned nothing of use there. Classes cannot teach one to be a leader."]

"Hm...But I thought there's all sorts of classes for that kind of thing?"

["There are. And they are pointless. Leaders are born. You are either gifted with the natural talents to lead, or you are not. Few possess those traits, and the rest end up being the sheep we shepherd."]

"Ummm..." Curled in her bed, her phone on speaker beside her, Ty-Lee tapped her lips thoughtfully. "So I'm a sheep, then."

["...Mm..."] Aha. Azula seemed hesitant to agree all of a sudden.

"Right? That makes me a sheep. To be shepherd...ed."

["Technically, yes. Yes, it does."]

Ty-Lee smirked at this grumbling reply.

"So, then, Mai's a sheep, too? And Zuko, also?"

["I-...Hmph. Mai, yes. Mai suffers from a lack of aspiration. She has no goals, no ambition. A leader cannot exist without those qualities, they comprise the river that rotates the water-wheel."]

"...Huh? You're soundin' a bit like your Uncle," chuckled Ty-Lee.

["Rrmmm...Nevermind. As for Zuko - you see, this is precisely what irks me so much about that pathetic brother of mine. He is of the Kurosawa bloodline. He possesses our family's drive for success. He hungers for perfection - just as I do. And yet, he casts those valued attributes upon idiotic endeavors, fictitious ideals that could never exist. Zuko, you see, is a deluded shepherd who resides amongst the sheep rather than directing them, as is the appointed destiny of the Kurosawa clan."]

"Mmm..." Ty-Lee let out a dubious hum at this.

["What is it?"]

"It's just that...you're starting to sound like one of those weird Japanese cartoons - you know, those ones Mai watches some times?"

["Erk-...? Silence!"]

Ty-Lee was beaming at her small victory in riling up the ever-vigilant and dire Azula Kurosawa.

"Jeee-eeez, Azula. You're worse than ZuZu with how serious you are! Like, just...chill out! I'm only teasing. Haha."

["Mmph."]

"Besides, just because your brother doesn't think like you do, like...that doesn't mean he can't be a leader."

["Zuko is constantly yammering on and on about equality, and peace, and a fantastical notion that everyone should coexist together in precious harmony."]

"Rrrrrright. Soooo...How is that a bad thing?"

["It's a fool's errand, Ty-Lee. That simply isn't how the world works. People do not want peace, they do not want to be blended together into an amalgamation. That is why the world is divided into countries, and states. The laws of nature dictate that life is not created equal. All manner of species exist. Some consume others and rule over them. It is the way things are."]

"But...weren't you just saying that people are like sheep? Wouldn't that mean that they are all just...like...a bunch of the same thing lumped tog-"
["Don't be foolish! There are different types of herds to be watched over, and different shepherds to oversee each herd."]

"Uhhh...OK," Ty-Lee sighed. "You're losing me a bit, Azula. I think you're overthinking this stuff. It's not good for you."

["...You think so?"] Azula mumbled in a rare moment of thoughtful hesitation. ["But I can't be complacent, Ty-Lee. I'm managing quite a lot on a daily basis. I have to look at the big picture and be capable of micro-managing. It's quite demanding. It is my job to overthink everything."]

"Azula." Ty-Lee's face flickered with affectionate sympathy. "I know that, silly. Maybe I can...umm...be a bit slow sometimes," she squeaked out, "but we've been talking a lot lately, and I'm not dumb."

["You are a little bit,"] Azula picked slyly. Ty-Lee could picture the smarmy little smirk on her friend's face with ease.

"That was mean," Ty-Lee whimpered.

["I was joking, Ty-Lee."]

"I know, heehee."

["Insufferable. You are quite insufferably childish."]

"That's why we balance each other out so well!"

["I suppose..."]

"Aaaaaanyway~...I know how concerned you are about your job. I know it's getting to you. And...I know that you're trying to work things out, too..." Ty-Lee's finger was twirling around her ponytail while she solemnly considered the situation. "I just get worried some times that you might end up like your dad."

["You're sounding like ZuZu."]

"But he's right, Azula. Nobody wants to see that happen."

["I don't see why it's such a horrible prospect to rise-"]
"Your dad's in jail!"

That managed to keep Azula quiet for a moment.

"Don't you get that?" growled Ty-Lee, her hand now tugging at her intricate braid. "Why do you care so much about following his footsteps? Why can't you let go of that stuff? Just because you want your daddy's approval doesn't mean it's good for you."

["This isn't about what I want, Ty-Lee, or what is good or bad. This is about what I am meant to do."]

"Sounds like a fancy way of saying you're giving in."

["Then what do you propose? Hm? My choices are rather limited, here."]

"That's just 'cuz you're not opening your eyes...You're the boss now. Do what you want, not what you dad wanted. I mean, c'mon, Azula, even I get it, and I'm supposed to be stupid, right?"

["I said I was joking."]

"And I'm saying that I think you need to stop worrying so much about everybody else, what they think, and getting them to do what you want. Why can't you do what you want for a change?"

["I'm not in a position where I can afford to be selfish."]

"It's-! Ugh. It's not being selfish, it's...being you."

["All right! Fine! If it will quiet you, then I concede to your argument."]

"I'm not...-! I wasn't...arguing. Everything's not a debate..." A deep sigh was heaved out. "I care about you. Ya know?"

["Mm."]

Don't you care about us, Azula? Your brother, your uncle, Mai...What about me? Is it really so hard to tell me you care about me?

"Like, seriously. Maybe it seems like everyone's just being pushy lately, Azula, but...it's 'cuz we all love you."

["So you've said..."] Stop being such a bitch, Azula! Argh. ["That's quite flowery and sentimental, but it doesn't solve problems. Not mine, not my Brother's, nor my Uncle's...and it certainly doesn't solve problems like that pyromaniac running amuck."]

"B-but...It still gives you a reason to solve stuff...Right?"

["Yes, yes, fine,"] Azula brushed off Ty-Lee's goading for some kind of emotional reaction.

"Anyway, speaking of that crazy creepazoid, you didn't answer my question."

["What question?"]

"Aren't you gonna do anything to stop him?"

["The 'Combustion Man?'"]

"Yes."

["I already explained, Ty-Lee, that is completely out of my control. He has no affiliation with us, which has been the case for quite some time."]

"So there's nothing you can do?"

["No, he is a madman wanted by the law. Therefore, the proper authorities can handle the situation, as I understand they are doing. I've informed federal agents about what little information I was able to decipher about the man. With them looking for him, and his appearance now known to the public, I'm certain he's going to be laying low for a while."]

"I hope you're right..."

["Now, then."] A pause.

"...Yea?"

["Were there more questions you intended to pry at me with?"]

"Umm...I guess not..."

["Good. Then before I leave, I suppose it would do well to advise you that I will, in fact, be visiting that repulsive town this weekend to take care of some business matters."]

"Here? With the school?"

["Correct."]

"You know, we're having a dance this weekend - everybody's going. It's a Roaring Twenties kind of thing."

["Yes, I...was aware of this."]

"Huh? You mean, you're gonna go with us?"

["To be completely honest, I haven't-"]
"Heehee, Azula, being completely honest?"
["Quiet!"] Azula rapidly hissed, carrying on. ["I haven't informed Zuko or Mai of my impending arrival, you see."]

Ty-Lee's eyes narrowed and she smiled, rolling onto her back.

Because you're afraid they'd tell you to not bother coming, right?

["We haven't been on talking terms, I'm sure you're aware."]

"Soooo...You want me to ask Mai and Zuko if it's OK for you go to the dance with all of us?"

["Of course not,"] Azula huffed. ["That's not what I had in mind."]

"Mm-hm."

["Don't you give me that brusque nonsense, Ty-Lee."]

"Of course not. I would never~"

["Do people ever inform you of how frustratingly uncooperative you are?"]

"~All the time~"

["I'm trying to explain myself! Cease your silly singing at once!"]

"~La-la-la; This is the Annoying Azula-la-la Song~"

["You immature, incurable little prostitute! Silence!"]


A/N: Ikki and Jinora's little bit at the beginning was partially inspired by this: daughterofthestars(dot)tumblr(dot)com/post/23776537111

Corey is the SRU interpretation of 'Kori,' a character in The Promise comics, who we find out in Part 2 is Sneers' girlfriend.

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A/N: This first scene starts immediately where the last one ended.

["Tohff...?"]

"Urgh." From her booth, Toph growled with anguish at the butchering of her name over the speakerphone. She clambered around, reaching for her cane, but Sokka got up from his chair before she did. Sokka's meandering one-sided discussion had lulled to a stop at this interruption.

"Heh, chill out, 'Tohff,' I'll get it for ya."

"Meat-Head, I don't need-"
"Blablabla, I know," he spat out rapidly. "Shut up and sit while I get your food. No need to go stubbing any more toes today, Gimpy."

Toph's nose wrinkled at his teasing, but her guts swelled with joy at the comfort in his tone and his own willingness to do something of his own accord for her benefit.

"Fine," she made a huff of it, smirking as she relaxed back in her seat. The couple moments of reprieve gave her a little bit of time to reflect that following Katara and Aang's advice was working well enough so far. Sokka seemed more laid back around her than usual lately. Just a brief reminder of the guy she had become infatuated with in the first place was pleasant. For a little while she had found herself doubting why she'd ever started taking a liking to the buffoon at all. And yet in a mere few moments with just the two of them together the feelings felt reaffirmed.

-Skfff!-

"There ya go, Tohff."

Toph swallowed, blinking wide two times as she tried to wipe whatever stupid look had potentially fallen over her face. She quickly fumbled to sit upright in her seat, carefully reaching for the plate and cup that Sokka had set before her.

"Ha," Sokka laughed. "Man. Tohff. Maybe we should incorporate that one into the rotation of nic-"
["Sohkuh...?"]

There was a pause, and Toph's brief embarrassment gave way to a cocky grin, while Sokka frowned.

"You were saying?" she said, gripping her hands around her chicken wrap with care. She could hear his steps stomping off already, and she bit into her food with satisfaction. When he came back, there was a pleasant quiet between the two of them as they eagerly at for a little while. This was certainly something Sokka appreciated about Toph: the woman knew the value of quiet, eating time. Meals didn't have to be a constant jibber-jabber affair like most women wanted from him.

"So..." Sokka casually poked through their silence after a few minutes had passed and they were both nearing completion. "I heard...-" -Schllllrrrppp!- Sokka waited as Toph slurped loudly through her straw, her cup empty. "Heard that-" -Schllllllrp!- "Uh, heard-" -Ssscchhhlllrrrppp!- "Jesus, woman!" Sokka laughed out. "You're such a pain."

"I try my best," said Toph, flashing out her teeth to give Sokka an idiotic grin. She hoped she was presenting her face the way that she'd wanted to. When he snickered, she knew she had.

"Good on ya," Sokka sighed, humored. "Like I was saying, I heard you h-" -Sschhh-! He yanked the empty cup from her hand and slapped it on the table beside his own plate, and Toph flinched from the motion, but the two of them laughed some more. "Yea. Yea, that's what you get," Sokka taunted.

"Oh man, you sure showed me, Derp-Derp," said Toph with a blubbering accent. "Took my cup and everything. Woe is me." Sokka had to force out his words through more chuckles.

"I heard...that last weekend you met some guy and had your way with him?"

Toph's bright smile slipped away, and she leaned back in her seat with disinterest.

"And what if I did?" she asked coolly.

"Er...I...was just wondering. About that. Like, how'd it happen? What's this guy like?"

"You want to know what he's like?"

"Well, duh. I mean, seriously. What kind of guy could win you over so easily?"

Toph puffed out an amused laugh through her nose, her head bobbed in her slumped back position.

"He was nice," she mumbled simply.

"And...?"

"He was talented."

"Talented? At...like...-?"
"At music."

"Uh-huh."

"And it was just a one-time thing. Just a single date. We wouldn't work out."

"And that's it?"

"Pretty much."

"You did the dirty with this guy that you'll probably never speak to again, if only out of sheer awkward-avoidance."

"It wasn't dirty, shut up."

"You like dirt."

"Yes, but-"
"Dirty, dirty woman."

"So your sister-" Toph cut through his name-calling. "-tattle-tailed on me? Is that how you found out?"

"Ha, yea, basically."

"'Kay. But I already got a mouthful and a half from her, so I don't need to hear it."

"Hear what?"

"Your lecture."

"I don't have a lecture for ya."

"Good."

"Katara called you a 'slut,' though. Made me chuckle."

"Yea, well...What she thinks doesn't really matter, does it?"

"I...I guess not. I just thought it was funny."

"How is that funny?"

"Just...Katara complaining about anyone being a 'slut.' It just...is funny. Her, saying that kinda stuff. Like, just the sound of her voice speaking mean words like that."

"Ah...Heh. Actually, yea, she was in a real pissy mood before, when we argued about it - man, she was like swearing and everything. I found it kind of funny, too."

"Haha. Wow, good job. I can't remember the last time I got her that annoyed."

Toph chewed at the last of her wrap thoughtfully, and Sokka partook of the final bits of his bacon-cheddar burger.

"Is that what you think?" Toph asked after the pregnant pause, her eyebrows furrowed.

"Whuffatt?" Sokka spoke with a full mouth.

"That I'm a slut."

"Oh...Er...-"
"Yes!" Toph quickly decided for him based on his stumbling.
"Nooo! No-no-no. You're just...errm...-"
"You can just say it, Meat-Head. I don't care what people think."

"Assertive. Yea. That's the word."

"Tsh! Ahhh, all right. Sure, I like the sound of that. Smooth recovery there."

"Smooth as butter."

"Silk."

"Silk?"

"Smooth as silk. I mean, you can be like butter if you want, but...-"

"We both know I am way more like butter than silk."

"That's true..."

"Ouch. I thought you were gonna insist I was classier, like silk."

"Nope."

"Slut."

"Whore."

There was a pause between the two of them, both struggling to hold in giggles to maintain the air of mock tension. After barely managing this, Sokka continued, pushing to come off as serious.

"Wh-? Wow, that is...just...uncalled for!"

"Hey, if I'm a slut, you are totally a whore."

"What?"

"Dude. Please. The way you've been, like...pushing yourself out at women these days?"

"Eh..." Sokka shrugged in acknowledgment. "Fair point."

"I'd think you needed to get laid more than I did."

"Rub it in, rub-it-in."

"And I wish I coulda seen the look on your face when you found out that lesbian chick was just trolling you this whole time."

"OH MY GOD, I KNOW, RIGHT?" Sokka exploded, slapping the sides of his head in disbelief. "That was...-! And she just...-! Rrrgagh."

"Heh."

"Well..." Sokka sighed and scratched his nose. "At least me and Suki got to hang out and dance a bit."

Toph's stomach, full of soda and food, wriggled unpleasantly at the thought - but she knew full well that if she was going to defend her right to have a night with Ohev that she had no business criticizing Sokka's evening.

"And...how'd that go?" she asked, keeping herself calm as she ate.

"Eh..." Sokka sighed again. That seemed telling, in Toph's opinion. "It was all right. Like, it was nice, and stuff. We kissed, even."

"Oh?" Toph held in her dissatisfaction. Her brain kept repeating Katara's advice about just...being his friend.

"Yea, it-...Oh! Oh, man." In an instant, Toph could tell he was elsewhere by his vocal pattern changing.

"What?"

"Our booth. Those people left our booth."

"Oh. Well...hell, we gotta go claim what's rightfully ours."

"Right? Let's do it." Sokka scooped up Toph's empty cup, stacked her empty plate under his own, and trashed the lot of waste into a nearby bin. By the time he did this, Toph was on her feet, cane in hand. "Need an escort there?" Sokka wondered with some grumpiness.

"Nah, I'm all good," Toph answered with nonchalance, finding her way around the tables. She almost whacked one student in the knee, and nearly bumped another in the head.

"Uh, actually-! Toph? Hey, wait..." Sokka pursued her through the sea of tables, muttering some apologies as he whipped by folks. By the time he'd caught up with her, she'd already reached the row of booths by the edge of Appa's. She was heading for the wrong one, however. "Right!" Sokka called out, nudging her with a gentle press against her left arm.

"Ohp-! This the one?"

"That's the one."

"Ladies first," Toph teased. Sokka made her jump by applying a light smack to the back of her head. After she heard him sit down, she slid into the booth on the same side as he was sitting. Side-by-side, their backs to Appa's front counter, they faced the restaurant. The booth ahead of them had been emptied out, and the table to their left was about to be open, as well, as the single student sitting near them finished their food.

Toph fiddled with her ponytail, making sure Sokka hadn't messed it up somehow, while Sokka tapped his chin.

"Where were we...?"

"Suki?" Toph flatly replied, her mind still intent on finding out more about that.

"Right! Yea. But, man..." Sokka ran his hand through his hair, which was hung down today. "That woman's just confusing. It's like she wants one thing one day, and another thing the next."

"Ha! Yea, that's women, Pal, better get used to that. With how crazy Katara is, I'd figure you'd get it already."

"Well, give her some slack, here, Katara's having a rough time of it lately."

"So? You said she called me a slut."

"She did. I thought you said you didn't care?"

"That's not the point, she called me a slut because she thinks I can't make good decisions for myself." Toph had ended things on good terms with Katara, sure. But knowing that the woman was calling her bad names behind Toph's back didn't settle well, nor did the concept of Katara tattling about her personal life to Sokka, of all people. In hindsight, Toph was figuring this must've happened before they'd had their blowup, but...still. "She's just annoying, is what I'm saying. Paranoid."

"Uh, yea. That's...kind of her thing. Like, my thing is sarcasm. Aang's thing is...-"

"Being nice?"

"Yea, let's go with that."

"Katara's thing is being all controlling and preachy and yelling at you like you're a kid, and-"
"Hey, whoa, whoa, let's stop that train at the tracks, here, Miss Mud-Slug. All slugging mud around."

"Slinging mud."

"Right, right. Come on, now, though."

"Lemme guess. Now you're going to try telling me that your sister's not as annoying as I make her out to be?"

"Nah, she's...pretty much a pain." Sokka sighed and complained in a meandering manner of speech. "She's always gotta be right about everything, and she gets all bossy, and involved, and...in your business..."

"Chyeah. You said it. Seems like every fuckin' week, sometimes every day, I have to deal with her jumping down my throat, trying to tell me what to do. And then now, with her mood lately? It's fucking ridiculous, she's a walking mine field. Sokka, I don't know how you deal with her sometimes and her control-freak-mode."

"Actually, in a way...I rely on it."

Toph's brain did a double-take. That had not been the answer she'd expected.

"I don't understand," she mumbled dryly. Toph was touched by the way Sokka's voice shifted gears to a somber pitch.

"When our mom died, that was the hardest time in my life. Our family was a...mess. But Katara, she had...so much strength. She stepped up and took on so much responsibility. She helped fill the void that was left by our mom, even though she was hurting just as much as we were."

"Oh..." Toph's stomach churned with guilt from how easily she let herself forget those circumstances of Katara's youth. "I guess I never really...thought about that..."

"It's the truth. It was during that whole time that Katara really...changed. She grew up so much in such a short time. She started caring about things...way more than she had used to. Caring about us - me and our dad."

"She...became like your glue," Toph murmured thoughtfully as a sympathetic smile crept over her cheeks. "She held you together. Just like...she does now. With us."

"Mm-hm." Sokka's face matched Toph's look as the two of them spent a quiet moment of reflection over their mutual connection to Katara. Sokka's eyelids squinted shut, his eyes quivering from the pressures created by the maelstrom swirling within his brain. His heart yearned to let something he'd been holding spill out. He didn't understand why, but he felt compelled to confess this very personal concept with Toph in that moment.

"I'm going to tell you something crazy," he said cautiously, glancing to his side. "I've never told anyone this before," he pointed out with a rare touch of timidness that startled Toph. Her heart pounded hard once or twice at this. He was going to tell her a secret? He had never told her a secret before. Not something with that tone of voice. "But, honestly?" Sokka went on, looking back out to the hum and buzz of the restaurant. "It seems like my whole life...Katara's been the one looking out for me. She's always been the one that's...there. More than anyone else. I mean...sometimes it feels like the entire reason she went to this school is just because I did, like she came here just to stay here to keep taking care of me. And these days, when I try to remember my mom - and I know it's weird - but Katara's is the face I picture."

"But...That doesn't make sense, you have, like...photos of your mom...Don't you?"

"I told you it was crazy," Sokka grumbled with some shame. Toph wished she could swallow up the words she'd just carelessly spat out. He was trying to open up to her for a change and she was being stupidly insensitive. Sokka covered his eyes with his palm, his cheeks slightly warm with embarrassment. "Ugh, see? It's weird. It's dumb, I don't even-"
"No, no," Toph rapidly spat out with an intentionally apologetic tone. She turned her face to his general direction and reached out her arm. It found its way across Sokka's shoulder. She found her own solace in the heft of his meaty back beneath her arm, separated only by his cotton shirt. Her hand clenched down on his bare bicep and she squeezed him with empathy. "I get it. That's...actually very sweet."

"You think so?"

"I do. And the truth is, sometimes - er, a lot of times - Katara does act motherly. But, like...that's not always a bad thing. I know sometimes I can be a real bitch...but she's always there for me, too, just like she is for you when you're a dumbass." Sokka shot her a dark look, and she kept going without skipping a beat or allowing him to protest her insult. "We fight a lot, we piss and moan at each other, I know, but...Katara is compassionate, and kind." Toph swallowed hard, her heart pumping from her contact with Sokka and the swelling emotions of this moment as the reality of just how much she loved the people she'd befriended at this school splashed across her. "And the whole reason she acts the way she does...I know it's because she actually cares about me." Toph's eyes were tearing up and she casually rubbed her left palm up across her cheek. "Ya know...the real me. The prick, the bitch, the...stupid child I am sometimes."

"The 'awesome,' too?"

"Ha, y-yea, the 'awesome,' too...Katara loves me for who I am. All of me. And...and that's...-" She sniffed and exhaled a shaky breath, surprised at her own trembling. "-...that's more than my own mom," she acknowledged sullenly.

A heavy silence hung over the two of them, though the shuffling crowd of students across the restaurant served as a strange but soothing backdrop, like a trickling waterfall of human voices.

"Don't tell her I said any of that," Toph broke the moment, brusquely wiping tears from her face, as Sokka took the opportunity to dry his own eyeballs. Part of her wanted to land a punch of threat right into his side...but the sensation of holding him in her arm was too pleasant to risk breaking it off like that. "I want to tell her myself," Toph added solemnly.

"Hey, my lips are sealed," Sokka answered, shrugging up his shoulders, which were still caught within Toph's arm. "Uh...So, like...you do want a hug this time, or...-?"

Toph's heart skipped, her teeth clenched, and she desperately hoped her cheeks were not as visibly warm as they suddenly felt. She couldn't form a word in reply. Sokka went on, his eyes nervously darting this way and that.

"I know before you said that you'd 'say so,' but, uh...like, I thought you didn't like my 'meaty meat-hands' on you." I hate seeing girls cry and crap, but I remember last time we had a touchy-feely talk and I tried the hugging bit she freaked the hell out. What's up with her today? Must be the estrogen. It's always the estrogen. Mucks up their brains. Yep.

"Umm...Yea, that's-...But my hand is on...you. So. It's different." Oh-god-oh-god-oh-god I'm messing it up messing it up fuck fuck urgh-

"Yea, I...don't quite see your logic. I think all this girl-talk has your estrogen levels overflowing. I can see it coming out of your face. Ha." Wow, what's going through her head? It's like she's all embarrassed that we had a moment. It's cool. I can dig it. The feelings, the talking. See? I can do that stuff. Being all...friendly and having girl-talks. No problem. "So...we should hug it out and call it a day."

"Yes. Sure. That. With the hugging, and being happy." Jesus fucking christ Toph you moron shut up your face.

"Let's just...bring it in, then. Keh-mon." Sokka squirmed his left arm up and around Toph's back, and he twisting his torso. Toph was confused, still swimming in the complex emotions from their conversation, but sexually aroused and elated, all at the same time. She couldn't compute that Sokka was awkwardly trying to hug her for a second of two. When she came to, she immediately tilted her head down, hoping against hope that he wouldn't be able to tell how embarrassed and aroused she was at the warmth of his arms around her, hugging tight. Sokka, likewise, was relieved that his waist was pointed in another direction, because the squishing sensation of her bosoms against his chest, though brief, was alluring all the same.

Sokka made sure to slap her back roughly, and Toph reciprocated the notion, baffled at the past two minutes' events entirely. Sokka cleared his throat and nodded, essentially to himself, as they naturally broke off.

"Yea, see? We can...be all, like...talking about our emotions. And stuff."

"Almost like adults n' shit," Toph sheepishly laughed out.

"Almost," Sokka clarified. Both of them still had an arm lingering across the other one's back. Sokka retracted his awkwardly, and Toph immediately flung her hand from his body, as well.

How had this even happened? How had that gotten...there? It started from, what? Complaining about Katara? And ended like that?

Wow, Sister-Face. Even when you're not here, you're still helping me hook up with your brother. You must really approve.

"So! Yea." Sokka nodded to himself some more, off-put and thoughtful about what that interaction had all meant. "Good talk."

"Good talk. Yep."

"Mm-hm."

"Warm fuzzies all around," said Toph.

"Giving our minds some...mental health."

"Say what?"

"Erm, talking. Openness, and...honesty. Whatever. Like, it's good for you."

"Oh. Uh, right."

"That sure is a thing we just did."

"Sure is."

"I'm...gonna go order a milkshake now."

"Uh...Me, too!"

The next twenty minutes were spent discussing Sokka's network-problem-thinger that had begun the conversation as well as Toph explaining Ohev's amazing sight-reading abilities, all while slurping away at yummy milkshakes. The evening concluded with Toph and Sokka heading out across campus, side-by-side as they had sat, two partners in crime. Sokka didn't offer Toph his arm, and Toph didn't grab for it, either. Both were content with this: each walking their own steps, in their own manner, but each parallel to the other. When they reached a fork in the sidewalk, where one path led to Aqua House and the other down the way to Aero House, the two simply bid each other good night and went off their separate ways.

Sokka felt some relief that he had his friend back. He'd forgotten how fun Toph could be to have around when the two of them were in-sync with each other. Toph seemed to be carrying herself a lot better these days, he could tell. And perhaps more importantly, she just seemed...happier tonight, than in evenings past. More relaxed. It was like she was finally getting over all of that drama from the winter. Sokka was glad for her.

Toph's stomach swirled with butterflies. She wanted to pound out a chord on her electric guitar and shout, rattling walls with her joy and excitement. Every moment had felt right back there. It was invigorating. She really felt like she had a shot with him. The thrill of trying to 'win' at this game of 'capture Sokka's affection' was all-encapsulating.


- Wednesday, April 20th, 2011 -

"Howdy there, folks!" cried the warm, energetic voice of the man behind the post office counter. "What can I send out for you today?" He was a wrinkly man with bright, brown eyes and a grizzled, gray beard. He was wearing a blue cap with the US Post Office logo embroidered across it. Both Katara and Aang were somewhat familiar with the man, since they'd at least pass him by all of the time. The post office of SRU was a square compartment built into the the basement of the campus center, residing on the opposite side of the floor from Appa's. Student post office boxes ran along the length of three of the compartment's four walls, one of which also opened up as the service counter.

"Uh, actually...-" Aang set the laminated red slip onto the counter. "-we're here to pick up a package, Doc."

"Aha!" The man winked at the them, disappearing out of sight for a couple seconds. Katara, familiar with the quirky old coot's routine, rolled her eyes with crossed arms and sighed through her nose. Aang playfully tilted her chin back up, sliding his thumb along her jawline with a pleading smile, hoping she'd cheer up.

The man reappeared, now wearing a red hat where the blue had once been.

"So it's incoming mail you're here for," he said, carrying himself in a somewhat more formal manner. He pointed a finger their way as he scooped up the slip Aang had set down with his other hand. "What's the name?"

"Kesuk," Aang answered.

"Katara," his girlfriend added in her first name for clarification. She figured the loon would have an easier time with that name.

"Just a jiffy, kids!" The spritely man bounded around the room, scoping out shelves out of sight. Aang scratched his hand across Katara's back, her arms still folded. She looked quite tired. He wished he could figure out a way to help her. "And here. You. Are!" 'Doc' gently pushed the small, rectangular box over the counter.

"Thanks," said Aang, giving the man a wave as Katara moved away from the counter, letting the next student in line up front. Aang went to her side, where she was hovering by the recycling bins, examined her new box.

"It's...from my dad," she muttered.

"Your dad?"

"Yea..." Katara rubbed at her eyes, double-checking the mail-back address on the package. Yea, {Hakoda Kesuk}. And that was definitely her home address. She suddenly found herself splashing through a puddle of remorse. Her father had come all the way down here when she and Aang had been in the hospital, and she'd hardly spoken with him since. Life was just so stressful, and she didn't even know what they'd talk about, and...part of it was that in talking with him, that on its own led to some guilt these days.

"So..." Aang rocked up and down on his heels. "What is it?" He reached out and rubbed a hand across her lower back as she stepped over to the nearby recycling bin. She tore open the package and discarded the remains into the blue, plastic bin, which was packed with mail scraps and other pieces of cardboard. Katara was frozen with emotion by what remained in her hands: a leather-bound journal with a single word impressed into the cover: {family}

"Aw...That's really nice," Aang murmured in her ear whilst he wrapped his arms around her waist.

"Yea, it is," Katara agreed, her eyes glazed over. She ran her fingertips over the indentations of the letters on the front cover.

"You can go back to doing that thing you wanted to do," Aang observed, watching Katara flip open the book. She was a little disheartened that it was totally blank. Last time the journal had contained some entries written by her dad. How come that wasn't the case this time?

"I can," said Katara. The firmness of the fresh binding crackling ever so lightly in her hands as she closed the book...it was like music. She leaned back into Aang, nuzzling her temple against his neck as her eyes slipped closed and she tugged the journal to her chest. "I just...I don't know what to write in it to start out now," Katara bemoaned with a bit of a whininess to her tone.

"That's OK, just give it some time. You'll think of something."

"Hm..." Katara looked at the front once more: {family} "Hey. Aang."

"Yea?"

"I want...you...to start it this time."

"What? But...but I'm not your family, Katara, I-"
"Yes you are, don't be silly."

"Ha..."

"I mean it. You know, I think...I really want this to be, like, my whole family, writing in here. You know? That includes you. Especially you."

"O-OK," Aang gave in. "If you insist...I'd be honored to."

"I'm glad."

The two of them were pressed against the back wall, facing the post office's slow trickle of activity. They both took in a moment of respite during this busy school day, each knowing that classes were looming before them.

"Hey, guys."

Katara opened her eyes to see the sharply dressed Zuko standing before her. He nodded to Aang, then Katara. Katara straightened herself out and stood more upright, still enveloped in Aang's loving arms.

"Hi, Zuko," Aang greeted back. Katara just gave a reciprocal nod. She noticed that Mai was now at the desk, a few cardboard tubes in hand as she spoke with 'Doc,' who was now garbed in his blue hat.

"How are things going?" Zuko asked, lifting his Jasmine Dragon cup to his lips to sip from his coffee as he awaited a response.

"Uhh, they've been better," Aang admitted with a nervous shrug. "Just...you know. Surviving."

"I know how that goes," Zuko sighed out, scratching the back of his ear. "Um...So, I forgot to ask at the dance, but...-" He looked clearly hesitant, but pushed through his doubt. "-...how's your back doing, Aang?"

"Oh, it's...-" Aang shrugged with a slight head shake. "Yea, it's fine. Much better. Hardly hurts anymore. It, uh...left a decent scar, but...-"

"Ah, that's-...Well, I mean, I'm relieved to hear it's healing well, but...that's a shame about the scarring."

Aang and Zuko's interaction had carried a somewhat awkward tone ever since the United Republic had burned down. Zuko hadn't outright said it, but Aang could tell that the guy felt guilty, as if he were somehow partly responsible for Aang's injury.

"Actually, I...don't really mind the scar," Aang admitted with an embarrassed smile. "Heh. Adds character, I guess. Besides, it's...like a mark of proof of...-" Aang kissed the back of Katara's head. "-...how much I love this lady here." He grinned stupidly, and Katara's cloud of gloom cleared up at this gesture. "So every time she sees it, it'll be like a...strong reminder that I'm never going to let anything happen to her." The two both leaned their head over Katara's shoulder to exchange flickering eyes of affection for the briefest of moments.

Mai was at Zuko's side at this point, her poster tubes mailed out, and she cast a sneaky smirk in Zuko's direction.

"See, Zuko? I told you scars can be romantic," she told him with that sneaky glint in her eye that Zuko adored. "You just have to-...How was it you put it? The silver lining thing?"

"Take a bite of the silver sandwich," Zuko chuckled out with a face-palm in spite of his own phrase creation.

"That's it," said Mai with a nod, her hands on her hips. "Scars can be romantic, you just need to take a bite from the silver sandwich."

"What?" laughed out Aang, sinking his chin onto Katara's shoulder. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail today, and he could tell it wasn't clean, but that meant that it smelled more like...Katara...today. And he didn't mind that. "What's this about a sandwich?" Aang mumbled out, confused.

"Nevermind," Zuko shamefully dismissed the matter with a flick of his wrist, drinking more of his coffee. "Anyway, we have to get going - I have a meeting coming up soon." Zuko pushed up his buttoned sleeve, double-checking his gold-plated watch. "Uh, but...it was nice seeing you two."

"Yea! We should try meeting up again some time soon," Aang called out to the couple, who were making their way toward one of the staircases that led to the center's main lobby floor.

"Sure! I'll shoot you an e-mail when I have time," Zuko called back, waving them off.

"Bye, guys," bid Mai. "Don't offend anyone with all that PDA stuff, all right? You might want to dial the cuteness down a notch or two."

Aang smirked at Mai's picking, watching the couple vanish. When he looked back down to Katara, she seemed lost in her murk of discouragement once again. He gave her a light shake.

"Hey. Sweetie."

"Mmph."

"C'mon...We've gotta go, we have classes in a few."

Katara inhaled a deep breath through her nose, like a yawn, and broke free from Aang's grasp. Aang kept one hand latched to her waist as they made their way to the stairwell they'd just watched Mai and Zuko go up through.

"Hey. Ms. Eskimo," said Aang, scratching his fingertips along her side. "Come on. What could we do to help cheer you up tonight? Mm?"

"I don't know, Aang," Katara huffed with some impatience. She was starting to get a little tired of Aang asking this every day, and her hardly having an answer for him. She knew he meant well - it wasn't him she was annoyed with, it was her own lack of a proper response to that question.

"You were in a good mood yesterday, right? You told me."

"Well, yes, but...that's because I was helping Toph out with her...boy situation, and...-"

"And you actually helped," Aang pointed out. "She seemed so happy last night. She, like...called me just to tell me about how things had gone well with him."

"Ha. I remember, I was there, in the room with her."

"Oh. Right. Well, but-...See? You helped out a friend, and it made you feel better."

"So, what are you suggesting, Aang?"

"Wh-? I-I'm not sure, I'm just...pointing that out. Like, it might be a good idea to think on that."

"Yea...I guess."

The stairs were surpassed, and the couple traversed outside, onto the campus sidewalk. It was that after-lunch hour, where people were scuffling about to make it to their one o'clock classes. Not far off down the way, but heading in a different direction, Mai and Zuko walked, hand-in-hand. Zuko was in his usual: tucked into his black trousers, a button down shirt of maroon with a golden, satin tie accenting his simple apparel. Mai, beside him, looked entirely different, wearing baggy black goth pants, metal rings lining the sides, her tall, thick-soled boots of black, and a logo-less T-shirt to match the dark color scheme. The pair were like dawn and dusk, their appearances acting like counterweights to each other.

"What's this meeting about?" Mai casually asked, after they'd finished a brief bit of small-talk over the company they'd just encountered.

"Nothing special, really."

"Why do you look worried about it, then?"

"Ah, well...There's one detail I can't seem to figure out."

"What's that?"

"One of our security guards quit last week, and especially with...-" Zuko glanced around them cautiously. "-...how crazy...you-know-what...has been? We really need all the security we can afford."

"Sounds kind of stressful."

"Yes. And the problem is, I can't seem to think of anyone to suggest, and everyone's expecting me to come up with some recommendations since I was the one who got asked to look into it."

"Hm..."

Mai contemplated the matter. A security guard? Did she have any ideas? And then it came to her.

St. Patrick's Day.

Aang's scuffle outside of the United Republic - that racist little prick...She couldn't remember his name. But she could remember Aang's friend, Korra, slamming the guy down with no problem, restraining him with ease.

"What about...Korra?" Mai offered a suggestion.

"What's that?" Zuko mumbled, though he was already processing the concept.

"Korra. I've seen her deal with...violent types. She's actually pretty strong and capable. And she does still need work, right?"

"Mm." Zuko's brows lifted thoughtfully, and he rubbed his chin. "I think so, yea...And, well, actually-" Zuko tapped his index finger to his lips as he remembered some details. "-now that I think about it, I do think she had some relevant training, too."

"Katara's dad is a police chief," said Mai. "I think I remember Korra mentioning that she had originally wanted to get into her uncle's line of work. So...-"

"Hm." Zuko nodded thoughtfully. "I'm a little worried that she might be a little too reckless, but...on the other hand, we don't have a lot options right now. No one's applied ever since we posted the opening, and we need it filled ASAP. So, yea. That's a good idea, Mai."

"Of course it's good - it came out of my brain."

"I expect nothing less."

[link] <-- Part 1
Part 3 --> [link]
[link]<-<--Chapter 1

Gah, these chapters, man! I'm making them so long. xD Here's the second part. I hope you guys like it. I'm personally pretty happy with how the Toph and Sokka scene turned out, I liked being able to finally capture a reinterpretation of their moment in 'The Runaway.'

Thumbnail from this brilliant pic that depicts part of this chapter's final scene:
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A/N: SRU now has a FACEBOOK page, just add 'WhatILearnedatSRU' after Facebook dotcom. =)

Just want to point out that this chapter picks up right where the last one left off - continuation of that scene, and a week has passed during that abstract montage scene.
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What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 61 - Confused


- Friday, February 11th, 2011 -

"Wow. Shocker," Sokka sighed to his sister sarcastically, shaking his head as they swiped their student IDs to get into the cafeteria. "Putting yourself in the middle of everyone's drama makes your life dramatic? Who-would-have-thunk-it?" He cast an amused glare at her while they grabbed utensils and plates.

"I know, I know," Katara pleaded, cocking her head back in frustration. "Sokka, I'm not expecting you to understand."

"Heh. Good, 'cuz it defies logic. You're a crazy person."

"I just really need to talk with someone right now, and...-"

"I'm the only not dramatic person to talk with." Sokka rolled his eyes as he they entered the line to the main entrees.

"W-well...Yes. I guess so..."

"All right. Lay it on me," Sokka muttered in a tired tone, his back facing her.

"Um...Can we maybe...get our food and sit down first?" Katara requested, miffed by what she perceived to be her brother brushing her concerns aside.

After they'd collected their meals and found a small table, Sokka stared blankly at her for a moment as she fidgeted with her fork, shuffling her mixed vegetables around.

"Soo...?"

Katara blinked up at him, then took a bite, half of the food she'd scooped up falling back onto her plate.

"It's all...bleh. I don't even know where to start..."

Air puffed out of Sokka's nostrils with impatience as he scratched at his scruffy, unkempt goatee.

"Well, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that Freckles has been giving you issues?"

"Agh, yes...Kind of...Did she tell you?"

"Nnnot exactly, but...We do work together, so...I got the feeling. She's not exactly good at hiding when she's in a pissy mood."

"Yea..."

"Tell her to give you some space, right?"

"Pretty much..."

"She's still not over you, huh?"

"No..."

"That's kinda awkward..."

"I know, right?" Katara clenched her hands up at her sides. "I just wanna...like...smack her upside the head, and be like, 'hey, let it go!' Urgh. Ya know?"

"Heheh...I know the feeling."

"And all this bullcrap with Aang and Toph, it's really frustrating. They're both avoiding each other, and I'm stuck in the middle."

"Weren't you the one who suggested they avoid each other in the first place?"

"Th-that's-...I-I guess so, but...but still, it's...aggravating."

"That's what you get for getting involved, Sis."

"Oh, so I was...what? Supposed to just sit and watch them keep fighting with each other?"

"Fff. Hell if I know."

"Exactly. So don't go...all acting like I'm some idiot here..."

"I wasn't, yeesh. Chill out." Sokka frowned at Katara's wide eyes and flared nostrils - tell-tale signs that she was in quite a fussy mood.

"Everything has to be so complicated. It's been like this for...for weeks now. Months? I don't even know...Sokka, why do I keep getting myself involved in all of this complicated junk?"

"Why are you asking me?"

"Because I feel like I shouldn't be, but...but I just keep doing it."

"You know the reason why you get involved, Katara."

"Huh?"

Sokka took a sip of root beer and stared at her knowingly for a moment. She look perplexed. He reached his arm out toward her neck, grasping at it, to which she flinched and leaned back slightly. The motion caused the object Sokka had been grasping to slide up from under her sweater - a smooth piece of round sapphire attached to a band. Her mother's necklace.

I'll never turn my back on people that need me.

"Sis, I'm not gonna tell you to not...be yourself. I know better than that."

"And that infuriating English Professor, and...everything else..."

"Yeeehhp. Sure is school, ain't it?"

Katara, her forehead buried in her fingers at this point, took sighed out deeply.

"You ever miss the old days, when...-" She wiped her sleeve across her drippy nostril. "-...Saturday mornings were the best thing ever?" She laughed weakly in spite of herself.

"Yea," Sokka said with a warm smile. "Dad would cook french toast and we'd sit on the couch with Mom and watch cartoons...And she'd pretend to get all into it with us..."

"Heh..."

"Simple days, simple times," Sokka noted with a slow nod. "Ha." He waggled an index finger as a thought hit him. "What is it Shamrocks says...? 'Little things amuse little minds?'"

Katara smirked, recalling the phrase that Jane would use from time to time - usually in reference to Sokka.

"Yea...I know," Katara muttered with a sniffle. Stupid nose, getting all runny... "We have to deal with bigger...things for...better reward...It's just been...a bit much lately."

"We should go out tonight."

"Huh?"

"Go out, see a movie. Ya know, something we can do together without all the social pressure. Ya get me?"

"Hm." Katara pushed hair behind her shoulder and took a bite of her vegetables. "That sounds like a really good idea, actually..."

"Awesome. Let me get in touch with everyone, then, and I'll get back to you when I've got everything worked out."

"Oh..." Katara stared at Sokka with confusion. Wait, whoa...Sokka was going out of his way to set up a social outing? That was...a nice departure.

"Hm. Prolly shouldn't invite Toph, though, huh?"

"What's that?" Katara muttered, snapping back to her senses.

"'Cuz of how her and Aang are trying to keep their distance and junk. And I mean, c'mon...movies don't exactly do a lot for ol' Dead Eyes, am I right?"

"Yea," Katara agreed, trying to cope with the situation. She didn't like the idea of leaving Toph out of a group activity, but at the same time, it was Toph seemed to want given her actions over the past few days. And Sokka was right - why would Toph want to go see a movie, anyway? Especially when she was sick? The foolish girl was stubborn and insisting on walking out in the cold in sandals - on her own, she claimed to not like the lack of feeling that boots subjected her to. It was probably best for her to stay in and rest up, anyway.

"Then it's settled. Movie night."

"Movie night."

"So, um...Would I be able to get your thoughts on some of the details going on here?" Katara wondered.

Sokka sighed through his nose and bit his lip cautiously.

"Honestly, I'd really rather just stay out of all of this stuff...No offense."

Wha? But...you're my brother, you've always been around for me to bounce ideas off of...What gives?

"O-oh...Sure. I understand," Katara mumbled in reply, perplexed and distraught. She had been hoping she could get Sokka's no-nonsense reassurance and advice on the finer points of these matters.

"Is school going all right, though?"

"Ermm..." She swallowed her personal concerns. Maybe she shouldn't be burdening Sokka with them, anyway. "It's...Y-yea, it's OK, just having a hard time with that Pakku jerk..."

"The more I hear about the guy the less I want to ever meet him."

"Consider yourself lucky that you haven't yet..."


"Man, it's been...forever since we went to a movie..." Aang yawned from the backseat, rubbing his full stomach. He'd eaten a hearty dinner and was ready to relax.

"Yea, like...since Thanksgiving, maybe?" Sokka guessed from the steering wheel as they drew close to Wayward.

"It's good to get together," Aang continued to push out his enthusiasm. Katara couldn't help but smile from the passenger seat at the joy in his voice. She glanced at the mirror above, seeing Aang's eyes glowing with excitement. How could he be in such a great mood, with all of this social tension going on? In the middle of the backseat, Suki was relaxing, and to her left Jane was staring out her side window, dull and unamused.

"Yea, it is," Katara agreed with Aang's statement. "We've all, um...-" She coughed a couple times and wiped her nose. "-...been pretty busy these days, right?"

Silence fell over the car.

"It's good to be at the weekend again," Suki offered up awkwardly, trying to break the ice.

"Hell yes, it is," Sokka agreed heartily.

"Hey..." Jane cast a sly look toward Suki. "How come you're not sitting up front with your boyfriend, anyway?"

"Huh?" Suki replied, jaw slightly agape. Sokka had requested that Suki sit in the back due to "social stupidness," but Suki was not entirely aware of the details. She was just doing as asked.

"What, are you guys avoiding each other, too?"

"Uh, no," Sokka quickly replied.

"Ah, so it's Kat who's the one playing keepaway..." Jane's scowl projected to the front mirror, causing Katara's eyes to immediately avert.

No, no, God, no, not this again...

"I don't see the problem," Jane continued to cast out with passive-aggressive flair. "I mean, I'm sure Twinkle-Toes here would be happier with you in the back seat..."

"What...?" Sokka mumbled, confused and oblivious.

"Oh, is...is there something between you two going on?" Suki probed with gentle optimism to the right side of the vehicle, wiggling a finger between the two.

Aang struggled to act aloof and shrugged.

"Psh," Sokka discounted the theory with an eyeroll. "Sounds to me like Shamrocks here is just projecting her problems out on everyone else."

"Seems like something that's been going around lately," came Suki's stiff words, her eyes closed, lower jaw out. Sokka swallowed hard, drumming his fingers along the steering wheel sheepishly.

"Hey, I'm not projecting shit, I'm just pointing out how when two people date they shouldn't hide it..."

Katara's fingernails dug into her jeans while her nostrils popped open wide.

"I'm not dating anyone!" she growled, glaring at her friends through the mirror as she wiped at her nose. "OK?"

"So all that touchy-feeliness with you two is just me makin' shit up?" Jane retaliated.

"Oh, stop it," spat out Katara, without thinking. Another cough. Words lacking forethought poured out in defense. "Aang's just a good friend. He's like a little brother to me!" She just wanted Jane to leave her alone and push back any suspicions.

In the moment after she said these words, however, she immediately cast her gaze to Aang, who was watching snowy fields pass by. His expression stung with disappointment. The very sight pricked at Katara with a focused, deep needle of regret.

Agh. No. Shit. Grrrahh. I didn't mean that! No, that came out wrong! No, no, Aang, stop pouting. With the pouty face. Awwww...Damnit.

"Ah," Jane nodded slowly, seeming to relish this admittance. "Guess I must be...reading into things, then." She shrugged with nonchalant satisfaction. "My bad..."

"It sounds like all of you are having a problem with assumptions," Suki threw out her opinion with a cautious sigh.

"That's women, bein' sensational for ya!" Sokka jeered with a stupid grin. Maybe if he pulled attention toward himself, they'd all stop being drama llamas on each other?

"That's Sokka," Katara grunted, "being sexist for ya!"

"I'm just joking..."

"That's all you do," Suki sighed from the backseat. Guhhhh, and there it was again. She wouldn't let up...What did Sokka have to do to please her all of a sudden?

"Hey, someone has to try to lighten the mood. Right, Aang? Bro?"

But Aang's attention was lost. Was he even listening at this point? Sure didn't look like it...

"Sweetie," Suki huffed, "Your 'Bros' are not going to help back you up when you're graduated in a few months and don't have a job..."

"Heh," was Jane's commentary to this, an amused smirk on her face.

"Could everyone stop, please?"

Silence fell at Katara's thundering request. She wheezed out a pair of sickly coughs.

"Is it...-? Can we just...not be in a car together without...without all this?" Her voice was cracked, throat beginning to get sore. "I mean, it's so-...Urgh. Toph's not even here, and we're still at it! What's wrong with us?"

"What's wrong with you?" Jane wondered, baffled by Katara's overreaction. "Missing out on your meds lately, or something?"

"Huh? That's...-" Katara shook her head in slight, quick motions as she suddenly realized that she couldn't recall when she last took them. That was a bad sign.

"Fff. Figured as much," Jane's eyes wound around in their sockets. "No wonder you're wiggin' out..."

{Welcome to WAYWARD}

"Maybe this is why we haven't been doing anything together lately, guys," Suki pointed out with a tired tone. "Seems like you all have...things...you need to figure out..." Piercing eyes pointed to the mirror and in turn the driver. "Let's agree to stop this and just watch our movie. How does that sound, everyone?"


"Where are you going, now?" Sokka muttered with confusion as Aang rose from his seat.

"Oh, I...actually need to go to the bathroom," Aang explained in a rush, scurrying out of the chair at the end of the movie theater row and out the double doors. His eyes adjusted to the light and he headed for the bathrooms. His head was still in a panic over what had transpired earlier on the ride over. He hadn't been able to take his mind off of it. The familiar, beautiful bush of brown hair he'd come to admire was instantly recognizable from between the two bathroom doors.

"Katara..." Aang was frowning with disappointment as he stared at Katara's back while she drank from the water fountain. "Did you really mean what you said earlier?"

"Huh?" Katara feinted ignorance, wiping her lips with her sleeve. "Whhhat are you talking about?"

Aang's eyes wandered away from her nervous curiosity. "Back...with the others. In the car, when you said I was just like a...'brother' to you, and you didn't have feelings for me..."

Katara felt like throwing up her popcorn in that moment. The rejection in his eyes was scalding hot against her heart, which was simultaneously sinking like a stone.

"I didn't mean...-! That's...not what I said, I...-"

She was in damage-control mode. Aang knew it all too well - she was just trying to avoid hurting his feelings. Was this why she'd been avoiding him all week?

"So it's true, isn't it?" Aang snapped with quiet bitterness, jamming his hand in his pocket. "We kissed the other day, and...I-I thought that meant we were gonna...be together..." He ran a trembling hand through his hair. "But we're not."

"Aang..." Katara whimpered with a sniffle, latching a hand to her arm with a wistful, sideways glance. "I don't know..."

"Why don't you know?" Aang demanded in desperation, flicking out his wrist.

"Because we're...-" She dropped her arms in anguish, eyes rolling upward in thought. "-in the middle of a lot of stuff right now, and you only just broke up, and...-" Her eyes sneaked off to the side as she dabbed at her nose. "-...we have other people to worry about. This isn't the right time..."

"Well...When is the right time?" he grumbled with an impatient shrug.

"Aang, I'm sorry, but...-" Katara huffed through her nostrils, closing her eyes to avoid her trepidation of looking at his own. "Right now I'm just a little confused..." She tugged at one of her twin braids, stroking both hands down along it with a mixture of anxiety and doubt.

Her eyes bulged open wide as Aang's lips smacked against hers without provocation. She tightened her mouth and pulled away immediately, nostrils open wide with discomfort and irritation.

What the hell? OK, it was kinda cute the first time, but...No. Not gonna work the second time, Bud...

"I just said I was confused!" she snapped through grit teeth. Her eyes flamed out her aggravation at Aang, and she ignored the pain of watching his expression crumble into that shock of rejection again. "I'm going inside," she huffed, whirling around, unable to stand the sight and all the more enraged that it affected her as much as it did. More hacking was forced out as she made her exit.

Aang watched in stupefied silence as she stomped off. Oh, crap, why had he done that? He just couldn't help himself, could he? He pounded at his forehead with his palms and growled out in anguish.

"Urgh, I'm such an idiot..."

A hole in his chest, Aang sighed to himself, disposing of waste in the restroom while his mind burned with regret. Ashamed of causing the disturbance, Aang waddled back to his seat at the edge of the row, beside Sokka, who was leaning forward in his seat, captured by the film. His head sunk between his shoulders as his arms wound themselves across his lean waist, which felt like it was shriveling up.

"Oh, hey," Sokka whispered, completely unaware of Aang's discouraged mood. "Here's what you missed..."

But Aang wasn't paying attention. While Sokka rattled off details, Aang could only be bothered to focus on that lovely mane of hair in the seat just ahead of him, lamenting the notion that he'd never be able to run his hands through it. Gullgh, ah, what was wrong with him? How could he be so selfish? What would Toph think about this? She'd be devastated...And clearly, Katara was uncomfortable. Man, he'd really messed everything up good...And even Jane seemed all flustered - what was up with that, anyway? Probably just defensive about how Toph would feel about this...Agh..Sokka was right: getting tangled up with women led to all kinds of problems.


- Saturday, February 12th, 2011 -

[From: Aang]
[we goin to church tomorrow?]
[Sent: 11:23am]

[Reply]
[To: Aang]
[No. I'm sick. Have a good day.]
[Sent: 11:26am]

Katara groaned to herself as she closed her phone and dropped it onto her bed beside her pillow. Her nose tightened and tickled, eliciting her to frantically grasp for a tissue from her nearby supply so she could sneeze into it.

"Grughhh..." She dropped the tissue in the small trash bin beside her bed, staring up at the ceiling drearily.

Stupid Aang. Making everything complicated. Stupid Jane, being all pushy. Stupid Sokka, not even caring...Stupid Toph, getting all sick and making me sick! Rrrrgh...

"...rRrgHhHaAgHh..."

Speaking of Toph, her snoring had picked up and was practically deafening now. Just great. Katara had lost sleep over Toph's illness-induced snoring and had to wake the girl up a few times to make the noise cease long enough to fall back into slumber.

"Toph," she called with irritation.

Another loud, extended snore.

Katara's fist balled up, she punched at her pillow and she clambered out of bed, sluggishly making her way to Toph's bed. She administered a grumpy shove to her roommate, who was sprawled on her back.

"Zuhfugg...?" groaned Toph before pouring out a foul-smelling yawn.

"You're snoring again," Katara curtly explained.

"ShhhhiiiiIiIiIiIiittTtTt..." Toph slowly rolled onto her stomach as she moaned out the word like molasses. Her stomach gurgled out loudly. "Ullghh..."

"When was the last time you ate?" Katara asked in exhausted words/

"I dunfuggin know..."

"If you don't eat you're not gonna...-" Katara sniffed as she could feel her nose running wet. "-...get better...Guh..." On that note, Katara opened the half-drinken water bottle on her desk and took a few gulps before throwing herself back into bed, face-first into her pillow.

Tok. Tok. Tok.

Both girls could hear the door open up, and Katara rolled over onto her side to confirm that it was, indeed, Jane.

"What is it...?" she asked, her nose stuffy.

"Oh, err...I didn't...know you guys were still sleepin'..." Jane mumbled awkwardly, retreating back to the doorway.

"We're trying to..." Yep. Katara was still pissed at her about yesterday. Expected.

"Oh...'Kay...Sorry..."

After closing their door, Jane shuffled back to her bedroom. Asking Katara out to lunch was clearly not an option. In her empty room, she took a bottle of room temperature Mountain Dew she'd purchased from the snack desk the night prior and opened it up. She took her hormonal medications, washing them down with soda, and checked her phone, considering asking the boys what they were up to.

[From: johnny]
[what did you need?]
[Sent: 11:02am]

Her heart lept with excitement. It had been weeks since she'd heard from her friend, and at this point she was thirsting for some kind of social interaction outside of this group she'd gotten herself entangled in.

[Reply]
[To: johnny]
[hey! just want to catch up. you online? we culd chat?]
[Sent: 11:32am]

She sat in thought for a couple minutes, sipping on her soda as she booted up her computer.

[Calling...]
[johnny]

Oh, he was...calling her? In the blink of an eye, she turned the device on.

"Hello?" she breathed out with her raspy voice.

["...Hey."]

"Hey...What...erm...'Sup?"

["Still on the mend."]

"Yea...Gettin' better?"

["You could say that."]

"...Cool. That's...good."

["What's going on?"]

"Nothin'...I just, uhh...missed you a bit. Ya know?"

["Yea."]

Don't you miss me, too?

"Shit's...kinda whack right now."

["Uh-huh."]

"Uhh...Toph and Aang broke up."

Well, it was some kind of conversation, wasn't it?

["Ah. That's...too bad."]

"Yea..."

["You're holding up?"]

"Pff, yeaaa...I'm fine..."

["Good."]

Jane swallowed a lump in her throat as she wondered if he was struggling with the same mixture of emotions that she was.

"Sooo...Yea. That's been kinda awkward..."

["I believe it."]

"But...uhh...-"

["Mm..."]

"You?"

["Taking it easy..."]

"You're...heh...not in jail, right?"

["No, no..."]

"S-so...that's a good step."

["Yea...I guess so."]

"Uh...Wanna tell me...about how all that went down?"

["Oh, er...Sure..."]


- Sunday, February 13th, 2011 -

Zuko scrutinized the resume in his inbox, still confused by the whole thing. Aang seemed quiet confident in this candidate's ability, but Zuko had his doubts. He checked the time: [3:05pm]. They were late. Not a good sign. He glanced around the empty student office, aware that everyone else was probably taking the afternoon easy. He still had a stack of reading and homework to finish, not to mention some more technical papers that needed his attention. There was already enough he had to worry about without waiting around for-
["...~..."]

His phone went off. He verified the number on his display to match the one on the resume. They matched. He answered the phone.

"Hello?"

["Hey...Is this...uh...Mr. Kurosawa...?"]

"This is he. And this is Miss...-" He stared at the name for a second, bewildered. It sounded so familiar... "-...Kesuk, is it?"

["Yea, that's right."]

"Ah. Good. I've been waiting for you."

["Oh. Sorry, I literally just got in the door, Sir."]

"You can just call me Zuko."

["...Right. Uh...OK, Zuko."]

"So...Korra..." Ah, that was right...This was Katara and Sokka's cousin. That explained the familiar last name. And the distant location of her address. Canada? "I was told that you're interested in the open position we have?"

["Definitely."]

Zuko cleared his throat. "I couldn't help but notice that you're...quite far away from our location. You do realize we're in central Pennsylvania, right?"

["Oh, I know. Got family that goes to school there there."]

"Yea...Katara and Sokka. Correct?"

["Right. You know them?"]

"Yea, a bit...Regardless, you're...willing to relocate?"

["Obviously."]

Hm. Bit of snark, there. Zuko wasn't sure if he liked that or was off-put.

"I see. And...what makes this position worth such a huge move?"

["Uh, well...Keeping college kids in line, small town...nothing I can't handle. I'm ready for serious change of scenery, and being someplace where I can keep my eye on my kin - that's a big plus, eh?"]

"Mm...Well, as long as you're completely aware of what you'd be getting yourself into...Now, I have a few questions I need to ask..."


"Argh, no. Suki..." Sokka shook his head with disapproval. "I really don't think that's such a good idea..."

Suki glared at Sokka with crossed arms and a raised brow of skepticism.

"Oh. And I suppose you have a better one? Since you're Mr. Idea Guy?"

Sokka gaped at her snippiness, unsure of how to reply at first.

"Errr...You could...not get involved...? I'm pretty sure that's the best plan here."

"How can you say that, Sokka? These are our friends. And I'm sorry, but yesterday? That was ridiculous. What's going on with everyone? You seem like you're just trying to check out. And from what I can tell, Toph probably feels like she doesn't have anyone in her corner right now."

"Uh-huh. And...you're thinking that ought to be you?"

"Well..." Suki shrugged, surprised by just how defensive Sokka was being over this. "I don't see you doing anything to help..."

"It's not my business..."

"OK. Fair enough. You know what should be your business? Figuring out what you're going to be doing in a few months..."

"I told you, I'm...working on that."

"You'd better be. Sokka, this is serious stuff. We need to get our act together if we want to not be miserable once we get out of school."

"Right, yea, I know..." Gurgh, he'd heard this already.

"I'm not just going to sit idly by while our friends push themselves apart. I don't feel like there's much I can do, but I do know that I've made connections with some folks downtown - folks who'd be interested in Toph's music. The way Toph talks about it - and the way Katara tells it to me - Toph's music is about the only thing she feels like she has any control over right now. And I want to help her with that. Maybe iron out some of the wrinkles she gets with me."

"All right, I getcha..." Sokka sighed, scratching at his goatee thoughtfully.

Suki smiled weakly at him and placed a comforting hand on his rugged cheek.

"Things are going to fine, Dear. We just need to be assertive." She ran her hand through his hair, which was tied up in a tight, short ponytail toward the top-back of his head. "And you need to shave, and stop wearing your hair in a ponytail," she snickered, untying the band and scratching her hand through the thick, dry hair that fell down.

"It's a Warrior's Wolftail," came a sullen Sokka.

"Of course it is..." teased Suki as she kissed him on the cheek, his prickles feeling funny against her lips. Sokka stretched his arms around her waist as she leaned against him in their corner booth at Appa's, embracing their mouths together.


- Monday, February 14th, 2011 -

["YOU HAVE TWO NEW MESSAGES."]
[~BEEP~]

["Toph, it's your father again. You still aren't picking up your phone. If you aren't going to use it, it's a wonder we ever got it for you to begin with...Your mother and I have been talking, and we-"]
["MESSAGE DELETED. NEXT MESSAGE."]

["Hi, Toph."] Suki? ["Just calling to check in on you. I heard you and Katara are sick? Hope it's not too bad...Anyway, I actually wanted to talk with you about something. I know we've been kind of stalling about playing together as a band, but...I've noticed you still seem hard at work at your own music. Katara showed me your YouTube channel - you've got some nice stuff there. I was thinking maybe I could help you get a small-time show downtown. The Fire Cave is always interested in performers, you know? So...Get back to me. OK?"]
["END OF MESSAGES."]

Toph, sprawled on her back, her phone open on her stomach, yawned a great yawn - it was cut short as she suffered shortness of breath, causing the yawn to mutate into a wheeze. She whimpered at the discomfort. Her fuzzy mind lingered on Suki's offer. Seemed like everyone was turning their backs on her lately - yea, yea, her own fault, blabla bullshit, whatever...So why did Suki want to try and help? What was her angle? Didn't matter right that second, anyway. What mattered was that she needed to take a dump. Which required getting out of bed. Blagh. As she forced her self out of bed, she fumbled her hand over her alarm clock, tapping the familiar button.

["TWELVE TWENTY-FOUR PEE-EMM."]

'Kay. So much for classes today. Fuck...Whatever, she was sick. Psh, like she was learning anything at her classes, anyway...


[Facebook - Korra Kesuk]

[Korra Kesuk is movin to PA, bitchezz!]
[3 hours ago]
[12 people like this.]

[Sokka Kesuk - Wait, say what? O_O ]
[3 hours ago]

[Korra Kesuk - got the job! moving in a couple weeks! you can't escape me MWAHAHAHA!]
[2 hours ago]
[Aang, Sokka, Katara, and 2 others like this.]

[Sokka Kesuk - Holy crap! That's amazing!]
[1 hour ago]

[Katara Kesuk - I'm so happy! That's great! ^_^ ]
[32 minutes ago]

[Facebook - Katara Kesuk]

[Katara Kesuk Dear Life: mind letting up a bit, please? =_= I don't know what you want from me. Regards, Katara.]
[4 hours ago]

[Jane Fitzpatrick - sounds like you need to figure out what YOU want..]
[3 hours ago]
[Mai Chiao likes this.]

[Meng Beifong - HUUUG. hang in there katara. we're all here for ya!]
[2 hours ago]
[Katara Kesuk and Aang Leekpai like this.]

[Facebook - Aang Leekpai]

[Aang Leekpai is such a big stupid idiot! ugghhhh.]
[45 minutes ago]
[Sokka Kesuk and Korra Kesuk like this.]

[Meng Beifong - what happened? :( ]
[41 mintues ago]

[Suki Kyoshi - hey, don't blame yourself just because everyone else is having problems. you didn't do anything wrong.]
[32 minutes ago]
[Meng Beifong and Zuko Kurosawa like this.]

[Zuko Kurosawa - Sounds like you need another round of drinks at the Jasmine Dragon.]
[24 minutes ago]

[Mai Chiao - What my Darling Zuko means is that we're going to be there tonight after 7. You should join us. ;P ]
[11 minutes ago]

[Aang Leekpai - k i'll see you guys there.]
[2 seconds ago]


A/N: The scene at the theater is of course referencing the scene from The Ember Island Players.

[link]<--Previous Chapter
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Yay, complications.

(Thumb from an SRU comic PochiMochi did a while back)

Also, love how on DA here the smilies actually SHOW UP as smilies. That's awesome.
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A/N: With the Legend of Korra finally on air and us meeting new characters and new themes - many of which are actually lining up with stuff I already planned for SRU (go figure) - expect to be seeing more Korra stuff referenced within SRU context, where appropriate. As in the past, I'm obviously taking artistic liberation with characters to suit the purposes of a modern-day setting in which they all can co-exist. With that in mind, some more side-characters will show up that have some kind of role to play in what I have planned.</p>

What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 81 - Bend


- Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011 -

The lobby was desolate and depressingly quiet. The silence was unnerving to Toph as she squirmed in her uncomfortable seat in the corner. Her eyes hung heavy, and she'd nodded off a couple of times now. By this point she had no idea if it was midnight or 3am or...whatever. It was late, though, she could say that much - if she had the gall to cut through the heavy silence that hung over the trio. They hadn't stuck around to see what efforts the fire department had put into trying to salvage the building. From what Sokka had said on their way to the hospital, it was a lost cause, and from all of the sounds and smells she'd experienced - not to mention his dark tone when he'd said it - Toph was sure he was right.

They'd been assured by the doctor that their friends would be fine. The physician had seemed stunned that the injuries seemed relatively minor given the context, and had expressed that everyone involved was extremely lucky to be in the shape they were, coming out of such a situation. Away their friends were whisked, and they'd been waiting ever since. None of them really thought on why they were all waiting until after one of Korra's roommates showed to pick her up and take her home. She had been quite stubborn and refused to stay at the hospital any longer than needed. With a bandage around her head and her arm in a sling, she'd eagerly retreated the facility as soon as she'd had the chance.

+ http:/destiny-smasher(dot)deviantart(dot)com/art/SRU-Sketch-Jane-Smellerbee-Fitzpatrick-287780400 +

Jane was standing now, having spent a good deal of time letting her ass get rather uncomfortable from this damned hard seats. Leaning up against a wall in the pale, desolate lounge, she had drawn her hood up over her head from the chill she was feeling in this cold building. She had been exchanging text messages with Douglas earlier, after they'd first arrived, making sure he was all right. He had no idea of what had transpired, as apparently everything had been fine when he'd left. After Doug had gone off to sleep, Jane had then started swapping messages with Johnny, who had been surprisingly talkative tonight - as talkative as he ever got with texts, anyway.

She was missing him so fucking much tonight. She was practically staring at her phone in anticipation of each reply, because during the down times between texting exchanges...the self-doubt would creep in.

You choked. You did nothing. Weren't you supposed to be the tough one? Katara was in danger, and you just stood there like a fucking bump on a log. Pretty damn sad.
Could've done more. Could've...-

[From: John boy]
[You don't know that. Don't think like that.]
[Sent: 1:06am]

His text tripped her up, bringing her back into that pool of remorse.

Fuck. Shit-ass-fuck-cunt-sucker. The Rhinos. Had to be them, right? Course it was.
Which makes me involved. Makes this part my fault.
Katara got a face full of glass and almost burned to death because of what me and Jet did.
Korra got her head cracked a couple times because of the shit we used to stir with that gang.
Aang got his back fried to hell saving their asses. Shoulda been my back. My head. My face.
This whole fuckin' mess is because of me.

They're all in danger.
Because. Of. Me.

"Sokka...?"

Jane's attention was derailed, much to her relief, by Toph's sleepy groan from the corner of the room.

"Yea, Toph?" Sokka sighed out tiredly, lowering his PSP and rubbing his eyes as he glanced to the chaired immediately to his right. He'd pulled his gaming device out of his car when he realized just how long they were going to be waiting, and it was helping him keep his sleepy mind away from the negative thoughts threatening it.

"What time is it?" Toph wondered, her head hung low, her eyes closed.

"Uhh...-" Sokka checked the device in his hands, accessing up its clock. "A little past one."

"Rrmmm," Toph gurgled out with dissatisfaction, squirming in her seat. She yawned, sliding her drooped head to her left. It plopped onto Sokka's shoulder, and her throat tightened.

Is this OK? I'm tired. I'm pissed. Katara's OK, but Aang had to be so fucking stupid. Better than me, anyway. I'm a useless pile of shit who can't even walk in a straight line by myself. Rrgh.
I'm selfish. All I want right now is to hold Sokka. Be close. Ugh. Damned hormonal bullshit. I should be more concerned about Katara and Aang.
I
am concerned, though. Super worried. Afraid. I'm sure they're fine, but...I'm still scared somehow. Can't stand it. I'm so useless! Grr.
Focusing on Meat-Head here makes all that...go away.

"Sleepy?" Sokka muttered to her, letting any discomfort from Toph's physical proximity slide from his conscience.

"Mmmfh," was Toph's grunt of a response.

Observing the oddly vulnerable look on Toph's face, Jane was left baffled. Toph had been acting kind of weird tonight, being clingy to Sokka. Why? Sokka was all insensitive and uncaring with offering comfort and shit. Meh. Whatever. Jane would've figured that Toph would be more interested in her and not Food-For-Brains, but...whatever.

His shoulder now burdened with an undesired weight, Sokka bent his head down to look back at his device's screen. Guilt snuck up on him as he tried to focus on the game.

Your family was in danger, and you stood on the sidelines. Coward. You make fun of Aang for not being manly...but when the time came, he was the real man. You were a child.
No, no. Running into a burning building is stupid and foolish. Aang is lucky.
He was also brave. And what about your sister? Since she was pulled out you've avoided her.
It's too hard to see her like that, she had blood all over her face, and...-
But playing your video games here, that's just fine.
I took everyone here, to the hospital. Everything is going to be fine.
If Aang hadn't been there, Katara and Korra would both be dead.

Sokka noticed the doctor that was looking after their was comrades approaching. She was a quaint enough looking lady with her brown hair tied back in a bun, but all night she'd had a very stressed demeanor to her. On her way toward the students waiting in the lounge, she was stopped by the stout woman working at the desk.

"Pema?"

The short, exhausted doctor slowed to a stop, a thickly stacked clipboard tucked in her arm.

"Yes?" she sighed out, running her hand along her temple.

"Your husband left a message for you - he just wanted you to know that he's been delayed by a day or two, but that he still expects to be here this weekend for Jinora's birthday."

The doctor's jaw seemed to slide with restrained irritation.

"Called the office instead of my personal cell. Hmph. Somehow that doesn't surprise me," Pema sighed with a shake of her head, carrying on and letting her disappointment fade into the background of her mind.

"Doc?" Sokka stood up, much to Toph's dismay - she squeaked with shock, catching herself from falling as Sokka walked right to the doctor. "Are they all right?" he pressed before she'd even reached them. She nodded tiredly, adjusting her thin-rimmed glasses before taking another look at her documents.

"Surprisingly, yes," she brushed off his concern. "Your sister's forehead has been stitched up and should be fine soon enough. The other one, his back was burned pretty bad. It's going to scar, but he's going to be quite all right."

Sokka puffed out air with relief. In all of the commotion of getting them to the hospital and the blood he'd seen on them, he'd sworn it had been worse. Thank goodness he'd been wrong.

"Can I...see them?" he wondered, running his hand over his head.

Pema paused with some disgruntled exhaustion that she contained as best she could.

"It's...really quite late, and they both need their rest." When she saw his flicker of hope wither, she explained, "The two of them are passed out, they're dead tired. It'd be best to come see them in the morning."

Sokka nodded, running his hand along his scruffy jaw.

"Yea, OK," he conceded, recalling that Hakoda would be around by then, anyway.

"You all should get some sleep, as well," Pema advised. "They're in good hands, I promise. They'll be here waiting for you in the morning."

Sokka nodded to the physician and turned to his friends. Toph was slumped in her chair, eyes half open as she rubbed at her nose with her wrist. Jane tucked her cell phone into her hoodie's pocket, both hands wedged inside as she shrugged to him.

"We can come back tomorrow," Sokka explained with a heavy breath. He lazily pulled Toph up to her feet, catching her as she wobbled about. "I'll call you guys in the morning as soon as visiting hours are open."

"Yea," Jane mumbled with an agreeable nod.

"Mmkay," was Toph's barely audible answer. As Sokka tugged her along, she grasped her arms around his. His arm was comforting and secure, though her attachment was causing the opposite reaction from Sokka, who opted to ignore his discomfort for his friend's sake. She was shaken up by this whole situation, no doubt. They all were.

Not another word was spoken between the trio on the ride back to campus, aside from an exhausted set of 'Good night' grumbles.

Maybe things would look better in the morning.


Iroh sighed with grief, shaking his head to himself as he sipped at his morning coffee. Just that fact alone had Mai concerned - that Uncle Iroh was drinking coffee instead of tea. Iroh practically never drank coffee, except when he was stressed. The news this morning was...deeply stressing.

"Why didn't you call me?" Zuko grunted in frustration.

"Because it was...one in the morning and I thought you'd be asleep," Mai defended with a sharp shrug, hoping to get him off her back.

The fact was, she herself had been half-asleep at the time, exhausted from editing her work for a project due the next morning. She'd finished it, thankfully, but toward the tail end of it, Ty-Lee had started freaking out, citing that Sokka had just texted her about the entire ordeal that had transpired down town.

"You could've tried!" insisted Zuko, wiping his palm over his greased back hair. Mai felt stung by the way his amber eyes pierced through hers. She rubbed sand from her eyelids as a ploy to avoid his gaze.

"I'm...sorry," she muttered, doing her best to strip any spiteful tone from her voice. "It was late, and...I just figured it wouldn't do you any good to lose sleep over it."

"People were almost killed and you're worried abou-?"
Zuko's building rage was cut off by Iroh's solid hand clamping down upon him. Mai was grateful for the elderly man's presence.

The trio was huddled on a couch near the front end of the Avatar Campus Center, watching the morning news on the large, public flat screen TV propped up on the wall, as they sometimes did in the morning. Iroh had been tipped off by President Bumi not long after waking about the situation, which had led to arranging this particular plan for the morning - watching the news report on it and trying to stay calm.

"Zuko." Iroh waited for his nephew to drop his tense stance and relax in his seat before letting go. "There was nothing you could have done last night. Better that you are well-rested to deal with this situation."

"Hmph..." Zuko didn't like that answer, but at least he was conceding to some reasoning - a trait Zuko didn't always have when he got this worked up. His passion would get the better of him now and again - that same burning ambition and idealism that had worked its way into Mai's heart and pulled her out of her cocoon of indifference; however, it would, in increasingly rare circumstances, burn too hot, forcing her to retreat.

With Zuko apparently pacified for the moment, the lot of them were able to focus on the press conference being played. A stern woman in a gray police uniform stood at attention with hands folded behind her back. Wavy, pale hair matching her uniform's color, her rigid face accented by a sharp jawline and decisively icy eyes of green. She spoke into a collection of microphones, her voice firm, steady, even unpleasant.

["-received an eyewitness account by one of the battery victims - the manager of the establishment. She confirmed that this was, in fact, an attack, and the evidence we've dug up so far does suggest that it could be linked to the...-"] Her expression wrinkled ever-so-briefly with disdain. ["-...'Combustion Man,' as the media has taken to calling this menace."]

Cameras flashed, some commotion stirred, and then reporters began piping up.

["Chief Jia, with the Combustion Man loose in Wayward, what is your plan for keeping the citizens safe?"]

["I did not say that this incident was connected with that case, but I will not deny the possibility. We are looking into it. Wayward is not a bustling metropolis by any means,"] she pointed out with a hint of resentment, ["so if the culprit sticks around, we're sure to find him sooner rather than later."]

["Are there any leads? Any suspects?"]

["At this time, we have no clear suspects, but yes, we do have leads that we are already investigating. We'll be interviewing the victims of last night's incident thoroughly, I can assure you. If this is indeed a 'Combustion' case, then these may be the first survivors to have seen his face."]

["Chief, you said this was an 'attack'. Do you interpret this as an act of hostility against the college?"]

["We have no reason to believe it is. If this is another 'Combustion' case, such a notion is highly unlikely, given the widespread and varied backgrounds of the victims and locations observed thus far."]

["So the Combustion Man is still out there."]

["Again, we cannot confirm or deny if this is directly related to the recent fires occurring across the state, but-"]
"Why are we sitting here doing nothing?" Zuko burst out, his hand tightening around his coffee cup. Mai noticed this slight gesture and drew in a quick breath through her nose while Zuko fizzled out air through his own.

"Zuko, it's OK," Mai tried to assure him, carefully plucking the still-hot liquid from his grasp and setting it on the table before them - it was a coffee table, after all. "Like Iroh said, there's nothing you could've-"
"I told you this would happen!" Zuko snapped, ignoring Mai's efforts and directing his rage at the old man. "This is on our hands! We need to go downtown right now, and tell Lin what we know about this."

"Uhh...Lin?" Mai poked in, hunching over in an attempt to redirect Zuko's rage. She'd rather he took it out on her instead of poor Uncle. She could barricade herself to his rage - it was part of her job, really, right? But Iroh was such a soft soul, she hated to see this. "Who's 'Lin?'" she wondered.

"Lin Jia," Zuko sighed, as if Mai were some child he was having to explain old-news to. "Her, the Chief of Police," he grumbled dismissively, tossing his arm up to the television screen and the embittered officer still answered questions.

"You know her?" Mai did a double-take.
Why would Zuko know someone like that?

"N-no," he quickly explained. "I don't know her..."

"But I do," said Iroh tiredly, taking a long sip from his drink with a sniff. He scratched his wrinkled nose as he set his cup beside Zuko's. "However, I am not sure that would be such a good idea, Zuko..."

"Why not?" Zuko snapped. His eyes flashed with rage before he sucked in a deep breath and exhaled, rolling his head back onto the couch's spine. "Why not?" he repeated with a hushed tone. "If we don't say something and soon, who's to say it won't happen again?"

Mai's stomach was churning with doubt and fear. She had theorized that all of the hush-hush concerning the Kurosawa family had been something bad, but...some kind of serial killer? That couldn't be connected to Zuko. Her Zuko. He was hers, she knew him. He would never get himself involved in something this...this-...Ugh. He just wouldn't, that was the entire reason he was here at the school, to escape getting pulled into this kind of thing.

"Zuko, you need to calm down," came Iroh's words, like a brick dropped into his nephew's lap. "We should...-" Iroh's eyes wandered to Mai, who was still hunched over, her eyes trembling with doubt and confusion. "-...discuss this matter in private."

"No." The word came out calmly, without any hesitation.

The startled faces of Zuko and Iroh stared at Mai's icy resolve in a tense moment as her lips tightened.

"Zuko," Mai sighed, slipping her lanky fingers through his weathered palm. "I understand that your family has its skeletons hiding in...practically every closet in Los Angeles, but I'm getting really tired of ignoring them. Now, there's...some kind of pyromaniac murdering people across the state, and it's sounding a lot like you two know what this is about."

Zuko's jaw slid uncomfortably to the side, and he cast a hesitant gaze to Iroh, who snorted air dubiously.

"Kind of," Zuko confessed sheepishly, his face twisted with worry. Mai continued.

"Fine. 'Kind of' enough to feel the need to be speaking with the authorities?" she spat out rhetorically. She shrugged and bit her lip expectantly. "Does this kind of have to do with why your mother moved from LA to Connecticut when you were in high school?"

"N-no, this is-...That was different," Zuko shakily insisted with a flick of his head. Mai watched him swallow hard, and she couldn't quite determine if he was lying or honest - meaning it was some kind of area gray enough where it might as well be black.

When they'd met at the tail end of high school, Mai hadn't thought much of it when Zuko had told her that his parents had divorced. He'd said that life in California had been rough on them all, and that his mother wanted to move back to Connecticut, where she had been raised. While Mai couldn't deny that she was eternally grateful for this move - she never would've met Zuko otherwise - the more she had garnered from passing conversations of Dear Old Daddy Kurosawa, the more she had begun to question the actual cause of the divorce. It had sounded less than pleasant.

When Ursa - Zuko and Azula's firm but nurturing mother - disappeared halfway through their college careers, it had caused quite a divide between Zuko and his sister, who had always been on less-than-stellar terms, anyway. The event practically tore them apart, as Azula had seen it as a time to return to Los Angeles, help their father cope with the loss, prepare to take the reigns of Kurosawa Industries...and Zuko let her talk him into this for a summer, in which he swiftly realized he was disinterested in associating with his father's company.

That summer had been rough and Mai and Zuko's relationship. They'd been a country apart, their long-distance talks always stressful and uncomfortable. Mai always knew that Zuko was burdened with some heavy knowledge, but...some kind of assassin, or...whatever this guy was? That had never been something she'd considered her Zuko to be connected with. For nearly two years, she'd been casting a blind eye to this familial conflict, telling herself that Zuko was leaving it behind, keeping it at bay, and now...this. People she knew, personally, had gotten hurt because of this. It was the last straw for her.

"Of course," Mai pushed through Zuko's wall with dry, bitter sarcasm. "Your mother being kidnapped and murdered is totally unrelated to this serial killer you somehow kind of know something about."

While Ursa's fate had never been officially discovered or documented her ex-husband, Ozai Kurosawa, had been imprisoned the prior autumn under allegations of fraud and violent activities. Zuko had already assumed that Ursa's disappearance was Ozai's fault, so his arrest only served as nails on the coffin. Ozai was dead to him, and he couldn't comprehend Azula's lingering sympathies for the man.

"Mai," Iroh pleaded with concern. "I can appreciate your suspicion, and I assure you that my nephew and I will explain this, but...-" he jerked his head over the back of the couch, to the slow trickle of early morning students heading upstairs for breakfast. "-...this is not the right place for such a discussion."

Mai, her eyes quivering on the verge of tears whose source she couldn't comprehend, clasped her palm over her mouth and hung her head down. She contained her jerk reaction to this ineffective conversation as best she could. She accepted that there had to be a rational explanation, and that this was an inappropriate time and place to talk about it. In an instant, she repressed these fears with the swiftness granted from years of doing so. She'd hidden every emotion under the sun during her upbringing, so this was practically instinctual. Logic insisted that everything would be OK.

"All right," she agreed with a slight nod. "But promise me - Zuko, promise-" Her fingers still locked over his, she squeezed. "-that you're not going to leave this hanging."

Zuko swallowed again, that big lumpy gulp Mai recognized, and he nodded.

"Of course. This week," came his hasty assurance. "Before the weekend's over. I promise. You, me, Iroh...we'll all talk this out." Zuko leaned over, his hand reaching around Mai's back, and pulled her into a kiss.

"OK," Mai acknowledged with some relief.

"I love you."

"I love you, too, Zuko. And I'm worried."

"I know. It's not what it looks like, I swear."

Zuko's amber eyes stared at Mai's with hope and vulnerability, and she smiled weakly, scratching her fingers through his neatly combed hair. Her smile widened as she watched him fuss as he always did, flattening his hair back in order.

"I believe you," she told him quietly, as Iroh pushed himself up from the couch with his elder groan.

She had to believe Zuko. They had to be telling the truth, that there was an explanation. Nothing else was acceptable.


["So are we just making ourselves dinner again tonight, or...-?"]

"I should be home by supper time, Jinora," Pema replied to her daughter. "I'll make something when I get there. But there's some leftover casserole in the fridge if you guys get peckish before then."

["Yea, all right..."] The girl on the other line sounded dissatisfied. With how the week was going, Pema wasn't surprised.

"And your father says he should be showing up tomorrow," she pointed out.

["Mm...That's what he said yesterday. And the day before that..."]

"Yea...I know, Dear. I'm sorry. But he'll be here for your birthday this weekend."

["Mm..."]

"Uh, speaking of...I...got those books you asked for."

["Huh?"]

"For your birthday present."

["Oh."] A layer of confusion underneath Jinora's intrigued tone.

"They're, umm...tucked away in my closet - they're wrapped, should be easy to spot. You can open them today, if you want."

["Y-yea...OK, but...how come you're letting me open my present early?"]

"You're...almost sixteen, dear. And you've been really helping out lately, so...I just thought it'd be nice to treat you a bit early, I suppose."

["Mm-hm. OK. Well...thanks, Mom."] Some warmth and gratitude. It was becoming increasingly hard for Pema to extract that from her daughter, but she savored it every time.

"Just make sure your brother stays out of the fridge today, I can't-"
[Brrrrrinnnng!]
["Oh, um...That's the bell, I should get to class now."]

"All right, Dear. I love you. Have a good day."

["Love you, too."]

Pema tucked her phone away, exiting her minivan and heading into the hospital. Within minutes, she was on the hospital floor, ready to get to work. She was quickly directed to her patients from the night before, and their room was full of guests - the three college kids from the night before. She was greeted by a middle-aged man with rough, dark hair and weary eyes. She could guess who he was immediately by his facial structure and skin tone, and she reached out her hand to him.

"Ah, you must be...-" She double-checked her clipboard with her other hand. "-...Mister 'Keh-suck?'"

The man laughed through his nose and shook her hand with his wrinkled, stony fingers.

"It's 'Kay-sook,' actually, but yes. I'm Katara's father."

"Nice to meet you, Sir," Pema clearly recited her routine. "I'm Dr. Rabten."

Hakoda was a bit surprised. The woman looked distinctly Caucasian for having such an eastern-sounding last name. Then again, he'd noticed that a lot of this town, especially the college itself, seemed to be very eastern in its background. Kind of peculiar for some place in the middle of Pennsylvania, when he thought on it. In either case, the woman was quite likely married to someone from the area with a name like that. She was probably just as intrigued by his uncommon nationality as he was by her name, anyway.

"Thank you for looking after these two." Hakoda glanced through the open doorway to the awkwardly quiet red-head standing in his line of sight. She glanced up at him curiously. "I understand you stayed late to make sure everything was OK. I'm surprised you're here so early."

Pema shrugged with humility, shaking her head slightly.

"It's part of the job," she gently dismissed the praise. "I'm just relieved the injuries weren't as severe as they seemed at first."

"Would you mind running me through the details?"

"Of course." Pema lifted her clipboard up before elaborating on the situation.

"What's goin' on out there?" asked Sokka, calling Jane's attention away from the discussion just outside.

"Huh?" Jane twisted her head back to her friend, who was sitting in a chair inbetween Aang and Katara's hospital beds. "Oh, erm...The Doc's talkin' with your dad."

"That's really sweet of your old man," Toph pointed out from another chair by the window, beside Aang. "Coming all this way so fast? He's pretty awesome."

"Yea," Katara hoarsely groaned out, her face groggy. She had stitches tying together skin at the top left of her forehead, around her hairline. "Our dad is...really good like that..."

Sokka smiled and reached his hand up to Katara's side, squeezing her hand tenderly, taking care not to unalign the tube connected to her arm.

"He sure is," he agreed.

Katara sighed audibly with some relief as she lay on her back, eyes unfocused on the ceiling. She turned her head to the right to look over at Aang, but she couldn't get a look at him from her current angle.

"Is he-...? Is Aang...still OK?" she mumbled out sleepily.

"Mmfgh?" was the sound that escaped Aang's mouth. Jane, standing at the foot of his bed, watched Aang's eyebrows lift with curiosity, his eyes closed. He seemed pretty exhausted - no surprise. Aang wasn't wearing a shirt, bandages wrapped around his abdomen, his blanket pulled down to his waist to allow space for his body.

"He's fine, Kat," Jane assured her with a weak smile, trying to keep her raspy voice pleasant but her eyes locked on Aang. It was somehow easier to see Aang in this condition than it was Katara. Maybe because Aang had known what he was getting himself into, or...maybe because she didn't feel the same way about him...? Either way, it was just...easier. Besides, Sokka was giving Katara his attention.

"That's good," Katara breathed out, nodding to herself.

Hakoda walked inside, his hands in his jean pockets. He slowly worked his way to the left side of Katara's bed and leaned down, planting a kiss on her cheek.

"How's my girl doing?" he asked calmly, his eyes holding back tears. While it was difficult for Jane to see Katara with a wounded head in a hospital bed, the discomfort didn't compare to Hakoda's. It was a two-fold kind of pain: seeing his daughter in this situation, but the sight of her also fixating his mind on his wife the night she passed, years ago.

"Mm fine," Katara hummed, relaxed at the warmth of her father's hand against her cheek. She reached up and grasped at his palm.

Jane felt jealousy stirring in her insides as she witnessed this - Katara clasping her brother and father's hands both at once. She would never be able to have that. She squashed this envy, berating her own selfishness internally before casting her eye to Toph, who looked a bit bored and disinterested, herself. With her hands tucked in her back pockets awkwardly, Jane shuffled over to Toph, and leaned against the windowsill at her side.

"They're taking good care of you?" Hakoda asked Katara softly.

She smiled sleepily and nodded.

"Mmm..."

"You're comfortable? You're not in any pain, are you? Is there anything I can get you?"

Katara giggled weakly, her eyes half closed.

"Mm fine, Daddy. It's good. Mm OK..."

Hakoda face flashed with some mild embarrassment intertwined around relief.

"This'll be quite the entry for that journal, won't it?"

Katara's face quivered with some shame and she whimpered slightly.

"Nooo," came her gentle groan. "The...Dad, it was-...The journal got burned..."

"Oh..." Hakoda's lips curved down a smidgen. "That's too bad," he said simply.

Katara puffed out a sob, eyes squinted shut.

"I lost it...I lost it...It's gone..."

Sokka and Hakoda exchanged sympathetic smirks, both amused by her reaction in the way one might be over a child crying over spilled milk.

"It's OK, Sis," Sokka insisted, rubbing his thumb over her wrist.

"We can replace that book," Hakoda agreed, bending his head over to look her straight in the eyes. "But you can't be replaced."

Katara nodded, water build up at the bases of her eyes. She pulled her hand from her father's briefly in order to wipe the dampness onto her sleeve in a sluggish manner before accepting his grip again.

"Sooooo...How's your back?" Toph muttered to Aang.

"Yea, man, is-...H-how bad is it?" Jane asked, recalling how nasty it had looked the night prior.

"They said it...something..." said Aang with a yawn. "Meh. 'S gonna scar or-...No. Yea, that was it."

"Ah," Jane replied, eyes wide at his relaxation about the topic.

"Damn," Toph mumbled. "Well, if it makes ya feel any better...You still look fine to me."

"Heh..." Aang lifted his eyelids enough to observe Toph's grin staring blankly through the air over him, and Jane's slightly entertained smirk.

Hakoda's presence had moved around the room and he now stood over Aang.

"You know, Aang, the police and staff here are speaking pretty highly of what you did last night."

"Oh..." Aang shrugged sheepishly. "That's...That's cool, I guess."

"Fucking bad-ass, is what it is," Jane encouraged.

"The doctor told me that there's some people that have been trying to speak with you two," Hakoda explained. "Some press, the police...But she hasn't let them because, well...She wants to know if you two are OK with that."

"I don't...really want to do that," Aang winced, a bit guilty at even turning down the prospect.

"No, I...I don't, either," Katara agreed. "We didn't-...Aang didn't even see anything, but...-"
"Ha, anything but...fire," Aang chuckled to himself, his eyes opening as he spoke, but sliding back closed when he was done.
"Hee. Right, exactly. And...Korra got a better look at the man that...attacked us." Katara swallowed the built saliva in her throat. "She already said last night she'd talk with people..."

"Mm," Hakoda nodded. "Yes, your cousin seemed all too eager to talk to people on her way out, from what I heard. Hm. Anyway, that's fine. I understand your situation, and as much as I want to see whoever did this be brought to justice, I think Korra's help is enough. And I don't want to make you uncomfortable. Either of you."

Aang laughed through his nose and pushed his eyes open when Hakoda's solid palm grasped around his bicep.

"By the way, I haven't given you a proper 'thank you' yet. Brave, foolish...I don't care what anyone calls it. You saved my daughter, and my niece. That's all that matters to me. As far as I'm concerned, you're already a part of this family." He let go and gave a solid but easy pat before withdrawing his hand. "Don't forget that. I know I sure won't forget what you've done for us. So...thank you."

Aang, his face bashfully flushed, bobbed his head down in acknowledgment.

"Yea, you were...fuckin' incredible," Jane added, in awe as she recalled his exit from the flames.

"You were the man, Twinkle-Toes. Just...like...don't ever do anything that crazy ever never ever again."

"I'm gonna...thank you with sooooo...many kisses," Katara announced, rubbing her eyes. "Once they let me outta this bed."

"Yea, just give me enough time to leave the room before ya do that," Sokka chuckled, getting up and looking over Aang's head beside his father, whom he slapped on the back. "Seriously, Aang, like...I don't even...-" Sokka tossed his arms. "I'm not allowed to ever question your macho-ness, like...ever. I hereby grant you permission to hold me to that."

"Do we get to hit you anytime you do?" Toph gleefully threw out a rule.

"Err...Aang does," Sokka replied with a sneaky glare at the girl, who looked all too eager.

"Aw," Toph pouted with a small frown.

"But...No, for real," Sokka insisted more solemnly. "What you did was...awesome. You saved my sister."

"And your cousin," Hakoda added.

"Pff, don't remind me," Sokka joked, nudging Hakoda with his elbow. "Thanks, Aang. I'm in your debt, Brother." He stuck out his enclosed hand for a fist bump, which Aang lazily reciprocated. Sokka noogied Aang's head with the edges of his knuckles. During this gesture, there was a loud gurgling that erupted from the center of the room.

"What the hell was that?" Toph asked, surprised.

"Oh..." Hakoda rubbed his abdomen. "That was me," he explained.

"Sounds like we have a problem, and bacon is the solution," Sokka proclaimed.

"Haha! You may be right," admitted Hakoda. "Katara, Aang...Do you mind if I take these guys out for breakfast? Give you both some time to rest?"

"Shhhuuurrre."
"Mmm."

"All right, then. Let's head out."

"Ohhhh, Sokka, wait," Aang called out, before anyone had time to stir. "Can you, uhh-...Could you stop by the dorm and...get my DS?"

"Eh?" Sokka did a double take.

"My DS," Aang repeated. "With Mario Kart?"

"Ohhhh," Sokka nodded. "Yea, sure thing, Bud. I can bet it gets boring in here."

"Heh..." Aang shrugged.

"That-...Yea, that reminds me. Jane?"

As the group began to shuffle across the room, Jane gripping Toph's hand for guidance, they paused at the foot of Katara's bed.

"What's up?" Jane eagerly asked, happy to help.

"Would you mind...bringing me a book? Maybe two?"

"No problem. Which, uhh...ones?"

"Anything," Katara answered with a smile. "Anything from the shelf over my...-" She swallowed drearily. "-...over the desk. Just not a textbook. Hee. Obviously..."

"Ha. Obviously," Jane grinned, her heart warm at the moment in which they both smiled at each other from this exchange. It was replaced by guilt as Katara coughed before releasing a shaky sigh.

The Kesuk men headed out of the room.

"We'll be back soon!"
"See you in a bit, guys!"

"Umm...Can...Can I do anything for you guys?" Toph wondered, scratching her earlobe.

"Mm-mm," Aang peacefully shook his head.

"I think we're OK, Toph."

"Right. 'Kay." Toph felt her arm tugged forward, slightly unnaturally, by Jane's seeming eagerness to leave. "Whhhheee'll catch ya guys later, then!" Toph called out as she was whisked away.

"Byeeeee."
"Later..."


- Thursday, March 24th, 2011 -

["May-May fone."]
["Haha, no, Thomas, that's the computer."]
["Ffffone talk. Hiiiii May-May! Hiiii!"]

"Heheh..." Mai chuckled at her young sibling's efforts to wave at the screen, his eyesight off due to his lack of understanding that the camera was up above the screen. "Hi, Tom-Tom!" She looked directly at her own camera and waved brightly, widening her eyes in a manner unnatural for her.

Her brother gasped and giggled, batting himself in the face with amusement.

["May-May! Silly! Silly!"]

Mai stuck her tongue out sideways and curved her eyeballs up with wrists wrenched up like a zombie. Another toddler snicker storm ensued.

["May-May!"]
"Tom-Tom!"

["All right, Buddy, you can talk with your sister in a minute. Mommy and Mai were still talking."]

["'Kayyyy..."]

Mai watched her sibling scamper off screen and start making monkey noises.

"Errr...Wow," she muttered dryly. "Sounds like he's a real handful today."

["Every day,"] her mother sighed. ["Now, then. Where were we?"]

"Oh, erm...-" Mai's inside squirmed and she held back a grimace - once again, that practice keeping expressions in check was to her benefit. "It was just, you know...the stuff with the restaurant burning down, and...-" Mai shrugged. She had originally intended to mention Zuko and Iroh's suspicious reactions, but...here in the moment, she was opting against that.

["Goodness, that's right,"] her mother interjected her concern. ["That friend of yours, you said he was sent to the hospital?"]

"Yea..." More upset stomach - Mai hadn't taken the time to go visit Aang and Katara yet. Should she? Or not...? Would it be awkward or...-?

["Is he all right?"]

"Oh, it was-...Yea, him and his girlfriend, they made it out OK, but...-"
["Certainly not OK OK, or else they wouldn't be in the hospital."]

"Uhh...Yea, that's true. I mean, the doctor says they'll be just fine, nothing serious."

["Gracious. That's a relief. That boy's such a sweet lad, it'd be a shame for anything to happen to him."]

Mai smiled sheepishly and shrugged. Her mother always seemed to feel so very involved despite her lack of knowledge on things. But it sure beat her father's stern, no-nonsense attitude. Mai's mother used to take on a similar tone, but once Mai had left for college and her mother had birthed another child, the stern attitude had seemed to melt away. Mai was a bit envious of Tom-Tom in that way: like he would get to grow up with Mom 2.0. Maybe he'd be a happier kid than she had been...

["And Zuko? How's that poor young man doing in all of this?"] Her mom knew full well of Zuko's dedication and involvement in the situation.

"Oh, he...isn't doing so well," Mai confessed. "But...he's got me around," she declared calmly with a dedicated nod. "We'll get by."

["You two always seem to."]

"Yea," she agreed. A rare spark of bright warmth flickered over her face as she thought on her history with Zuko, and all of the hardships they'd worked through together.

"Hey, Mai?" Ty-Lee's voice intruded from behind. "Oh, ehhh...Sorry to interrupt," she said quickly and with a peppy shrug. "Just heading down to the snack desk. You want me to get you anything?"

"Hm. Um...H-hold up a sec, Mom."

["You're fine, Mai!"]
["Eeeeek. Eeeek. Ook-ook-raawwwwrrr."]
["That's not a monkey sound, Tom-Tom."]

Mai fished for a couple single dollar bills from her duct-tape wallet and passed them to her roommate.

"Would you mind picking me up-?"
"An apple juice and a Mars Bar, right?"

"Heh..." Mai stared up at Ty-Lee's seemingly air-headed smile with some surprise.

"How'd you guess?" Mai didn't always get the same thing when they snacks at the desk.

"Because, silly goof, you're stressed," Ty-Lee stated with ease. "You always get apple juice at mealtimes when you have bad days, and you always get Mars Bars for snacks after you've had a fight with Zuko."

That gradually turning knot in Mai's insides was rotated a full 360 degrees, her eyes snapping open wide with embarrassment as her lips hung slightly open. She hadn't told Ty-Lee about her little spat with Zuko earlier that day, as he hadn't been answering his phone or spending any time with her since the morning before when they'd watched the newscast and had breakfast together. How did Ty-Lee know about that?

"Me and Zuko didn't have a fight, though," Mai lied through her teeth to Ty-Lee with a simple shrug. Ty-Lee raised an eyebrow at her roommate, glanced at the computer on her desk, and nodded simply. In that exchange, it was communicated without a word that Ty-Lee's suspicion of an argument was confirmed, and Mai's desire to keep this unknown to her mother was understood.

"Oh," Ty innocently spoke out. "Sorry, I just assumed, from...-"

"No, it's fine. Here." Mai stuck out her handful of money, and Ty-Lee accepted it.

"'Kay. Be back in a jiffy."

"Yea, all right." Mai took a deep, stiff breath as her friend left.

["What was that about?"]

"Just...Ty-Lee being...her, heh." Mai shook her head and flicked her fingers. "You know how she can get kind of weird some times. Zuko and I haven't been talking like usual - he's so busy doing damage control with this whole mess, you know? - and she probably just figured it was because we were fighting, but...we're fine."

["Oh, good. Well, at least she does seem to know what's up some times."]

"Wait...Huh?"

["The way she knew about your eating habits."]

"Uh...Oh."

["I remember when you were all in high school and they'd come to visit she'd always remind me when I'd go to make dinner what kinds of food Azula was allergic to, or...-"] She shrugged. ["Just lots of little silly things like that."]

"Mm." Mai shrugged. "Yea, she...sure is odd like that."

["Ook ook ook. May-May I monssirrr RARRR!"] Mai's brother had invaded the camera space, flashing a snotty nose close to the screen with angry eyes and a mouth still sticky with peanut peanut butter.

Mai spit a laugh through her teeth, covering her face with her hand.

["Nooo!"] Tom-Tom growled with irritation. ["Monssirr, May-May! Skehwee! MONSSIIRR!"]

"Oh, er, oh, no! Watch out, Mommy! It's a monster!"

Down the hall, Ty-Lee was flicking through her smartphone.

[From: Godzula]
[I just don't understand why he insists on blaming me. I've told him in as many ways as I can fathom possible that this had nothing to do with me. He is utterly infuriating.]
[Sent: 8:24pm]

Ty-Lee still wasn't aware of the details concerning what Azula was talking about. Azula had been venting today, but...very indirectly, avoiding any actual explanations. Ty-Lee had figured out from Mai that Zuko was upset over the UR and that he somehow felt Azula was connected - the specifics, however, were still shrouded, which was really concerning. Ty-Lee's imagination wanted to run rampant with crazy conspiracy theories.

[Reply]
[To: Godzula]
[gosh zula that stinx. :( sorry. hughughug. zukos really tired n scared u no? this stuff w/UR must be makin him freak out. omg it freaks ME OUT too! but i believe u.]
[Sent: 8:25pm]

When she approached the snack desk, she noticed it was oddly devoid of its cashier. Figured that they were on a restroom break, Ty-Lee continued to exchange texts.

[From: Godzula]
[At least someone can see how reasonable I'm being here. I'm investigating this on my end and keeping things from getting too out of hand. What more does he expect from me? Nothing is good enough for him. Like mother, like son.]
[Sent: 8:26pm]

Grrrr, what are you investigating, Azula? What's going on? You never tell me what's really going on, like I'm some stupid baby.

[Reply]
[To: Godzula]
[ya but..like no offense zula but nothings ever good enuugh for u either. must run in ur family. just saying.]
[Sent: 8:26]

[From: Godzula]
[I suppose you're right, Tylee. Perhaps it'd be prudent to try and show him my perspective on this.]
[Sent: 8:27]

[Reply]
[To: Godzula]
[no um. zula. i think its bettr to just leave him alone 4 now he is rlly grouchy lately.]
[Sent: 8:27pm]

[From: Godzula]
[Really? This has him THAT bent out of shape? How pathetic. How typical. Always dissenting over that which he can't control. Perhaps if he was here doing his family duty like I am we wouldn't be in this mess.]
[Sent: 8:27pm]

What mess? What are you talking about? You never explain things to me!

Ty-Lee sighed at her phone, groaning "Azulaaaa," to herself in frustration. She scratched her head with contemplation as the student employee at the main lobby desk of the dorm showed up, apologizing for her brief absence. After purchasing her snacks, Ty-Lee continued the conversation, lingering in the empty lounge area for a few minutes. She tried to think of what to say. Azula had been telling her about the situation, but not really the details. It seemed like whatever it was, it was likely just some kind of misunderstanding between the two. That kind of thing had been an issue in the past.

[Reply]
[To: Godzula]
[i dunno zula. from wut you told me sounds liek its not your fault or his. no blaming. blaming = bad. bad bad. i no. u should go out for nce. trt urself nice. go to a club. bet w/ur $$ its easy peasy to find some hot guys. lololol. but srsly im here for ya. anything i can do?]
[Sent: 8:29pm]

[From: Smexy sokka]
[Thanks for asking! It went OK. They're doing a lot better today. Doc says they should be out really soon. Maybe even tomorrow. You should come with us when they get out! We could all go out and relax together!]
[Sent: 8:30pm]

Ty-Lee grinned wide at her phone, running her hand across her cheek bashfully as she pondered how to reply. The last time Sokka had used that phrase with her - 'relax together' - it had lead to a pleasantly flirtastic evening on St. Patty's Day, full of drinking and hips touching and playful pushes and-...mweheheh.

[From: Godzula]
[Oh, please, Tylee. You know that nonsense sickens me. No, there's nothing you can do right now. It's all a futile effort when it comes to my brother.]
[Sent: 8:32pm]

Ugh, but Azula had to be such a stick in the mud. Why couldn't she lighten up a little? For being so apparently smart she could be totally clueless some times.

[Reply]
[To: Godzula]
[kk. i can always listen or talk if u need to talk. i dunno all what goes on but u can trust me. srsly tho u should just chill tonite.]
[Sent: 8:33pm]

[Reply]
[To: Smexy sokka]
[thats like SO AWESOME that their ok. srsly. i was worried. thx for lettin me no! and YES YES YES we tly shuld get togethr! gimme deets man!]
[Sent: 8:33pm]

If Mai and Zuko were going to have their weirdness and Azula was going to keep her at a distance than she'd just find attention elsewhere.

[From: Godzula]
[Very well. You're right, I should relax. I'll simply retire to my study for the evening. Zuko can pacify himself with delusions of my masterminded, evil conspiracy plot. Good night.]
[Sent: 8:33pm]

By the time Ty-Lee had returned to their bedroom, Mai was wrapping up her video chat. Good-byes were exchanged, and Ty-Lee gave Mai her juice, candy bar, and two quarters change before opening her bottled water and breaking into the granola bar she'd just acquired before plopping herself down on her bed, adjusting her long, braided ponytail and yawning up at her N' Sync poster - the one Zuko often chastised her for owning, to which she would counter by citing his childhood interest in Pokemon.

Ty-Lee found that thinking about 90's pop-culture was much less depressing than thinking about Azula, or Mai, or Zuko, and all of the drama clouding up what had once been a group of friends.

"How did you know that Zuko and I had a fight?" Mai asked after a few moments of quiet had passed. She carefully twisted off the cap to her bottle with a loud 'Pop!'

Ty-Lee perked her shoulders up, pushing down the edges of her tight T-shirt as she squirmed in her bed, half a granola bar hanging from her lips.

"Mmm-mm," she 'I-dunno'd'. When she caught sight of her roommate's stone-dry stare, Ty-Lee rolled her eyes, biting off a second chunk of bar and swallowing as she sat up in her bed. "I could just tell, Mai. You've been acting weird, and you two didn't talk on the phone last night, or today, and you complained about how busy he was, and-...It just made sense."

"Ah." Mai nodded simply, clicking her fingernail against the glass container in her hands.

"I could tell you were lying when I said it, though."

"Oh, sure," Mai sarcastically dismissed.

"No, really, I could. You were pretty good, I admit, but it was like you were too steady. If you were being natural, your face would've done something but it was like a statue."

"Hmph," Mai snorted, amused by this. Ty-Lee and her face-reading was a trend that wasn't going away.

"Besides, your eyes weren't quite focused, and you...-" Ty-Lee let her face-analysis drop. "Is everything OK?" She wondered sternly, eyes narrowed with doubt. "You can talk to me when stuff is wrong. I'm, like...your best friend. Right?"

"Uh, well...yea," Mai agreed, somewhat uneasy by Ty-Lee's tone. "It's...just that - honestly? I don't know what's going on, Ty. I really don't. That's the whole point. Something about what happened at the UR has Zuko pissing himself, and...I can't do anything about it."

Ty-Lee's lips curved down.

"Yea, that...really stinks, Mai. Can...I do anything?"

Mai shook her head and sipped some juice.

"No. Thanks, though. Zuko just needs to let me in. You know what I mean?"

Ty-Lee nodded begrudgingly, checking her cell phone - no new messages. She stared with some regret at the photo background, a picture of her and Sokka from the party a week back that she'd sloppily snapped herself. It had previously been a shot of her and Azula and Mai on one of the forest trails near campus. Azula had even been smiling that sexy smile of hers. But looking at the picture was too difficult lately with how divided everyone was.

"Yea," Ty-Lee acknowledged Mai's statement after her moment of distraction, dropping her phone onto her stomach as she laid back down. "I think all those rules about keeping secrets is, like...a totally retarded thing with their whole family."

"Uh...What?"

"The Kurosawas, I mean. I'm beginning to think maybe it's time to start bending some of those rules, if people are gonna get hurt because of it."

Mai ran her fingers up her sideburn, pushing some hair strands over her ear carefully.

"Yea. I think you're right, Ty-Lee," she said with dark, serious tone.

"Wow, really?" Ty-Lee squealed with excitement, clasping her hands up to her chest. "You said that all cool and stuff, like I just had some, like...deep moment. Was that it? Like, like, like a...'That's DEEP, man' moment?"

Mai's solemn expression flat-lined into perplexation.

"...Y...Yea, Ty. That's-...Yea. Sure."

"Sweeeeeeet~"


- Friday, March 25th, 2011 -

"Um...Well, it was nice of Chong and Lily to come visit," Katara offered up a change of topic.

"Yea, it was," Aang agreed with an awkward nod. "Those two are...different," he laughed. "But it was good to see them."

"You think they miss you?" asked Katara.

"Nah," said Aang with a shrug. "Those two are free spirits, they just go with the flow, not much really gets to them, I don't think."

"Hm." Katara nodded. That was fair enough.

"Ha, I just remembered," said Aang with a smirk. "At least you won't have to worry about that essay for a little while longer.

"Ha! Yea, right, Pakku's going to chew me out so much," Katara sighed with humored apprehension. "'Oh, you almost died?'" she mocked. "'So what? Where's that essay that was due today?' Pff."

"I'm pretty sure that as long as you have the right papers from the hospital about staying here, he has to cut you some slack," Aang pointed out, still sprawled on his bandaged up back. Katara was sitting in the chair beside him. She was pretty much prepared to go, it was just a matter of waiting for her brother to arrive to pick them up from the hospital this morning. She was planning on going to class, but Aang was going to take it easy until Monday at her stern insistence.

"I know," she conceded. "He's just so...annoying sometimes."

"Well...Yea, I mean, he's getting ready to leave the school and everything, so maybe he's just decided it's easier to stop caring? I don't know..."

Katara did a double take at Aang's theory.

"Wait...What do you mean?"

"Huh?"

"About Pakku leaving."

"Oh, you know - retiring. I mean, he's old enough to retire now, and the school might need to make, like, budget cuts or something soon. If he retires then that's less trouble for everybody."

"How do you know about th-...Oh, was it Zuko?"

"Yea, I hear about things once in a while..."

"Mm." Katara nodded, pondering the situation. "So you heard Pakku's leaving for sure?"

"Yea, that's what I heard."

"Well...Where's he going to go?"

"I dunno. I'm sure he's got some place in mind. Why?"

"No reason, it's just...weird to think about him leaving work and...spending time with his family, or something. If he even has one...Heh. It's weird to think that he has a family in the first place, I guess."

"Ah..." Aang shrugged off the matter. He could appreciate Katara's humor, but the way she'd put it had hit close to home. She'd meant nothing by it, of course, so he would just let it slide here. Besides, he didn't really care one way or another - Pakku sounded like a tightwad, so all the power to him. He could retire and relax, and that was one less grumpy teacher Aang had to worry about potentially needing to deal with.

There was a bit of silence as Katara checked the clock on the wall. Almost 9am. Sokka would be here soon. Katara scanned the room for something to pass the time, and her eyes fell on Aang's Nintendo DS, sitting by the remnants of his breakfast on the small, wheeled table beside his bed. She scooped it up and stared at its white, scuffed up surface.

"Hey, Hun...Why don't you play more Mario Kart while we're waiting for Sokka?"

"Huh?" Aang pushed himself up with his elbows, carefully sitting up straight. Katara leaned over, kissing his forehead cautiously before handing the device to him.

"I liked watching you play it yesterday. You're really good."

"Pff." Aang raised his brow at her. "It's just Mario Kart..."

"Just Mario Kart, he says..." Katara smirked, running her finger over Aang's earlobe.

"Why don't...you play?" Aang meekly suggested, passing the handheld back to her. He wasn't up for playing it, she noticed, but Mario Kart had become like an odd, endearing activity for them. "Give you more practice, haha." Aang's sly look sold her, and she booted the device up.

"Me? Needing practice? No way," she facetiously replied as she waited for the game to start itself up. From his position on the bed, Aang reached his hands around her waist. She had been able to change into shorts and a t-shirt that Sokka had dropped off the night prior, though Aang was still garbed in a patient gown. With a snug grip around her stomach, he rested his head on her shoulder and watched her play.

+ http:/www(dot)youtube(dot)com/watch?v=VDBpQVhCMb8 +

"Love you," he said quietly, pressing his cheek into her shoulder.

"Love you, too," she replied, shrugging her shoulder up and touching his head with her own.

~You be my Princess, and I'll be your Toad; I'll follow behind you on Rainbow Road~

Aang rubbed his palms against the skin underneath her shirt.

~Protect you from red shells wherever we go, I promise~

Even though she was here, and safe...he was still a bit shaken. He couldn't lose her.

~No one will touch us if we pick up a star~

The sensation of their locked lips.

~And if you spin out, you can ride in my kart~

Discouragement relieved by comfort.

~When we slide together, we generate sparks~

Fingers laced together...

~In our wheels and our hearts~

...forming a fabric of safety.

~And the finish line~

[1st]

~Is just around the bend~

"Hey, good job."

~I'll pause this game~

"Thanks. I've been getting better, huh?"

~So our love will never end; Let's go again~

Between races, Katara twisted her head around to kiss Aang's forehead.

~The blue shell is coming, so I'll go ahead~

Running through flames to rescue her.

~If you hang behind, it will hit me instead~

Flaming wood puncturing his head.

~But never look back, 'cause I'm down but not dead; I'll catch up to you~

Pushing it off. Picking her up. Carrying her safety.

~Don't worry about Bowser or DK~

Katara fusses about her stitches.

~Just eat this glowing mushroom, and they'll all fade away~

Aang assures her of her beauty, regardless. He kisses her head in return.

~And the finish line is just around the bend~

"You need to start playing as Mario now instead of Toad."

"What? Why?"

~I'll pause this game so our love will never end~

"Ha. Isn't it obvious?"

Katara paused the game, administering a kiss to Aang's cheek.

~The finish line is just around the bend~

"You're not just my Penguin anymore, Aang."

~I'll pause this game so our love will never end~

"You're my hero now, too."

~Let's go again~

Aang's face went red.

~To the Mushroom Cup~

Kind words over the past year.

~And the Flower Cup~

Tender gestures shared over that time.

~And the Star Cup~

Aang kissing her off-guard that night.

~And the Reverse Cup~

Katara finally reciprocating the kiss.

And now, in this hospital, Katara's game becomes gradually distracted more and more by Aang's warm presence.

She eventually sets the device down, spinning round and hugging him gently, careful not to hurt his back.

~Walu-walu-walu-walu-wah~

Eskimo kiss.

~Walu-walu-walu-walu-Waluigi~

"Freakin' oogie!"

They both flinched at Sokka's voice, skulls bumping together. A short giggle fit ensued, to which Sokka rolled his eyes, dropping a pair of jeans and a T-shirt at the foot of Aang's bed.

"OK, OK, you two. C'mon, now," he sighed to them with embellishment. "Get some pants on, Aang, we're checkin' you two outta here. Doc's already cleared you and all that, right?"

"Yea. Did you bring my hat?" Katara wondered.

"It's in the car," Sokka nodded. "But, uh...-" He gawked at the stitches along her hairline. "-...I-I don't think you should wear it for a little while..."

"What? But...it's the hat you got for me, wouldn't you...-?"

"Kat, aren't stitches supposed to be left exposed to the air? Dry? And stuff?"

Katara frowned and her bottom lip pouted out. She crossed her arms stubbornly and glared at Sokka with puppy eyes while Aang pulled off his patient's robe and got into normal clothes.

"I'm not stoppin' ya," Sokka defended. "I'm just saying...It's not good for you."

"And walking around with...with a gash in my head is?" She jutted an irritable index finger to her forehead.

"Stoppit," Sokka flatly scolded her. "You look fine, don't be a drama queen."

"I look like Frankenstein," Katara whimpered, carefully touching the uneven formation of skin that had been tied together.

Her brother's dull eyes stared at her with a dry lack of sympathy.

"You're alive," he pointed out as Aang, now fully dressed, snuck behind her with a hug.

"And you're beautiful," Aang insisted, kissing her neck.

"And his opinion is the only one you should care about," Sokka matter-of-factly dismissed Katara's self-conscious doubt, jabbing his finger at Aang with a nod.

Katara smiled half-heartedly, closing her eyes and enjoying the feeling of Aang's lips pecking her neck another few times.

"Uhhhkay-yea-all-right-that's-enough," spat out Sokka frantically, looking away. "Time to take that PDA elsewhere."

The three of them packed up and filed out, heading for the desk to finalize their check-out.

"So, um...-" Katara started, twirling a finger through her hair as she grinned stupidly. "I know I already gave you all those kisses, and all, like I said...-"
"We can stop with the kissing and the talking about kissing," Sokka interrupted, a few steps ahead. He was ignored.
"-...but I haven't actually said it yet."

"Huh? Said what?"

Katara's eyes flickered with joy, half closed and complimented by her grateful smile.

"Thank you, Mr. Hero." She clamped her hand around his, swinging his arm to and fro a bit. Aang shrugged wildly at the passionate spark in her eyes and he squinted his own eyes in embarrassment. "I always knew you had a lot of courage in there," she poured out her admiration, sliding her index. "I wouldn't be standing here if it weren't for you."

Aang nodded, letting his eyes open - nope, she was still staring at him with that burning desire, and his nether were starting to tighten. He jammed a hand in his pocket and made a few awkward steps to align himself.

"I just...I, uh...-"
"You just, you uhhhh-" Katara spurt out in mischief. "-...are amazing, that's what."

"You are, too, Katara."

"Well, I've got no excuse not to be if I'm going to keep you happy, right?"

"Yea, yea," grunted Sokka, wriggling his wrist behind him. "You love each other. I get it."

"Also a big fan of the 'being alive' part, Sokka," Katara added with some enthusiastic snark. "Which you won't be, if you rain on my PDA parade."

Leaning against the desk, waiting for the woman behind to get things in order, Sokka rotated around, facing his two friends. Katara and Aang looked groggy and tired, but their eyes sparked with electricity. They had almost died, Aang's back had been ripped open, as had Katara's head. Yet they rolled onward and upward, hands latched together, seemingly unfazed. Like they could take on the world together.

Sokka scratched at his goatee and nodded contemplatively.

"Carry on, then, sister. Let the...PDA parade mosey along."

[link]<--Previous Chapter
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Pema, Jinora, and Lin are all Legend of Korra characters I've taken liberties with in adapting for SRU, and I am considering incorporating some others into my current plans. With less than 20 chapters left, there's only so much room for development, but since a lot of SRU's projected plans line up with the kind of direction Korra's been going in, I think it'll work just fine.

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A/N: Good news for you loyal DeviantArt readers: chapter 86 is going to be SO DAMNED LONG it needs to be split into two halves due to DA's word limitations, so...since the first half of the chapter is done...you guys simply get to read it sooner! Enjoy, and be aware that I have vacation next week, so the second half of this chapter may not show up for a little bit. I literally haven't gone on a vacation in over a year, so I really want to enjoy the time off! Enjoy the first half of the chapter!

What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 86 - Moment


- Saturday, April 16th, 2011 - The Golden Dragon Ball (Spring Formal)

Jane wiped sweat from the bags hanging underneath her eyes as she scraped at the grill. The lunch shift had been somewhat hectic, leaving her out of sorts. Her feet were aching a bit from the constant standing for the past three and a half hours, and her left hand stung a bit from some droplets of hot grease that had boiled up on them when she had been frying like a maniac earlier.

Ding!

The small bell on the countertop at the front of Appa's shattered Jane's moment of respite. She took a tired breath, rubbing at her eyes as she stumbled to the counter.

"How can I hehhh...-?" Her crackly voice trailed off at the sight that greeted her: a glaring Katara Kesuk. Yikes. And her nose was doing that whole...flared-out thing. Ugh. Which was attractive. And it was horrible for Jane to think that, but it had been a while since she'd physically seen Katara, and...-

"I'd like a mushroom swiss burger - medium well," Katara spitefully ordered. Her eyes were sharp, cutting like knives, and her voice was clean and prim, like a rose - jabbing out with its thorns of passive aggression. "Please," she added with a curt, verbal jab.

Jane cleared her throat, completely startled and flustered by this encounter. Her stomach churned with an awful guilt and regret, and she avoided Katara's ice-cold leering as she tallied up the total on the register.

"Th...That'll be...-" Jane mumbled shakily, but Katara slapped down a ten dollar bill with brisk attitude before Jane could collect herself enough to read off the total.

"Yes, I know how much it is," Katara growled quietly. "Five forty-one. I've ordered it plenty of times before. Remember?" It really wasn't helping that seeing Katara with such a sassy attitude was kind of a turn-on. Just really wasn't helping at all. Nor was the fact that she was in a tank-top today. Grughh. The phrase 'distance makes the heart grow fonder,' came to mind briefly while Jane tapped at buttons to tally up the exchange.

Jane took the money and rung the order, slipping when she tried to retrieve the proper change, dropping a dime on the floor in her haste. She quickly placed the bills and change onto the countertop and pushed it toward the girl. Katara slid it off into her cupped hand, sapphire eyes still burning all the while.

"Well, if it ain't Sokka's little sis," came June's voice from behind as she approached the counter, a milkshake in her hand. Jane was scribbling out an order slip. "Where's the gang?" June asked. "I don't see your brother here harassing me."

Jane swiftly took advantage of this opportunity to flee the socially awkward situation with the order slip and set straight to work on it. Katara keenly eyeballed her as she retreated, as if trying to pierce her gaze through the back of the red-head's skull.

"Hello, Miss Hale," Katara greeted courteously, her tone still a bit stiff. "Everybody's getting ready for the dance tonight. I think Sokka's downtown helping Aang get a suit to wear."

"Ah, yea, the dance," June huffed with a slurp. The grill behind her hissed to life as Jane began cooking Katara's burger.. "That thing's gonna be a fuckin' pain. Glad I just have to work during it and not do all the prep shit..."

"Uh...huh..." Katara replied slowly with a blank pair of blinks. "Um...I see. Well, as soon as I'm done with my lunch here, I have to go get myself ready - and then get Toph looking decent."

"Heh. What about Shamrocks over here?" June nodded her head to her fry cook, who sheepishly adjusted her arrowed cap down a bit.

June raised a brow at Katara's quiet fuming, wide eyes staring right at the freckled girl over the grill.

"No, actually," Katara snipped out, hands attached to her hips. "She's apparently not going."

June's eyes rolled around at the obvious hormonal angst on display before her. Ah, crap, and here came a student wanting something. That would require effort of some sort.

"Hey, uh, June?" He was a bulky, bright eyed young man with a dark brown complexion that June knew worked upstairs at the cafeteria here and there. Jane knew him by 'Pipsqueak,' and made a point to pretend she wasn't aware of his presence. Thankfully, he didn't try getting her attention today.

"Hey, Josh. Whatcha want?" June sarcastically sniped at him, as if he were intruding.

"Ha. Just need a to-go box," Josh requested cheerily. Katara side-stepped away politely, as if conceding to their interaction.

"That'll be fifty cents," June advised coolly.

"Whaaat? Aw, come on," Joshua whimpered. "I don't got any cash on me, I-"
"Guy. I was razzin' ya," June smoothly informed him with a smirk as she walked back a few feet to the grill where Jane stood. She bumped Jane's shoulder with the side of her fist as she casually passed by, causing Jane to flinch from surprise.

"Heh. Dances not really your kinda thing, right?" she chuckled at Jane, who shrugged. "Don't blame ya, kid. At least one of us will be spared the misery."

Having retrieved a styrofoam container, June dropped it with nonchalance on the countertop, and Josh scooped it up joyfully.

"Thanks!"

"Yuh-huh." June wriggled her wrist in his direction. "Now beat it."

"Heh. Have a good one!" Josh waved to her as he bumbled away, leaving a still-disgruntled Katara lingering.

"Your food'll be ready in a bit," June told her, a bit perplexed by the girl's insistence on remaining here. "We'll...ya know...call ya."

"Oh, I'm fine," Katara chirped with a plastic smile. The two exchanged glances, and June sucked a large gulp of her strawberry shake before shrugging her shoulders and spinning around, placing her shake on the preparation table in the middle of the room.

"I'm hittin' the bathroom," she explained to Jane. "Don't take any more orders since we're about to close up here."

"Mm-hm," Jane hummed back obediently, flipping Katara's burger and getting a slice of swiss cheese slice set down on it. June vanished through the back. Still looking down at her work, Jane could tell out of the corner of her eye that Katara was still standing there.

Fucking christ, woman. Leave me alone...

"So," Katara piped up stubbornly. "This is how it's going to be? It's just going to be like...we never existed? Is that it?"

Jane swallowed the awful lump that had formed in her throat and rubbed her sleeve against her forehead, trying to clean it of sweat. She offered no answer. What kind of response would do any good, anyway? She could tell from the shakiness of her hands and the weakness in her legs that any effort at speech would turn up idiotic right now, anyway...

"Fine," said Katara with stuffy resolve. "You know, I really believed you were better than this - just running away from problems. That's what Toph is supposed to do, but even she didn't just totally shut everyone out like you are."

"Actually, she did," Jane managed out weakly.

"...What?" Katara balked.

"I said, she did," Jane repeated, trying to bolster her words with some conviction.

"She...She told me what the problem was, at least. Sh-she explained to me what...what was wrong, so that-"
"You could fix it?"

The two young women stared each other down with stern thought as the grill sizzled.

"Did it occur to you, Kat, in all this shit, that I didn't need you to fuckin' fix anything?"

"Umm...I...-"
"That maybe I got problems you can't do a damn thing about? So you should just...back the fuck off?" Jane was careful not to yell, but to make sure she pushed words out with conviction. Katara's eyes burned with indignity at Jane's tone, but she seemed content to let Jane continue - even if Jane was berating her, it was better than the frigid silent treatment. "Just...like...Damn!" Jane puffed out, dropping a bun onto the grill to toast as the burger was finishing up. "You just need-...It's...like you physically cannot leave shit alone. There has to be an answer. There has to be a solution. You gotta fix it. You gotta be in control, 'cuz fuck anyone else who thinks they might actually know what's best for themself, you're the know-it-all, you're gonna be their damned hero and patch it all up, make it all better."

"Jane..."

"Guess what, Katara? Got news for ya. You ain't perfect. Shit ain't perfect. Never gonna be. There's problems in this world you can't do fuck all about. People are assholes. Orphans are...fucking starving somewhere, or whatever."

"That's different, Jane!" Katara protested. "I'm...I'm not expecting to solve...w-world hunger or...or something. I'm just...trying to maintain...my...my friendships."

"Trying to maintain me. Myself. As a human being."

"What? N-no, that's...-"
"Hey, Kat. Once a month? My cunt fucking bleeds. Just like yours. Nothing you do can change that."

Katara frowned awkwardly at Jane's naturally odd metaphor. Jane huffed digging her fingers up into her forehead's skin and furiously rubbing an itch on her eyebrow. She plopped wet pieces of mushrooms onto the grill.

"Does it...-? Am I making sense?"

"I guess," Katara quickly snapped back, staring down at her flattop shoes with crossed arms. The downward angle of her head, combined with the fact that her hair was taught back into a ponytail, served to remind Jane of the still healing marks near Katara's hairline where that glass had sliced.

"Sometimes my problems are mine," said Jane. "And the more you have to get all...fuckin'...psychotic on me? And clingy? All that shit? That's a problem. I already told you: I don't wanna talk with you right now. Back off. Leave me alone. And maybe...if you can stop being a goddamn control freak for a while...let me sort my stuff out...we can be friends again down the road."

Jane could see Katara's eyes quivering, on the verge of tears. It stabbed at her heart, but even if Katara's safety wasn't at risk...she needed to deal with this.

"All right?" Jane sought affirmation.

"N-No, it's...It's fine," Katara sputtered out, holding back tears as her lips trembled with disgust. "You just don't...care...as much...As much as I do. Just...d-don't care. That's-...No, it's-...I get it. We're not...that important. N-not enough to work out...whatever it is...Wh-whatever this is. Must not be worth it to you...Fine."

The pit in Jane's stomach writhed around, but she said not a word. She'd spoken her piece. It burned at Jane's heart, that Katara couldn't let this go. She kept seeing that flickering flame of obsession in Katara's eyes - the same she knew from Jet.

Ugh. I'm sorry, Katara. I need room to breathe here. You're better off hating my guts than...getting hurt again.

"I guess that's that, then," Katara shrugged bitterly, stomping off out of sight as Jane finished cooking her meal.

Jane rolled her eyes in frustration at Katara's grumpy demeanor. That was something Katara and her roommate shared in common: they could both be stubborn and pushy.

Just let her go, Jane. Deal with it later. She'll get over it. You will get over it. Can't go letting every damned issue blow up into drama all the time.

The familiar sound of June guzzling the remnants of her milkshake startled Jane out of her guilt-stricken stupor. June, seemingly oblivious, leaned over the counter, peering out at the fairly quiet setting before her. What had been a bustling setting a couple of hours back was settled and calm by now, with only a handful of students lingering in various booths, on their computers or over their textbooks.

Jane slapped together Katara's burger, dropped it on a plate with a dill spear, and set it on the countertop. She sighed, then pressed down the mic button and spoke into it.

["Katara."]

Moments later, Katara appeared and glared at her plate.

"There a problem?" June sighed.

"I need this to go," snorted Katara.

"I didn't know that," Jane pointed out grumpily from in front of the grill, drizzling a cup of Sprite across the cooking surface to help clean it.

"You didn't ask," Katara growled over the sound of hissing steam the soda created.

June, totally apathetic to the theatrics on display, simply grabbed another container as she had for Josh and set Katara up.

"There ya go, kiddo," she mumbled. "Have a good 'un."

"Yea," Katara huffed back, marching off.

June pulled down the metal gate after this, their closing time here. She sealed off the counter while Jane continued her monotonous task of wiping gunk down the greasy drain at the edge of the grill.

"You and your little girlfriend havin' a fight, or somethin'?" June wondered with that same dull tone as always. "What's with you and that family, anyway? Sokka's slappin' your ass, his cousin takes ya out for drinks, and his sister's, what? The emotional attachment? Heh. Maybe if you stuck all the pieces together you'd have a full relationship." Jane's teeth were clenched together tightly, her tongue held back.

"Anyway, what's the deal?" June egged on. "You got an eskimo fetish I need to know about?"

Jane's head creaked around, her lower jaw jutting out with irritation.

"'Cuz, hey. If that's what gives ya girl-woodies, ya know...That's cool. I don't judge," she continued to play out the teasing. Jane said not a word in reply and went back to her grill cleaning.

"Huh," June puffed out, amused by the girl's lack of reaction. "Must be serious," she deduced, scratching an itch on her sideburn as soda steam sizzled up around her worker. "All right, let's drop it, then. So what did you need to ask me about?"

Jane was almost not in the mood to even look into this crap now, but she knew she ought to. And besides, she'd vaguely brought up at the start of the shift that she had something important to ask her boss about. Might as well go through with it. She scraped bubbling liquid down the grill, finishing her task up while she spoke.

"Err...Something's been eatin' at me lately."

"Mm?" June lifted her trimmed, thin eyebrow up, leaning back against the metal gate behind her.

"Your, uhh...-" Jane tapped at her own upper arm. "-...your tattoo. I've been dyin' to know...what's the story with that?"

June's curiosity shifted into suspicion as her eyelids slide halfway down.

"You made it sound like that dark shit, 'n I've...been dealin' with stuff with my old gang, and so...just reminded me, is what it is..."

"Come on, Fitz, you're a better liar than that," June sighed. "I'm a little disappointed."

Jane rolled her eyes and shook her head at this remark.

"Listen, whatever. I want to know."

"Why?"

"Told you, 'cuz of shit with my old group..."

"What do I look like, your damned counselor?"

"Tell me. I need to know. It's important."

Two shady sets of eyeballs, narrowed and defensive, locked together in short-lived competition of stubbornness.

"Mm..." June broke off eye contact, walking past Jane and to the next room back, where the freezers were located.

"Hey!" snorted out Jane impatiently, to which she received a stern, upheld index that signaled her to wait. June popped through the cramped room with the freezers and into the hallway out back. She glanced down both ways, then closed the door behind her, locking it from the inside.

"C'mere," June grunted, nodding Jane to come into the tight room that contained metal freezers on each side. Jane did as asked, and June closed the other door, containing them both in the small space.

"What...-?"

"We don't need any prying ears," June darkly explained, resting her back against one of the freezer doors. "I know you well enough, girly, to figure you aren't gonna drop this. And I can see it in your eyes that you're deep into some shit you shouldn't be."

Jane sighed, rubbing sweat from under her eyes and pulling her restricting uniform cap and apron off, dropping them carelessly to the floor. She undid her short ponytail, plopping down cross-legged on the floor. There was barely enough space for her to sit this way, so narrow was the room. She rustled her bony fingers tiredly through her now loosened hair as June spoke to her.

"Before I go spillin' my guts out, I want to know what your issue is."

Jane leaned her head back, the cool metal soothing against the skin on her neck.

"Fair enough," she mumbled, staring up at the ceiling. "Short story is...I'm tryin' to help catch the bastard that almost cooked up my 'girlfriends.'"

June nodded slowly to this.

"Figured it had somethin' to do with that. And you seem like the type who'd wanna get some revenge, am I right? Give the guy some payback for slappin' your lady friends around?"

Jane's stomach turned at the idea. Was that part of it? She hadn't really thought much on it, so much as jumped into this for the sake of ending shit with the Freedom Fighters, sticking it to the Rhinos, and most importantly, helping Johnny. But of course, this was exactly the reason Korra was offering to help - for some personal satisfaction and revenge.

And that fucker cut up Katara's head. Left her to burn. Jane couldn't deny that despite how things were between her and Katara that she did not accept the idea of anyone hurting that girl in any way. Letting someone get away with that was...the more she dwelt on it...pretty damned unacceptable.

"There's...more to it than that," Jane murmured, finding herself uncomfortable with these thoughts slipping into the notion of brutalizing the Combustion Man's face with a wrench.

"Sure," June dismissed. "So...What is it, then? You think I'm associated with this lunatic just 'cuz I got a shady past?"

"No, it's because you've got a shady past with the school. And the school is the reason that lunatic is fucking burning people."

June frowned with some contemplation, her eyes wandering to the side.

"What makes you think that?"

"It's what I've heard," said Jane. "Every person that bastard lights up is connected to the school." Jane looked up at her boss with a dim face. "You know anything about this?" Another intense clashing of narrowed eyeballs proceeded.

"Yea and no," June replied with hesitation.

"There's this bunch of bikers in town - call themselves the Rough Rhinos."

"Yea, I know of 'em."

"They all have tattoos of rhinos on them. And the Combustion Man? He had this freaky...whacked out shit on his head. Like an eyeball, or something, I guess. And I remembered that you have a tattoo."

"Seems like a bit of a stretch to assume that makes me associated with those dickwads..."

"That's why I'm asking...So are you? Or not?"

"No, I'm not," June answered. "I mean, sort of, but not really...I was part of a different group. We had our own mark, too." June rolled up her sleeve, showing Jane the coiled snake tattoo. "Called ourselves the Silver Serpents." She shoved the sleeve back down, bobbing her head as she told her tale. "We used to occupy our own little slice of the Big Apple. Called our territory 'The Serpents' Pass.' Pretty slick piece of city, the part I was in. I used to really live it up there. Good looks and skilled hands can get a lady real far in a place like that..."

"Soo...What sorta stuff did the Serpents...do?"

"The Serpents' Pass was this strip of town that people came to when they needed to do business. We offered a neutral place for blackmarket dealers to exchange goods without needing to worry about messes to deal with. And in return we got to take a cut out of dealings that went down. And, well...sometimes when messes happened elsewhere that needed cleaning up, people hired us to deal with it. We didn't have alliances or loyalties. Or at least I didn't."

Jane squirmed in her cross-legged spot on the floor. Having a skinny ass made sitting on hard surfaces uncomfortable.

"I just went where the money was..." June finished her thought after a pause.

"And...?"

"And? And what?"

"And where did the money lead you? How'd you end up here? Working as...a fuckin' burger cook?"

June frowned at Jane's pressing persistence.

"The Silver Serpents were actually a part of a bigger whole. Basically, our bosses worked for...other bosses. The whole chain-of-command nonsense. The tattoos, those you had to earn. They marked which group you worked for. These other guys? The Rough Rhinos? They worked for the same folks my group did, see. And as it turned out, that group seemed to have some kind of score to settle with this school. Namely, people from the school seemed to know about our little organizations and were trying to undermine the whole crime network. Which, of course, meant that they had to be dealt with. That was where people like me came in."

Jane stared at June's rigid profile, not entirely shocked by the idea that the woman had done such violent things in her past, but surprised by the implication that such violent acts sounded similar to what the Combustion Man was currently doing.

"A woman like me didn't have trouble sneaking around the city, putting people to sleep."

"...Killing them?"

"Yea...Painlessly, really. Seduce a man, tucker him out...-" June lifted her hand in the air ambiguously, squeezing her thumb around an invisible object. "-...slip him a shot. Of course, sometimes they needed these people alive, so the injections weren't always lethal - sometimes they just needed to be sedated for transport. I never really cared either way. Life was dangerous and exciting. Risk, reward, sex...Honestly, I couldn't have wanted much more that."

Jane's stomach wrenched with discomfort at the way June spoke about these matters. Very calm and uncaring, with the same casual approach she'd refer to her humdrum work here at a burger joint. Jane was reminded of what the Duke had mentioned before: about fatal injections killing SRU associates in New York City years ago. Now she had some idea of what that had been about.

Jane's face wrinkled up with some frustration as she dwelt on the thought. She was receiving confirmation that her hunch had been correct: that her boss, June, this calm, smooth, unfazed person she kind of looked up to was...a criminal, really. A murderer, even, trying to leave her past behind. Jane at once felt a bit of kinsmanship in a fellow soul trying to get back on the right path, but on the other hand, the look in June's face didn't really sell Jane on this idea.

Jane had murdered, but the motivation for doing so was personal. It was for revenge and self-defense both tied in one. And she looked at that day as when she, Jane Fitzpatrick, became something else: Smellerbee. And now, years later, she was still coping with choices Smellerbee had made and trying to make it all right.

And then here was June, who killed multiple people. No personal reason, just...for the fuck of it. For money, and lust, and just because she could? That was...kinda fucking creepy. And that bizarrely uncaring way June spoke about it all, like none of it mattered, that was disconcerting, too.

"You all right there, kid?" June checked when she noticed Jane's boiling emotions coming through twitches in her expression. "Heh. Ya scared of me now?"

No. Just sorry for you...Because you sound like you had nothing worth fighting for. But I do. We're not quite as alike as I thought this whole time.

"You were...a killer?"

"Eh. Technically, you could say I still am. Just...on early retirement, I guess."

Ugh. That, too. That was...unsettling. June didn't seem to really draw a line between the her that once killed people, and the her that now cooked hamburgers. They were really one and same. But for Jane, Smellerbee was like a separate person, her darker side, something she had been working so hard to run away from.

"So...How'd you get stuck here, then?

"Well, uh...eventually things got outta hand. The lot of us got into a scuffle with the law. Not too surprising. Like I said, I had no loyalties. I was in it just for me. So when it was my head on the chopping block, you bet your ass I ratted people out to save myself. Survival of the fittest. Sometimes that means you gotta be like a lizard - let your tail get chewed off to escape, live another day."

"Not...sure I get it."

"There was this guy from the FBI, Long Feng - at least, that's what he says his name is - swooped in and helped the authorities stop everything from getting out of hand and into public eyes. I actually think he just sorta...does that for a living: makes things 'disappear' and shit. Anyway, he was the one that offered me a deal: spill details, get to start a new life in a quiet town. So I took it. Better than getting ass-raped in jail for the rest of my life..."

"But why the school?"

"Well...the people I helped dispose of, they were connected to the college in one way or another, right? So, they wanted this whole clusterfuck settled sooner rather than later. With my help, it was, you could say. Only way they could figure to quickly make arrangements was to just take me under their own wing. Like I said...I could care less. They figured out pretty damn quick that I couldn't give two fucks about who I was working for. Besides, living here...means I'm under their watch. I slip up, they know it. But I'm also under their protection. Anyone who might come looking for me? Last place they're gonna think to look is here, anyway."

Jane sighed, scratching at her eyebrow while she processed this. No wonder June seemed to have taken a bit of an interest in her red-headed employee: they had some sympathetic commonalities, from June's perspective. But Jane couldn't shake that notion that June just didn't seem to care
about what she'd done.

"It worked out for everyone, really. The cops got the boss they were lookin' for. I got to keep living outside of bars...and the school gets to keep me pinned down doing embarrassing, lowly shit like this." June waved a lazy wrist to the freezers around them. "I'm a murderer and a traitor. But I get to live comfortably enough. Just because I don't like it doesn't mean I get much room to complain, really..."

"Hm..." Jane soaked in this whole story, now understanding just why June seemed so...miserably apathetic. All the time. About everything. She didn't like it, but at least she understood some of June's general attitude to her current life.

The word 'revenge' kept floating around Jane's head like a thick cloud. Was that really why she was doing this? Jumping down this rabbit hole? She recollected Korra's immediate and enthusiastic reaction to joining this effort. Korra was obviously in it for revenge. Jane found herself suddenly uneasy with this. This nagging fear that she would end up like Jet kept pricking at her gut, and it was now combined with a dread of ending up like June: reverting back to 'Smellerbee' and becoming lost in that self all over again.

"So there ya go," June concluded with an exhausted huff, shoving her out of her own thoughts. "And I'm sure you're not a dumb-ass about this kind of stuff, but...let's keep this between you and me, shall we?"

"Er, psh! Yea! Duh."

For the first time in their entire conversation, June and Jane swapped smiles. Even if Jane couldn't comprehend June's coldness about everything, it was still nice to finally know someone that could have some kind of sympathy to the commonality of carrying such heavy baggage.

"So, then..." Jane began, trying to find her train of thought in all of this. "What's...the deal with this shit? Why do people want to...kill off SRU grads?"

"Eh...Well?" June shrugged. "I'm not quite the person to ask, I guess. What I do know is that it has something to do with the higher ups we worked for."

"The bosses of your bosses?"

"Exactly. I never knew much about them - never wanted to, frankly. Still don't give a damn. I'll tell ya what, though: you're serious about looking into this stuff?"

Jane nodded vigorously.

"All right. Well...There's one thing I can think of. The Serpents, when they'd send me out to go off somebody, they'd mention that I was helping bring down people who worked for 'The Dragon of the West.' Sounds like a real big boss-man, right?" June grinned in bemusement down at Jane, whose eyes were wide with intrigue. "He's...actually just a professor here at the school. Pudgy old Asian man with a beard. Kind of a pervert, too, come to think of it...His name's 'Iroh.'"

Jane knew that name. Iroh? As in, 'Uncle Iroh,' as in that cheerful old fat man that Zuko would tell funny stories about?

"Iroh Kurosawa?"

"That's the one," June acknowledged, carefully trodding over Jane as she opened the door back into the main food prep area. "The guy may seem like just a professor, but he's actually pulling a lot of strings around here. If you're really wanting to look into shit - 'cuz I sure as hell ain't interested - my best guess would be to go asking him about it."

Jane still sat on the cold floor, struggling to fathom how that bubbly old man could possibly be involved with any of this.

"So..." June called out casually from the next room. "Seems like you had a rough day and all. Just call it a night, I can finish cleanin' up here."

"Uhh...OK." Jane pushed herself up with a grunt, relying on the handle of the metal door behind her for support.

"And hey, Shamrocks." June leaned over, establishing startlingly serious eye contact with Jane through the doorway. "You didn't hear shit from me. Got it?"


"Yea. I'm free for the night," Korra replied to Bolin's question, plopping herself down at the kitchen table.

"Oh. Awesome. Great. So. Korra..." Bolin leaned over the tiny, metal table, putting on an embellished, smooth-talking tone. "I was thinkin'. You and me, we could go to the dance together, sort of a...date situation? Erm, but, like, a 'as-friends,' kind of date. I mean. Is what I meant. Ahem."

"Bolin," Mako scolded him, peering into the cupboards. "Give her some space. She just got off of work." Korra smirked at this, feeling quite satisfied with the fantasy she had invented in her head that these two brother both vied for her affections. "I don't think she'd be interested in being forced to come with us, anyway." He pulled out a few boxes of macaroni and cheese for their lunch.

"Come on, Mako," Bolin huffed. "Just ignore 'im," he muttered coolly to Korra, a seemingly recurring phrase Bolin whipped out in regards to Mako's downer stiff demeanor. "Anyway, I know you're into girls, and stuff, so don't take it the wrong way-" Korra raised a brow in his direction as he went on. "-but I'm just asking 'cuz me and Mako are going, and we got an extra ticket, aaaaand I just think we'd have a fun time." Pff. Real transparent, here. Just happened to have an extra ticket, right? And what was this 'into girls' remark?

"Into girls, eh?" Korra pointedly checked.

"It's kind of obvious," Mako dully advised, filling a pot with water and setting it to boil on the stove. "Nothing to get worked up over, we're not going to judge you. It's fine."

"Uh-huh." Korra slung her arms across her chest, leaning to the side of her chair. As if she needed his permission to have a sexual orientation.

"Uh. R-right!" Bolin was quick to agree. "Totally not judging. This house promotes all walks of life."

"Bolin just wants a woman around his arm when he goes out in public," Mako picked on his sibling with a smug smile. Korra was relishing the tension in his voice. Heheh. If she took Bolin up on his offer here, she could have a good time with him and make Mako jealous in the process, establishing her dominance over them both.

"Won't be a problem," she declared cockily. "I'm...actually into guys."

Bolin's eyes narrowed and he stared at her aggressive smile.

"...I'm sorry, no-no, I didn't mean to assume," he sputtered out hastily, pushing out his palms in defense. Oh, man. This was fun. Mako was attractive when he was being all passive-aggressive, but Bolin was kind of adorable when he was trying to be polite - and the way his eyes would pop open wide, and how expressive he was? Geez. He was one of a kind. Both of 'em, really, wrapped right around her finger, she thought: right where she wanted them. "'Cuz that-...Ya know, I was just figuring...with your butch-ness, and the whole...everything...you are...that you're a...lesbian...gal."

"Nope, you're right," Korra assured, chin up. "I'm into girls. And guys."
"Mm! Mm-hm..." Bolin rubbed his chin cautiously, his gaze shifting away from her. "I'm very confused right now," he confessed in a mumble.

Mako sighed, shaking some salt into the water before him as it barely began to bubble up.

"You're a bisexual, and I'm an idiot," he concluded. Korra smirked his way.

"Both...are...true," she jibed.

"So...so you're gonna go?" Bolin prodded, still wide-eyed and just a bit pleading. Korra laughed that closed-lip giggle that Bolin adored. How adorable. She just divulged a very personal fact and it didn't faze him at all.

"You wanna take me out on a date?" she wondered, perplexed. It seemed fairly obvious that she was not putting out for him or anything - it was like he just...wanted to take her out for a good time, even if nothing came of it. It was kind of weird to consider, from her perspective. "I'm a bit of a loose cannon, Bo - not exactly the 'date' type."

"Are you kidding me?" said Bolin, giving her back a gentle slap with his broad hand. "You're the smartest, funniest, toughest, buff-est, talented-est, incredible-est girl in the world! What guy - uh, or girl - wouldn't want to take you out to dinner?"

Korra's impulsive reaction to Bolin's compliments was another humming laugh, and she could feel the edges of her cheeks warming up a bit at his cheerful, excited face and energetic eyes, staring right at her own.

"You really feel that way about me?" she muttered with some embarrassment. Guys didn't try...flattering her. Or complimenting her. They usually tried impressing or intimidating her. It was just a change of pace, especially with Bolin suddenly being more...forward about it, as if suddenly realizing there was a shot at going out with her ignited some renewed determination within him.

"I felt that way since the moment I saw you!" he breathlessly puffed out. "What are you even talkin' about? You're fun," he murmured in mock exasperation. "So whaddya say? No, uh...no obligations, no commitment, here. Just an innocent evening together."

"Hm...It's on pretty short notice...I dunno." Korra hummed and hawed, bobbing her head left and right. Bolin was an open book, his chubby nose wrinkling up nervously. Clarification: He was an open book she found amusing to watch read itself. "Besides, isn't this a college dance?" she inquired doubtfully. "Aren't we...a little old?"

"Whaaat? No way!" Bolin tossed his hand out. "It's being hosted by the school, sure, but it's for everybody. There's like a charity event thing, some rich people are gonna be there, yadda-yadda..."

"All right, I get ya," Korra shrugged. Still sounded a bit odd, kind of stuffy. It might not really be her kind of party, but...-

"Trust me, we are gonna have so much fun together," Bolin insisted. As he said it, a certain kind of confidence rang through, reverberating to Korra's very core.

'Fun.' Bolin was 'fun.' She was so stressed and tired, trying to find consistent work, babysitting crazy kids, worrying about this crazy pyro criminal to take out. And when was the last time she went out, and not to a bar? She couldn't remember.

"Ya know what? I could use some fun," Korra decided. "OK, sure." She nodded in agreement to Bolin's proposal, lazily slinging an arm over the head of her chair. She delighted in the way Mako seemed to glare over his shoulder at them. Jealous much? Damn right he was jealous, just as she wanted.

"Yes!" Bolin was oblivious, pumping his fist and pounding Korra's back with his hand, like a proper 'bro.' "Who's the luckiest guy in the world? Right here. Bo-lin!"

"Do you even have something proper to wear?" Mako dubiously remarked. Heh. Oh, Mako, ever the pessimist, right? What did he care, anyway?

"As a matter of fact, I do," Korra answered with snark. "I have exactly one dress, and it looks damn good on me, I'll say."

"One dress?" Bolin mumbled aghast. "I'm not sure if I should be shocked that you're a girl who only has one dress...or be impressed that a girl like you has one dress at all."

"Er...Thanks?"

Mako even bothered to give her a confused look, and shared his two cents.

"You, of all people, hardly take anything with you when you move to another country, and yet even you still bring a dress. That you never seemed to plan on using." A flat, sarcastic stare. "Somehow, that makes perfect sense."

"I'll take that as a compliment, City-Boy," Korra replied cockily to his observation with some ferocity in her eyes.

"Oh, man, this is gonna be so great," Bolin rambled. "Mako, can you even remember the last time we went out on a double-date?"

Korra's heart skipped a beat. 'Double-date?' As in...Mako had a date? When in the fuck did Mako find some girl to go out with? This was...not to Korra's liking. It inherently meant she was clearly not the center of Mako's attention, despite obviously deserving to be.

"Mm..." Mako's face arced with remembrance while he dug up a wooden spoon to prepare for the ensuing stirring of the macaroni. "Wow. You're right, I can't...I can't even recall. High school, maybe?"

"Freaking high school, man," Bolin confirmed. "Aw, man. This is just-...I am so pumped." Bolin began sprinting through the living room. "I gotta get ready! Gotta style my hair, and...and get my suit all set, and...-" His voice trailed off as he bounded upstairs. The ruckus caused Naga to wake up from her nap on the floor and start barking, scuttling up the stairs after him.

"Jesus, he's...more of a woman than I am," Korra laughed to herself.

"He sure is," sighed Mako. "Probably should watch out, wouldn't want any of that to go rubbing off on you, right? You have a reputation to keep."

Korra was slightly off-put by Mako's collected assertion. A 'reputation,' huh?

"Yea. I guess I do," she verbally agreed with him in an stubborn mumble of indignation, while her mind raced to try and read his real thoughts.


["Aw, mannnn...I'm so freakin' jealous!"] Meng frowned with envy as she watched Katara brushing her cousin's hair on the side of the video chat.

"Eh," Toph pushed off any enthusiasm. "Not so sure it's gonna be all that great...I don't even have a date."

Katara raised a brow, slowing the brushing of her friend's hair to a stop. Toph was at least taking the knots like a champ, hardly flinching, much less complaining. That's what she got for letting her hair grow out, not cutting it, and not taking proper care of it. It was a wonder the girl didn't just toss it up in a bun and call it a day, or get it hacked off altogether.

"I didn't know you...wanted a date to the dance," Katara mumbled, her lips curving down slightly with some guilt. "I mean, who did you want to go with? I could've helped-"
"Nah, don't...-!" Toph immediately snapped, her shoulders popping up with tension as she could begin to feel the rushing of blood to her cheeks. Better stop that train at the tracks before something slipped. "It's...fine," Toph mumbled. "Just, ya know...a bummer, is all. Dances are kinda more fun when you've got...ya know...someone to dance with?

["Why didn't you ask that Douglas boy?"] Meng inquired.

Toph's glazed over in a fleeting moment of remembrance of the bizarre but brief romance they had entangled themselves in. A shallow puddle of affection, a flame of attraction that burst alight and was puffed out by the wind just as fast.

["I mean...He seems pretty cute,"] Meng mumbled, clicking sounds echoing from her side of the line. Toph knew Meng enough by now to figure she was probably double-checking for photos of the boy on Facebook. ["Grahhh, Tophie, why do all of the boys at your school have to be so hot? And seriously, why not ask this guy out?"]

Katara's expression frowned slightly from disapproval, but she didn't butt in with any words on the matter.

"Uh...No, Meng," Toph grumbled out in a sigh, her teeth gritting as Katara worked out a knot with the brush. "Me and him don't...talk...anymore." Meng's face drooped with sympathy at this information. They hadn't discussed Douglas hardly at all since, well...Hm. Meng couldn't remember.

["Oh..."] Meng's sad-face remained attached, though her glance wandered back to her Facebook window, where she was looking up information on this adorably attractive little blond guy. Hm...His profile seemed pretty scant, unfortunately.

"He's, um...He's playing in the band at the ball, anyway," Toph entirely blew off the possibility. She certainly hadn't asked, but being his neighbor in the music building, it would've been nigh impossible to not have overheard it mentioned any of the numerous times she'd found out. Part of her was bothered, on a childish, stubborn level, that all evening she'd be listening to him playing on violin, and be reminded of her careless, shallow mistake of the recent past.

["He is?"] Meng intently wondered. ["Doesn't he play, like...violin, or something?"]

Toph huffed out quite audibly, hoping her cousin would take a hint to drop this subject.

["'Cuz, like, I'm just sayin', violin is the-sexiest-instrument-ever,"] Meng prattled on in a rushed murmuring under her breath, ogling her screen.

"Huh?" came Katara to Toph's ear.

"She's got a bit of a musical fetish, I think," Toph dubiously remarked.

["Ha! Like you don't?"]

Toph smirked at that counter remark.

"Yea, but...it's different. I find the sounds a musician can make attractive. You just think it's hot to watch their hands move around all complicated like." Toph went so far as to sloppily wriggle and flop her wrists around for the camera. "Sight and hearing: two different things, Meng."

["Pff. No way, it's the same thing: the skill. That's what's attractive."]

"Yea, I find the way that Aang gets so into his work really cute," Katara chimed in her own thoughts. "Like, he gets this intense look on his face sometimes when he's drawing-" She pushed down her brows and directed her fingers to her face for Meng to see. "-and it's, you know..." She smiled dreamily. "It's pretty sexy, seeing him so passionate about his work, so confident and dedicated."

["Yea,"] Meng breathed out peacefully. Toph figured the girl's mind was probably slipping into some fantasy about one of those animes she was always watching. Oh, brother. ["See, Toph, maybe that's what you need to do if you want to get a guy's attention,"] Meng decided. ["Show off your music skills, ya know? You know it goes both ways. Guys find that stuff hot, too."]

Toph face contorted with insecurity. She fought it, but the thought still popped into her head: playing music for Sokka. Would that impress him in some way? Would he even give a fuck? Sokka didn't seem the musical type...But then again, neither did Aang, and she recalled very specifically that the entire reason Aang had thrown himself out there to meet her was because he found her talent at the piano so attractive.

"Meng's got a good point, Toph," Katara agreed. "I, uh...-" She shrugged sheepishly. "There's been a couple of times boys tried flirting with me after we'd play a song in the band. And remember that attention Jane got the last time?"

"Mmph..." Toph did remember all the encouragement Jane had received, and Toph herself had gotten a cat-call or two that night, too. Not that it mattered, really. What good was that, guys just stupidly lathering you with attention, and probably staring you up? Not exactly something she could relate to or appreciate, what-not with the lack of sight and all.

["Flaunt what ya got, haha."]

"If music's a big part of who you are, probably wouldn't hurt to be more...open with it," Katara casually presented the notion. She remembered Toph's little coffee shop kareoke trips, and had noticed that Toph hadn't been going to them lately. Maybe it was someone that would come to the coffee shop that Toph was thinking of? Someone who was falling for her music? "Maybe try making more friends when you play out in public? Or even just playing more out on campus, or something? You never know."

"It's...whatever," grumbled Toph. "It'd just be nice to have someone to go to the dance with, I...I never asked for a boyfriend or something, it's-FFFFF-agh." Toph had flinched, caught off guard by a hard stinging and her head being tugged from a nasty clump Katara has loosened. "Shit, that one was bad..."

"Heh. Sorry..."

"You're all good, Sister-Face," Toph sighed. She was admittedly grateful that Katara was helping her in the first place, given the mood the woman had been in. It seemed like this dance was giving Katara a bit of an escape, a purpose, which inherently was putting her in a better mood.

["I'm sure there'll be something good at the dance for you to do."]

"Meh. At least it'll maybe have some good, old-timey music."

"See?" Katara mumbled, pushing the brush with haste. She needed to get this done soon to have time to fix both Toph's and her own hair up. "Looking at the bright side of things."

"I don't look at the bright or dark sides of things," Toph stated, as if she were bragging. "Can't be swayed by that sorta stuff when you're blind and none of it makes a difference to ya."

"You know what I mean," Katara sighed, smiling at Toph's way of verbally fooling around. "All right, well...Sorry, Meng. We actually should get going, I've gotta make...this-" She lifted up clumps of Toph's greasy, frizzy-edged hair. "-look decent tonight. Just because Toph might not have anybody to impress, doesn't mean she's allowed to embarrass the rest of us."

["Heh. It is going to be a big fancy ball, right? Ya never know, Tophie. You could meet the perfect man there if you keep your eyes open, hahaha."]

"Whore," Toph replied with a flat smirk. What followed led to a few snickers between the three girls.

["Just be on the lookout for the right guy. You could fall into his arms. It would be love at first sight. No! No, wait...Tonight will be a...a real blind date."]

"Fucking christ!" Toph giggled out, being lifted from her desk chair and whisked away. "Someone make my brain stop hurting."

["Have a good time tonight, guys~"]

"You have a good night, too!"
"Talk to you later, crazy jerk!"


youtube(.com)/watch?v=kThPknH8o-o

City Hall was aglow tonight, its main chamber lit up and smattered with ornate gold and black decor: balloons, ribbons, banners, flowers, paper lanterns...The Golden Dragon Ball had a mystical 1920's aura to it, and yet a bit of eastern flair. A small stage was set up at the back of the hall, where a band of students from the college were performing old-time rag, swing, and jazz tunes to set an appropriate mood. An open space was left between the band and the various tables strewn about the hall. The tables were decorated with a number, some flowers, and were gradually filling up as attendees arrived.

A table near the front, off to the side, was reserved for special guests and benefactors of the charity event. While technically being hosted by the school and promoted to college students, the Golden Dragon Ball was truly an event serving as a means of joining figures from the town of Wayward with school officials to discuss matters of politics and money. It was also serving as a charity gala of sorts, with various organizations represented.

The table that contained the leading figureheads of the event was only partially full at present, with some members off mingling with guests, students, and faculty. Azula Kurosawa, however, representing her own company, was finding herself utterly bored from this elderly hum-drum. It was a blessing that she wouldn't be stuck here much longer. The actual business end of things had been sorted out earlier, so this was just for publicity and formality's sake. Which was, of course, a complete waste of time, in Azula's opinion.

"It's nothing to be ashamed of, Mr. Bumi," insisted the portly man with round glasses and a graying comb over. He was dressed in an ornate, era-appropriate suit with red and gold accents to it. "Saint Roku University is simply running into a bit of a...financial stumbling block. It's the state of the economy. Many schools are dealing with the same difficulties you are."

"True, true," said President Bumi quietly. The bald, crazy-eyed man muttered, hands folded together on the table. "I suppose you're right, Hiroshi."

Bumi's neighbor continued while Azula sipped her coffee, her expression keen with observation on this man, who sort of reminded her of her own father in some ways. Hiroshi Sato, in his early 50's, was an energetic businessman of Japanese descent, just as Ozai Kurosawa had been, and spoke with a similar pride and idealism that was reminiscent of Azula's father - and Zuko, for that matter.

"Besides, I've already told you: I am eager and excited to help. You know well that my wife - rest her soul - was a happy alumna of this school. I assure you, I'm honored to support her memory and help benefit the growing minds here. SRU is a unique organization that has something most schools do not: heritage, my friend. Heritage, tradition, loyalty, and equality. These are traits that this country needs to embrace, and what better way to do that than through helping reinforce these ideals through the education of the next generation?"

Azula was not quite sure she was sold on the way this man kept gushing out billowing clouds of positivity. Then again, she was ever the critical pessimist. Better safe than sorry. Well, at least it wasn't her that was signing any agreement with the man, which was for the best. As he spoke, a few more of these elder figures settled back at the table.

"Why, " Hiroshi extended his arm to Azula, his neatly trimmed chin tilted up slightly. "It was this school that helped mold this headstrong lovely lady into the shrewd young CEO she is today."

Bah. Nonsense. Complete foolishness. I have attained my status from my own inherent skills and lineage.

"When I was your age," said Mr. Sato with a knowing smile, "I was a mere janitor in an office complex, but I had a fascination with office machines. I would tinker with them when they were broken, you see. All I really had to my name was an idealistic idea of starting a company that would produce refined office technologies as an affordable price - a way to make the world a more efficient place, and equalize the playing field for smaller businesses. Now, I was fortunate enough to meet someone who believed in me and my work ethic. He gave me the money I needed to get my own business off the ground. The entire empire I have built in the years since was all a result of one selfless loan. You see, this is how I look at the world: when generosity is given to someone, it is the natural order to pass it along. Call it karma, call it good will...I simply believe that when you promote ideals of equality and kindness, the world repeats that sentiment and becomes a better place.

What an ignorant, idealistic imbecile of a man...

"But you, Ma'am," he redirected his attention to Azula. "Look at what you've accomplished at your age. You are the next generation, tasked with continuing to shape this world into a better place. We're all expecting great things from you, Miss Kurosawa."

"Oh, indeed, as you should be," Azula slyly replied, which elicited some laughs from the table. Simpleton fools. That wasn't a joke.

"Father?"

The attention at the table was redirected to a beautiful young woman with sharp, sultry eyes, porcelain skin, and thick, luscious locks of raven hair. She was garbed in an elegant dress of red.

"Ah!" Hiroshi stood up from his seat and gave the woman a hug. "Everyone, this is my daughter: Asami."

"Oh, um...Hello," Asami courteously greeted them with a light bow. A slender man with defined eyebrows, serious eyes, and a pointed jawline was at her side, and they clasped hands. He was looking rather dapper with his combed neatly. The two of them looked like a Disney prince and princess, side-by-side. "I hope everyone is having a good time," she said to the lot, who nodded and murmured in agreement.

"What is it, my dear?" Hiroshi asked her quietly, under the rumbling of conversation that was bouncing off of what had just been said.

"Mako and I are going to go spend time with our double date now - I just wanted to know that I'd still like to dance with you before you leave tonight. We'll be at table number four."

"Oh, of course, Sweetie. Certainly, certainly." He gave her a warm smile.

Azula, who was sitting in the seat closest to this interaction, wanted to turn away from that despicable smile: that glowing pride and fatherly affection. And yet she couldn't. She was compelled to vicariously absorb it.

"Now, then, Mako," said Hiroshi with a cocked head. "You show my daughter a good time tonight, but not too good a time, mm?"

"Dad!" Asami chuckled.

"Y-yes, Sir."

The couple waded away from the table of suits and ties and elderly men - Mako was puzzled as to who the one girl was there. Seemed out of place - and Mako was relieved to be out of the path of social danger for now. He could make out his brother off by the chocolate fountain, though a fedora was covering up that normally easy-to-catch duck-tail hairdo. Bolin was wearing a snazzy suit with green undertones, while his date, Korra, was dressed in a unique blue dress with some white fur trimming. He couldn't deny that Korra looked quite uncharacteristically pretty tonight. It was almost unnatural how attractive such athletic arms looked when jutting out of a dress.

Mako was still uncertain about this girl's motives regarding his brother, but...his brother did look pretty happy, and Korra was very pretty, so he couldn't deny Bolin's interest. It was no surprise that as they approached, he could tell that the two were gorging themselves on chocolate-covered strawberries. Korra even had traces of chocolate around her lips.

Jeez, Bolin. She's just as much of a pig as you are...

"Eyyy! Mako!" Bolin immediately leaned forth, hugging his brother tightly. "Aha!" he extended his arm to Asami. "And Miss Sato, Ma'am." He gave the back of her wrist a princely peck before stepping back to Korra's side. "And how are you two beautiful folks doin' tonight?"

Korra had an odd look on her face as she measured herself up to this 'Miss Sato' chick. They exchanged brief glances of unfamiliarity before Mako resolved the social tension.

"You met Bolin earlier, but, erm...this is Korra, our room-...housemate."

Korra weakly lifted up her hand, twitching a few fingers in meek introduction.

"It's lovely to meet you," Asami said quite politely with a nod of her head. "Mako told me so much about you."

"Really?" said Korra, intrigued by this. They seemed pretty comfy with each other, their arms all locked together and such. "Because he hasn't mentioned you at all," she said with plastic courtesy, shooting a narrow, brief glare at Mako that he didn't seem to catch. "How did you two meet?"

Bolin leaned over and spat out her answer.

"Asami bumped into him and spilled his coffee all over."

"...What?" Korra blinked at Bolin, perplexed.

"My father recently became a patron of SRU, and we met while he was conducting an interview with the local newspaper."

"Ruined my shirt from the coffee," Mako chuckled, lifting a brow her way.

"I bought you a better one to replace it," Asami coyly reminded him, running her finger across his chest.

"Sounds like you, uh...come from a rich family...?" Korra guessed, displeased with their flirty little...whatever. How could he have not told her about this woman sooner? And why were they so chummy and shit? How did that all happen?

"Her father is an engineer in New York City," Mako explained with an uncharacteristic smile on his face. "He runs a software company."

Hmph. You seem in a cheery mood, Mako. It's not like you...

"Uh-huh." Korra was making a point to express her complete apathy.

"Have you heard of Sato Mobile?" Asami teased with a waggle of her index finger. Gullghh. Too much pep, girl.

"Can't...say that I have," Korra mumbled with an indifferent shrug.

"Whoa, wait up," Bolin cried, practically pounding his arm around Korra's shoulder and leaning over on her with nonchalance. "Sato Mobile? The phone company? Like, they make apps, and smartphones, n' stuff?"

"That's the one," Asami confirmed, with pride. "Hiroshi Sato: he's my father, the man that started up that company. We don't just do phones, but...that is what we're most famous for."

Bolin was slack-jawed at this, while Korra was still getting over the physical proximity. Bolin was normally pretty loose and outgoing with physical affection, but...something about the setting and the particular way he was doing it tonight, it was...different.

"I have a Sato phone," Bolin said with self-realization. "I've been playin' this driving simulator they made recently," he mumbled to himself, aghast and in shock, rubbing his chin. Korra didn't much care for all of the pleasantries, but she couldn't complain with how casually Bolin was acting with her, his chunky arm wound around her. He really seemed pretty comfortable, and when he spoke, just his laid-back mannerism and tone of voice put her at ease. "It's fun, you tilt the phone to steer and everything..." Bolin cupped his hands in mid-air to create a steering gesture. "Wow, your dad is the guy behind all that?"

"Sure is!" chirped Asami, beaming with those sparkling teeth. Blech. Gag me. What a prissy little geisha princess...

"That is so cool," complimented Bolin. "Can you believe that?" he nudged Korra, shaking her slightly.

"Uh...Heh. Pretty...interesting," she muttered sheepishly. There was an awkward pause in which both Mako and Bolin seemed to notice how off her game Korra was with all of this formality.

"Well...Anyway," said Bolin, patting Korra's muscular bicep with vigor. Damn, woman. Are you sure you didn't steal that arm from a dude? Mm-mm. "It looks like dinner's getting served up soon!" He pointed out the tuxedo-clad folks buzzing about with trays. "I dunno 'bout you, Kor, but I am hungry."

"Oh, man, me, too!" She was quite eager to leave this weird social situation. And food sounded damned good right now, too.

[link]<--Previous Chapter
Part 2 ---> [link]

[link]<-<--Chapter 1

Man, this chapter kicked my ass. <_< It's easily the longest chapter by far so far, clocking in at a total of 25k words, meaning I actually had to split it in three parts on DA due to size limits.

I'm honestly not 100% happy with every scene in this chapter...but hopefully it was worth the wait, and manages to do all of the narrative dealios it needs to.

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What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 78 - Perfect


- Friday, March 18th, 2011 -

"Ullgghhhhh..."

"I told you to drink some water last night before bed," Katara snipped with a cranky down, rubbing sand from her eyes.

Toph, splattered across her bed, clamped her palms against her temples and rolled onto her side, her sheets in tangles.

"I don't...remember that," she confessed in a whimper.

Katara began to brush her damp mane, still in her bathrobe.

"I stuck a bottle of water right in your hands," Katara sighed, her tone sharp. "I told you. I said, 'Toph, if you don't have some water, you're going to be hung over tomorrow,' and you said you weren't thirsty and ignored me..."

"Oh..."

Toph felt her heart sink an inch deeper into the mud of regret. Katara was disappointed, clearly, and Toph was feeling the same way.

"Why did you drink so much last night?"

"Mm-mm," Toph ho-hummed. "Dunno...Just, like...heat of the moment, I guess."

Katara frowned at her own reflection, stroking her brush along.

"You were complaining about how Sokka was flirting with everyone," she observed, lifting a brow as she cast a sideways glance at her forlorn companion, who was glad to have her face half-buried in a pillow as it began to burn up. "It was...really weird."

"Heh, y-yea, I...-" Toph grunted as her stomach twisted with discomfort. She couldn't tell if it was the hangover or her fear of being found out about Sokka, "It sounded like he was having a good time...surrounded by a bunch of pretty girls. I mean...for fuck's sake, it sounds like...he even thinks Freckle-Face is cute now, all of a sudden..."

Katara's arm finished off its brushing, and she flicked her semi-tamed mass of hair as things clicked. Jane had gotten a lot of attention the night prior - even Aang and Sokka had made remarks on her appearance - and likewise, Sokka had gotten his fill of flirtatious comments. And, erm...reciprocated, fairly profusely. Ugh. Oogies, indeed.

"Yea, well...Jane really tried to look her best yesterday," Katara pointed out. "I mean...If you really want to try to look nicer, or something...I could help." Katara made the offer out of courtesy, but it was one she had made numerous times in the past, and very rarely had Toph expressed interest.

"It's OK," Toph dully replied, as expected. "One of the good things about being blind is that I don't have to waste my time worrying about appearances." Her rigid apathy deteriorated with each word that came out of her mouth. "I don't care what I look like," she grumbled, brusquely shoving gunk from her sagging eyes as she sat up, still clutching at her head. "I'm not looking for anyone's approval. I know who I am..." I'll never be able to understand this shit, anyway. I wish it just...didn't matter.

Katara sat down beside her and rubbed a gentle hand across Toph's bare shoulder. Whatever had ruffled Toph's feathers last night, Katara could tell it boiled down to the truth behind the lie Toph has just told herself - that she didn't look for anyone's approval. Always hearing about Jane being such a tomboy, and then suddenly hearing guys cat-calling her, and even friends admiring her a bit...It wasn't a surprise that it made Toph a little subconscious. She was a bit jealous of the attention Jane had suddenly been getting from boys - that was the issue. It made enough sense.

Maybe some encouraging words would help alleviate that.

"That's what I really admire about you, Toph. You're so strong and confident, and self-assured. And I know it doesn't matter, but...you're really pretty." The last bit had an extra dollop of sugar on top, but Toph could detect the authenticity of her friends' words.

"...I am?" she muttered before an eye squinted shut and she yawned like a lion.

"Yea," Katara chuckled, pushing some of Toph's bedhead out of the girl's face to observe her pale, round cheeks. "You are."

Katara delighted at the smile that formed across that porcelain skin, and smirked when the girl crawled up out of bed, scratching her rear-end lazily.

"I'd return the compliment, but...-" Toph fussed around with her sweatpants as she waddled to the dresser, still in a daze. "I have no idea what you look like. Thanks, Sister-Face."

Katara got up from Toph's bed and stretched as she waited to have her turn at getting clothes for the day.

"You're welcome...Mud-Slug."

As Toph whirled around, a T-shirt and jeans stuffed under an armpit, she slowly stuck out her arm in the direction her friend's had come from, and her knuckles softly squished against Katara's stomach.

"Pulling those affectionate punches, huh?"

Toph cackled, tossing her head back as she began to wind her porcupine-like hair into a ponytail.

"I got tired of hearing you cry like a baby when I hit ya too hard. Heh."

Katara was a bit startled that Toph was ironically so up-and-at-'em today. Based on her movements and occasional groaning, the girl was still a bit ill-stricken from her heavy drinking, and yet she was forcing herself to wake up earlier than necessary.

"Sooo...How come you're waking up already?" Katara wondered, zipping up her pair of slacks. She was feeling in a 'formal' mood of dress today.

"I don't...even know," growled Toph groggily. "Slept like shit, and...I'm sooo hungry right now..."

"Mmmmaybe that's...-" Katara's face expression turned drab as she fitted herself into a blouse. "-...because you hurled up your dinner last night?"

"...Ohhhh yea," Toph sighed, rubbing her abdomen underneath her shirt.

"I had to...clean your yuck off the edges of the toilet," Katara jabbed with a hint of irritation.

"Heh..." Toph picked some dry wax out from the rim of her ear as she fought back a twitch of shame. "S-sorry about that. I was...pretty damn stupid last night."

"Yea..." Katara sighed briskly through her nostril.

"Thanks for...lookin' after me," mumbled Toph warily, working herself into her jeans. "Like you always do," she squeezed in, her attempt at gratitude. Katara observed the gesture and smiled as she searched for a good pair of flat-top shoes.

"I hereby give you permission to strip me of any and all alcohol the next time I'm in a bad mood and try to get drunk..."

"I'm gonna hold you to that," Katara keenly agreed.

"Good, 'cuz I'm gonna be a stubborn bitch and you just gotta be more stubborn back."

"I think I can manage that when I have a mind to."

"Glad to know you've learned somethin' from me after all this time..."

"You teach me how to be stubborn, I teach you how to act your age."

"Hardy har."

"You coming to get breakfast?"

"Said I was hungry, didn't I?"


"Sure, but I didn't realize you were that hungry," Aang murmured with shock, staring at Sokka's empty plate.

"Not hungry no more, at any rate," Sokka grunted, leaning back in his seat and massaging his belly, which felt to bursting. "Aahhhh...I like banana pancakes," he muttered.

"Heh. Yea, they...uh...sure are good..." Aang stared at his plate, having only consumed one of his trio of delicious breakfast confections. He was staring at his roommate cautiously. Sokka was starting to nod off in his chair. "Sokka."

"Hmmzz?"

"You're falling asleep."

"Tsssshhh..." Sokka waved out his arm lazily, his head still bobbed, eyes still closed. "Just resting my eyes..."

"Uhhh...huh." Aang continued to stare at his motionless friend before sighing to himself and shaking his head. He was conflicted about the night prior. It was good to see Sokka, who he knew was still stressed about a number of things, loosening up and relaxing - even being social with people. But the way he acted around Ty-Lee still rubbed Aang the wrong way. Logically, Aang knew there was no reason for him to feel this way, and it wasn't his right to complain now that Sokka was single, but...somehow it still bugged him. Watching the girls fawn over him - even Jane was, in her own way - made Aang uncomfortable. It had seemed to make Toph irritated, too, based on how she'd kept to herself on the edge of the room, only being social just long enough to get a refill on booze. Aang wondered...

Bah, it didn't matter. Aang had learned to keep all this to himself. He worried that Sokka might lead someone on and someone would get let down, but...it hadn't looked like that had happened yet.

"Sokka. It's almost time for class."

In the meantime, though, the idiot needed someone pressuring him along to go to class.

A sharp inhalation later and Sokka was rubbing fiercely at his face, stumbling up from his chair.

"You are not going to survive class without me," Aang picked before chomping down half of his second pancake.

"Got that right," Sokka confessed, streaking his head across his head drearily. It was slicked back, taught tight into his 'wolftail.'

"Sooo...Sokka."

"Yyyisss?"

"Katara's birthday is coming up..."

"Psh, it's like...three more weeks, man."

"W-well, yea, but-...That's kinda soon. Anyway, like...I was thinking-"
"Ohhhh, no. Nnnnope. Nupper. No, no. Uh-uh." Sokka was vehemently twitching out negative gestures. "I am not getting involved in your oogies, no Sir."

Aang's brows furrowed at Sokka's continuing trend of immaturity in regards to the topic.

"I didn't even finish," he spat defensively, stuffing the second half of pancake number two into his face.

"Heh...That was the point," Sokka joked. But he realized he's touched a nerve at the way Aang's jaws bitterly assaulted his meal. "Erm...But...Nah, go ahead."

Aang swallowed hard, cutting up his final piece of food with the side of his fork.

"No, no, wouldn't wanna make you uncomfortable or anything, because I actually take my relationships seriously while you're content to just lead women on while they're intoxicated."

So much for keeping it to himself.

"Whoa..." Sokka frowned, shocked at his friend's burst of hostility. "Geez, dude, I...I didn't think it was that big a deal. Just had some harmless fun."

Aang's shoulders spiked up in a shrug and he ate some more, noting the time. Sokka attempted to protect his dignity.

"You don't honestly think I was...-?"

One of Aang's downward brows arced up at him.

"O-OK, I admit it: it was nice to be surrounded by girls last night." A sheepish laugh with upward palms. "But it was all in good fun, Aang. Nothing serious. That was the point."

Aang licked his chops, deciding he was done with breakfast now and got up from his seat, mostly empty tray in tow.

"And you're sure no one took last night seriously? No one got upset?" Not even the girl who got sick from drinking too much while she got ignored?

"No way!" Sokka insisted coolly, following Aang's actions. As they weaved through the mostly vacant cafeteria, his brain rattled around what he could remember from last night. Giggles, touches, glances, blushing, drinking...that intense moment when he and Ty-Lee had stared at each other for, like, five seconds straight. Oh, damn, good thing he was wearing a stiff pair of jeans today, or people would be able to see...-

"OK, fine," Aang let the matter drop. "All I'm saying is that I'm getting really sick of you being such a baby about me and Katara."

"You and my sister," Sokka pointedly corrected.

"Me and Katara," Aang specified his particular phrasing. "She's not just your sister, ya know. She's her own person, and she shouldn't-we...shouldn't...have to feel guilty about...us...just because it makes you a little uncomfortable some times. The oogie stuff? It was funny at first. Now it's just...annoying...Especially when you're so hypocritical."

"Whhh-?" Air wheezed out of Sokka's lips, but he caught himself. The guy was right. "Uhh..."

"Anyway, I've gotta get to class," Aang puffed out impatiently, before Sokka could react. "Later."


Bolin cautiously stared at the steaming disc of dough, meat, and vegetables that lay before him. As an employee at the local Pizza Hut in Wayward, he seemed to take his job to be a fine art of some kind, which Korra found humorous. Mako's work Korra knew much less about - only that it involved the press in some capacity. He didn't talk about it much and she wasn't inclined to ask, especially with the way he seemed quite nonchalant to her presence since she'd moved in, as if she were a burden to the household.

Bolin had decided that with Korra working at a restaurant, it was his duty to instill in her the skills of bending pizza to her will in the same way he could.

As a result, this was the second meal in a row in which Korra had prepared pizza for dinner. She had a day off after the strenuous St. Patty's shift, and had dedicated the afternoon to Bolin's tutelage. Bolin had been frank with her the night prior, advising that her sauce lacked pizazz and that the pizza had been a bit undercooked. Thriving from the constructive criticism and eager to impress her roommates, Korra had gotten right to work making a more earnest effort this time.

As she cooked, her mind wandered to that old man's words from earlier.

"Pizza is like a team. You need to make sure you use ingredients that work well together if you want everyone to be satisfied."

It hadn't sunk in at first when the bearded old coot had said this to her, but it had sunken into her head over time, and this practice was only serving to remind her about it.

Bolin slapped her arm with the back of his wrist with approval, leaning over the warm dish while Mako stood idly by, leaning against the fridge behind them. His ever-looming presence with an air of apathy was wearing thin with her patience. Then again, Bolin's boundless enthusiasm in her could have an equal but opposite effect...

Bolin's chunky arm picked up a slice of the freshly-cut pizza and he lifted it in his fat hands with tender care, keenly observing its aesthetic and nodding with approval to Korra. He took a bite, his eyes brightened, and he smiled.

"Wow!" he complimented. "Nice adjustment! You're a natural at this..." He went on to consume the rest of his slice, an intricate blend of meat and veggies tickling his senses. It was much better than he'd expected for Korra's second try. For someone who had very little cooking experience, she had been getting the hang of it quite quickly.

Eager to wipe the disinterest from Mako's face, Korra slapped a piece of her culinary concoction onto a plate from the table's stack and delivered it to Mako, who begrudgingly accepted. After his first bite, she could see it in his face - he liked it. But his voice rang hollow.

"...Not bad," he conceded.

Korra's temper sizzled at the indignity.

"What's it take to impress this guy?" she demanded to his younger brother as she snapped her wrist irritably in Mako's direction. Bolin's expression jerked with awkward tension while he struggled to come up with a neutral reply.

Ever since Mako tried to be social with the girl that day at the gym, he'd been a bit overwhelmed by her desire to get to know him and his brother. Bolin, expectedly, was enthralled by this prospect, while Mako simply didn't understand the pressing need for comradery. He had just been trying to be nice and now it was like she was down his throat like they were supposed to be bosom buddies all of a sudden. Just because Bolin was going to dode on her didn't mean he was.

"What?" Mako sighed as he dropped the piece onto the plastic plate in his hand, still hunched against the refrigerator door. "I said 'not bad," he defended himself.

As he was met with Korra's deadpan glare that judged him as loudly as a silent look could, he choked on a chuckle, shaking his head as he let the matter drop, setting his barely-touched food on the countertop.

"You know what?" he pacified the situation with a hint of impatience. "I'm not really hungry right now. I think I'm going to settle down and watch something. You kids have fun," he patronized casually, weaving past them. He wasn't in the mood for this weird passive-aggressive stuff. Korra seemed hypocritical, complaining about her friends having college social drama while she herself manufactured it within the household, throwing off the careful balance he had worked to maintain with his brother.

No sooner had he left the kitchen had Korra rolled her eyes and puffed out her irate frustration, collapsing at the table and staring at her night's work.

"Your brother's a real piece of work," she snarled with disdain.

"Yea, sorry about that," Bolin shrugged off the whole thing. "My brother just gets real...eh...focused...sometimes."

"Focused on what?" Korra instantly retaliated, whipping her arms toward the living room, from which a sportscast could be faintly heard.

"Ehhh...-" Bolin's eyes squinted from the bottom as he fished for some sort of excuse for his sibling. "Juh...Just kind of in general, you know?"

"Right," huffed Korra with empty resolve, tearing into a slice of her food. Oh, wow. Damn, that was pretty good. She made that? Shit, this was...delicious. Now she just had to start doing this at work.

Korra pulled her phone out of her jean pocket and studied its contents while she ate. She'd by and large ignored the device all day.

[From: JB]
[so i was wondrin..those assholes been givin you any trouble aftr ya beat the shit outta em?]
[Sent: 3:46pm]

[Reply]
[To: JB]
[No way, Shamrox. Havent seen em since! ;D Taught 'em a lesson, eh?]
[Sent: 7:21pm]

[From: Aang]
[sry about last night i dont know what happened. thx for helping. plz dont tell katara i dont want her worried.]
[Sent: 4:14pm]

[Reply]
[To: Aang]
[No prob, Guy. My pleasure to put that jerk in his place. Stay outta trouble!]
[Sent: 7:22pm]

[From: Kitty Kat]
[Hey, Jane seems really worried about you today for some reason. Did something happen last night?]
[Sent: 5:42pm]

Korra sighed at her cousin's concern. Ever since Korra had moved down to Wayward, Katara seemed intent on trying to watch over her from a distance, always worried. Ah, well. At least she wasn't being a control freak like she used to be back in high school.

[Reply]
[To: Kitty Kat]
[LOL no, it's all good Kat. I think it was just about those old farts I kicked to the curb before, but they haven't come around since. ;] ]
[Sent: 7:23pm]

"Somethin' up?"

"Huh?" Korra looked up from her phone to Bolin across the table. "Ha." She set the device back down. "Nuh-uh, just catching up with people."

"Making sure no one else got into any accidents?"

"What...?"

"Like your one friend. The scrawny guy. Out in the parking lot?"

"Oh. Heh. Nah, everyone seems fine."

"Ah." Nodded slowly, and they both chewed on pizza for a moment before a coy grin came over Bolin. "Well, you're here with us, and not with them, which definitely means they're safer right now."

Korra stared at him, and her eyebrow lifted as she tried to piece together what that meant.

"B-because...-" Bolin pointed half-hearted at her. "It's, like, because you're dangerous. A joke?" Nope, she was still glaring. "I'm just picking on how people always get hurt when you're aroun-I mean, no-no, that came out wrong!" By now Korra was just maintaining her dagger eyes to get a rile out of him, entertained by the result. "Th-that's a sensitive topic for you these days, right?" Bolin acknowledged warily, speaking in a slight panic. "Just a joke. Humor. Light-hearted humor. Trying to...change the mood. Change the topic. Changing the topic's a good idea, right? Changing the topic, riiiiight...now."

Bolin's green eyes pleaded with her, his body language during the exchange endearing. Unlike other guys, Bolin wasn't scared of her, she could tell. It was more that he wanted to stay on her good side, but...not out of fear or intimidation. She appreciated that, and consequently, snorted out into a small fit of laughter, and Bolin sighed with relief.

"Just fuckin' with ya, damn," she wheezed out, reaching her arm across the table and shoving him in the pectoral. Pfft, kind of a squishy chest muscle, there, Bowly-Poly. Might wanna follow Big Bro's lead and hit the gym a bit more, eh?

"I knew that!" Bolin squawked, practically mocking himself as he dusted off his shirt. "You say it like I didn't know that."

"You almost shit your pants," Korra teased, eyes sly at him.

"You're mean."

For the next hour or two, they opened up a bit to each other, exchanging embarrassing or bizarre work stories, their upbringing, and slowly working their way through the pizza Korra had crafted.

Mako finally made his way back into the kitchen, looking a bit sleepy despite the somewhat early hour. As he opened the fridge and took out a carton of milk, he glanced at the two of them, who were thumb-wrestling like children. Korra was finishing off a slice of crust with her free hand, eyes burning with competition.

Mako rolled his eyes at them. Just what he needed - another infant in an adult body to encourage Bolin's rowdiness. He poured himself a cup of milk and stuck it in the microwave to heat it.

"Woooo!" Korra squealed, pumping her fists up.

"Maaan, you're stronger than you look!"

"Maybe 'cuz I work out," Korra jabbed sneakily, flicking the strain from her hand.

"I do, too..." Bolin whimpered in weak defense. "It's just...been a while."

"Maybe all this pizza isn't helping?" cackled Korra as she grabbed the last slice - her spoils for her thumb-war victory.

"You're still eating dinner?" Mako deadpanned at their delight.

Korra swiveled her head around and cast unsavory eyes of wrath at him.

"You're still being a dick?" she retaliated.

"Oh-hooo, snap!" Bolin chortled, palm to his mouth. "Ouch..."

Mako and Korra's eyes remained locked for a moment, each trying to read the other's issue. Korra found herself momentarily distracted by the odd arc of Mako's eyebrows - it looked plain unnatural - and teared her gaze away.

[BEEEEP~]

Mako huffed through his nostrils in tired amusement and removed his cup, taking a sip of the thick, warm liquid.

"Good night, kids," he grumbled as he stalked off unceremoniously.

When he'd reached the living room, there was a "Yar-yar-yarp!"

"Quiet," Mako firmly scolded as he passed by. Naga let out a small whine.

The puppy's footsteps padded into the kitchen, and Korra smirked at her dejected pet. Bolin gave her some cutesy-wutesy speech.

"Ohhhh, did nasty Big Brother yell at you? He did, didn't he?"

"Stop doing that," Korra snickered, a snort coming out of her nose unintentionally, which only led to more giggles, and she had to grab her chest to try and settle her breathing. The panting breaths of her adorable animal continued, regardless. And Korra couldn't help but give into those precious, bright blue eyes - like her own.

"Naga," she commanded, "Sit, girl." The puppy obediently did as she was told. Korra leaned down, sticking her hand out. "Pawww..." Naga's fat doggy hand lifted up and landed in Korra's strong fingers. She grinned. "Good girl," she encouraged in a hushed tone, lowering the last half of her pizza slice and letting the pup ravage it.

"Dude, think you could teach me how to get my ferret to do tricks?"

"I guess I owe you from these pizza lessons, huh?"


- Saturday, March 19th, 2011 -

"Yuh-huh..." Toph's tone was empty as Jane rambled on, her raspy voice caught up in a small swell of embarrassed enthusiasm. The two of them had been hanging out, practicing a bit of guitar together, when a passer-by remarked to Jane - in a sheepish manner - how well she had done at their recent performance. It was spurred Jane to spill out her repressed glee on the matter, and Toph had to get submerged in it. Bleh.

"This one guy in the crowd, like, up in the front? Man, he was...kinda cute, but...Jeez, he just kept staring at me, like...like some fuckin' creeper." A giggle escape Jane's lips. Ugh. Ew. Jane? Giggling like that? Yuck. No. C'mon, be better than that, JayBee...Giggling over that crap...Ech.

"Ah..." Toph was sprawled out against a tree stump, sitting in the cool grass.

"It was just...all so damned weird, ya know? I-I don't think it was just my haircut or whatever, though."

"Mm...?" Jane seemed so fucking wrapped up in self-serving that all Toph had to do was mutter a bit and she'd just keep rattling on.

"Nah, like...-" Jane nodded to herself, not even looking at the girl wedged against the tree behind her as she analyzed the situation. "Katara said it was 'cuz I was all, like, 'self-esteemed' or...or some shit. Like I was acting a way that made me seem...-" Jane couldn't seem to get the word to come out. It just didn't feel right to say, out loud, that people had found her 'attractive' or 'hot.' The vocabulary felt wrong for her to say herself about herself. "I mean, it's what you do all the time."

"Yuh-huh..."

"All proud and confident and crap, right? Don't give a fuck what people think, all that stuff. It was that. I was doing that, doncha think?"

"Yup..."

"It's been so fuckin' weird, though! Seriously! Even Sokka was eyein' me up," she said in a hushed, baffled tone as she sat down against the trunk beside her friend. "Like he thought I was a different person or somethin'. Ya know, I still remember, one of the first things he told me when we were startin' to be friends, was to stop sellin' myself short. I finally think I get what he meant."

"Mm-hm," Toph grunted, her nose wrinkling at the subject.

"Suki told me she wasn't surprised, said she knew I'd get more attention if I just stopped pissin' in the corner. Ha. Guess I never thought I had that kinda shit in me, ya know?"

"Uh-huh..."

Jane rested her head against the bark peacefully and breathed out deeply, relaxed. She let her eyelids slide closed as she absorbed the gentle spring breezes blowing past them. She had her hair tucked behind her ears today, and the sensation of air whiffing past the sides of her head tickled in a way she hadn't felt in a long time.

"It's nice out today," she observed bluntly, letting Toph's unresponsive nature roll off her back. She is in too good a mood to let anyone else's apathy bring her down.

Toph bit at dry, dead skin from her bottom lip as she bottled up her irritation. Freckle-Face was supposed to be grumpy loner-chick who people thought was a dude, who sat in the corner, kept to herself, and didn't draw attention away from other, better musicians than her. Hmph. Toph was not liking acting-all-girly-and-stupid-Jane. Not today.

"Fuck!" Jane giggled, slapping her palm to her forehead giddily. "I don't even get it, like...Why the shit am I so happy today?"

Well, she was still swearing like a sailor, so Toph figured at least not all hope for Jane was lost.

"I dunno," Toph sighed, reaching to her side to scoop up her guitar from its case.

Music. Damnit. Music. I need music right now. My drug. My sedative, antidepressant, and stimulant all rolled into one.

She strummed at her comforting wooden device and tried to make herself think she was experiencing a euphoric rush a she did so.

"So what's up with you today?" Jane wondered, working in the precision of her tone to ensure she asked in a neutral way that Toph wouldn't construe incorrectly.

"Nothin'."

"You seem...I dunno. Quieter than usual."

"Meh."

"Am I...annoying you, or...-?"

"No, Chr-...You're fine," Toph caught herself, picking away to create part of the melody she had played a couple of nights ago. After she played through the loop once, Jane sang out the mellow lyrics in her gravely voice.

"~And I'm a one girl revolution...~"

Urgh, what the fuck? My music! Mine! Get out, stop singing, guhhh-you-can't-sing-for-shit-I'm-better-than-you-arghhh-

"~And I'm a one girl revolution...~" Jane repeated her singing, pleasantly rocking her head back and forth. The guitar playing cut to a stop, and Jane smiled to herself, enjoying the moment. She cast a sideways glance at Toph, noticing the girl looked livid beneath floppy bangs.

Jane contained a sigh - she knew full well if she let it slip, Toph would hear and freak out about...whatever her deal was. Jane was trying to be above that baby stuff.

Too happy. Haven't felt this good in a long time. Don't get Toph's problem. Not going to let...what was the name again...-? Oh, yeah. Not gonna let Madame Fussybritches bring me down. Heh.

They sat in side-by-side for a few moments while Toph stewed in her own insecurities.

Rrrrmmmm.

Jane checked her pocket, whipped out her phone, and checked it: nope.

Rrrrmmmm.

"Hey, Toph, I think you're-"
"What?" Toph snapped into her phone, having no clue who was calling and not caring much.

["...So you do answer your phone once in a great while."]

Toph's heart sunk into the pit of her stomach. Jane was freaked by the way Toph's expression drained in an instant from irritation to shock and fear.

["...Toph?"]
["Did she hang up on you, Dear?"]
["No, she's still th-...Toph? Can you hear me?"]

Toph managed to regain her bearings and forced out a cough.

"Duh...Dad?"

["Yes, that's right."] Ugh, he didn't sound very happy, either. ["I've been meaning to get to the bottom of this."]

"Bottom of what?" Toph growled, instantly nonplussed. The few calls she'd actually answered over the past few months had been nonsensical attempts at her folks trying to convince her to come home, quit school, and 'relax,' stop trying to 'force her way' into the music industry, and drivel like that.

Jane grimaced, sliding around the tree's trunk a few feet to give her friend some space, but feeling like it'd be weird and awkward to get up and leave the girl alone. Toph hadn't brought her walking cane eager to hang out (back when she was in a better mood), so Jane was pretty much Toph's means of getting back home, whether either of them liked it or not.

["Toph, if you're going to insist on this ignorant fool's dream of becoming a musician and go against everything your mother and I have done for you, the least you could do is leave your poor cousin alone."]

"...What?" Suddenly Toph's tone lost its blunt force.

["Your cousin, Toph. Your poor cousin that you've been mistreating."]

Meng? What did Meng have to do with this?

"Meng? I haven't even...talked with her lately!"

["After what happened with her father last year...-!"] A disappointed sigh. That all-too-familiar sound. ["You know full well how much Meng looked up to you, and to leave the family in the same manner that-"]
"This is totally different!" Toph snapped, her patience today having been whittled down to a thin twig that just broke. "Don't even fucking compare me to him! Argh, that's just...so much shit. And you know it!"

["This isn't about us, Toph. This is about Meng."]

"Where'd you even hear about this, huh? What the fuck did I do?"

["From what Wu has been telling us, it sounds like you've been causing her a lot of grief."]

"We haven't been talking..."

["My understanding is that you offended her."]

"Well...You're...not Meng. Or me. So...stay out of this. I'm not your little helpless freak of a daughter anymore, so just-"
["Your Aunt Wu asked us to make you see reason, to see how much you're hurting her."]

"Not my problem!" Toph hissed at her father. She instantly wished she could take that back, and rephrase it, but...whatever. "I didn't do anything," Toph clarified. Her face was burning, her eyes stung with the beginnings of tears, but the floodgates did not open.

["It's one thing to abandon the Bei Fong family the way you've brazenly done so, but it's another to mistreat your poor cousin like-"]
"Stop calling her that! She isn't a fucking baby, she's practically done with high school!"

["It just shows how inconsiderate you are toward us - your own family - everything we've done for you. You'd rather run off with that no-name boy and-"]
"We broke up," came Toph's stern correction.

["I see. Well, that's the first good decision you've made in some time, but it far from excuses the way you treat this family when-"]
"I'm not part of this fucking family anymore! OK? I'm...not."

["If that's truly how you feel, there's no reason to bring down Meng with-"]
"I'm done talking about this! We are done now. I don't care."

["We shall make sure to pass that along to your cousin, then, To-"]
Click.

Jane swallowed some saliva, incredibly uncomfortable with the one-sided shouting she'd just heard.

"Uhh..."

"Don't," Toph knee-jerked pre-emptively. "Just...don't. OK?"

"Y-yea," Jane rapidly conceded, scratching her brow with concern as she stared at Toph's face, a dark blend of different fruits of negativity.

Toph dropped her phone into the grass and blew out an 'rrrrrghhh' like steam from a kettle before fussing to get her guitar into its case with great impatience. In her haste, she dinged it against the trunk she was leaned up against. She twitched with fright at the impact, a sharp inhalation of breath swinging in. Frozen in place for a second, she felt her hand along the wooden treasure for any signs of damage. Whew. No dents or anything.

I'm sorry, Grandma.

A tear slid down Toph's cheek, her anguish having finally flowed over top the floodgates. She choked on her pride and coughed it up, causing the other eye to drop its load.

"Whoa..." Jane's hand was suddenly on her shoulder, pressing down against the hoodie she was draped in. Her muscles tensed at the initial contact, but she let them loosen. "Geez, Dead-Eyes, you-...I don't know what to...-"

"So just don't," Toph whimpered in a growl, sloppily rubbing her face in her sleeve. She didn't know where it was coming from - but what the fuck else was new, right? "Let's just...go back," she huffed, wedging her guitar into the case and snapping it shut. Jane slung the guitar she had once again borrowed from Suki - for practice - over her back and stuck out her bee-striped elbow for Toph to latch onto. Perhaps today was the right time to make due on what she had been practicing...


Side by side on Katara's bed, the two of them stared up at the ceiling in relaxation, fingers intertwined over Aang's waist. It was a pleasant quiet for a couple of minutes as their heartrates slowed down and once-tense muscles settled down.

"That was...good?" Aang muttered, seeking approval. "Right?"

"Heh." Katara smirked, scratching her nose lazily. "That was good," she administered a dose of esteem to her partner.

Aang coughed once, cleared his throat, then sighed, letting his head sink into Katara's pillow.

"I'm sorry about...-" He gestured to his abdomen. "-...the pants...thing..." He grimaced in spite of his own seemingly childish neuroticism. He was shirtless, but still in a pair of jeans, Katara like-wise. Katara could tell he'd been specifically avoiding letting his glance fall below her face.

"Aang, it's OK," Katara warmly assured, slipping her hand out of his own and sliding it across his bare stomach. "One step at a time. Seriously. It's fine."

"But...-" Aang sighed in frustration. "But I know you...want...more. Right now."

Katara breathed out slowly, the air passing through her nostrils and against Aang's neck.

"What I want and what we need are not the same thing," she concluded with a properness in her voice.

"I just...-" Aang was interrupted by the tingling of Katara's lips on his shoulder, and his eyes closed as she kissed a second time.

"'You just' what?" she asked, rolling onto her stomach and twisting her head to face him. He flopped onto his side and they enjoyed each other's eyes for a moment.

"I just...want this to be perfect," Aang confessed. "I mean, you're the one, Katara. I just know you are. We can only do this once, I don't want to mess it up like...-"

"Aang," Katara laughed with some bewildered amusement. "The 'one?' I think it's a little early to decide that, don't you think?"

Aang rolled his eyes, a stupid grin crawling across his face. He squirmed a few inches over and kissed her forehead.

"If you're going to demote yourself like that, then...can I at least say that you're special?"

"You can say that as many times as you like, my Penguin, in as many ways as...-"
Aang had stolen a kiss on the lips, and she surely didn't mind this. It was slow, but a single movement, and he pulled back after, smiling at the way her eyes were still closed, her lips grasping out for seconds.

Since when did you become a teasing little jerk? thought Katara with humor in reaction to Aang's mannerism.

"See?" Aang pointed to his chest. "That was me, practicing being proactive."

"A-pfff! Nicely done, Aang," she patronized, lifting her brow with endearment.

"I never want you to think I'm not interested," he explained himself with a touch of solemnity. "Even if...-" His hand wriggled in a circular motion over his body. "...this...seems like it's not cooperating..." He stared at her with all due serious. "I want what we have to be perfect," he reiterated. "Because that's what you deserve." Katara's cheeks flushed at the dire importance he had put into his words, the piercing gaze he'd delivered. She didn't know how else to react other than to bury her face into his chest. Her lips jerked up as she felt him studiously readjust her bra strap, which had come loose a bit in this motion.

"Nothing in this world's perfect," she noted, resting into the solitude of his form. "We just make the best wh-"
The clicking and rattling of the doorknob by the foot of Katara's bed startled them from their tranquility, and was rapidly followed up by brisk triple-knock.

"Juhhhhst a sec~" Katara sheepishly sang out. Aang was already on his feet, popping his shirt back on. Well, there was one benefit to his shyness, at least - for the time being she didn't have to worry about them being caught with their pants down, heh. Aang walked to the door and hovered by the knob, waiting for Katara to work her way into a shirt that had a small penguin woven by the hip. She nodded to him and he unlocked the door.

An impatient, obviously foul-tempered Toph rammed right into him, her face colliding with his shoulder. Wide-eyed, he stumbled backward. Katara knew better - to get out of the way when she opened the door. Poor Aang was not accustomed to this detail. Toph lashed out her palms, pushing Aang another step back.

"The hell, Sugar-Qwoo...-?" As soon as those hands had contacted the familiar chest, in that instant she understood. "Aang?" It was a guy, for sure, so who else could it be?

"H-hiya..." Aang swooped backward, retreating to Katara's side, sitting cross-legged on her bed.

"Oh, wassup, man?" Jane greeted, still in the doorway.

"Hi, Jane," said Katara calmly. Aang nodded and waved his hand to Jane as Toph kicked her sandals off, whipping them into their shared dresser's base before dropping her guitar case to the floor and collapsing into her bed.

"Hey, Toph, what's going...-?" Katara began, but Jane had quickly stormed in, waving an arm out in front of her. In an instant, Katara saw Jane's face, teeth grit with doubt and eyes open with concern. She was slicing her other hand across her neck rapidly, shaking her head in almost a vibration.

Toph was curled up, her back toward them. She didn't reply.

"Uhhhh, hey, Katara, Toph seems...tired," Aang politely acknowledged. "Why don't we...give her quiet, and, er...go back to Aero, play some Mario Kart?"

Katara winced at the prospect of leaving her upset roommate, but Aang tugged at her wrist. Jane slapped her arm and offered a quick, concise glance that communicated, 'I got this.' Katara honestly wasn't in the mood for damage control and at once was very keen on seeing Jane being so...initiative.

"Yea, that sounds...good," she muttered. "I'll be back later, Toph," she called out.

"I'll be..here," Toph growled back.

A moment after the door closed behind the couple, Toph snorted out steam.

"Looks like they're off to go make out somewhere else..."

Jane held back another irate sigh and spun Toph's chair around, sitting in it backwards, facing her distraught friend. She didn't say a word, but simply waited...and listened. A few moments later, and words came out from Toph.

"Why are you still here?"

"I was still in the mood to hang."

"Uhh...Yea? I'm not."

"You want me to leave, then?"

"...Erm..."

"'Cuz if you need space, or somethin'..."

"I don't need space," Toph snipped. 'Needing space' was something over-emotional girly girls did. Hmph.

"OK," Jane puffed out, entertained by Toph's oddness today.

"I...-"

"Yea?"

"I want things with my cousin to be better," admitted Toph begrudgingly. It was the only thing on her mind now - the idea that Meng was so upset and lonely that it was causing ripples in the family or something...It was bad enough to have her parents disappointed in her, but Meng, too?

"Mmm..." Jane had only heard Toph's end of the phone chatter, but things made a little bit more sense now.

"I mean, fuck, I...I have been avoiding her," Toph sighed. Damnit. The tears were coming. In front of Jane, even. Christ, Jane didn't want to see this...

"Meng?"

"Yea..."

"You feel bad about your parents?"

"Wh-? Nooo, no way, I...-"

"You sound like ya do..."

"Mmm...I-I mean, maybe a little..." I've really hurt them. I could hear it in Dad's voice. But...but they've really hurt me. "Ugh, it's like no matter what I do, someone is pissed off at me. Or hurt. Or whatever the fuck. I mess everything up. It all turns to shit, everything I touch. Argh, and even this crap! I stay away from it, right? Still gets fucked up. I'm sick of feeling like I'm this big bitch, and everyone can't stand me..."

Jane smiled with sympathy.

"I know how that goes..."

"My fuckin' Dad, using...my cousin like that..."

"Huh?"

"Trying to guilt trip me. Just an excuse to talk down to me."

"Ah..."

"But...he's right...I mean, Meng looks up to me, and...she's always been nice to me when everyone else looks down on her and...ugh. I really let her down. She was doing all these nice things and I just...fuckin' acted like I deserved it."

"Mm..." Jane was sure that much was true, but agreeing was probably not a good idea at the moment. She was practicing what both Sokka and Katara often did with her when she was upset - this whole 'listening' thing, heh.

"I mean, I get it," Toph coughed out, readjusting herself so she was sitting up against the head of her bed. In that movement, Jane could see Toph was indeed tearing up from all of the thoughts swirling about. "I'm a bitch. I let everyone down all the time...You, Sokka...Katara...my cousin..." She sniffled in a shaky breath, her lower lip quivering. "...Aang. You, too."

"Hey, shit happens," Jane tried to make light of it.

"Yea, it does," snarled Toph in self-loathing. "All the mother-fucking-fuck time, ugh." She pounded her fist into her pillow. "When I'm around..."

Jane was having an increasingly more difficult time containing her sighs and eyerolls. She decided to give Toph a moment to herself.

"That's not true," she casually dismissed. "Hey, listen, I gotta hit the bathroom. Be back."

Jane slipped off to the restroom, and while she was there she sent a text message.

[To: John boy]
[youd be proud im all trying to fix peoples probs n shit lol]
[Sent: 6:10pm]

[From: John boy]

[ :) ]

[Sent: 611pm]

It was astonishing, the relief and confidence a single smiley face could instill. Jane pondered things. She could try again to explain to Toph where she was coming from, and how they related on different things...but Toph wasn't being receptive to words. It was the right time to bust out her trump card.

She popped back into the dorm room, wary of Toph's waterworks faucet being twisted off at her entrance.

"Hey. Back."

"I figured," came Toph's caustic reply.

Jane's eyes went dull with chagrin, but she pushed the reaction aside.

"So, uhhh...-" She glanced down at Toph's guitar case. "Mind if I borrow your guitar for a bit?"

Toph's pasty face boiled with scorn.

"Why?" she sharply spat, leaning forward, her head cocked sideways.

"I just...-" Yeesh. I hit a nerve or something? It's not like I don't know how I use a guitar. Not gonna break it. "-...figured I'd play somethin' for ya."

"...Huh?" Brows bent down, perplexed but intrigued. "I-I'm...not in the mood to practice that song again."

"No, no," Jane quickly corrected. "I meant, erm, a different song."

"Which one?"

"One I've been putzin' with on my own."

"Oh..."

"I dunno, thought it might cheer ya up..."

The hell is up with this? Toph wondered. I can't read Freckles at all today. She's not leavin' me alone but she's not jumping down my throat, either...

"Um...-" Toph considered the prospect of letting Jane handle Granny-Gran's heirloom. It made her rather uncomfortable, and yet...something made her feel at peace about it. "Yea, all right," she gave in, keeping up her aloofness. "But...be careful with it," she pleaded.

"No prob..." Jane gently unlatched the case and took out the instrument, surveying its contours, the worn nature of the wood, the taut strings...It was antiquated and yet clearly more loved than the one she'd been borrowing from Suki.

Toph leaned back against her headboard and wheezed out in mental exhaustion.

"I don't even understand myself these days," she groaned, her face in her palm.

Toph's acoustic guitar in hand, Jane sat down on Toph's bed beside her. The blind girl's face was still red and damp from her recent self-pity party.

"Know what your problem is lately, Dead-Eyes?" said Jane with a smirk. Toph's head spun toward her friend's voice, pale eyes dripping. Jane plucked a string. "You're losin' all that self-confidence and shit that makes you so awesome," Jane decided, smiling with warmth. She knew Toph couldn't see it, but she hoped it could be felt.

"Hmph..." Toph's directionless eyes narrowed, her arms crossed stubbornly around her waist as she twisted her head away.

Jane sighed out peacefully, her smile remaining, and began to strum gently at the guitar. She sung, her raspy voice carrying its unique quality.

+ http:/www(dot)youtube(dot)com/watch?v=Xj1u4vYjFRg +

"~Made a wrong turn once or twice; Dug my way out - blood and fire; Bad decisions? That's all right~"

Toph's brows tilted in confusion as she dabbed her wrist against her wet eye.

"Are you...-?" she mumbled, trailing off while Jane didn't skip a beat.
"~Welcome to my silly life~"

"~Mistreated, misplaced, misunderstood; Miss 'no way it's all good'~"
Jane could feel her freckled cheeks turn red as her mind ignited with the troubled events of her past.
"~It didn't slow me down~"

"~Mistaken, always second guessing, underestimated~"
Through the memories of hardships came the more recent thoughts of the friendships she'd forged this year, and she found herself smiling through it.
"~Look, I'm still around~"

"~Pretty, pretty please...don't you ever, ever feel~"
Jane turned her glance sideways while she played, her expression and singing filled with conviction, and she observed Toph's reaction, which was confused, startled...and appreciative.
"~Like your less than fuckin' perfect~"

"~Pretty, pretty please...If you ever, ever feel...~"
Toph's face was boiling with embarrassment as a feeble hand covered up one of her now watery eyes, a sheepish, toothy smile of gratitude overcoming her.
"~...like you're nothing...You're fuckin' perfect to me~"

Jane's heart burned with what she imagined Katara felt every time Jane had been in Toph's current position.

"~You're so mean when you talk about yourself; You are wrong~"

Toph sighed, flopping her head down and letting her ponytail fall over her shoulder. She felt pretty certain she was right in being mean to herself...

"~Change the voices in your head; Make them like you instead~"

As Toph tugged at her own hair thoughtfully, Jane bumped her hip into Toph's as she continued to play.

"~So complicated; Look how we all make it; Filled with so much hatred; Such a tired game~"

We've all been making things more complicated than they need to be.

"~It's enough, I've done all I can think of~"

I'm sick of it, we should just...stop it.

"~Chased down all my demons, I'll see you do the same~"

Jane's eyes were now trickling out a couple tears, her rough memories getting the best of her.

"~Oh, pretty, pretty please...don't you ever, ever feel...like you're less than fuckin' perfect~"

Toph's eyes closed and she just let Jane's encouragement wash over her.

"~Pretty, pretty please...if you ever, ever feel...like you're nothing, you're fuckin' perfect to me~"

I'm so selfish. Trying to hog music to myself. She's giving hers to me.

"~The whole world stared so I swallowed the fear; The only thing I should be drinking is an ice cold beer~"

"I hear that!" Toph cheered with a grin, wiping leftover droplets of tears from her face.

"~So cool in line and we try, try, try; But we try too hard, 'n it's a waste of my time~"

I'm done wasting my time, Toph - trying to be someone I'm not.

"~Done looking for the critics, 'cuz they're everywhere; They don't like my jeans, they don't get my hair~"

You can never make everyone happy, Toph.

The boys seem to 'get' your hair now, Janey-Jane.

"~We change ourselves and we do it all the time; Why do we do that? Why do I do that?~"

"Why do you do that?" Toph teased in the break between guitar strumming, thinking of Jane's haircut.
"I don't fuckin' know," Jane laughed before instantly jumping back into song.

"~Yeah; Ohh, pretty, pretty please...~"

The two were laughing again, and Jane's singing got choppy until she recovered.

"~Pretty, pretty please...don't you ever, ever feel...~"

Toph was brought back to the thoughts Jane was dunking her in.

"~...like your less than fuckin' perfect~"

She sniffed, wiping her nose with her sleeve.

"~Pretty, pretty please...if you ever, ever feel like you're nothing...~"

Settling her head on Jane's boney shoulder, she dipped her brain in Jane's music.

"~...you're fuckin' perfect to me~"

This wasn't how other's felt when she sang...because it wasn't about them.

"~You're perfect, You're perfect~"

Perfect? Hardly. I've only been singing for myself.

"~Pretty, pretty please...if you ever, ever feel...like you're nothing...~"

Maybe I should follow you, Janey-Jane.

"~...you're fuckin' perfect to me~"

Say with music what I can't say with words: 'I'm sorry.'

Having completed the song, Jane let loose a deep, relaxing sigh and plopped her head against Toph's, plucking out a few gentle concluding chords. This was...weird. Pleasant, but...weird. This was that "girly bonding time" that people like Katara were all about.

"Uhh...-" Jane coughed, lifting herself off of the gentle interaction that had lasted longer than she had felt comfortable with. "So...So yeaaaa...That, uh...How was th-hurrkk." A punch to the stomach. Not too hard, but it was unexpected.

"That was...fucking perfect," Toph said with a corny voice, spitting out her tongue. "Exactly what I needed today...Since when did you get good at...'comforting' people?"

Jane smiled, bobbing her head left and right a she leaned over the bed's edge, setting Toph's guitar back in its case.

"Cheh...Right? Not exactly the norm for me. But...-" Jane's lips slid up with respect, warmth, and gratitude. "Kat's been a good teacher."

Despite not being able to see the particular expression on her friend's face, Toph's own matched it.

"I know whatcha mean..."

"Just figured I'd stop letting her carry all the shit, heh..."

"Yea? Well...Cool. Mm. It's-...Thanks."

"You're welcome."


A/N: DeviantArt user ooamaimomooo (who did the Taang argument strip a while back) is in the process of comic-izing part of that last scene with Jane/Toph bonding time. =)

Song is 'Perfect' by P!nk. A bit of referencing to episode 2 of Legend of Korra (which had an online premiere and will officially start airing April 14th!). And since a number of people have asked, yes, The Toph/Meng situation will finally be approached directly next chapter.

As always these days, there's been more artworks added to the SRU gallery.
destiny-smasher(dot)deviantart(dot)com/favourites/41510260

Thanks again for all of the comments and support as we get closer to the end (chapter 100). ^_^

destiny-smasher.deviantart.com/art/What-I-Learned-at-SRU-77-290899151<--Previous Chapter
Next Chapter-->[link]

Thumbnail from an upcoming comic by :iconooamaimomooo: depicting part of the last scene of this chapter.

Expect to start seeing more blunt and direct Korra references now that the show has started.
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A/N: A bunch of SRU artworks have been added to the gallery, including a fantastic preview pic of a future scene with Jane and Korra.

http:/destiny-smasher(dot)deviantart(dot)com/favourites/41510260

Anyone following the SRU Tumblr account got a preview of this chapter, so those more dedicated folks out there can feel free to keep an eye out, I'll probably keep doing that.

http:/saint-roku-university(dot)tumblr(dot)com/


What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 76 - Chance


- Monday, March 14th, 2011 -

"Right. See? You've got it," Aang encouraged, rubbing his elbow against hers, his hands occupied with the game controller in his hands.

"Uhhh...-" Katara's voice was shaky as she was trying to keep up with the pace of what was on screen. "S-so, like...-"

The on-screen vehicle leaned heavily into a turn, the little mushroom-man in the driver's seat twisting the wheel fiercely. Katara immediately reacted, flicking her control stick left and right. Sparks began flying from the wheels of their car before it boosted forward. A childish squeal popped out of Katara's lips.

"I've got this," she chirped, her tone regaining its confidence.

"OK, so you also gotta watch out," Aang cautioned as a box in the top corner rotated through items. "'Cuz you're also in charge of the items, too..."

An alarm began beeping at them, and the pink-dressed princess in the backseat held up a banana peel.

"So, like, right there, it's a red shell, so you...-"

But Katara had already dropped the banana peel, cancelling out the oncoming attack.

"I remember how to play Mario Kart, Goofus," she teased. "This one's just...different."

Aang had introduced Katara to Mario Kart a while back, but this was the first time she had ever played Double Dash! before. It was quite enjoyable, both of them playing as characters in the same kart. He had figured she'd find it endearing and...about as romantic as Mario Kart was capable of being. When they won the first race and she kissed his cheek, he knew he'd made a good choice. A few grand prix sessions passed by as they both got into things. Aang was charmed by how cute Katara was as she was taking this somewhat seriously, interested in learning how to play effectively.

"Looks like penguins and Eskimos make a good team," Katara announced as their characters celebrating earning another trophy. She was endeared by how Aang had come up with his own activity for them to do together, and pleasantly surprised by how much she was enjoying it. Mario Kart had previously proven a bit crazy for her to comprehend in the past with all of the items flying around, but letting her boy take the wheel while she learned how to shoot shells and deflect attacks was making things easier to take in. He was easing her into things one step at a time this way.

After their victory, Katara's arms wound up snugly wrapped around Aang's waist.

"Hey, Sweetie..."

"Yea?"

"I was playing as Princess Peach, but...how come you played as Toad?"

"What's wrong with Toad?"

"Nothing." She laughed through her nose and ruffled his hair. His scalp was super dry, his hair almost like hay today. "I just-...I dunno, I figured you'd play as Mario."

Aang shrugged and dropped a small smooch on her shoulder.

"Mario's...like...the hero," he muttered. "But Toad's the royal retainer. He looks out for the princess and does anything she needs for him..."

Katara frowned slightly at this, a bit perplexed.

"But Mario saves the princess..."

"W-well, yea, but...you don't need saving," mumbled Aang with a sheepish grin.

"I guess not," Katara agreed coyly. A curious explanation from a curious young man. She was fascinated by his mindset, and he was tickled by her questions, always seeking to understand him.

She ran her fingertips beneath his shirt along his hairless stomach.

"You lost some weight over the past couple of months, didn't you?" she noted. Just because they hadn't been dating earlier didn't mean she wouldn't notice this kind of thing.

"Heh..." Aang shrugged timidly, but she read him easily. 'Yea, I did.'

"All that jogging, right?"

"Mm..."

She leaned herself against him as he clicked the game to go back to the menu screen.

"Weren't you doing all that running to try and get on the track team?" she asked, suddenly reminded of his previous goals.

"Oh, uhh...-" Aang swallowed hard and shrugged half-heartedly. "Yea, I...I was..."

"'Was?'" She rubbed her head against his twice, opting not to put him on the spot with eye contact. His hands set his own controller down and rested on her arm.

"Yea, I didn't get in," he clarified. "Things, uh-...Well, my priorities changed," he explained with warmth, reaching to his side and rubbing blindly at her jaw with his thumb.

"Ah-haaahhh..." Katara's eyes slid closed and she kissed his neck lightly. He was wearing a different cologne today than usual. Whatever it was, it was working. Still sitting, they awkwardly pressed abdomens together, hugging tightly as Katara left kisses like raindrops across his neck. She could tell he enjoyed it, and he reciprocated afterward. As he did so, the back of her mind juggled the question, 'Is he comfortable? How come it seems like I'm always initiating? Am I maybe messing something up here?'

They made out for a minute or so and she tried to let the lingering doubts go...But they kept hold. After they broke apart, arms still across backs, she whispered a question.

"Is this all OK?"

He nodded slightly, and rubbed her nose. She distracted him with more kissing, and clasped at his wrist. She knew Aang well enough to understand that with some things, she'd have to show him it was OK in order to get him to know he was fine initiating in these matters. She planted his palm against her chest, and it lingered there, motionless. A moment passed, and then the hand quickly retracted at the sound of the door opening. Lips leapt away from each other, chins tucked on shoulders, and hands went back around waists as Sokka walked in, only to freeze in place two steps into the room.

"Gyughhh," he shuddered. "Oogies in my bedroom?" he seethed, eyes narrowing at Aang, who smirked up at him.

"It's his bedroom, too," Katara quipped back cheerfully, not even turning to look at her brother, who huffed through his nose at the remark.

"Yooouuuuu guys..." he growled at them, index finger quaking in the air as he stomped over to his side of the room, unslinging his backpack. "You're lucky that I've got a meeting to go to, or I'd...-" He pulled a folder out and tucked it under his shoulder.

"Go to your meeting, Bro," taunted Katara. Aang grinned widely, and Sokka pointed at him with silent accusation before heading back out. Closing the door behind him and walking down the hall of Aero, he smiled brightly to himself with relief that his sister and his roommate both seemed to be so enamored with each other. It was reassuring, in a way - two wonderful people he loved finding some happiness in people who could give it back to them. It was a beautiful thing, he had to admit.

A beautiful thing he remembered all too well.

He wondered what he'd have to do to find such fortune once again.

Was there even a chance?


Sokka was floored by this proposition. Was this for real? He realized his jaw was agape when Piandao cracked a smile at his stare, and he wiped his clammy palm across his face to sober himself from the excitement.

"I had a hunch you might feel that way," said Piandao knowingly. "Which is why I'm not taking 'no' for an answer."

At this, Sokka allowed himself to smile and a baffled laugh escaped him.

"I don't even know what to say," he breathed out, staring down at the folder in his hands. He swallowed hard, then looked back up with a hurried, "Thank you!"

"Don't thank me just yet," chuckled the professor. "It's not like this is set in stone - you have to impress my friend first."

"R-right!" Sokka sputtered, fumbling with the folder and sticking it across the desk to Piandao's extended hand.

"Let's have a look at what you've got here," the man muttered to himself as he opened the contents onto his desk. Sokka watched Piandao adjust his external USB camera. Piandao was waiting for the video connection to start up - the video chat Sokka had no forewarning about.

Sokka's mind raced with possibilities. A shot at a paid internship? This could be exactly the kind of opportunity he'd been looking for. The professor had advised Sokka to bring some samples of the ideas they had discussed off and on in their conversations so he could take a look at them. The goal, Sokka had just been informed of moments prior, was to compile these works into a portfolio Piandao would endorse to his personal friend - the one who worked at the trading card company - in the hopes of landing Sokka an internship there. While it was highly unlikely that he'd be doing something like designing their cards, any kind of experience in that sort of creative kettle could prove valuable - and with some luck, he was told, he might be able to find a job within the company.

Piandao's theory revolved around Sokka's fascination with history, wars, battles (and the tactics employed), and mythology - all the kinds of ideas that went into designing the kinds of strategy games his friend's company worked with.

With the idea - the possibility - now planted into his head, Sokka's mind was reeling, and he was swimming in a quickly flooding state of creativity when Piandao cut off his thought.

"We're all set up?" Piandao was speaking, seemingly to no one. Then the computer speakers replied.

["Yea, we're all good here."]

"Great. So, I have my friend Sokka here - that student I told you about - I just figured I'd have him show you some of his ideas, just to give you a feel for what he's about."

["Sounds good, let's see it."]

"Sure thing."

Sokka's hands were tightening around the edges of his chair. Who was this man on the other line? The monitor was pointed away so he couldn't see, and yet...arghh, nooo...Piandao was rotating the spheric camera around to face Sokka, who sheepishly waved and nodded to it.

"Sooo...What's this, exactly?" Piandao asked him with a perplexed look, flipping around a print to him.

+ http:/destiny-smasher(dot)deviantart(dot)com/art/Wangfyre-Dovahkiin-279642450 +

Sokka shrugged, his face flushing pink briefly as his professor flashed it before the camera.

["Wow, that's pretty solid work."]

"Oh! That! Yea." Sokka's intestines were crawling. "That's, uhhh...something my friend drew up for me," he explained, hoping to draw focus away from the image. He'd tossed that in more to show Piandao in a personal setting, not...this. "I designed it, it's just...I can't draw, and so...-"

"But what is it?"

Sokka's brain danced with mischievous thoughts of the fantastical story his mind had crafted to tell the tale of the warrior presented in the picture. A great bearded oaf with a magic sword who saved the innocent and nobly slayed the dark dragons that plagued the mystic lands, belting out words of magic to cause...mystic...magic...stuff...to transpire. And such things.

Yes, the character did look startlingly like himself - but with a much more luxurious beard (handsome devil!). Yes, aspects of the design were borrowed from somewhere else. And OK, yes, the more he thought about it, the more it was a somewhat blatant self-insert of himself into a fantasy world of a video game he was anticipating a lot and...-

Oh God. What hell hath I wrought? I'm no better than Katara and her Harry Potter fanfiction. How have I not seen the error of my ways until this moment?

"Yea, it's-...W-well, my friend and I, we kinda like, made a version of...of me, but like...in this fantasy world and...and I dunno, it's...just a design. I just thought it was cool."

"I see," Piandao mumbled, eyeballing the picture, then Sokka, then the drawing once more. "As I'm looking through these, it seems a number of them are drawings..."

["Yea, lotta neat creature designs in there."]

"Yea, that's right," Sokka nodded, hoping the particular print Piandao had brought up would fade in with the rest.

["But you just said you don't draw."]

"Th-that's true, those are pictures I designed, I had him put them together. Like, the concepts, I meant. I came up with a lot of the concepts."

["You got the files for these?"]

"Huh?"

["Digital. Do you have digital copies of this stuff?"]

"Yeaaa, yea, I can...ya know...e-mail those to you with the application."

["Great."]

Piandao nodded thoughtfully in response to this brief exchange as he continued to scroll through the stack, making sure to show the images to the camera to give an impression.

"So you coordinated with your friend on these images?" Piandao checked.

"Exactly. Because, like, I'm an 'Idea Guy,' you know?" Sokka rambled on, hoping he was making sense. "It took some work to coordinate those designs, and...and like, I've got docs in there that lay out the mechanics and lore of the world, so...-"

"It looks like you...already have the concept to a strategy game laid out here," Piandao noted, intrigued.

"W-well, yea, I guess I just thought it might...I-I dunno, be a good way to...-"
"Run us through it."

["Yea, what's the hook to it?"]

Sokka blinked at him, wide-eyed, his stomach emptying. All of these personal, generally private ideas he'd been brewing over the past year with Aang in his spare time, laid out on paper in words and images, and here he was being asked to explain it? He hadn't prepared for this.

"Err..." He gawked, jaw slightly agape, pointing dumbly at his own project.

As Piandao slid the folder across his desk his student, Sokka began fumbling around, trying to remember what parts of his concept would make the most sense to start with. he was having difficulty with that prospect.

"W-well, as you know...this idea that my roommate and I came up with...f-for a strategy game. I mean, I know you know that, because - apff - why else would I be here, showing it to you? Ahehhhhnyway!" Sokka went to scoop up one of the images but dropped it, and the paper floated downward, dodging his clumsy hands as he fumbled to pick it up. He grabbed it from the floor carefully and quickly dropped it back onto the table, his brain degrading with worry and self-doubt, his stomach empty and gurgling.

"So, this world we came up with-" he began, his stupid hands hastily sifting through the jumbled pile - Piandao had rearranged them, argh - to find the correct drawing. "-the map for that's right here. No-uhh wait-uhh wait-uhh wait-it's here." He stabbed his finger into a very rough drawing of a map. He was talking a mile a minute by this point, caught on the spot. "So the world's made up of these four different races and they each are able to use different kinds of powers and they're been at war for like a hundred years and so that's bad for them but it's good for us because it sets up this place for all of these battles to happen right?" He wasn't even looking at Piandao at this point, just rattling out words incoherently. Sokka interrupted himself with a long-winded huff. "I'm sorry. Let me start at the beginning." He bobbed his head for a moment of recollection before bursting out a rapid-fire string of narrative that had Piandao concerned yet bemused.

"Katara-and-I-met-Aang-last-school-year-now-I-didn't-like-Aang-at-first-but-I-grew-to-love-him-over-time-and-then-my-sister-really-grew-to-love-him-more-recently-but-I'm-getting-ahead-of-myself-and-so-anyway-Aang-and-I-became-roommates-and-so-we-spent-a-lot-of-time-together-and-"

Piandao tuned him out for a few moments, carefully observing the concepts laid out in his bullet-point documents - and a crudely drawn flow-chart - complimented by rough sketches of various stylized figures using the 'powers' Sokka must have been referring to. It seemed like it had some potential, and at least wasn't so stereotypically Tolkien-esque in its design, which he was admittedly expecting after hearing about the lad's interest in such fantasy worlds.

"-got-the-idea-from-how-the-campus-has-the-four-dorms-with-the-four-elements-theme-going-on-and-so-it-just-made-sense-to-turn-them-into-"
"OK." Piandao thrust up his palm , growing nervous himself, hoping to ease Sokka down. "Sorry," he apologized to his friend. "I put him on the spot here - this was an impromptu thing," he advised. "But we can get all of the digital files sent to you later to look at it in detail. But Sokka," Piandao eyeballed him sternly, hoping Sokka would get his act together, as this wasn't the best first impression. There'd have to be a little damage-control afterward. Perhaps this hadn't been such a great idea, to spring it upon the poor kid on a whim. "Just explain to us the basic ideas of how it works."

Sokka's eyes were wide, his heart thumping fretfully, fingernails digging into the wooden arms of the chair he rested in.

"Y-yea, I can try and do that..."


- Tuesday, March 15th, 2011 -

Aang was concerned. Sokka had seemed discouraged all day. Aang knew his meeting had not gone well, as Sokka had briefly explained it, but he hadn't discussed any details. As Aang sucked down his water through a straw he stared at his roommate, his worry refusing to lift. Sokka was nibbling at a Philly cheese steak, reading a text book to make up for time he should have been studying the night before, drowning his cares in video games.

Toph was complacently by Sokka's side, eating her twin-set of fries (curly and steak-style, respectively) without much to say. The others were elsewhere, unable to partake in an extended lunch on this day. Eventually, though, she ended up speaking up through their quiet meal.

"What's the deal with you guys?" She received an awkward glance from Aang and a cold shoulder from her booth neighbor. With furrowed brows, she nudged Sokka's arm with her palm. "Huh? Not nappin' over there, are ya, Snoozles?"

"Wha...-?" Sokka snapped out of his trance.

"Tch, what's up? I don't need to see to tell that you're all gloomy."

Sokka puffed out a sigh and cast his gaze to Aang, who was offering a curious look. He shrugged, seemingly drained of all mental strength, and gave in to their prodding.

"I had a meeting last night with my professor - the guy helping me try to find a job I actually care about?"

"Piandao," Toph recollected his name effortlessly, having been quite attentive when Sokka had been rattling on about their friendship a few days prior.

"Right. Well, so...last night, I went to his office, and he had me do, like, a sort of informal interview for an internship."

"Whoa..." Toph didn't know what else to say, knowing little about what kind of internship it was, or what this even entailed.

"Yea. It would've been a great opportunity..."

"...Would have?" Toph knew this wasn't going anywhere good, but hell, Sokka deserved some good luck at some point, right?

"I messed up, Toph..."

"...What?" Sokka? Messing up? He was the idea guy. He wasn't supposed to 'mess up.'

"Going for that internship was my moment of truth - and I completely flopped it," he groaned with self-aggravation, his voice cracking. "I just...fell apart."

"Sokka," Aang sighed out, insisting on speaking up now that it was out in the open. "That meeting wasn't your moment of truth. That was just public speaking, and...nobody's really good at that."

"Katara is," Sokka countered, offering Aang a disparate look.

"That's true," Toph was quick to agree.

"It wasn't even public speaking," Sokka further contested, glaring down at the remnants of his lunch. "It was just two people."

"Look," Aang adamantly pressed, slightly cutting one hand through the air while he stabbed a cherry tomato with the other. "Your moment of truth isn't going to be in front of a webcam talking to some stranger. It's going to be out in the real world, doing what you love."

"But..." Sokka's glance rolled away from his friend. "I don't know what I love..."

"Wait, wait...A webcam?" Toph interjected.

"Guh, yea, it...-" Sokka snarled out in frustration, rubbing his forehead tiredly. "-...was this really unofficial kinda thing, just like a video chat, and I just...blew it."

"Sooo...It wasn't actually an interview, then?" Toph checked.

"No, but...-"

"Then...make sure you nail the actual thing, right?"

"But I've already made a bad first impression," Sokka grouchily dismissed. "I just look like an idiot now."

"Fuck that," Toph was quick to spit out with a tint of disgust. She lightly slapped at his shoulder, practically scolding him for his lack of zest. "I don't know if remember this, with that Meat-Head of yours and stuff, but I used to be the master of bad first impressions."

"Used to be?" Sokka taunted. Toph's heart sparked with glee at that hint of the Sokka she knew well, and she made a point to turn her head his way and project a frown, lifting an arm quickly to make a shot - her elbow ended up banging against the hardwood top of the booth and she flinched, retracting her assault as he snickered.

"Smart-ass," she seethed, rubbing her elbow - shit, must've hit the funny-bone. Argh. "My point is that just because you screw up at first doesn't mean you can't make it right. I mean...-" Her insides squirmed with a touch of awkward memory, a tingle of longing as she dwelt on the past. "Tw-...Aang over here still managed to win me over even when he pissed me off at first..."

Aang grinned at her analogy, acknowledging how true it was, but fed Sokka his take on things.

"I think what she means is that she was a total jerk at first but that we still ended up as friends..."

Toph crossed her arms over her lap and gave an "Mm-hm" of concurrence. "Even fuck-ups can make things right if they work for it."

Sokka hummed and hawed over their encouragement, taking a couple bites of his meal, and the others did as well.

"Yea," he finally admitted. "Maybe I can just...make sure everything's totally in order for the application."

"And-and-aaaand...-" Toph forced in an amendment, leaning into his side. A-ha. You're wearing a T-shirt today. Bingo. Oh, don't mind me, just appreciating my arm touching yours, heh, that's all. "-...if you give it a solid try even after looking like the goofball we know you are, maybe you'll trick them into thinking you're...I dunno...determined, or something..."

Sokka shot her a snappy glance of indignation before easing her off of him and shaking his head, a smirk coming through.

"Toph's right," said Aang. "You can't just give up before you even try."

"OK, OK," Sokka gave in to their positive spirits. "I get it. Don't count your rotten eggs before they're chickens..."

"...Uhhh...-?" Toph's confusion melted into a giggle. "Yeeeaa, that...didn't make any sense."

"It did in my head," Sokka huffed, the lack of energy in his brain getting the better of him.

"Sounds like you need some coffee," Toph advised.

"Or some Red Bull," Aang chimed in.

"Uh, yea-no," Toph curtly disagreed, readjusting in the booth with care, foxily arranging herself under the guise of shirt-realignment so that the edge of her leg was just barely brushing against Sokka's. She coyly slipped an arm across his back, squeezed, and jabbed an index finger into his shoulder. "We gotta keep this guy away from that stuff or else he'll go runnin' around nekkid again."

Sokka was non-plussed by their proximity but amused at her bringing that situation up - again - and he shook her off him gently.

"Ya know, I don't get why you would care," he retorted. "It's not like you're capable of appreciating my exquisite physique." He slapped his own beefy palm against his arm. Toph could detect just by the sound that it was more flab than fab, but it was endearing to let him think highly of himself like that, and her mind wandered to the gutter ever-so-briefly, contemplating how incorrect his statement was: she could appreciate such things, but eyes weren't the tools she had to use...

"Oh, right," she scoffed. "I think you must be deaf, 'cuz I said we wanted to prevent you from de-clothing. I'm already blind, we don't need anybody else losing their sight, too."

"I'm sorry," Sokka flatly rebutted, "I can't hear you over the sound of how awesome my muscles are." He flexed his arm repeatedly in front of his face, evidently for his entertainment, but Aang found it amusing in some capacity. He was joking, at least, so that was the right direction to go.

"Whaaaaat?" Toph called him out with disbelief. "Aang, tell it to me straight: 'muscles?' Really? I'm not buyin' it..."

Aang's mouth was full, and he shot Toph a bewildered look, but he didn't have time to respond. Sokka's face pouted for a split second, his ego dampened, and he grabbed Toph's hand carelessly, latching it onto his half-heartedly flexed bicep.

"See?" he insisted. "Muscle."

The pressure was on now - Toph's innards were tingling and she could feel the blood seeping through her face, though she frowned with a plastic disapproval to mask it while the very kinds of thoughts she was trying to keep out were wrestling with her logic. OK, yea, he did have some muscle in there somewhere...

"Tssh, yea, maybe a bit underneath the flab, dude..."

"You could work out a bit more," Aang passively tossed out advice from his own recent experience.

True, Toph's mind conceded, But then he'd be a bit less squishy, and...he seems fine as a squishy sack of meat, I think.

"Meh," Sokka blew off the idea. "Too much work. Ya can't force perfection."

"Don't we sound a bit full of ourselves?" Toph teased.

"Oh, please," Sokka retaliated. "Like you don't act that way when it comes to music."

"Obviously. That's because I am perfection when it comes to music." She grasped her hand from his arm to his neck to his head - upon locating it, she administered a condescending pat. "You, though? You're just delusional." He swatted her hand away, his lower lip sliding sideways in embarrassment.

"Hey, that reminds me," Aang cut into their moment of banter. "Are you actually playing on Thursday?"

"Say what now?" Toph spat out, barely recovering from her flirtatious encounter as she played innocent, pointing her head toward Aang.

"For Saint Patty's Day? Aren't you guys playing at the concert thing?"

"Oh! Duuude, yea, we are," Toph declared. "For the first time in...a while. Right?"

"Holy crap," Sokka gasped, smacking his own forehead. "It's Saint Patty's Day on Thursday..."

"Yea," Aang slowly went along with him as Sokka stared at him, jaw agape. "Aaand...this means...-?"

"We gotta drink," Sokka blurted out in a hushed voice, as if he were stating the obvious.

"Fuck yea," said Toph with a smooth smirk. Aang shrugged at this. He wasn't opposed to alcohol in a social setting, but he was technically underage for such things. The United Republic was having a local band concert to keep college students occupied, and no booze was going to be present, so Sokka's scheming was a bit disconcerting.

"Well, there's...not going to be drinking at the concert," Aang tossed out the fact calmly, indifferent to the matter.

"We'll figure something out," Sokka assured. "Maybe pre-game it, or something."

"Uh, but how is it pre-gaming if you're not gaming when you go out?" Toph pondered this ever-pressing question. At this moment, anything Sokka said was ever-pressing in her ears.

Aang had to hold back his objection - namely, the fact that the girls were supposed to be performing as a band, and that alcohol wasn't a keen idea before such a task - but he held it in, deciding there wasn't a point and that they'd end up concluding that on their own in time.

Sokka shrugged fiercely at Toph's muttered inquiry.

"I don't frickin'...know. I didn't make up that phrase."

"So maybe it'll be more like post-gaming," Toph decided, acting like she hadn't heard a word he'd said.

"Whatever 'gaming' it ends up being," announced Sokka, fanning his hands out, "I'm gonna make sure it's, like...multiplayer. Co-op. Something. 'Cuz drinking's no fun when you do it alone."

And there Toph's mind went, back to those insatiable thoughts. There would have to be some 'Number 3' in the bathroom tonight. Fuck, now the idea was in her head, and nothing to stop her from acting on it...And by the way, what the shit? Where was this even coming from, anyway?

"Sokka, you're talking about something bad, aren't you?"

Toph's heart skipped a beat at the sound - it was Suki's voice.

"What? Poppycock," cawed Sokka, puffing up his chest. "I am a proper gent, milady."

"As always," Suki sighed with amusement, rolling her eyes. "I'll have to look forward to seeing this 'gent' come out at some point."

"Oh, how it will," Sokka hissed defensively. "The naysayers and the doubters, they will eat their crow."

Suki snickered at his over-acting, and Toph bit her lip with impatience. The fucking hell was this? What did Suki want?

As her laughter faded, she cast her eyes to Toph, who's leg was jittering up and down from her toes - barely touching Sokka's with each motion.

"I heard you crazy people from the other side of the restaurant, but I just wanted to check in with you, Toph: I never heard back from everyone, but is tomorrow night at six going to work?"

"Six is too early," Toph answered briskly, happy to protest with passive-aggressiveness. "Need time to eat before the cafeteria closes."

"Seven, then?" Suki rolled along, not minding one way or another.

"Sure, that's fine," Toph mumbled.

"Great, I'll double check with the others, but if you see them, would you let them know for me?"

"Would if I could," Toph snipped back, her agitation bubbling over at the girl's presence leeching away Sokka's attention. She tilted her head to the side, pushing back her heavy bangs and pointing to her own face. "But I can't 'see them,' so, umm...-"

"Sorry," Suki sheepishly blurted. "Uh, but...if you run into them, it'd-"
"Which is more likely, given that, again, I can't see-"
"Right!" Suki whimpered, whacking her own forehead with her wrist. "Sorry again. But if-...Yea...Let them know, would you?"

Toph didn't respond to this, though, but Suki was bidding her farewells.

"Catch you tomorrow, Toph. Have a good one, guys."

"Yea, see ya, Suki," Aang managed to work out after gulping down the last clump of his salad. He'd been consuming it as fast as he could, suddenly aware of the time and his need to head out.
"Tootaloo," Sokka coolly waved her off, much to Toph's chagrin.

A silence fell over them, and Toph was using the last of her fries as a distraction.

"You and Suki still seem pretty...OK with each other," Aang observed quietly.

"We are," said Sokka, nodding to himself with satisfaction. "I mean, it's just technicalities that weren't working out, we didn't have some big blowup, like...-" He caught himself and zipped his lip, but before he could manage to recover his train of thought, Toph brought to attention the elephant in the room.

"Like me and Aang?" She puffed out a disgusted gust of air at her bangs, tussling them about.

"Well, I wasn't-...But...yea, I mean...basically." Toph could hear him swallow hard from shame. Heh, that's right, better watch that mouth around me, Buster.

"Hey, it...is what it is, right?" said Aang, down-playing the entire situation and trying to move on. "What's past is past. Just because you break up doesn't mean you can't still be friends, right, Toph?"

"Right," Toph rigidly acceded.


A/N: What a coincidence, we're about to hit chapter 77 (lucky number!) which will be about St. Patrick's Day, and what holiday is about to transpire? I don't think I could've planned this myself if I'd tried. Tidbits in this chapter were based on tidbits of the start of the episode Day of Black Sun.

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I would -assume- it's probably obvious to Avatar fans reading this, but Toph's sudden attraction to Sokka and his obliviousness to it are directly inspired by the show.

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What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 91 - Keepsakes

"We don't inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children."
~ David Brower


"Yea, I'm knee deep in articles for the Lotus this weekend, I won't have time until Sunday night. That reminds me, Ursa, you can't forget to get those photos developed tomorrow." She sighed at her empty CPO box - no mail. Not even today. Go figure...

"Don't worry, Kya, I'll take care of it," Ursa insisted from across the way, sniffing at the bouquet of roses she'd received.

"Rad. And Joel, did you finish editing that...-? Joel?" Kya frowned. As usual, Joel Fitzpatrick was off in another world, this time preoccupied with whatever he'd received today.

"What do you have there, Joel?" Ursa wondered.

Joel didn't respond, his olive eyes scanning the hand-written page eagerly. Ursa could see his freckled cheeks turning pink as his eyelids slid down with day-dreaming affection at the photograph that had been included with the letter.

Kya swooped around with a sneaky smile, teasing the orange-haired young man, who quickly stuffed the photo in his jacket's vest pocket.

"Looks like it's from his galpal." She flashed Ursa an amused smile and pushed her rounded glasses up slightly, nestling them on her brown, bulbous nose.

"Ha." Ursa raised her chin at her friend. "Someone is jealous that they're not getting love letters like the rest of us." She waggled her pink, unopened envelope in the face of her darker-skinned companion, her roses wedged in her arm.

"Take off, eh!" Kya grunted playfully, shoving Ursa's letter away from her face in retaliation.

"Y-yea, come on, Ursa," Joel mumbled out, coming to his senses as his profuse blushing faded. He folded his mail and placed it alongside his new photograph in his jacket. "You shouldn't tease her about that."

The trio wandered away from the post office portion of the campus center's basement, making their way upstairs.

"Maybe if she got her nose out of her books once in a while, she might find a cute guy," Ursa continued her taunting, tilting the textbook in Kya's arm off balance. Kya caught it before it fell to the floor.

Kya put out a "Pfft!" and tucked the book under her armpit. "Like you did?" she teased right back without skipping a beat. "No, thanks, I'm not into older men."

Ursa shot an exaggeratedly appalled gasp, her brows up high.

"He is not an older man!" she seethed with some embarrassment, smacking Kya's back.

"He-...But...-" Joel scratched his lanky fingers through his bowlcut of orange. "How old is he?"

Ursa's jaw stiffened as her narrowed eyes avoided her friend's slightly judgmental looks.

"He's in his thirties," Ursa confessed, trying to pass the age difference off as unimportant. "That is not old."

"Old enough," Kya chuckled, rolling her eyes. "He's, what? Ten years older than you?"

"Yea," Joel murmured with some surprise. "I mean, he's not...a professor or anything, is he...?"

"Nope!" Ursa remained resistant to their judgment. "He's not even from around here."

"So, then...who is he?" Joel wondered. It had only been a few weeks, that he'd known and Joel had never met the man of mystery. Based on the way Ursa had talked about this man, they'd been involved for some time, though they'd kept it under the radar from people until more recently. Even now she was still being coy about it.

"He's Kurosawa's little brother," Kya whispered judgmentally in Joel's ear.

Ursa flicked a few dark bangs from her eyes and smiled, apparently proud of herself.

"What? Get outta town..." Joel opened the door at the top of the stairwell for the girls.

"Mm-hm," Ursa hummed in confirmation, passing by Joel. "And he's a radical boyfriend, thank you very much."

"By 'radical' you mean...ridiculously rich?" Joel muttered with suspicion.

"Yea. He's a total Asian stud," Kya noted with flat sarcasm as she followed. She whispered into Joel's ear, "I had to listen to them on the phone last night? Blech, gag me out the door..."

Joel stumbled along behind the two young women, struggling to not stare at Kya's hips. She was wearing those brown corduroy pants again - they were always really distracting to Joel for some reason.

"You are jealous," Ursa insisted with mischief.

"Totally am not."

"You're jealous to the max!"

Joel rolled his eyes at Ursa's stupid slang. These two girls seemed to like flinging around silly words left and right.

"Look at your-...! Joel, look. Look at her nose." Ursa pointed an excited, long-nailed index at Kya's head. "It's wrinkling up."

Scratching his fingernail at his eyebrow awkwardly, Joel blinked with wide, confused eyes at Kya's flustered expression.

"Erm..."

"What? No, it's...-!" Kya fumbled, pinching her nose down as if to straighten it out.
"Admit it!" Ursa egged, giggling at the discomfort she was causing.

"You're so lame," Kya blurted out with impatience. "She's lame, isn't she, Joel?"

The young man had gotten entirely used to being stuck in the middle of these two, but he did have his bias.

"You can be kind of lame sometimes, Ursa," Joel was quick to back Kya up as the group entered the Avatar Center Lounge.

"I'm teasing," Ursa placated, patting her hand on Kya's shoulder. "Did I tick you off? I'm sorry."

Kya's slight irritability quickly faded.

"What's gotten into you today, anyway?" Kya mumbled suspiciously.

"Nothing!" Ursa coolly wrote off. "Why?"

"You are acting more air-headed than usual today," said Joel, unslinging his backpack and setting it beside the couch they'd approached. Ursa stuck her tongue out at him briefly, and he sternly advised, "It's not nice to pick on single girls on Valentine's Day."

The three of them sat down, with Kya in the middle. Ursa set her unopened letter - with a wax seal - beside her fresh flowers down on the coffee table before them. The center was riddled with various holiday decorations. Balloons, mostly. Kya found balloons to be a bit tacky.

"It's really not a big deal, guys," Kya persisted to blow off any concern for her emotional well-being.

"I am totally sorry," Ursa jibed with a seemingly innocent shrug. "Is it wrong for me to think that it's criminal how guys aren't interested in my beautiful, intelligent, best lady-friend?"

"Oh, brother," Kya puffed, though a grateful smile leaked out at her friend's compliment. "I'm not-...You know, maybe I'm not interested in dating right now. There's more important stuff to worry about, eh?"

"Like what?" Ursa goaded.

"Like...the Order?" Kya whispered sternly in her friend's ear. Ursa immediately sent a 'don't-talk-about-that' glare Kya's way.

"We all...have our different priorities," Joel hastily changed the subject. "You'll find the right guy eventually, Ky."

Kya sighed and shrugged passively, trying to present herself as uncaring.

"Not here, I won't," she lamented, drumming her fingers on the cover of the psychology textbook in her lap. "Second semester of Senior Year? I just don't see it happening."

Joel bobbed his head to the side in recognition.

"Plenty of fish in the sea," he said.

"Mm..." Kya pushed back loose strands of messy brown hair and rubbed at her eyes. "I guess so." She tugged at her thick, matted braid and shrugged. "Not really looking for a Ring By Spring, here, guys. No, thanks."

"Fair enough," said Ursa. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"I'm not upset," Kya calmly explained with an amused smile. "Just...hearing you guys, all stoked about who you're going to be with...it reminds me of how in a few months, we're all...not going be here anymore." She was gazing across the busy campus center with a forlorn expression. "Ursa, if things with you and this guy work out, you could be living in an entirely different country maybe. And Joel, you're going back to New York, right?" Kya coughed, clutching at her chest with discomfort.

Joel nodded thoughtfully.

"Right..."

"See? Big plans, moving to new places. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy for you guys. But me? I don't...have any big plans. I'm...probably going to end up stuck back where I was before. I don't really have any plans, or...any purpose. What I have here? In Wayward? That's pretty much been my purpose. I don't really know what I'll have left once that's taken away." Kya coughed again, and dug her hand into her pant pocket, pulling out her inhaler. She breathed in a dose, cleared her passage with a miserable whimper, and gazed out across the campus center with longing. "I'm really going to miss this place."

"You make it sound like your life is going to...to be over once you graduate," Joel sighed. "Isn't it supposed to be the opposite?"

"Hm..." Ursa tapped her cheek in contemplation. "Didn't Kurosawa say something about this sort of thing at the last meeting we had?"

"Huh?" Kya's eyebrows arced down, her memory failing her.

"Iroh. At the last...meeting? He said-...Darnit, what did he say?" Ursa looked to Joel expectantly, but his lips turned down in confusion and he shook his head quickly. "Oh, yea!" Ursa snapped her fingers. "That's right. He said...-" She cleared her throat and spoke with a slow, mellow voice. "'Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not.'" She beamed with pride at remembering their tutor's words of wisdom. For such a young professor, Iroh sure seemed like a guy ahead of his time.

"I...guess I wasn't paying attention," Kya muttered. "Sure sounds like something he'd say, though."

"You are going to find a purpose in your life, is what I'm getting at," Ursa encouraged, rubbing Kya's back.

"Not everyone needs to have some...pie-in-the-sky life ambition," added Joel. "I mean, didn't you say you were thinking of just finding work for a local newspaper?"

"I...I don't know!" groaned Kya. "It's not even about that, guys, I mean...ugh. I'm going to miss you two. And everyone else here. You know?"

"Ky, Baby," Ursa cooed, nudging her roommate. "Don't be so sad! We're going to stay in touch. I promise."

"Yea," Joel agreed. "Besides, there's always Homecoming, right?"

"Oh, right! I'm such a hose-head." Kya facepalmed herself. "We...-" She sucked in a deep breath and nodded to herself with newfound enthusiasm. "We should make a pact to come to Homecoming each year. Yea! It...It'll be perfect! We can go to the dance, and visit Iroh, and...see how the school paper's doing! It'll be...tubular."

"To...the...max?" Joel slowly eked out, eliciting a giggle from the girls that he let himself slip into.

"I'm in," Ursa belted out rapidly, sticking out a down-turned hand. Kya, suddenly grinning, smacked her hand overtop Ursa's.

"I...guess I don't have a choice, do I?" Joel laughed sheepishly, gently setting his own palm atop Kya's soft skin.

"Then it's settled!" Kya declared. "We'll all come back every year! For the rest of our lives!"

"Wh...what happens when we get...old?" Ursa muttered.

"Like your boyfriend?" Joel mustered out with a wink.

"Then we'll bring our families with us, of course," Kya matter-of-factly decreed. "And you all can meet my future husband, whenever he decides to exist. Now stop bickering and do the handshake, guys! You're killing me over here."

The three grinning students lifted their stack of hands and slammed the column downward, reciting the phrase they had come to use as their 'Newspaper Team Motto.'

"Goonies never say 'die!'"


- Sunday, May 8th, 2011 - Last Day of Spring Break

"Rrrrr...rrrr-rar! Rarrr..."

Korra sighed with relief from her spot on the living room couch, watching her puppy wrestle with Meelo for a piece of plastic rope. Meelo tugged the chew toy left and right, but Naga's teeth gripped the opposing knot with rigid determination. Meelo began growling back playfully at the dog.

"Heehee! Korra! Korra! Kor-kor-kor-!"
"What...Ikki?" Korra sighed, looking to the other side of the room.

Ikki spread her arms out, showing off the ferret perched over her shoulders.

"He likes me!" Ikki decreed with jubilant pride, moments before Pabu scurried down her back and bolted toward the kitchen. Ikki pursued him.

Jinora, beside Korra on the couch, rolled her eyes at her siblings from behind the cover of her current book: {Catching Fire} Korra had regretted even asking what it was about, as Jinora's long-winded explanation about post-apocalyptic reality television was baffling to say the least, as was Jinora's continued use of the name 'Peetniss.' By the time the teenager had uttered the phrase "Ell-Oh-Ell," Korra was entirely convinced that whatever scene this girl was a part of, it was not for her.

"So, guys..." Korra began, trying to regain some order amidst the chaos. "Stir-fry for dinner?"

"Ohhhhh!" Ikki approved.
"Awwww!" Meelo did not.
No reaction from Jinora.

Korra nudged the teen with her elbow.

"Hey. You hear me?"

"Mm."

Korra frowned slightly at the young woman's distant attitude, getting up and heading to the cramped kitchen to try and get food ready. Mako had gone to visit Asami for a few days, and Bolin was currently at work. Korra was exhausted from a full week's worth of work - the stresses of trying to adjust to a new job, and then being pulled into babysitting duties on one of her days off...it was a bit much, but she'd tough it out. No big deal. She needed the pay, anyway. The kids had been bugging her for the past couple weeks to see her pad and meet the pets, and someone needed to be around to keep an eye on the critters, anyway...so Korra had let Pema know that they'd be at her house for the evening.

"Can I watch TV?" Meelo cried out from the living room.

"Pabu! Pabuuuu~" Ikki sang out, crawling under the small kitchen table, trying to grab the animal.

"Yar-yar-yarp!"

"Uh...-" Reaching into the fridge, Korra was distracted by the head-pounding racket. She could hear the TV get switched on, and flinched her eyes shut in a moment of frustration. "Yea, that's fine!" she groaned out to Meelo. Ikki was giggling like a fool, and now Naga was in the kitchen, barking at her and Pabu.

As Korra gathered a bag of rice and got the rice-maker ready, Jinora marched into the kitchen with a sour look on her.

"Korra, is there some place...quiet...I can read?"

"Erm...How about, uh...the front porch?"

"Some place that isn't cold?"

"Yar-yarrp! Rrrrrarp!"
"Ewwwww! Naga! No...licking!" Ikki's voice made Korra twitch with discomfort from the squeakiness.

Korra sighed tiredly, containing her impatience, and redirecting her focus on Jinora.

"Uh...Yea, you can...read in my room for a little bit, I guess. Until dinner. First door at the top of the stairs."

Her book nestled in her arm, Jinora swiftly took off.

"But don't touch anything!" Korra quickly called through the bustling noise.

"Gross!" Ikki went to the kitchen sink to wash her hands of dog saliva.

Korra laughed at this misfortune as she prepared a frying pan for the vegetables.

"Where's the bathroom?" Meelo demanded, suddenly behind her. "I gotta poo."

"At the end of the hall upstairs," Korra advised.

"'Kay." Meelo stood in observant silence, staring at Korra's back with an intrigued expression as the woman began to fry food. "Anyone ever tell you that you got a big butt?"

Korra's expression flashed with surprised indignation, and she whirled her head over her shoulder to shoot the creepy kid a glare. He grinned devilishly, scampering away.

Yea, you better run, ya little pervert.

Korra could overhear noise from the next room.

"Yarrp!"

"Heyyyy!" Ikki snarled at her brother as he passed through, heading upstairs. "Don't say stupid stuff like that to Korra! That's rude!"

"Heheh..."

"Pervert."

For once, you and I agree on something, Ikki...

Things seemed to finally quiet down long enough for Korra to prepare food for the lot of them. She set up a folding chair at the side of the metal table and draped a picnic-patterned cloth over it. She filled three plates up with rice and vegetables, placing them at the table with exhausted indifference. Napkins, forks, soy sauce, er...Crap. The only thing to drink in the fridge right now was beer. Gragh. She hadn't had much care to go grocery shopping yesterday on her one day off this week. She resigned to tap water for the trio for right now.

With everything set up, Korra at last incited a dinner call. Meelo eagerly bounded from the couch, his sister not far behind. Korra ran her hand through her loose hair as she switched off whatever weird cartoon they'd been watching.

"Jinora!" she shouted toward the stairs, picking up a few candy wrappers from the carpet. How'd those even get there? She hadn't given anyone candy... "Dinner!" Korra clarified after a few moments. She went to the kitchen, dropping the debris she'd collected into the garbage.

"Thanks, Korra!" Ikki pleasantly chirped.

"You're welcome," Korra back with a weak but warm-willed smirk.

"Yea, it's good," Meelo added.

"Thanks."

Korra watched the two eat their grub for a minute or so, lost in thought. As Meelo dumped gratuitous amounts of soy sauce all over his food and Ikki berated him for it, she couldn't help but think back to times gone by when she'd visited Katara and Sokka, back before...-

Hey. Where was Jinora, anyway?

Korra trekked up to her bedroom, the door closed.

"Jinora? Do you want to eat cold...-?" But Korra stopped her sentence when she'd opened the door.

Sitting on her bed, Jinora was gaping up at her with surprise, a wooden box in her lap - opened. It was rectangular, with a crescent moon engraved into its lid, plainly visible.

"How do you...turn it on?" Jinora muttered curiously, her head cocked to the side as she gaped at the contents.

Korra's nostrils were flared, eyes flaming with rage as she stomped to to the bed, slammed the box shut, and ripped it from Jinora's grasp. The girl jumped with a start, leaning away from Korra's furious motion.

"What did I fucking say?" Korra seethed, swiftly placing the box in its normal resting spot in her dresser. She shoved the drawer closed in a bitter motion before spinning around to confront Jinora's petrified eyes.

"I-I'm sorry," spat out the girl. "Ih-it was...right next to the lamp here-" She gestured shakily to Korra's night stand, a couple of feet from where she'd been sitting. "-and I...I was just curious-"
"I said not to fucking touch anything!" Korra hissed through grit teeth. "Didn't I?"

"Y-yes," Jinora squeaked.

A tense moment of silence passed, Korra's eyes quivering with rage.

"Just...-!" Korra snorted air through her nose. "Go eat your dinner," she darkly commanded, trying to keep her cool.

Jinora, her jaw agape with fear, scrambled to scoop up her book. She fumbled off of the bed and hurried out, her head hung in shame. She looked about to cry - but then, so did Korra, in an entirely different manner. Korra's fiery eyes stayed glued to Jinora's fearful form until the girl had disappeared down the stairs, leaving Korra with a moment's reprieve. She lingered in her bedroom doorway, leaning against her propped up arm, digging her forehead with bridled frustration into the back of her wrist.

Some guilt was setting in - on multiple levels - and Korra knew that right now wasn't the time for it to bubble up and out. She had never snapped like that in front of any of the Rabten kids before. She ought to apologize, or...some shit. Ugh. But she had specifically said...-! Gragh, but that didn't mean she had to blow up like that, it was...just the one thing no one else was supposed to touch. Korra had completely forgotten that she'd left it out in the open from the night before. The day's events had been rather unscheduled, with babysitting duty being sprung up on her with little warning, and she hadn't expected anyone to be in her room today. It helped her sleep at night, and she'd been careless in not putting it away like usual - that was all there was to it.

Between this and the "just checking in" call she'd received from Uncle Hakoda earlier after a day home alone to her thoughts, Korra's mind had been hanging heavy with memories she hadn't wanted around. It seemed like everything was making her think about things she didn't want to think about today. She could hightail it from Ontario, like her parents had, but even so, the cold regrets and sorrow didn't let go - not when she was alone. It took new living conditions, new friends, a new job...a whole new life...in order to completely make her forget the black spots on the old one.

And really, what right did Korra have to be so upset about the past, anyway? Katara and Sokka, they sure had much better reasons than she did. And they toughed it out, which meant Korra certainly ought to be able to manage. But this weekend, mostly alone, had been stinging at her soul.

Korra was pulled back to the present by the sound of Meelo's laugh from downstairs, consequently followed by an irritated Ikki scolding him, no doubt. She sucked in air through her nose and hesitated. Her legs were a bit wobbly, weakened from the weight of her own thoughts. She needed a moment - she needed the bittersweet sound. The sound of metal clattering against plates downstairs assuring her that the kids would be fine for a minute or two, Korra quietly closed her bedroom door.

She went to her dresser. She opened her top drawer. She pulled out the box. She opened it.

The scuffed plaque on the interior of the box greeted her like an old, wrinkled smile on a grandmother's face.

In ornate cursive writing, it spelled out: {KESUK}

She breathed out with comfort at the metal mechanism that rested within the box. It looked untouched, at least. With care, Korra rotated the metal pin on the side of the device, then let go. Its tiny gears began to turn, and the music box woke up long enough to calm Korra with its melancholic but hopeful tune.

+ Youtube.com/watch?v=W81x-2wpJMk +
('Legend of Korra Main Theme [Music Box]' - arrg. by 'tinysaurus')


"Our heritage and ideals, our code and standards – the things we live by and teach our children – are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings."
~ Walt Disney


- December 25th, 2000 – Christmas

The Kesuk family listened with intent awe as the metal device rotated, plinking out its somber but soothing melody.

"That's our family's song," her Aunt Kya explained from the couch. Uncle Hakoda's wide arm was hung over her shoulder, and she was leaning into his side. "That music box has been passed down through the past couple of generations. It's a family heirloom. Gran-Gran gave it to me. Now I'm giving it to you."

"Oh..." Korra was unable to peel her eyes from the cylinder, mesmerized by the way the mechanism created metallic sounds.

"I think she likes it," muttered the short woman to Kya's side. The two ladies grinned at Korra's lip hanging open in awe at her gift. "Thanks, Kya. I'll make sure she takes good care of it."

"I'm sure she will, Senna," Kya said with a confident nod. "You always took good care of your things, after all." Kya turned to her opposite side and said to her husband, "Senna was a bit of a neat freak back in the day."

"Still am," Senna announced with pride. "And you're still a bit of a slob, aren't you?"

Senna gave her old friend a bemused look, and Kya grinned with some embarrassment. Senna and Kya had been friends growing up in the same neighborhood. After she'd gone through college at SRU, Kya had returned to Canada to discover that Senna had gotten involved with a beefy young man named Tonraq. Through Tonraq, Kya had become acquainted with the man's brother Hakoda, whom she'd swiftly fallen in love with. Hakoda's mother had delighted at the prospect of the Kesuk's Inuit heritage being blended with other Inuits.

"She still is," Hakoda chuckled. He leaned forth a bit and said to his Senna, "I remember Kya told me that when she'd come to visit your house, you'd complain about needing to pick up after her."

"I sure did," Senna regarded this. "Kya would make a mess everywhere. My mother's head would explode every time."

"Remember...-?" Kya giggled. "Remember how when I would come to sleep over, you'd get upset when I left my stuff in your bedroom? You'd...you'd poke at it with your toes until it was pushed behind your door?"

"I remember," Senna sighed with a raised brow. "Some times I find myself having to do that with Korra. Seems your daughter is quite the opposite of you, though."

Kya nodded and smiled, watching Katara digging under the tree, reading a label on a present, and shouting out her brother's name so she could hand it to him.

"Ah, cool," Sokka responded, grabbing it eagerly from his sibling's hand.

"What do you say?" the eleven year-old girl demanded with a snippy tone.

"Errr...Thanks," Sokka grumbled, rolling his eyes and stepping back away from the tree.

"In some ways, she's like me," Kya acknowledged in reply to Senna. "But Katara certainly is a lot cleaner than I am."

"She gets that bossy sass from you, though," Hakoda teased his wife.

"Ha." Senna crossed her arms over her lap, watching her thick-framed husband re-enter the room with an old suitcase in hand. They watched Korra's father place the suitcase down gently and call Katara over to look at it.

"This was your grandfather's," Tonraq told his niece. "Your Aunt and I thought you might like it. You can use it when you travel."

"Whoaaaaa, it looks old," Katara whispered in shock, running her hands on the faded stickers and scuffs along the case's surface. "Wowww, thanks! I'm gonna use it right now!"

"At least your girl's similar to you," said Senna to Kya from back on the couch. "My baby's nothing like me. She takes after her father, all right."

"I can hear you, ya know," Korra pointed out with suspicion, carefully closing the music box from her cross-legged position on the living room floor.

As Korra tenderly set the old device on the glass coffee table, she received a sneaky grin from her mother.

"We know. You like the box?"

"Yea," Korra immediately responded. "I love it." She nodded with vigor to the person who'd bestowed the item to her. "Thanks, Aunt Kya. I'll take good care of it, I promise. But...-" She cast a glance to her younger cousins behind her. Sokka was trying to brag about his medieval-themed Lego set, while Katara was stuffing new books she'd received into the suitcase her Uncle Tonraq had given her. "-...why'd you give it to me?" Korra muttered in perplexation.

"Gran-Gran insisted that the box goes to the oldest woman in the next generation," Kya said with a shrug. "Besides, I want you to have it."

"We have other things to give to our own kids," Hakoda added. "But you're a Kesuk, too."

"Ah..." Korra dipped her hands into her back pockets as she contemplated the significance of this gesture.

"That's right," Kya agreed. "We want you to be proud of where you come from, Korra." Kya watched her niece's glazed over eyes flicker with consideration at this sentimental idea before the girl finally lifted her head up, smiled back, and nodded. Kya knew this kind of thing was outside of her niece's standard range of interests. Korra, still a teenager, seemed rather independent and eager to fly the coop rather than stay home with the family and be cuddly and nostalgic. It was a nice change from the norm to see the young lady showing some appreciation for family tradition rather than the usual dismissive attitude she'd expressed on previous holidays.

Kya got up, and attacked Korra with a hard, loving squeeze. Korra reciprocated the notion, a bit surprised, hugging back as tight as she could.

"You're getting stronger by the day," Aunt Kya choked out, prompting Korra to retract her arms. After their hug, Kya pushed Korra's unkempt bangs to the side. She looked down at Korra with a hopeful and knowing smile. "At this rate, some day, you're going to be able to move mountains, Hun."

Korra let herself grin at this remark, and as Kya sat back down at the couch, Korra's sight wandered to her own mother, who was looking on with a proud smirk, as if to say, 'Your Aunt's right, you know.'

"This one's from your dad," Tonraq explained to Sokka from across the room, passing him the next present.

"What is this thing?" came Sokka's curious and confused voice. He was now holding a curved gift, which swung it through the air, and Hakoda's face went pale at this. Hakoda jumped up from his wife's side, who was snickering at his worry, and he immediately went to his son, clasping Sokka's wrist with care.

"Haaa," Hakoda laughed nervously. "Gentle, there, Son. M-maybe...try opening it?"

Sokka ripped apart the paper, peeling it away to reveal a wooden boomerang.

"Whoa," he murmured, amazed by the object. "A boomerang? Like, a real one?"

"That's right." Hakoda delighted at the spark in his child's eyes. Sokka's grip on the smooth, handcrafted tool tightened, and he posed dramatically with a serious look on his face.

Kya and Senna burst out into laughs with Senna leaning into Kya, who was slapping her knee.

"Ohhhhh," Kya wheezed out, recovering from her laugh. "Where's the...-? Tonraq, do you still have the camera?"

"Heh, sure do," said Korra's hulk of a father as he carefully traversed the minefield of wrappings and gifts to give the camera to Kya. Kya bounced up from the couch in an instant to start snapping action photos of her goofy son. Hakoda interrupted the photo session to further explain.

"Now, Sokka, remember: that's not a toy. I got that in Australia, so it's authentic."

"Your honeymoon?" Sokka guessed, recalling the stories his parents had told him of their exciting times in the land down under.

"That's right. This boomerang is something I want you to hold onto. It's going to be a new family keepsake."

Sokka's eyes glowed with pride at being bestowed such a noble gift, and Kya beamed at her son's overly serious demeanor.

"You know what they say about boomerangs, right?" Hakoda asked his child.

"They...always come back," Sokka replied thoughtfully. Hakoda patted his shoulder.

"Exactly. That's what this boomerang represents. Every time you travel to a new place, you should carve a mark into the boomerang. Then you can see how many places in the world you've been to - and always remember that wherever you go, you can always come back to where you're from - where your family is."

"Ohhh, I get it!" said Sokka with realization. "It's like a metaphor!"

"Hahaha! Yes, Kiddo. Yes, it is."

"Katara? Hun..." Kya waved her hand at her daughter, who was already lost in one of her brand new books. "Haha, Sweetie, I've got something for you, too."

"Huh?" the eleven year-old looked up at her mother's amused expression. Her pudgy face wrinkled with irritation at her Mother, who seemed to be laughing at her. "What?"

"Nothing, Dear. Come here."

Kya knelt down onto her knees with a grunt - those knees weren't what they had used to be - and retrieved a small box from under the Christmas tree. She handed it to her daughter.

"Here. This one's from me."

Confused, Katara unwrapped the gift. Inside, she found a necklace nestled in cotton. It was a choker, composed of blue ribbon and a flat, ovular cut stone of sapphire. Katara's jaw dropped. She'd never received a gift that was so...fancy...before. And she knew for a fact that this was mother's, as she'd seen it worn multiple times.

"This is another family present," Kya explained.

"But...This is yours, Mom."

"I know, Hun. Your father gave it to me when we got engaged. He got it from your Gran-Gran, who got it when she was engaged. And so I want you to have it now. You can keep it with you, and it can be like the present your dad gave Sokka - a reminder that your family is always here for you, no matter what. That your dad and I love you very much. And then some day, you can give it to one of your kids..."

Katara stared up at her mother's glowing smile. It was contagious, and Katara's innocent grin radiated back.

"O-OK. I like it. It's...super pretty. I'll take...really good care of it." Katara closed the box shut. "Um...Thanks, Mom." Katara stretched out her arms, and Kya embraced her daughter with a tight hug. Korra had taken her Aunt's seat and was now sitting inbetween Uncle Hakoda and her mom.

"I think the family heirlooms idea went well," Senna observed.

"It was Kya's idea," Hakoda explained. "It's kind of funny - she seems just as eager to carry on my family's traditions as my own mother does."

"Hm...That is kind of funny," Senna noted, watching her husband wrestling with Sokka a bit while Kya attached the necklace to Katara's neck. "Kya didn't seem to get along with her own family all that well growing up."

"Really?" said Korra, baffled at the prospect. Aunt Kya seemed so...nice. And caring.

"No," laughed Hakoda. "No...she did not. That's the thing, though, Korra." Korra was startled by her uncle's firm hand on her shoulder. "Sometimes your family is what you make of it, not just what you're born into. But in your case, you were born into a good family. So you should count yourself lucky."

"Ha! That's good to hear," Senna snickered.

"You're a good mom," Hakoda insisted. "So is Kya. And I can promise you, Korra," Hakoda continued. "Your mom, your dad, me, Kya...and your cousins, too, I bet...we're all going to be there for each other. That's what today is all about - these gifts, they're...just a physical symbol of that. When you have something physical, it makes it easier to remember the reality of that sort of thing."

"Mm," hummed Korra with a shrug, trying to wrap her head around the idea. Her parents didn't seem quite so intent on this whole 'family unity' thing. They let her be off on her own, independent and stuff. 'Be your own woman,' her dad would say. When Korra had expressed the desire of not attending college, her parents had seemed entirely neutral with this, to Korra's relief. Korra could probably up and leave home at any point and they'd wish her well and that would be that. It wasn't that they didn't love her. Korra knew they did. They showed it by letting her make her decisions freely - that was their way.

But Aunt Kya and Uncle Hakoda seemed very different. They yearned for a tight, close family. The keepsakes, the traditions, the lovey-dovey talk, the hugs...It was true, what Hakoda had said - all of those physical things, those actions, all enforced the reality that Korra was now realizing.

The Kesuk family would always be there for each other. Nothing would be able to tear them apart.

destiny-smasher.deviantart.com… <--- Chapter 90, Part 3
Chapter 92 ---> destiny-smasher.deviantart.com…



Also, definitely check out these comic pages that were recently finished that depict an earlier scene you may remember!

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A/N: Yea, I've just decided that in these later chapters I'm going to try hard to only put in scenes that progress some element of plot of character development, but to be safe around DA's word limits I'm going to allow myself to post these longer chapters in pieces if needed. So here's the first half of the chapter. I expect to have the second half done this weekend. As a special note, if you have missed it, I have recently posted an excerpt preview of my planned project for after SRU is finished. I will include a link in the description.


What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 87 - Arms


- Sunday, April 17th, 2011 -

Katara had whiled away her morning with reading and writing, getting assignments due the coming week finished up. She'd left her door open, wondering when Toph would eventually show. The woman had never come back during the night, which Katara found quite questionable, and had contributed to her having difficulty sleeping. Her brain was riddled with entirely too many worries lately, and it was beginning to show. She was still in her pajamas despite it being slightly past noon, and hadn't left the room since waking. Her hair was tied up in a lazy bun, odds and ends poking out in every direction. Dark folds hung under her eyes, and her present posture involved being slumped back in her desk chair, catching up on shows she'd stream over the internet.

She hadn't even left to eat lunch, opting instead to microwave a pre-made package of instant macaroni and cheese. The plastic bowl now sat, emptied, beside her mousepad, partnered by a can of Arizona green tea, three-quarters consumed.

Sokka was being an imbecile. Toph was out gallivanting with strangers. Jane was...urrghh. Korra was babysitting, of all things, instead of trying to get a real job, and was still socializing with Jane despite being fully aware by now of the circumstances surrounding that jerk. And Aang seemed to be siding with everyone else, trying to tell Katara to calm down, and not worry so much. Wasn't he supposed to be with her on everything? Shouldn't he be helping her sort everything out? Lately everyone was so bothersome, acting like she was psycho because she cared about these matters. She should just be sitting back and watching everyone around her ruin their lives, apparently. It was like she was the crazy one. Hmph.

Footsteps carried from the nearby stairwell just outside her door, and Katara sprung to her feet, glancing out of her doorway for Toph, that nymphomaniac. Katara would give her a piece of her mind, because...-
Oh. It was Jane.

The two immediately broke eye contact, and Jane swept by Katara, headlong into her room, closing the door sternly behind. Katara fumed at the shut door in her face and retreated back to the land of lazy, computerized-television-watching. About fifteen minutes later, Toph finally showed up. She looked like an idiot, her loose hair in tangles, the edges of her braids frayed. She was in sweatshorts and a tanktop, and was poking her cane before her in one hand while toting her green dress from the night prior in the other.

"Hello, Toph," Katara grunted out, watching the girl fumble around to her end of room and toss her dress sloppily over her bed. Ugh, that girl was going to ruin that beautiful dress. Stupid.

"Hello to you, too," said Toph, irritated with her roommates judgmental tone.

"Have a good time playing music together last night?"

"As a matter of fact, I did. And the sex wasn't so bad, either." Toph figured she'd cut through the passive bullshit and deal with this openly, since it was going to head there sooner or later.

"You spent the night with that guy? A total stranger. You just...wandered off with him, this guy you don't even know, and you fuck him." Whoa. Breakin' out the cursewords, eh, Katara? You really are in a pissy mood.

"I got to know him a bit, first," Toph mumbled out, slinging her cane's wrist loop over her bed post and flopping down onto the floor.

"That was stupid, Toph," Katara declared. "You just let him take you right off, all by yourself. This random guy."

"He wasn't random, I-"
"He could've raped you, or...or...-"
"Well, he didn't."
"You're blind, Toph, you need to be more careful about how you-"
"I know damn well how to take care of myself, thank you."
"You didn't even tell me where you were, I was worried sick-"
"There was nothing to worry about. I had it under control."
"Do you know how easy it would be for someone to take advantage of you?"
"Huh. Funny, 'cuz no one ever does."
"Because you just force them into it, anyway."
"We both wanted to."
"'Cuz that suddenly makes it responsible."
"We used protection."
"Oh! That's nice. Something awful could've still happened."
"But it didn't."
"You keep making dumb decisions like that, and some day it will."
"Yea, OK, thanks, Mom."
"And here we go, again with-"
"We both knew you'd pull this shit as soon as I got back."
"Ya know what? OK. Sure. You're right. And we both knew you were going to fuck that guy last night."
"Why is that any of your damned business?"
"I'm looking out for what's best for you! Because you can't do it yourself."
"Janey-Jane got sick of your shit, so now I'm back to being your big fixer-upper project."
"I guess so! Maybe if your life wasn't such a fucking train wreck, I'd-"
"Ha! Yea, you're the one who needs happy pills to stop from becoming-"
"I don't need those, I can do fine without-"
"-but somehow I have a good time, and I'm the train wreck."
"-nothing to do with it."
"You haven't been taking them, have you?"
"I just said that has nothing to do with it."
"You keep tellin' yourself that."
"I'd rather be addicted to pills than screwing."
"Yea? Maybe if your asshole brother could take a fucking clue, I wouldn't need to go getting my jollies from...-" Toph trailed off, cleared her throat as she buried her face in her arms, which were planted over her knees.

There was suddenly a lapse in their bickering as the two heaved out heavy breaths of frustration. Toph's face was warm with embarrassment at what she'd almost let slip, and Katara was slightly confused.

"You sound like shit, Katara," Toph grumbled, trying to change subjects from her spot against the side of her bed, knees tucked in.

"You look like shit," Katara snapped back in what was almost a whimper.

"Do you ever stop to think for, like, two seconds, that sometimes you need to be taken care of, too?"

Katara swallowed hard, rubbing her palms across her eyes.

"Yea, I might be a little...frisky...out there," Toph confessed, her voice still lightly muffled by her arms. She finally lifted her head back up. "But if you ask me, sounds like you could actually use some." Katara frowned at Toph's suggestion. "I mean, when was the last time you had sex, huh?"

"That's...not something you need to-"
"Oh! Hoho! So my sex life should just be an open book, but if I'm worried about you, suddenly it's not my business. Is that it?"

Katara's head rolled around in defeat, and she could see Toph's point.

"August," Katara answered meekly.

"Whuzzat?" Toph checked. Had she misheard that?

"...I said, August," Katara repeated in a bit of a pout.

"Uh...Seriously?" Toph's brows were furrowed with bafflement. "Like...August? Who the fuck...-?" She scratched her hand through her hair as it dawned on her. "Oh, my god...Jet?"

"Mmph..."

"Jet? You had sex with him, but...you and Twinkles...-?"

"That was...a very different...relationship," Katara grumbled. She was pricked by a complex mixture of emotions regarding the events that had surrounded her relationship with that man. "I didn't say I was happy about it."

"No, but...Nah, nah. See. No, wait a minute. Here. I thought you and Aang were, all, like..comfortable with each other. And stuff."

"We...we are," Katara replied defensively.

"And I thought-...See, I got the impression he was all, like...super into you, and stuff."

"He is."

"Like, more than he was ever into me."

"Well...Y-yea."

"So, then...How...-?"

"We're taking it slow, Toph. Something you don't know anything about. In case you forgot the entire reason you two broke up."

"Ah, yea. Thanks." Toph frowned. "Real nice."

"I'm just saying...And it's not like you're proving me wrong lately."

"Whatever. OK, so you're telling me that I shouldn't go around, having a good time. But it's all well and good for you to, like...repress it?"

"I'm not repressing it."

"You have no interest in having sex with your boyfriend...?"

"I didn't...say th-"
"So you're intentionally avoiding it."

"I guess, I'm just-...I don't want to pressure Aang into...-"
"Have you asked him about it lately?"

"N-no, I...-"

"So you are deliberately avoiding it."

"Mm..."

"Doesn't sound any more healthy than what I'm doing, Sister-Face. Sorry."

Katara's lips quivered with uncertainty at the thought. Toph had a good point. Even in her bitchy mood, Katara could see that.

"It's...it's not like you d-don't avoid stuff," was Katara's weak comeback to this.

"Which is exactly why I know that you shouldn't be doing it, either. Listen. Let's make a deal here."

"What...?"

"I'll promise...to not have sex until I'm actually in a relationship...if you promise that you'll actually talk with Twinkle-Toes about doing it yourself, and work toward that."

"Um...I-I don't know that...-"

"Come on. We'll be, like, accountable-sister-group-something. To each other. You like that kinda crap, don't you?"

"Mm..." Katara smiled weakly at Toph's attitude. Here Toph was, actually giving Katara advice and pointing things out. She really had been growing up a bit lately, and every example thereof always struck Katara deep - it made her proud, and it also reminded her that her own actions did impact those around her. "All right. Let's do it."

Toph, a big grin on her face, stuck out an open hand from her spot on the floor. Katara wormed her way out of her chair.

"C'mon, Sugar-Tits, don't leave me hangin'."

"I'm not, I'm just getting...-" Katara sighed and grabbed Toph's hand. "Don't call me that."

Toph gave her roommate a solid handshake, and Katara forcefully reciprocated.

"Done deal," concluded Toph.

"Yea."

The two both took a deep breath. It felt kind of invigorating, in a sense. Moments before they'd been spewing toxic words, and here they were shaking hands. It was almost like they knew how to deal with one another by now. Fancy that.

Katara sat herself down, cross-legged, in front of her friend. Something had been nibbling away at her curiosity and now that the argument had been resolved...she needed to step back and examine it.

"So...Just before, you said...something about Sokka?"

Toph swallowed, her head tilting to the side.

"I called him an asshole, yea," she replied, keeping her cool.

"What did you mean by that?" Katara stared at Toph's uncomfortable body language, and her brain began to put puzzle pieces together. "Did he say something dumb last night? Or do something rude?" Katara watched Toph's toes scrunch up, her fingers ball up into fists, and her eyebrows sink.

"Just...his typical bullshit lately," she grunted out, her nose wrinkling with reserved disdain.

"Toph...Hun." Katara paused, watching her friend's pale cheeks shade themselves pink. "Do you like him?"

"Yea."

Toph let the word tumble out with ease. It was relieving, in a way, just to throw it to the open. Besides, Katara had shared her embarrassing tidbit, so Toph might as well toss her own out. And if Toph was going to be open about this that easily with anyone, it would be Katara.

"Oh..." Katara's eyes widened at this prospect, and she sucked in air through her nostrils. "I-...Okay, then. That...makes a lot of things...make sense."

"Yea," Toph repeated, her tone darker this time.

"I'm...so sorry, Hun." Katara wiped her fingers over her forehead tiredly, pushing up loosened strands of hair while her brain whirled to figure this out.

"Pff." Toph huffed a gust of air up through her bangs, pushing them out. "It's OK..."

Katara shifted herself over to side at Toph's side, making sure their shoulders touched.

"He...really has been acting like an idiot lately," Katara agreed, trying to match all of Sokka's flirtatious behavior with the sense of rejection it must have been pressing into Toph.

"Yep," Toph agreed with bitterness. "But...I know what he's like when he's not a dick. When he's not trying to be two fucking people at once. When he's just...him. And I like...that. Him. And...it just doesn't want to leave."

"What's that?"

"The feeling. I-...Fff. Christ, Katara, I just had a one-night stand yesterday, and ya know what it did?"

"Um...?"

"Made me think of him even more."

"Oh."

"Yea, 'oh.' I just-...What do I fuckin' do with that?"

"You must...really like him, then."

"I don't...-! I guess? Is that what that means?"

Katara smiled with sympathy and patted Toph's knee.

"I think that's maybe what that means."

"So what am I supposed to do with that shit?"

"You...talk to him."

"Ha! Yea, OK. That'll just-...No, yea, I'll just go do that, I'm sure it'll go fine."

"Why wouldn't it? What's there to lose?"

"Oh, ya know, maybe our entire friendship? Things are damned awkward as hell with him lately. And somehow me telling him that is gonna make it better?"

"You won't know until you try..."

"Ech. I can't. Not right now. I don't like where we stand at the moment."

"Hm. Then...stand somewhere else."

"Huh?"

"You know. Try to...bring your guys' relationship back to where it was before."

"Uh...-"

"The more I'm thinking on it, Toph, the more I can see exactly why you'd like him. You two used to get along so great before. You're both always so comfortable with each other..."

"We tell the same stupid jokes..."

"You both have your silly nicknames..."

"He pulls me up when I'm being a dumbass..."

"And you smack him down when he's being a dumbass..."

They both snickered in their nostalgia.

"Yea, but...-" Toph's smirk withered. "He totally doesn't like me, though."

"Maybe he just...hasn't thought of you in that way."

"Uh...Duh? Yea. That's what I just said."

"No, I mean...maybe he hasn't let himself consider you to be like a...potential girlfriend."

"You mean he's friend-zoned me?"

"Er, I-I don't know if I'd call it that, but...-"

"Yea, that's...not helping here."

"Wait, listen. Toph, that's...kind of what I did with Aang."

"Whoa. Hold up...really?"

"Heh, yes. I just...always looked at Aang like a brother. I didn't let myself think of him as something more than that. Not until...-" She shrugged, letting the thought wander off to that night Aang had suddenly kissed her out of nowhere.

"But...how'd you, like...get past that?" Toph wondered. "It just sounds so awkward. I mean, I never had any siblings, but...-"

"Think about it, though, Toph - if you feel that close to someone, that comfortable, that you'd trust them like a sibling...Don't you think that's exactly the kind of relationship worth pursuing?"

"I...-" Toph picked her pinky finger through her ear. "Sure, I guess that makes sense...?"

"And I know Sokka thinks your cute."

Toph's cheeks lit right up at this.

"He does...?"

"Oh, he totally does." Katara chuckled, rolling up her eyes at how obvious this was to her.

"What? No way..."

"I've seen the way he looks at you some times. I mean...sure, it's...how he looks at lots of girls some times, but...that's my point. He's a guy, he sometimes stares a bit at girls when he thinks they're cute. And you're blind, too - so it's not like he's going to feel obligated to look away."

"Uh...if you say so," Toph mumbled. This was a bizarre concept for her to consider, being something she couldn't quite wrap her head around.

"Seriously, trust me on this one. I've told you before, Toph - maybe you don't care, but you are really pretty. Uh, when you stay clean, anyway."

"Heh..." Toph wiped her waxy pinky across the rug, and Katara grimaced at this, noting the irony. "Well, thanks for that. Again. You, uh...sound really pretty?"

"Ha. I think you've told me that before, too."

"You have soft skin...?" Toph went on, fishing for ways to compliment her friend. "Guys like soft skin, right? I mean, I dunno, I guess you smell nice a lot of the time, too, but...-"

"OK, thanks, there. Miss." Katara nudged her friend with an elbow to the rib and they both chuckled. "But come on, now. I can only help you so much, here. I don't know if Sokka likes you or not. But maybe you should just try and relax around him."

"How do I do that?"

"Well, for starters, stop...trying to be all grabby around him. I've noticed you've been all clingy with him lately. I didn't really think about it like that, I just figured you felt awkward being touchy-feely with me and Aang or something, and...the whole 'blind' thing, and...it's convenient to have someone helping you. But Sokka doesn't like that stuffy kind of thing when he's not in the mood for it. It drives him crazy. And I mean, you don't either, do you?"

"Er...No. Not really."

"See? So you've gotta kind of...back off a bit. I mean, really, just...you two need to spend some time hanging out, just having fun like you used to. Before everything happened with Aang. Remember that?"

"Yea..."

"Just be his friend, Toph."

"But there's all these other girls, and he's just...-"

"I get that. But you need to just be friends with him right now. Remind him of why you two get along. I bet if you did that, then...maybe you could try talking with him about going on a date?"

"Pff, jumpin' the gun a little, ain't we?"

"Well, it's up to you, obviously, I'm just...trying to make suggestions here. Sokka's the kind of guy who'd want to go on a date before he got into any kind of commitment."

Toph's empty stomach was filled with renewed hope. Aang had sounded supportive of this entire prospect earlier. And now Katara seemed super supportive about it all of a sudden. And that was his sister and stuff. Right? She probably knew what she was talking about.

Wow. Damn, she really should not give up on this just yet. Not that she really felt like she had a choice and all, as last night had proven, but...yea. She'd just been going about this all wrong.

"So-...But-...What, are you saying I'm supposed to, like, steal his affection?"

"No, not at all. Well, like...when did you realize you liked him? What happened?"

"Oh, it-...I was having a shit day, and he...helped me feel better."

"There ya go. He was just being your friend."

"Yea."

"So just be his friend. I don't think most people realize it, but Sokka's really not doing the best himself, either. He's pretty stressed out. Why do you think he's been acting so dumb and looking into a girlfriend just for the heck of it?"

"Er, I hadn't really thought about it."

"I know he can be, well...a guy, and everything. But he's smarter than that, deep down. He's just all in a tizzy because he seems to think that he won't be able to meet anyone out there after college."

"Hm..."

"All right." Katara grabbed Toph's shoulder with confidence. "As your sister, I-"
"And his sister."
"Erm...Ha! Yes, as both of your...sister...I really think you two deserve to give this 'dating' thing a try."

"Ah. Well, you and Aang were easy to convince on this."

"Huh? You mean...Aang already knows?"

"Aang figured it out," Toph laughed.

"Heh. That's kinda funny."

"Yea. It was pretty embarrassing."

"No need to be embarrassed about it, Toph. We're your friends. We love you."

"Yea, I know. I love you guys, too."

"We aren't ever going to leave you. Even if things go horribly horrendously wrong, we'll still-"
Creak.

Katara's attention was jarred as the door across the hall opened. Oh. The door was still open. And there she was. Urgh. Grrzzmmrzzmfugginbidgin...-

"What is it?" Toph asked as Jane slipped off down the hall without making eye contact. "Was the freckle-faced witch giving you dirty looks?" Toph whispered.

"Nevermind that," Katara sighed. She'd gotten so caught up in things with Toph, it had practically made her forget all about the pain of that whole mess. "As I was saying...We are still going to be your friends, Toph. No matter what happens. So don't forget that."

"Yes, Ma'am, Captain Band-Aids, Ma'am."

"Umm...Huh?"

"Oh, it-...'Cuz you're always, like...fixing stuff?"

Katara patted Toph's head with a giggle.

"I'll just pretend I didn't hear that one."

"Thanks for that. Not my best effort."


- Monday, April 18th, 2011 -

Jane rubbed her finger along the edge of her black boot's base. There was some gunk just above the sole. She hadn't worn these boots in a while, so they were a bit filthy. After wiping the smudge from her boot, she glanced at her fingertip, now brown with dirt. She made a brief trek to the public restroom to clean it off. Ah, hell. Might as well wash her hands while she was here, right?

Hand-washing placed her before a mirror, which entailed noticing how unkempt her hair had gotten over the past couple of days. She hadn't taken a brush to it recently - who was there to impress lately, anyway? Gaping at her tired face, Jane found herself off-put by her own arid eyes of olive. She dried her hands at the ineffective air dryer, finishing the job with her pant legs. She utilized the tinny water fountain to gulp down three mouthfuls of metallic liquid to help quench her thirst. She could go for some coffee right now, but...gah. If she left now, she'd probably miss him. It could wait.

She checked her phone.

[1:45pm]
[1 New Txt Msg]

She glanced down the hallway of the Gyatso Center. Empty and dead still. Another few minutes yet. She resumed her spot against the wall by the appointed classroom door and sat down, opening up her cell phone.

[From: Johnboy]
[you're sure?]
[Sent: 1:40pm]

[Reply]
[To: Johnboy]
[yea. i'm sure. gotta go back for break anyway. you're not that far.]
[Sent: 1:46pm]

[From: Johnboy]
[as long as you're sure, it's fine. already checked.]
[Sent: 1:47pm]

[Reply]
[To: Johnboy]
[cool. see you next week.]
[Sent: 1:47pm]

Jane closed her phone and put it in her pocket, pondering to herself how her now fated meeting with Johnny would go. Spring break began this coming weekend, and Jane was making the trip back to Texas to visit the pathetic excuse of a 'family' she had - more out of obligation than anything. But the upswing was that Johnny lived in the same state. Still a bit of a drive away, but hell. It'd be worth it to see that damn boy's face again.

She had a good feeling that together, in person, they could maybe rekindle the romance that had been left by the wayside.

Pulling her out of her thoughts, the door across the hall swung open, and a flurry of students came bustling out of the room. Wrong class, though. The hallway was suddenly getting filled up as students were coming and going. The class she was waiting on finally opened its doors, five minutes later than the scheduled time. She rose to her feet, still leaned against the wall. She might as well have been wallpaper, with how close she was pressed up, and how everyone swept right by.

But then a familiar face noticed her. It was Joshua. He grinned at her, giving her a wave as he passed by. Jesus, the guy was so huge he may as well have been a whale swimming down the river with the other fish. Jane supplied him a courteous but relatively disinterested nod as he disappeared into the main lobby of the Gyatso Center. Pipsqueak had been her tip that the man she was looking for would be at this place at this time, so she was thankful for that, at least. She lingered by the doorway for a few seconds after the stream of people ended, hesitant to enter. When no one else came out, she swallowed the lump in her throat and passed through the wooden gateway.

Inside the clean, brightly lit classroom - now purged of pesky students - Jane saw the vaguely familiar man at the front podium. The rotund man was sporting a sweater-vest of black diamonds forming a plaid pattern over a green backdrop. His wrinkled face was serene and pleasant as he arranged the stack of papers before him.

He noticed the red-head student lingering in his doorway.

"Urgh...?" He raised a furry white eyebrow in her direction. "Can I help you?"

"Professor Kurosawa?" Jane recited his name. She knew that was the right name, but her tone feigned ignorance.

"Yes," Iroh replied as she approached, a bit confused. She extended her hand, and he accepted it. His hand was weathered and wrinkly but his handshake was firm enough. "And you are...Miss Fitzpatrick."

"Er...Y-yea," Jane mumbled, surprised that he'd recognized her. "I was, uh-..." She shrugged, her eyes shifting around as she contemplated what to say - how to approach the matter.

"So, Jane..." The professor scooped up the papers his students had just handed in. "I understand you sometimes go by the nickname 'Smellerbee'?"

"...Yea?" Jane frowned with suspicion. "So?"

"Well, I was just thinking that, such a unique title you chose for yourself...That's a beautiful name for such a lovely girl."

"Oh..." Jane's cheeks flashed red at his compliment, and her lips hung open with shock. "Uh, thanks..." She coughed, stuffing her hands into her pockets until Iroh's glance went from his papers, stuffed into a manilla folder, to her face. She stared at him with narrowed eyes. "I understand you sometimes go by the nickname...Dragon of the West?" She cocked her brow at him, and he gave pause, tucking his folder in his armpit.

"Waha." He smiled, his eyes squinting at her. "It would seem our reputations have spread beyond our expectations."

"Would seem," Jane mumbled, her lip propped out impatiently. "Lookin' for info on The Combustion Man. Little bird told me The Dragon of the West would know something."

Iroh chuckled at Jane's blunt approach.

"Did they now? Well..."

"He kills SRU grads. I know."

Iroh stared at her with a thoughtful look. She was certainly going to be a stubborn case, this one.

"You...understand how dangerous this man is." Iroh's slow, deliberate syllables stressed his concern. Jane nodded, eyes twinkling with determination. Iroh pinched his finger across his soft beard carefully, reading her face while she scanned his own. Finally, he smiled. "If you are truly that set on investigating this matter...-" His pudgy body traversed the empty front of the classroom, heading for the door. Jane followed him. "-...you should look into the school newspaper for information," Iroh suggested with a keen wiggle of his index finger. He opened the door of the room, and she flew out behind him. The hall was still amok with people finding their way to the next class, which would start any minute. "I believe if you look there, you are bound to find some answers..."

Jane slowed to a stop, watching the old man work his way through the crowd. He'd given her something to go with, anyway. Another breadcrumb along the trail. Fuck, these stupid crumbs were damn tasteless and weren't filling her curiosity at all. But the newspaper, huh? That was a smart idea. The library would have a whole backlog of newspapers she could search through. The way the coot had said it made it sound like he knew something he wasn't supposed to let on about. More of this hush-hush nonsense like what June had tried giving her. Hm.

What would she find in the newspaper?


- Tuesday, April 19th, 2011 -

Aang walked back to the table where Katara was hunched over, apparently brooding in her stubborn juices. Her back was turned to the counter of Appa's, though it was a decent distance away. Aang had just come back from placing their order. He sighed at her slumped posture. Her attitude lately was discouraging, to say the least. It was like she was being grumpy on purpose, and no efforts on his part would change her mind. Her moods swings were fairly severe this week, in particular, and after receiving a tip from Toph that Katara wasn't taking her medication - which Aang had theorized on his own - he was that much more concerned over her well being.

"Jane's not working there today," Aang explained to her flatly, sitting himself down in one of the chairs perpendicular to her own. The small, square table they were sat housed four. "But I placed your order for you," Aang added, drumming his fingers on the table, hoping for some kind of reaction. Her hair wasn't straightened today, a wavy, frizzy-tipped mess. Aang admired the way some of its mass flowed over Katara's shoulders briefly, but the girl's distant, disinterested expression threw him off. She was lost in the pages of a book, laid flat on the table before her.

"Katara...?"

"Mm," she hummed in response, her way of acknowledging what he'd said and simultaneously communicating that her attention was elsewhere.

Aang rolled his eyes at her mood and noticed behind her a puzzled Toph in the distance, scratching the edges of her nostrils near the occupied booth that the group usually sat at. Ha, poor Toph - their booth was taken today by another group of students, so she was probably at a loss as to where to go. Aang got right up and headed her way.

"Toph, we're over here," he greeted her. Her face lit up with some relief as she tapped her cane around, trying to navigate the sea of wooden chairs and tables, mostly filled with other students. Aang quickly reached her and clasped her free arm with care, leading her through to the table he and Katara were located at on the opposite side of Appa's.

"Thanks, Twinkle-Toes," she said. "Damn, I felt like an idiot there two seconds ago - bet I totally weirded out the people sitting back there."

"Ha."

"How's Sugar-Queen holding up?" Toph muttered in a hushed voice, leaning in toward her friend. Aang replied with a dissatisfied hum. "Ech. That sucks."

They reached the table, and Aang helped Toph into her seat to his left. As he plopped himself down, her turned to his right and tried again to get Katara's attention.

"I found a crazy blind girl. Can we keep her?"

Toph chortled a little, but Katara was unfazed. An awkward pause hung over the three of them. At last, Katara looked up from her pages, blinking at Aang with wide, tired eyes.

"...Huh?" She hadn't even caught what had just happened. She noticed Toph's presence, but dismissed both Aang and Toph with a shrug.

"Heya, Sweetness," greeted Toph. No answer. Toph frowned slightly, more out of doubt than insult. "Uhh...So. No sign of Snoozles yet?"

"He texted me a couple minutes ago and said he was on his way," Aang explained. He watched Toph chew at her bottom lip and tapped her shoulder gently. "Hey, don't be so nervous," he said with a smile. "You two are just hanging out. Nothing more."

"Yea..."

"Me and Katara will get out of your hair as soon as our food's ready."

"What's that?" Katara mumbled, prying herself from her book again at the sound of her name.

"You and me? We're going to let Toph and Sokka spend some time together alone? Remember? It was your idea."

"Oh, r-right. Yea." Katara's senses were stirred awake and she placed her blue ribbon necklace into her book, the round jewel hanging out of the top as he bookmark. She closed the book, her expression swiftly shifting to anticipation as she looked over to Toph. "Just get him talking about one of his dorky things, and we'll just sneak off while he's yakking away. You'll have him all to yourself." Aang found some solace in Katara's awakened interest. Not too surprising that focusing on trying to hook two people up would get her acting more like herself.

Some time passed as the two girls chattered away about how Toph or shouldn't act, which Aang wasn't entirely sure what to make of, until Sokka appeared. Neither of the girls noticed this until Aang tapped his hand on the table and called it to their attention.

"He's here."

"What?"
"Huh?"

"It's Sokka. He's, like, right over-...Hey, Sokka! Took you long enough to get here!"

"Howdy, guys. Gang. People. Hm." Sokka scratched at the hair on his chin as he squatted down in the chair across from Aang.

"You already order yourself some grub, Meat-For-Brains?" Toph checked.

"I did," Sokka replied, his eyes still narrowed with thought over whatever thought had entered his brain when he had sat down.

"What is it?" Katara asked, rubbing sand from her eye.

"Oh, I...was just thinking," Sokka mumbled.

"Aw, shit," Toph blurted out. "Everyone hide, the Idea Guy's scheming something."

"Well, it's just...what am I supposed to call you guys now? Us. I mean."

"Huh? What do you mean?" asked Aang.

"Uh, fff, I can't call us the Fearsome Fivesome anymore, right?"

A couple seconds of wary silence poured over the group like a storm cloud.

"Erm, so...I was thinkin'. How about the Boomerang Gang?"

"That's stupid," Katara instantly burst out her opinion, her mood soured right on the spot.

"It also doesn't make sense," Toph added. "Other than you having a fascination with the things, what's it got to do with us?"

"We could...make it something to do with us," Sokka weakly proposed. "I could start carrying my boomerang around, we could, like, make some shirts, or...-"

"Uh, I...think we're fine without a new group name," Aang muttered in an attempt to get the subject away from the elephant in the room.

"Not everything needs a retarded name," Katara added, wearing a trace of a pout.

"OK, jeez, calm down," Sokka sighed. "Forget I said anything." He sent a baffled look to Aang, who simply shrugged his shoulders slightly in reply.

["Aang."] A voice carried over the sound system, and Aang got up to go get their food.

"Ss...-" Toph coughed to clear her throat when words didn't slip out right. "So! Sokka. What've you been up to lately? Haven't heard much from ya this week. Um...any kinda...cool...weird...stuff? Goin' on?"

"Ya know, actually, there's been this weird stuff going on with the Playstation Network lately. Like, all kinds of big outage problems and stuff. I guess someone might've hacked it, or something?"

Toph wasn't entirely aware of what Sokka was even talking about, but she knew the 'Playstation' was some video game machine he used, at least.

"Wow. Er...sounds crazy," she muttered.

"It is. Pretty crazy stuff. Everyone's wondering what's up with that. Kind of a big deal. And I can't freakin' log online to download anything."

"Bummer."

"Right? Or play games online."

"Double bummer."

"You don't even really know what I'm talking about, do you, Toph?"

"Nnnnnot really," Toph admitted, rubbing her feet together above her abandoned sandals.

Sokka laughed, and a smile quickly found its way onto Toph's face.

"OK, OK," Sokka waved his palms up, despite that Toph obviously couldn't see them, while Aang approached the table with two take-out boxes. "So, the Playstation. You remember what that is, right?"

"Uh, yea, Sokka. I remember what that is."

"So all right. There's the Playstation Network, which is, like, the special infrastructure that-"
"It connects to the internet. Through a network. Yea, I think I figured that part out."

"Heh." Sokka paused when he noticed that Aang was hovering over Katara's shoulders. His sister was still sour-faced, but Sokka was ignoring that. If she insisted on being a downer right now, he wasn't going to try doing anything about. He knew how stubborn his sister could be. That was Aang's problem to deal with right now. Ha, now there was a benefit of his sister having a boyfriend - she could go to that guy when she needed stuff, instead of coming to her brother all of the time.

"You ready?" Aang whispered in Katara's ear.

"Mm," she answered in a sigh, getting up from her seat. She tucked her book against her side.

"Oh. You guys leaving already?" Sokka asked.

"Yea," Aang replied. "After I texted you, I found out Katara wanted us to go watch some show together. It starts in, like, ten minutes."

"Ahhh. Gotcha."

Katara tried to let her concerns roll off her shoulder as she approached Toph, whose eyebrows lifted from the delay in conversation. "Hey, Hun," Katara mumbled to Toph as Aang and Sokka spoke, carefully pushing her friend's cleaned, fluffy bangs to the side of her face. She smiled at Toph's white, glassy eyes, which were blank in focus, yet exuded interest and relaxation at the circumstances before her. "Me and Aang are going to be in the lounge back at Aqua. We'll catch you there?"

"Sounds good." Toph smiled with confidence, and Katara rubbed her thumb across Toph's back before looping her arm around Aang's.

"Keep an eye on Toph for me," Katara taunted her brother with a weak smirk. "She's a handful, I know. But I think you can manage." Sokka offered a sarcastic, dead-pan expression in response.

"Careful when you feed her," Aang warned him. "She bites."

Toph frowned jokingly at their picking.

"Should I put her on a leash?" Sokka wondered. "What if she tried wandering off, she might get run over or-" Sokka huffed out a string of chuckles at the -thunk- sound of Toph trying to kick his leg, only to bump her bare foot on Sokka's chair, instead.

"Agh, fuck. Come...-!" She growled out, groping her hands in his direction. He flew up from his seat, still laughing at her vein attempts, and took Katara's now empty chair across the table. "Coward," Toph called out his fleeing.

"It's not being a coward when it's a tactical retreat," Sokka countered. "But anyway-" He turned back to Aang and Katara, who were both grinning. "-is there a muzzle I can use, at least?"

"Hey!"

"'Cuz I'm just worried her barking is gonna bug the hell out of me."

"You little bitch."

"I thought the whole joke was that you were one, 'cuz you're a female, and we're talking like you're a dog, so-"
"Rrrrrgh!"

Sokka snickered like a child as Toph playfully pushed her feet against the chairs from below the table. Aang cautiously pushed his own back in after Toph's mini rampage.

"You have fun!" Aang sheepishly bid them, pulling Katara off, his hands lifting two stacked carryout boxes.

"Play nice!" Katara added.

The couple shared a laugh as they exited Appa's, crossing the space to the student post office that took up a section of the campus center's basement.

"I can definitely see what you mean," Aang remarked, passing his post office box by and noting that it was empty. "I really can see those two getting along together." let Katara check her tiny mailbox. A red slip rested within, riddled with bold text that the two instinctively knew meant that a package was waiting. "Oh, hey. You've got something."

"I...do," Katara mumbled, perplexed. "No idea what, though."

"We'll find out tomorrow," Aang offered.

"Yea." Aang lamented that she was back to that far-off, discouraged look as she tucked the laminated slip into her book.

"You OK?"

"I don't know," Katara sighed. "I'm sorry, Sweetie, I must be...a real pain lately."

"Hey. No, it's...-" Aang didn't get to finish his sentence, though, before Katara gave him a peck on the cheek. "Ha. It's fine," he insisted, a silly little smile emerging to match the silly little kiss he'd received. "I just wish I knew what would help you feel better."

"Me, too..."

[link]<--Last segment
Part 2 --> [link]
[link]<-<--Chapter 1

Thumbnail is from this : [link]
Now you know what Katara was so grumpy and upset about in a bunch of the older commission pieces, right?

Anyway, since it's LOOKING like this chapter will exceed the DA word limit again, might as well give you dedicated DA readers this chunk of it since it's done. =)

Also, if you haven't check it out yet, a preview of my planned project for after SRU is finished:

Lastly, if you haven't check out the group or art gallery lately, there's new stuff getting added basically every week nowadays: [link]
:icons-r-u:
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