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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: 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.

This chapter in artwork:
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What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 66 - Doom

- Friday, February 25th, 2011 -

[From: Katara Kesuk]
[To: Mai Chiao]
[Subject: RE: Concern]

[Hi, Mai.]

[Toph's just...been like that lately. She's a pity party one day and then a terror the next. None of us know what to do with her. I appreciate the concern, though. Thanks for letting me know. But I don't think it's anything unusual given her track record - unfortunately.]

[~ Katara]

Katara felt a pang of guilt after she sent the reply. After all, she had been pretty mean to Toph the day prior...But it wasn't like Toph didn't deserve it, right? And people had to stand up to her or she'd never quit.

She sighed, sucking in a deep breath as she put her laptop to sleep and slipped it into her backpack. Making her way out of the library, satisfied with the research she'd collected, she took a moment to breathe in the fresh air. The stone statues of owls, wise and solemn, guardians of the doors to the treasure trove of information and stories. They'd keep watch over her as she waited for him to show up. Her heart was light and giddy. She hadn't been able to see Aang since Wednesday morning, when all the pieces had clicked so wonderfully.

With nothing better to do, she found herself noticing details about the structure's entrance she hadn't before. On the wide, circular patch of sidewalk leading into the multiple glass doors of the building, there was a detailed arrangement of masonry - a long serpent wound around in a large ring, encompassing words etched into the concrete.

{Enter ye who seeks to be}
{He who knows 10,000 things}

She smiled at the sight. It was rather neat - she'd never stood around in front of the library long enough to bother paying attention to what she'd walked over so many times. There was so much beauty she had never noticed until she'd simply stopped and observed.

It reminded of her a certain someone - the someone that she was waiting for.

"Hey, Katara," came Aang's tired greeting after a few minutes, lighting up her heart like a campfire.

"Hey!" she chimed, stretching out her arms and letting his wary body fall into her own. Their bodies pressed tightly, yearning to savor heartbeats hidden under thick coats. Their backpacks made things less than optimal, but it was still heartfelt. Katara eagerly administered a peck on the cheek, to which he pulled away, much to her dismay, his face lighting up red. She found this utterly adorable.

"Wh-whoa," Aang whispered frantically, eyes darting left and right. He stepped back, pulling himself away from her. "We have to watch out - people don't need to know about us yet...Remember?"

Katara's heart ached with impatience. While they hadn't seen one another since that initial spark of reciprocated romance, they had agreed that, for the time being, it'd be best to keep their newfound relationship low key until things with their friends were...a bit more settled. And it had really been her idea in the first place. A bit of regret crept out from her inner desires, but logic and consideration stuffed it back inside.

But as much as she tried to hide it and make Toph out to be a villain in all of this, Katara's gut knew the girl would be hurt if she found out about things. They'd need to tell her sooner or later, but with the way she'd been acting, it'd be best to give it some time - this was the decision they had reached. And Sokka? Yeesh, the guy could be protective...Katara worried how he'd react to know his roommate was dating his little sister...And Jane? She did need to get over herself, but all the same...it'd probably sting the poor girl a bit, too, and she'd been trying very hard lately to be a team player.

"Y-you're right, I'm...-" Katara bumped her mittened hand against her forehead. "-...really sorry, I just...-"

"It's OK," Aang muttered with a bashful shrug, a smile slipping through the cracks in his concern. "Not gonna say I didn't like it..."

They exchanged stupidly giddy grins before heading off. Katara immediately hid her hands away in her pockets to remove the temptation to wrap one around Aang's, while he followed her lead in this regard.

"So, what did you want to do?" Katara asked while they walked. She had no idea where they were going, and assumed he did, at least.

"Oh, just...you know...talk."

"Talk?" Katara's slippery, sliding glee was losing its balance.

"Fff," Aang laughed, dissolving her worry away as quickly as it had come up. "No, no, not...like that. I meant, just...I dunno, like we always do." He shrugged up his shoulders. "Nothing serious."

"Right." Katara nodded, trying to put her blinders on and ignored the potential irksome things that had been cast to the sidelines. They needed to take things slow here. She could do that, because she knew it'd be worth it.


"That the last of it?"

"Sure is. Thanks, guys..." Korra wiped some beads of sweat from her forehead while Hakoda and Bato inspected the backseat to make sure nothing was going to get bumped around during the trip.

"Looks like we managed to squeeze it all in there," chuckled Bato. "I'm impressed. Didn't even manage to crush your dog, either."

Hakoda laughed and gave his chest a proud pound.

"The Kesuks have always been good at packing just what we need," he offered an explanation while Naga barked for attention from inside the car.

"You sure this is going to be enough?" Bato doubted, rubbing his chin, creating a scraping sound from his five-o'-clock shadow.

"I'll be fine, guys," Korra sighed, endeared by their concern. "I'm moving into an already-settled place, remember? And it's not like I need much to get by with, anyway..."

"I'm sure you'll get by well enough," Hakoda assured, administering a solid back slap. "You're a hardy one."

"That she is," agreed Bato. "Can't say the same for me," he groaned, bending over and giving his own back a few thumps. He waddled over, straightening out and opening his arms. "Guess we'll be seein' ya when we see ya, eh?"

"Yea," said Korra, welcoming her makeshift uncle's hug.

"You look out for your cousins down there, now," Bato advised as he made his way to his rusty car. As he started up and pulled out of the shoveled driveway, Hakoda waved his good friend off.

"Seems like the Kesuks can't be kept away from that town," he muttered to himself wistfully.

"Huh?" Korra was puzzled as to what her uncle was on about.

"Korra, I don't think it's a coincidence that you got this job," Hakoda expressed with a solemn nod. He looked at her, in her jeans and leather jacket, that same ambitious spark in her eyes that Kya had once had so long, before...-

"Obviously," Korra scoffed at his mysticism. "I knew a guy who knew a guy - networking, man. It's how shit happens, right?"

Hakoda laughed through his nostrils as a bittersweet smile crept over his face.

"Very true, Korra..."

Korra raised a brow at his melancholic mood, covered up by that strange smile. She had seen it enough growing up to recognize it as the one he wore when he thought of his deceased wife. The weight of such stuff was heavy to bear, so she shoved it off her shoulders.

"Sooo...I oughtta head off, then." She tilted her torso in the direction of her own vehicle.

"Wait," said Hakoda. "Before you go...there was something I was hoping you could take with you." His face changed again, this time more hopeful. He turned for the front door. "I'll be just a moment."

While Hakoda rummaged inside for whatever this 'something' was, Korra took in a deep breath of Canadian air. She couldn't remember the last time she'd gone south to America. Part of her wondered how different it would be down there. She wondered if she'd get along with her prospective roommates.

"Yar-yar-yarp!" The chipper, squeaking barks of her pet rang out from the passenger side window of her car, where a white puppy was clawing at

"Calm the hell down," Korra scolded her pet in amusement, walking over and reaching an arm in to stroke the lively animal's head. There was a whimper. "Ah, bathroom break before we go, huh?" She opened the door and kept a watchful eye on her little beast as it tinkled a tiny stream, creating a small yellow splotch in the white patch of lawn. The animal scrambled back to her master to receive an ear scratch. "'Atta girl..."

As Korra scooped the pint-sized dog up and set her back in the car, Hakoda came out with a lather-bound journal. He handed it to Korra, who took it with caution.

"Could you please give this to Sokka and Katara?"

"Oh, err...Sure." Korra gave a brisk nod, handling the book carefully. Then she remembered - it was the journal Hakoda had received for Christmas from his children. More serious, emotional junk...she simply didn't know how to handle it. Hakoda was acting strange. She furrowed her brows at him, perplexed. "What's with all the doom-n'-gloom?" she grumbled precariously, tucking in the journal like an antique to her waist. Her insides squirmed uncomfortably from the tension as Hakoda's eyes became dulled like battle-worn blades.

"I guess I...have a habit of worrying about you kids," Hakoda explained, offering a sheepish shrug that concealed something deeper. He took her shoulders and pulled her in for a hug. She knew this would be the last time she'd see him for a while. "But I just need to remind myself that you'll all be in good hands." Korra accepted the tight hug from Hakoda and was relieved to have the emotional-ness settled.

"We'll keep an eye on each other's backs, Hakoda," she insisted as she waved to him and approached her car, her puppy yipping out for her.

"I'm certain you will," Hakoda called back, sending her off as he stood alone in his driveway.


- Saturday, February 26th, 2011 -

"Whew. That was, umm...simpler than I expected," Katara sighed out peacefully as she took the wheel of their car. "She really didn't bring that much with her, did she?"

"Nah," Sokka shrugged, taking the passenger seat. "Just what she needed."

"Her roommates seem all right."

"Yea, I'm sure they'll get along good."

"We'll have to see Korra later this weekend when she's all settled in."

Katara started up the car. The engine hummed to life, and she turned down the radio's volume while it blared some pop song she didn't know.

"So, where off to next, Captain?" she asked eagerly.

"Erm..." Sokka shrugged. "I thought we were just gonna head back."

"Psh, why not do something down here in town while we're here?" Katara suggested with assertiveness, pulling out of the driveway. "Least we do is grab some food, am I right?"

Sokka was finding her tinge of jumpiness a bit odd lately. Just a few days ago she'd been all weird and nervous and down, and suddenly everything seemed different and she was peppy and...a bit odd. He'd seen her like this before...When had he seen like this before?

"Yeeeaaa," he slowly replied. "I am not one to say 'no' to food..."

"Great!" Katara casually drove toward the busy section of Wayward, randomly humming out notes to this song she didn't know, entirely calm and pleasant. Katara - driving, with cars all around - was calm. That in and of itself was a sign. She spoke out in a flittering flurry of cheery words. "How about Taco Bell? Yea, let's do Taco Bell. I'm in the mood for Taco Bell."

A boy. That's what it was. Katara was thinking of a boy. Who the heck was it, though? He hadn't seen her hanging out with any boy lately...Unless it was...

A secret boyfriend.

Oho, coy little sister though she was, she couldn't hide it from him.

"Aren't you?" Katara asked him about his hunger for tacos as they pulled into the driveway of the restaurant she'd blathered about.

"Uh, yea, let's do it." Damnit. Who could it be? Grah, this was going to bug him. He was supposed to be Mr. Detective, here. Then again, Toph seemed to have had a secret boyfriend on the side that he couldn't have known about, and he didn't even know about Jet for a little while, so...maybe this was like that? Freakin' girls and hiding their boyfriends.


- November, 2008 -

"But why?" Sokka insisted. This made no sense to him.

"Because...-" She sighed contemplatively, palm on her forehead in distress. "If they knew about...this...-" Her eyes - those serene pearls - glanced off, away from him. "-...then it would cause a lot of...problems."

Problems? What was she blabbering about? What problems?

"Yue." Sokka reached out his hand and clasped hers. She squeezed back, a weak smile attempting to mask her doubts. Any smile of hers was like a slice of moonlight that shone on them - soothing and mysteriously elegant. "Your family sounds...er...less than understanding," Sokka confessed, given all he'd been told. "But I don't think they'd really be that upset just because you have a boyfriend."

Yue's head bobbed in self-penalty.

"Or...is this because I'm Canadian?" Sokka slowly jabbed in a joke. He delighted at the tiny smirk Yue exhibited through her frustration, as short-lived as it was. "Nah, nah, I get it, don't need to deny it," he continued to play it off. It wasn't working this time, though. Sitting together on the side of a hill that overlooked one of SRU's campus corners, the night sky was relaxing, the air just a bit nippy. He admired the silvery quality of her platinum blonde in the dusk, bobbed back into an intricate braid of tangles.

"Sokka," Yue muttered, latching her arms around his waist and scooting to sit closer to him. She stared at his eyes - they always made her think of the Aurora Borealis for some reason. "You don't understand," she whimpered, her own quivering eyes falling to his lips. She leaned forth and kissed him, and he accepted it with vigor as he had every time now, seeming to melt into goo in her arms. She left it at only one, slow, savory kiss, pulling their faces apart. "I like you, Sokka...a lot," she assured him, almost painfully, for the idea of losing what they had found in each other in these past few weeks was a burdensome prospect. "But maybe we shouldn't be together..." Yue detached her arm from him.

"Why?" Sokka demanded as calmly as he could, his heart wanting to burst out of his chest in protest.

Yue's face winced with guilt as she swallowed her fear.

"I'm engaged."

Sokka's heart was struck with a hammer, and his face went blank with shock.

"You're...-?" Only this single word managed to escape as his mind whirled around in circles.

"I'm sorry," Yue pleaded. "I should've said something sooner, but...I didn't want...-"

Thick, heavy silence for a moment.

"So...What am I in all this?" Sokka finally managed to force out, some anger bubbling out from the pot of passion.

"No, Sokka, it's not what you think," Yue swiftly tried to conduct damage control. "I don't even like him, I've hardly seen him since...-"

"Since what?"

"Since it happened," Yue sputtered in a slight panic at Sokka's understandable irritation. "I don't-...I never planned on marrying him, but my family...-" She huffed out her anguish, simply relieved that he hadn't up and left at this point. "They arranged everything with him before I had any say, and I couldn't just outright turn my back on everyone, it...-" She shrugged, staring at his confused, hurt expression with desperation. They shared in this moment of bewilderment until Sokka his his hand, placed it on her leg, and rubbed gently in an effort to calm her down while he tried sorting this all out in his own mind. At least everything was making sense now - why she only ever went out on dates with him at night, why she insisted they keep things on the down-low for the time being, and why she never wanted to take any pictures with him. Here he'd thought it was simply because she had an overprotective family.

Oh, how wrong Sokka had been.

"I'm not sure I get what's going on," said Sokka, expressing his doubts. "All of this stuff with your family, but...What do you want?" Sokka asked solemnly. He eyeballed her hand - nope, no engagement ring. He didn't think he'd seen her with one...

"I want to be with you," Yue insisted, placing her palm upon the wrist that was on her leg. "I've never felt this way about anyone before..."

Sokka's spirit was swelled with hope once again.

"Me, neither," he reciprocated with some anticipation. "Yue, you're beautiful, and...so nice, and selfless..."

"And you are...funny, and charming, and...real. And...normal."

"Huh?"

"Sokka, everyone I've worked with, anyone I've ever been with...it's always so fake. So...plastic." Sokka had to remind himself of her background as an actress. "Everyone's always about appearances."

Sokka shrugged, flattered that his own...being stupid and 'normal' was somehow enough to make her happy.

"But you," Yue continued, "Sokka, you...don't care what others think. You're just...you." She smirked, staring at his head with fondness. "You wear your hair all...funny," she remarked with a giggle as Sokka self-consciously tugged at his 'wolftail.' "And you have so many silly shirts..." She wriggled her hand to his collar and tugged at the Hawaiian-themed clothing that rested beneath, her cold hand smooth and soft on his neck. "And it's so...strange...Because even though you do act so...differently...and odd all the time...-" She grinned, flashing her teeth at him. "-...you're just being yourself."

"Heh..." Sokka could feel his face burning up with embarrassment. By now the hands on Yue's leg were entwined. "C'mon, that's not...so great," Sokka dismissed her compliment. "I'm a total goofball."

"But you're so intelligent, too," Yue lathered on more praise. "You can be so silly and make me laugh...but when it's important, you're so caring, and strong, and smart."

"You...really think so?" Sokka shook his head with skepticism. "I don't...get it. It's not really like that. I'm just an inconsistent idiot..."

"It is like you're two different people, in a way," Yue coyly explained. "Like Yin and Yang - push and pull, light and heavy. Funny but serious...Two sides of one coin - and I like both sides."

She worked her arms around him and squeezed, and his heartbeat elevated. The scent of her perfume, the fluffy edges of her luxurious coat tickling his lips, her wispy hair on his cheek, her gentle touch...Could someone this beautiful really like some immature, crazy idiot like himself?

"I...like you, too, Yue," Sokka managed out, humbled by her generous words. He placed his hands on her back. "So...So, wait, here...Does this mean we're still going to try to work this out?"

Yue kissed his neck with a brief peck.

"I'm sorry about all of this," sighed Yue with regret. "I didn't want to hurt you. And yes, I do want to be with you. But I need to keep this a secret for just a while longer."


- Saturday, February 26th, 2011 -

"Sokka. What are you getting?" Katara repeated, stirring him from his lamentable thoughts.

"Err..." He blinked at the large menu hanging outside their window. Katara giggled at him. "Just a...Beefy Five-Layer and...mm...-"
"A Baja Blast," Katara gleefully concluded, knowing what Sokka always liked to drink here. "You sure you don't want anything else?"

"Mmm...Nah, I'm good."

Katara shrugged, seemingly surprised, and directed her voice to the microphone outside her window. After placing the order, she pulled through to the line, and paid for their meal.

"Wow, Sokka," she remarked humorously as they waited for their food. "Just one burrito? You sure everything's all right? Haha..."

"Heh..." He shrugged it off, trying to be cool. Ever since Toph had ripped at him the other day, he found himself occasionally slipping in wet puddles of memories of his time with Yue - a time that had been cut tragically short. He couldn't decide who he was feeling more upset with: Toph, for being a bitch to him, or Suki, for...not...being like Yue. Guh.

"Then again," Katara mused, "I guess if you're wanting to lose some weight, you should be eating less Taco Bell, Bro, heehee."

"Fff..." Sokka nodded complacently, trying to appear as amused as his sister strangely was.

"Thank you," Katara accepted their bags of food and drinks, passing them along to her passenger. "Have a good night!"

As they drove off toward the edge of Wayward that led to SRU, Katara slurped at her raspberry tea, humming along to whatever Lady Gaga song was playing that Sokka didn't care to familiarize himself with no matter how many times he heard it.

If Katara really was all aflutter for some guy that he didn't know about...she probably had a good reason for not saying anything just yet. He'd give her the benefit of the doubt.


Everything was...different.

More voices. More clamor. More smells and sounds. Lots of beer, too. She could definitely smell that. Fuckitall, she wanted some...Stupid water. She guzzled some from the bottle she'd been given. Part of the agreement was that she wasn't to drink any alcohol, given the whole...technically not being legal to drink yet. Grah.

Whoa, were those...cat-calls? Hm. On the one hand, they were probably from guys older than she'd prefer. On the other hand...they were cat-calls. So that was...kinda cool. Didn't exactly get those at the coffee shop, right?

This place wasn't like the Jasmine Dragon at all. She didn't even remember the name Suki had given - some dive a town over. Didn't matter.

At the end, she looked at it all the same.

Just Toph and her music.

+ http:/www(dot)youtube(dot)com/watch?v=muqV_ze9Yks +

She passed on introductions, quelling the jittery audience with electric guitar riffs, receiving a couple cheers off the bat for her music choice. She called out 'Na's' with the tune she was playing and took off, Suki pounding the drums somewhere behind her to the left. She felt her foot across the cement stage floor, observing the scratchy cross made of tape that had been placed before the mic. Sanitary to play barefoot in a place like this? Hell if she cared.

"~I guess I just lost my husband; I don't know where he went~"

Good riddance.

"~So I'm gonna drink my money; I'm not gonna pay his rent~"

Some booze sure would taste good right about now.

"~I got a brand new attitude; And I'm gonna wear it tonight~"

And fuck anyone who's got a problem with that.

"~I wanna get in trouble; I wanna start a fight~"

That's what I always want, anyway.

"~I wanna start a fight~"

And I'm damned good at it.

"-I wanna start a fight!-"

So piss off.

"~So, so what? I'm still a Rock star~"

That's all that matters.

"~I got my Rock Moves; And I don't need you~"

None of you.

"~And guess what? I'm havin' more fun~"

Sure is easier.

"~And now that we're done, I'm gonna show you - tonight, I'm alright; I'm just fine; And you're a tool, so~"

Always doing better when I don't have a prick roommate butting into my business.

"~So what? I am a rock star; I got my Rock Moves~"

Damn straight I do.

"~And I don't want you tonight~"

Stupid prissy bitch doesn't understand me, anyways.

"~The waiter just took my table, And gave it to Jessica Simp (shit!)~"

Fuckin' Meng, trying to take the credit for my talent.

"~I guess I'll go sit with drum boy, At least he'll know how to hit~"

Suki knows how to play, and leave me the fuck alone.

"~(What if this flops on the radio? Somebody's gonna die)~"

Only reason I wouldn't make it is if people can't appreciate what's good.

"~I'm gonna get in trouble, My ex'll start a fight~"

Twinkles grows a pair after I need him to man up.

"~He's gonna start a fight~"

Then he goes pickin' fights with me? Pff.

"-We're all gonna get in a fight!-"

Toph kicked the bottle of water she'd set down out into the audience. She couldn't make out exactly what kind of reaction she got, but it didn't matter.

"~So, so what? I'm still a Rock star~"

And he's just a pussy artist, anyway.

"~I got my Rock Moves; And I don't need you~"

He was just holding me back.

"~And guess what? I'm havin' more fun~"

I'm better off without his baby-skin sensitivity.

"~And now that we're done, I'm gonna show you - tonight, I'm alright; I'm just fine; And you're a tool, so~"

He can go and let himself get stepped on for all I care.

"~So what? I am a Rock star; I got my Rock Moves~"

But I'm gonna stand my ground, get what I want, do things my own way.

"~And I don't want you tonight~"

Anyone who gets in my way can fuck off.

The drums pounded and Toph let her guitar take a breather, reaching out and grasping the mic and pushing her anger out slowly through the speakers.

"~You weren't there; You never were~"

Some parents you guys were...

"~You weren't at all; But that's not fair~"

Didn't let me learn to take care of myself.

"~I gave you life; I gave my all~

I tried playing your stupid games.

"~You weren't there; You let me fall~"

And when I left, you didn't even bother trying to take me back.

The tension rose back up to a swell. The guitar drowning out her voice as the word faded.

"~So, so what? I'm still a Rock star~"

Well, look where I'm going now.

"~I got my Rock Moves, And I don't need you~"

Told you guys I'd do what I wanted.

"~And guess what? I'm havin' more fun~"

Feels good, knowing how wrong you were.

"~And now that we're done, I'm gonna show you - tonight, I'm alright; I'm just fine; And you're a tool, so~"

I never needed you two. Ever.

"~So what? I am a rock star; I got my Rock Moves~"

Don't ever want to hear your voices again.

"~And I don't want you tonight~"

Ever.

"~No no, no no...I don't want you tonight~"

At least Twinkles tried.

"~You weren't there~"

Even if he was a fuck-up in the end.

"~I'm gonna show you tonight~"

I'm a fuck-up, too.

"~I'm alright; I'm just fine; And you're a tool, so~"

But I'm fine with that.

"~So what? I am a Rock star~"

Because at least I know how to get what I want.

"~I got my Rock Moves~"

Sling mud, and I'll sling it back harder.

"~And I don't want you tonight~"

Until all you idiots leave me alone.

"~Ba-da-da-da-da-da~"


"And you're OK with that?" Zuko growled into his phone, taken aback.

"Oh, please, Zuzu. Everything must always be so black and white with you."

"This isa little different."

"As if you would understand. You left, remember? Before you even understood what you were leaving."

Zuko took a deep breath, working to maintain himself. He glanced into the living room of his Uncle's house to see Mai on her laptop on the couch, patiently awaiting the end of this phone call.

"I understood enough," he insisted, keeping his voice down. Mai was playing some of that indie-rock music she'd gotten into recently. It was loud enough where he was sure she couldn't hear him right now. "Enough to know I didn't belong there," he amended his statement. "And you don't, either."

"Father seemed to think differently," Azula coolly replied.

"Father seemed to think a lot of things," Zuko seethed in a whisper. "And in case you forgot, his decisions didn't exactly do us any favors."

"Maybe that's where we differ, Brother: you think this is all about you, or me. Well, it's not."

"No, it isn't, which is exactly why you shouldn't-"
"You can play around and goof off with that silly old man all you-"
"Don't talk about him like that."

Zuko's blood was starting to boil. He'd believed that his sister was starting to see reason, but if she was really going to go along with what he thought she was, he had given her false credit.

"Or what?" Azula mocked. "What are you going to do about it, Dum-Dum?"

"I won't have to do anything," Zuko quipped sternly. "If you go through with this, I-"
"With what?" Azula played dumb. "Whatever are you talking about? I'm simply doing my job: the one you were supposed to help me with."

"You know exactly what I'm talking about," Zuko sighed. "And I promise you, Azula, if you go down that road, you're going to end up where Ozai did."

"Is that so? That sounds like a challenge to me."

Zuko rolled his eyes at her arrogance.

"And you do know how much I enjoy rising to challenges, don't you?"

Pinching at his nose with irritation as a headache was coming on, Zuko decided that it was best to drop this for right now until he could figure out a proper course of action.

"You're going to regret it later on," he warned in that 'like-you're-going-to-listen-to-me' tone Azula often received from him.

"Perhaps," Azula sneakily conceded. "Or maybe you'll regret having not done your part to repair what Father broke."

"That's what I am doing," Zuko defended. "That's what we're all doing."

"If you say so," she brushed him off casually. "I suppose we shall see in due time, Zuko."

"Yea..."

From the living room, Mai was on the lush, padded couch, enjoying the scent of camomile tea that Iroh had prepared for her, finishing up her e-mail reply.

[From: Mai Chiao]
[To: Katara Kesuk]
[Subject: RE: Concern]

[Listen. I don't mean to sound pushy here, but I really would like to talk with you about your roommate. I understand - it seems like she's just digging herself deeper. That's the problem. I'm sure there's things I don't know about here, but there's also some things I don't think you know, either. Can we please just meet some time?]

[Sorry if I'm coming across as bossy but I can't let my conscience drop this. Hopefully that makes some kind of sense to you.]

[- Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore.']

She sent the message as Zuko huffed into the living room.

"Sounds like Azula's back to her old self again," she tried to make light of his stress.

"Something like that," he groaned, setting himself down on the couch beside her. He wound his arm over her back and drew her in, kissing her on the head. His rough hand on her shoulder was comforting, the smell of his cologne still lingering on his neck, luring her into a soft hug.

"Just give it some time, Zuko," she advised calmly. "She's all the way across the country - it's not like there's much we can do about it right now, anyway."

"Mm..." Zuko wasn't so pleased with this prospect.

"You have enough to deal with right now, anyway," Mai reminded him, their temples pressed together. "We should both just focus on what's in front of us for now."

"Yea."

They clasped hands together and simply enjoyed the touch, the proximity, as they often did. It never seemed to get old - the comfort and security.

"Whatever Azula does," Mai expressed to Zuko, her dry voice warm like crackling embers, "I think you're doing everything you can."

"I hope it's enough," Zuko lamented. "Or else we're in trouble."


A/N: A little of...most everyone this chapter. No Jane this time, though. But everyone still has their roles to play, it's just a matter of giving them all time. Song lyrics by P!nk, one of Toph's idols.

[link]<--Previous Chapter
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Ironic - no Jane in this chapter, and yet I just read her role in The Promise, which inherently has me excited just to see that the creators wanted to have her show up a bit more than she did.

In a way, her role in The Promise may end up connecting to what I have planned in SRU better than I would've thought...

This chapter's all about more deliberately starting to set up some of the dominoes I intend to eventually collapse into understanding later on. ;)
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A/N: Now, don't get used to me posting chapters so soon apart - I've had a really slow week because I've had no hours at work. Seriously, if anyone is interested in commissioning me to write something for them, feel free to send me a message, I could use the work. Likewise, if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and might know of any place looking for workers, I'm all ears.


What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 67 - Like Water


- Sunday, February 27th, 2011 -

"I just...feel like I learn more from people," Aang hesitantly explained. "Not just...from a book. You know?"

Katara nodded thoughtfully as they walked down the cafeteria steps to the main lobby of the ACC.

"No, I feel the same way. Even with school, too - I feel like I learn a lot more outside of class than I do from the classes themselves..."

Side by side, heading out the front door of the campus center, they both had chins up and smiles on.

"Yea, I'm starting to think that, too," Aang agreed peacefully. "I'm getting the hang of it, though - balancing things out."

"You seem to be doing a lot better than you were before, so that makes sense," Katara acknowledged as they made their way down the steps. Katara paused halfway down, causing Aang to slow to a stop, confused.

"What's up?" he wondered, looking back. Katara was grinning sneakily, eyes narrowed and sly. She looked around them conspicuously.

"Nobody's around," she announced quietly, and with a mischievous tone. "What if we...kissed?" she suggested, cheeks heating up with anticipation, eyes half closed and sparking. Aang reciprocated, folding his arms to cover the tingling sensation that was building below his waist.

"Us...kissing," he facetiously contemplated the notion like it was a foreign concept.

"It is a crazy idea," Katara scoffed playfully, closing the distance between them.

"Us," Aang repeated, feigning serious thought as he rubbed his chin. "...Kissing."

Katara snickered and wrapped her arms around his lean waist - if she wasn't mistaken, he had trimmed up a bit lately from all that exercise. Likewise, Aang found his hands unconsciously latched onto Katara's hips. She was wearing jeans today - jeans that had a softer texture than normal. He liked that.

Lips found their way together against better judgment and lingered in their longing. Seconds passed.

The door behind them burst open as Sokka came rushing out to meet them.

"Hey, guys-Ahh!" He froze in place, reeling back at the sight, arms flailing up in the air. He nearly doubled over himself while the two lovers popped apart, eyes wide and faces flushed. In that moment, the pieces in Sokka's mind flung together.

Oh, how wrong he'd been.

"Nothing!" Aang spat out, rapidly waving his hands up in response to a question that hadn't even been asked. "We're not doing anything out here!" he pleaded in a sheepish squeak.

Katara eyes ignited with indignation as she pierced her index finger through the air to her brother, walking up the steps she'd been standing on.

"Haven't you ever heard of knocking, Sokka?" she growled, trying to keep her voice down - a failed effort.

Sokka gawked at her, brows furrowed testily.

"Uhh...First of all? You're supposed to knock before you go inside, not before you go outside!" he countered, annoyed with his sister's mini explosion. "And second, as my sister, you really shouldn't be kissing anyone in front of me." He frowned, hanging his tongue out in exaggerated disgust. "It's your sisterly duty to avoid giving me the oogies!" he yammered, seeming oddly calm about the whole thing.

"'Oogies'?" Katara roared, appalled by his childish reaction to all this. "Aargh! You are so immature sometimes!" Her finger was still raised, drawing closer to her brother, like an unsheathed sword, ready to slice. "What about you and Suki, huh?"

Sokka shrugged as Katara stabbed her finger into his chest, eyes on fire, nostrils flared open wide like geysers.

"I've had to sit and watch you and her snog all over the place, left and right!" Katara seethed. "I don't even wanna hear it!"

"Whaaat? That's rih-dick-uh-luss!" Sokka flamboyantly retaliated, leaning into her accusing finger. "At least you know we're dating, so you know to turn away!"

"This is our business! No one asked for your...stupidly childish opinion!"

As the siblings exploded at each other with embarrassed, vicious verbal jabs, Aang stared, wide-eyed and worried, their words blurring together in a run-on rant. His stomach was churning with fear. Sure, Silly Sokka was making fun, but Serious Sokka was going to strangle Aang in his sleep. He sighed with trepidation at the prospect, but was somewhat relieved that somehow he wasn't the one getting chewed out...

"Uh, Sokka?" he tried to push through their argument nervously, raising his palms up. "Sokka!"

Steam billowed from both Kesuk noses, and Sokka stuck his palm up to Katara's face.

"Time out," he quickly dismissed her, much to her aggravation. While she squawked out an offended huff, he turned to Aang. "Yea, Aang?"

"I, um...-" Aang shrugged, shaken by everything. "Whhhhat did you come out here to tell us?"

"Oh! Right!" Sokka's eyes flashed in remembrance and he seemed to forget about the entire argument in an instant. "We need to head downtown." He smacked the side of his fist into his palm. "They're doing the opening ceremony soon, and Korra told me I need to get you there."

"Huh?" Aang blinked, wide-eyed. "B-but that's...not for another few hours."

Sokka shrugged, brows lifted.

"I dunno, she said she needed you down there ASAP."

Aang nodded quickly, turning to Katara, who was trying to lower her temperature. She sighed out her frustrations.

"Then let's go," she decided.

"All right. Then let's go." With this, Sokka dashed past them, bee-lining to the nearby parking lot and toward their car.

As Katara and Aang followed, Katara tried to wind her fingers around Aang's - Sokka already knew, she figured - but he pulled away. She shrugged it off, acknowledging that he was understandably worried about what Sokka would think.

What had just transpired hung in the air, and they both wanted to discuss it, but knew there wasn't any time or privacy. Katara felt pretty certain, however, given Sokka's reaction, that he was somehow...completely fine with the whole thing. This was unnerving to her, but only because this would mark the first time Sokka had not been over-protective over any of her boyfriends. She couldn't help but find it strange.

They both made to sit in the backseat, and Sokka clucked his tongue wildly.

"Awww, no! You're up front, Sis. I don't need no oogies in the back seat."

Katara rolled her eyes with an "Urgh" and marched to the front.

She collapsed into the seat like it was a chore and clipped her seatbelt, folding her arms stubbornly across her chest while Aang drummed his fingers across his knees in the back.

Sokka turned on the ignition and off they went. After a minute or two of bizarre, tense silence, Sokka finally spoke.

"So, erm...That's what's been goin' on," he openly observed. "Ya know, that explains a lot."

"Ya think?" Katara snipped.

"Well, you two have seemed happier lately..."

Aang was tempted to announce how much better he'd been feeling, but squashed this desire for the sake of his own private parts.

"And Toph has been bitchier than normal," Sokka added.

"She doesn't know," Katara rapidly informed, suddenly swelling with worry.

"Oh." Sokka was off-put. "Damn...You, uh...you'd better keep that a secret for the time being, 'cuz she would totally...-" He glanced to his side in all seriousness, only to see a flash of his sister's dull, impatient glare before his eyes danced back to the road. "Ah. Right!" he acknowledged what was suddenly obvious.

"We are going to tell her," Aang put in his two cents. "But...not quite yet..."

"This isn't something we had...planned on," Katara was quick to add. "I-I mean, it...it just happened..."

"Well, hey," Sokka casually carried on, adjusting his mirror slightly. "Ya know, that's how this stuff goes, am I right?" How in the hell was he so...OK with this?

"And-and it's not like we've been keeping this all...under wraps, or...or anything like that," Katara pressed on with her hasty explanation. "This-...W-well, it was-...Like, we only just figured this out a few days ago, and we haven't even-"
"Chill."

Katara's shaky flurry of defense was cast aside by her brother.

"Geez, Sis...You're not in court, this ain't no trial," he laughed, trying to placate her. "I didn't ask for a novel. Simmer down."

Aang, still keeping fairly quiet in the back, was becoming more and more relieved the more Sokka spoke - quite the opposite of how he'd expected this to go down. Katara was confused. It simply wouldn't click that this could be so...easy. There was something she wasn't getting - there simply had to be. Sokka turned up the radio and everyone let their stresses get swallowed up by song until they reached their destination. This chunk of downtown Wayward was a bit busy, with a number of people humming around the newly refashioned building that Aang had contributed toward. A metal sign had been attached to its frontside, depicting interlocking gears on either side.

{UNITED REPUBLIC}

"Looks like your stop," Sokka advised. Aang hesitated for a moment, still unsure as to where the matter of him and Katara sat, but opted to wave them off and get swept into the buzzing student workers that were conducting their energies into the building.

Katara let the radiowaves waft through the car for a few minutes as they wheeled around and headed back for SRU's campus. When she felt like her mind was about to burst from the confusion, she lowered the volume dial.

"So you're just...totally OK with this," she dubiously proclaimed.

"Yea," Sokka bluntly replied, starting to get a bit annoyed with her insistence on doubting him. "I am."

"You," Katara grunted. "Elder brother who has never let me date anyone without giving me trouble."

Sokka shrugged at this, wide eyed, as the sense behind it was clear as day in his mind.

"Sis, you've never dated anyone I actually knew."

Katara did a double-take at this, eyebrows set low in consideration at first, only to gradually raise when the dust in her mind cleared.

"Katara, why would I not be OK with you and Aang?" Sokka spit out an incredulous laugh at her. "He's like a brother to me. I love the guy. I know him, I live with him. He's...a good guy. Which is a first for you."

He smirked in her direction, and she offered and embarrassed shrug.

"W-well, yea, he...he is...I just didn't think you'd...-" Another popped shoulder. She felt kind of silly now for second-guessing him.

He gave her a slap on the shoulder as he drove along the straight road back to school.

"I don't have a reason to be protective over you when I already know you're in good hands," Sokka concluded his logic, and she watched a warm smile pour over his face.

"Yea," Katara sighed out peacefully, relieved that this was so simple. Her brother's effortless support was a positive sign to her that she had made a good decision.

"Just...ya know...Don't go all gettin' mushy and making out in front of me and everything'll be fine."

"Psh...Did you forget about you and Suki in the past few minutes?"

Sokka swallowed carefully at the thought.

"No, I haven't," he muttered, the luster in his tone fading.


- Monday, February 28th, 2011 -

[From: Katara Kesuk]
[To: Mai Chiao]
[Subject: RE: Concern]

[OK...]

[I'm not really sure what you're talking about, Mai, but...All right. I think I know how you're feeling. So, yes, I'd be willing to meet up with you to talk about this. What did you have in mind?]

[~ Katara]

After reading the reply she'd received, Mai's attention was brought to the television, which was broadcasting the evening news.

["-which took place yesterday evening, where Mayor Kuei was present to help commemorate the grand opening of the new facility."]

Mai observed the quaint-looking man, middle-aged, with his elongated face and small, quaint glasses. He spoke cleanly and clearly to the news reporter, with a kind of authority unexpected from his stature.

["Personally, I'm very excited that the college has gone through with this project,"] said the mayor. ["I think it will be a great opportunity for our city and the students of their campus to interact and bring our two communities closer together."]

Mai smiled at the comment. She had heard some rumblings from her boyfriend about his involvement in helping promote the project to the town of Wayward, but hadn't heard the man himself speak on the matter. She could feel the crackling embers of her heart glow warm with pride at Zuko's work - his ideas brought forth by his own efforts - getting recognized.

["It's been a couple of months of hard work-"]
"Omigosh-omigosh Zuzu is on TV~!" squealed Ty-Lee, slapping her hands together tightly as she interrupted what Zuko was saying.

Mai smirked at her friend, who then gaped wide-eyed, pointing her finger excitedly at the screen.

["-lot of people have all pitched in to make this happen. It's been an honor to be a part of this, and I hope it helps our campus reach out and connect with people we haven't quite been able to interact with before."]

["The Kurosawa family seems to have a long history with Saint Roku University. Have they had any influence on this decision?"]

["To be honest, the United Republic was my own idea - my family's history with the college may have helped me reach a position where I could make these ideas a reality, but frankly, I'm acting independently."]

Ty-Lee hopped up again with another squeak.

"Look-look! In the background! It's Aang!"

Indeed, the young man was hovering the background, shaking hands with Mayor Kuei in the hullabaloo.

["-that in light of recent budgeting issues, many are questioning how the college is able to fund such a project when they're cutting off tenure from some of their respected professors."]

Zuko replied with his professional demeanor, expressionless and courteous.

["You'd have to speak with the college's president concerning those kinds of matters."]

While the news reporter continued to discuss the topic, Mai tuned it out, opting to focus on the half-scribbled sketch on her notepad. Zuko came walking into the Terra house lounge, talking on his phone.

"-what you're saying, Uncle, but I really don't see what else I can do about it right now..."

They were talking about Azula. Mai had become pretty familiar with overhearing vague conversations about the topic. It concerned her - something more serious was going on, but Zuko would never divulge the details, even getting actively upset when she tried to press them from him. It had become a bit of a sore topic, so Mai had been trying to quell her doubts and simply do her best to offer encouragement from the sidelines. Something seemed to have happened in the past week that had got things sparking issues back up after what had sounded like a breakthrough over the holidays.

Mai waved a dainty hand to her boyfriend, who nodded and waved back, occupied by his call.

"Right, but...Yes, I understand, it's-...OK, all right. Yes, yes, I'll be there...Mm-hm...I love you, too."

With that same tired sigh Mai had grown wary of hearing, Zuko let himself collapse onto the lumpy couch and cozy up beside Mai, who set her drawing on the nearby coffee table.

"Zuko!" Ty-Lee chirped. "You were on TV!"

"Uh, yea," Zuko shrugged, a bit embarrassed. "That was-...Yea."

"Soooooo awesome~!"

"Sure...Uh, thanks?"

"You looked like you carried yourself pretty well out there," Mai observed. "How was it?

"It went well," Zuko decided with a light nodding gesture. "The place is looking great, and the new manager seems really...energetic. She's had experience with this kind of thing before, so it seemed like she hardly needed any training."

"Sounds good."

"Yea, it's all been going smoothly, I think."

"Then I'm guessing that's not what your phone call was about," Mai keenly pointed out.

"No," Zuko mumbled in admittance, scratching at his ear.

Ty-Lee gasped.

"Azula's being a big meanie again, isn't she?" she realized. "That's what you were talking about."

"Wh-?" Zuko's eyes darted to her and he shook his head. "No, that wasn't it," he firmly replied. "It's about the school, not her."

"You're lying," Ty-Lee immediately spat out with a stern point of her finger.

Zuko grunted and rolled his eyes.

"Just because you watch that stupid show, it doesn't mean-"
"Deflecting," Ty-Lee snipped, cutting him off.

"I'm not lying," Zuko insisted. "It has to do with the school."

Ty-Lee slits for eyes scanned him suspiciously for another moment.

"That part's true," she admitted. "What's Godzula have to do with the school right now?"

Mai was quite interested in this and was opting not to say anything in Zuko's defense when he glanced her way.

"It's...just politics," he yammered. "You wouldn't understand."

"So she does have something to do with the school," Ty-Lee sneakily concluded, sidestepping the insult to her intelligence.

"I never said that..."

"Like how you never said it to the news lady."

"Oh, so...What? Is this some conspiracy, now?" Zuko huffed.

Ty-Lee blinked at him, cocking her head to the side.

"I dunno, Zuko," she innocently replied. "Is it?"

Zuko's head rolled backward and he groaned.

"You're not some detective, Ty-Lee. Mind your own business."

"So it is."

"No! There's no-...There's nothing like that. Kurosawa Industries used to be very involved with the school, but we're not now, and Azula's sticking her nose where it doesn't belong and trying to bring up old problems. That's it, OK?"

Both girls stared at him for a moment. He was burning up with irritation and stress. Mai slid her lithe fingers over the back of his neck and gave Ty-Lee a brief, gentle glance.

"OK~" Ty-Lee chimed with a peppy shrug. "I was just messin' with ya, Zuko. Man, you're so frikkin' serious all the time..."

Mai smirked. Her roommate wasn't always as stupid as she pretended to be.

"OK, guys," Mai settled their matter. "Come on, now, we're here to hang out. Ty-Lee, would you mind making some popcorn?"

"Sure!" And off Ty-Lee pranced to the kitchen down the hall.

"You set her up to that, didn't you?" Zuko grumbled, arms crossed over his stomach.

"I did no such thing," Mai confidently remarked. "But I'm glad you think we're both crafty enough to plan something like that out, haha."

"Some of this stuff is serious, and it's not your guys' business," Zuko firmly advised with a bit of a glare. He puffed out a sigh and retracted his frustration. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to...be a jerk about it."

"It's OK," Mai assured, continuing to run her hand across the back of his head. "I get it. It's personal, family stuff. My dad's a politician, remember? I know how that goes."

"Yea..."

"Come here," Mai whispered, raising her other hand to Zuko's jaw and pulling him in for a kiss. They enjoyed a romantic moment together until Ty-Lee's voice interrupted.

"Awwwwww~!"

Lips that were pressed together curved into smiles as they slowly pulled apart.

"Don't mind me!" Ty-Lee giggled, munching on some kernels of popped corn in a puffed up cheek. "Juff emjoing da ffoh."

Mai smiled and got up, grabbing the DVD case sitting on the table and making her way to the television to set up the movie she had rented.

"So what's this movie about, again?" Zuko wondered, eyeballing the dreary cover, with some girl making a snow angel. {Let Me In}

"Vampires~!"

"Ugh."

"Fff," Mai was amused by Zuko's immediate distaste. "Yes, but...I heard it's actually good."

"Guess we'll find out," Zuko scoffed.


[From: Mai Chiao]
[To: Katara Kesuk]
[Subject: RE: Concern]

[Thank you for understanding. By the way, Aang told me about what happened recently. I'm very happy for you two. I know it can be kind of awkward at first - I was friends with Zuko's sister for a long time before he and I started dating, so it was kind of weird for a while when we started. But things got better.]

[I was thinking we could meet over coffee at the Jasmine Dragon. Thursday evening work for you?]

[- Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore.']

Katara's attention was diverted from her computer as her open door was rattled. She looked up to see a curious Jane peering thoughtfully in.

"Hi," Katara greeted.

"'Sup?"

"Just...ya know...-" Katara closed her laptop, directing full attention to her friend. She tugged at her hair nervously, adjusting the ponytail it was set into. "I needed to talk to you about something."

"That's..why I'm here," Jane muttered with a shrug. "I got your text earlier."

"R-right, so, umm...-" Katara wiggled her hand, inviting Jane to enter. "Would you mind, um, closing the door, Hun?"

Jane did as asked and plopped herself onto the side of Katara's bed.

"Somethin' up?"

"Haaah," Katara half-sighed, half-laughed. "K-kind of..."

"Sooo...-?" Jane's eyes narrowed. She didn't seem in a patient mood today. "I've got work in a few minutes."

"O-OK, I just...-" Katara fidgeted with her hands, fingers squirming over each other. "I just thought you should know that...just a couple days ago...-" She sucked in a deep breath and just let the words roll out. "Aang and I started dating." She looked down as she said it, seemingly ashamed. There was silence. Almost wincing, Katara looked up to Jane's face, calm and dulled - as it had been when she'd entered. The girl shrugged.

"Big fuckin' surprise," she mumbled, her eyes shifting now that Katara was looking at her. "Saw that one comin' from a mile away..."

"So, y-you're...not upset?"

Jane shook her head, turning her wrists upward in compliance.

"Psst. I mean...Kinda pissed that you were lying about it before, but...-"

"I'm sorry," Katara was quick to apologize. "I wasn't-...I-I hadn't really thought about it until after the fact...This all just happened..."

"Yea, yea," Jane eased, flicking her wrist downward in dismissal. "It's...whatever," she popped up one shoulder. "You can date whoever the fuck you want, Kat," she insisted in a tone that was lacking any hostility. "Christ, no one's stoppin' ya."

As Katara's face lightened up into a relieved smile, Jane arranged her own face to match its relief.

"Fff, I mean, shit, Kat..." Jane scratched at her eyebrow. "You deserve some fuckin' happiness, am I right?"

"Thanks," Katara breathed out peacefully. "I've just been really worried about, 'cuz of...everything that's happened."

"Don't even," Jane casually rolled the matter of her back. "That was-...I was stupid, I shouldn't have...-"

"I didn't want to see you get hurt."

Jane appreciated the firm honesty in Katara's tone when those words rolled out.

"I know," she mumbled back, struggling to stop her cheeks from getting too flushed. "But...fuck, does Her Royal Bitchfest know about this yet?" Jane changed gears, nodding her head to the empty bed across the room.

"No, she, um...-" Katara's fingers began habitually twirling the edges of her ponytail. "She doesn't know about it yet."

"There's gonna be fire and brimstone when she does," Jane snickered, making light of the situation.

"Ugghh, I know," Katara bemoaned, leaning forward in her chair as the twirling continued. "We have no idea how to break it to her yet."

"Heh. Secret's safe with me," Jane offered. "No fuckin' way am I touchin' that shit with a ten-foot pole."

"Oh, y-yea, thanks. You and Sokka know about it now." Katara let go of her ponytail and folded her hands into her lap. "Aang and I will tell Toph sometime...I'm trying to wait for her to cool off a bit, you know?"

"Tch." Jane's eyes opened wide with doubt as she grimaced. "Good luck with that one..."

"I know," Katara whimpered.

A moment of silence. Jane's insides were swelling with different emotions.

"Bet you two are gettin' it on nice, though," she tried to set up some encouragement, bringing the topic back to Aang.

"Yea, we are," Katara agreed, and the fears on her face instantly washed away at the thought. "He's just-...I dunno. I really have a good feeling about this."

"Yea," Jane nodded along. "That's...-" She paused, then nodded again. Her finger rubbed at her eyebrow again but she caught herself, instead pushing her hand back over her shaggy mess of orange hair. "Nah, that's great, Kat." She swallowed, trying to focus her thoughts on her happiness for Katara instead of the dejection that was trying to crawl over her. "Fuck," she laughed out. "I'm happy for ya."

"Thank you." Katara, beaming with joy, reached out and hugged Jane tightly, which made Jane's body tingle and tremble for a moment with mixed sensations.

"Sooo, I gotta get to work," Jane grunted through their hug. It broke apart, to her regret and relief.

"Right!" Katara cheerfully acknowledged, her eyes bright and practically sparkling with excitement. "Yea, have a good time."

"Apff. Will do," Jane facetiously replied as she got up from the bed. "Catch ya later."

"Bye!"

As Jane entered her own room - her roommate also missing, as usual - she took a moment in privacy to take a deep, shaky breath. Her insides were mangled. She felt at once elated and hollow. It hadn't been since Christmas that she'd seen Katara's face so...warm, and alive, and at peace. It had been such a pleasant sight. And yet, she also know this was the definitive nail in the coffin regarding what she had wanted most happening between herself and the girl.

Katara seemed very happy, and that was great.
But Jane felt rejected and disappointed.

A confused sob seeped out as she sat on her bed, but Jane sniffed, rubbed at her dampening eyes, and breathed out, nice and slow.

Katara's happiness was more important than her own. Katara deserved to be happy.

Jane refused to sink back into that hole, the one Toph seemed to have eagerly dug herself into. She wasn't going to let her own desires get in the way of everyone's happiness.

Katara had taught her better than that - and look where she was now.

Maybe if Jane could be patient, she'd know what that felt like, too.

She stuck on her Appa's work cap and slapped some deodorant in her arm pits and looked in the mirror hanging on the backside of her door. She adjusted the bumblebee belt buckle Sokka had given her for Christmas. Today, that was the 'bee' thing she had decided to wear. She didn't much care for her appearance in this stupid hat. Made her look like a dude. She fussed with her T-shirt - it was tight, and the push-up she was wearing helped a bit, at least. Her jeans were getting pretty tight, too - she'd gained weight over Christmas break, for sure. For all his stupidity, Sokka had been helping her notice these things, pervert that he was.

I guess now it doesn't matter if Katara was noticing them or not, though...

On her way down, she took out her phone and sent a message.

[To: johnny]
[so..how you doin? that leg any bettr?]
[Sent: 4:46pm]


- Tuesday, March 1st, 2011 -

"Nope. Still hasn't murdered me in my sleep," Aang chuckled. "I think I might be in the clear."

"Heh..." Katara gave a wistful smile as they walked down the steps of the back end of the ACC. The cool evening air had traces of fog lingering inbetween puddles of light case down by street lamps along the sidewalks. "You want to go for a walk?" Katara asked, staying close to his side.

Aang nodded in compliance. They admired each other's shy faces for a moment.

"Yea, it's nice out."

They took off across the winding sidewalks of SRU's campus, their destination aimless, losing track of time in the dusky air, vapors starting to billow from their lips.

They made jokes, and discussed how everyone so far had seemed so accepting of their blossoming romance.

Everything just seemed to be flowing.

Like water.

+ http:/www(dot)youtube(dot)com/watch?v=usR7mMHUhlY +

~I opened my eyes last night and saw you in the low light~

They passed by the lamp Aang had found Katara by the night they'd first kissed.

~Walking down by the bay, on the shore, staring up at the planes that aren't there anymore~

Aang caught Katara gazing up to the moon, veiled in cloud.

~I was feeling the night grow old and you were looking so cold~

He took his white newsie cap and planted it on her head. She blushed. He smiled.

~Like an introvert, I drew my over shirt Around my arms and began to shiver violently before~

He pulled up his hood, covering his chilled head after a gust of wind blew past them.

~You happened to look and see the tunnels all around me~

The wind picked up, and Katara clasped at the hat on her head to keep it from blowing.

~Running into the dark underground; All the subways around create a great sound~

A set of windchimes hanging near the entrance to the Gyatso building ringed pleasantly nearby.

~To my motion fatigue, farewell, with your ear to a seashell~

Katara's hand lingered on the hat with affection after the gusts had calmed.

~You can hear the waves in underwater caves~

Aang extended his arm, sliding his fingers down to her wrist, until their hands interlocked.

~As if you actually were inside a saltwater room~

They journeyed, side-by-side, both blushing and smiling weak smiles.

~Time together is just never quite enough~
~When you and I are alone, I've never felt so at home~

Their conversing had lulled to an end, but this was just fine.
They were simply enjoying the expressions of affection swirling around.

~What will it take to make or break this hint of love?~
~We need time~
~Only time~

Their hearts full of hope, and confidence, they wondered...
What could stop this seed from growing into a tall tree?

Nothing.

~When we're apart whatever are you thinking of?~
~If this is what I call home, why does it feel so alone?~

Fussing over classes and work.
Reading and homework, alone in their rooms.

~So tell me darling, do you wish we'd fall in love?~
~All the time
~All the time~

Just an hour or two of time together, and the world melted away.

~Can you believe that the crew has gone and wouldn't let me sign on?~

Katara thought on Aang's lofty goals, and how he'd somehow been meeting them.

~All my islands have sunk in the deep, so I can hardly relax or even oversleep~

She thought of the pain and the confusion he'd gone through back in January.

~I feel as if I were home, some nights, when we count all the ship lights~

But here they were, still afloat after the storms, adrift together on a raft.

Like it was always meant to be.

~I guess I'll never know why sparrows love the snow~

Aang thought on Katara's strong-willed desire to help others, and how she'd helped him.

~We'll turn off all of the lights and set this ballroom aglow~

He thought of how comfortable it was to be with her - to touch and be touched, despite his earlier doubts.

~So tell me darling, do you wish we'd fall in love? All the time~

They drew closer together, hands over hips, bodies eager to lean on each other.

~Time together is just never quite enough~
~When you and I are alone, I've never felt so at home~

Katara laid her head on his shoulder as they walked, and he set his own cheek on rough, scratchy hat on her own head.

~What will it take to make or break this hint of love?~
~We need time~
~Only time~

"How are you doin'?" he asked after their long silence.

"Good," she sighed pleasantly.

~When we're apart whatever are you thinking of?~
~If this is what I call home, why does it feel so alone?~

"So, Katara." Aang lifted his head back up as they slowed.

"Yea?"

~So tell me darling, do you wish we'd fall in love?~
~All the time~
~All the time~

"I love you," Aang announced simply.

"I love you, too," she replied, as easy as that.

~Time together is just never quite enough~

Their faces both lit up with attraction.

~When we're apart whatever are you thinking of?~

They kissed for a bit, each gesture a small mystery.

~What will it take to make or break this hint of love?~

As they pulled apart, Katara's face lingered close to his, and she rubbed her nose against his own.

~So tell me darling, do you wish we'd fall in love?~

"That's an eskimo kiss," she explained, their foreheads pressed together.

~All the time~

"Better get used to those, Aang," she coyly teased.

Aang delivered one onto her face next and she giggled.

"It looks like...-" She kissed him on the lips softly, and they slid noses together yet a third time. "-...Canadian Eskimo Glue is keeping our noses stuck together...


A/N: Yes, that first scene references both Cave of Two Lovers and The Promise at the same time. I've always found the idea of Sokka being mad at Kataang to be retarded and silly. Realistically, Sokka would totally approve - in The Promise he's not upset with Aang at all, he just turns it into a childish joke at Katara's expense. Song is Saltwater Room so the lyrics are by Owl City.

[link]<--Previous Chapter
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People find out about Kataang.
I further develop Zuko/Mai/Azula's role in the overarcing plot.
Even Ty-Lee gets a little development.

Good times.

Thumbnail is from this lovely pic drawn for SRU:
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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]
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A/N: More Legend of Korra characters incorporated into the story in this chapter. I've been mulling over my plans for them for a while, and this seemed to be a good point to drop them in. Bear in mind I had to take artistic liberties with them. Then again, if you've read this far you probably already get what I mean - it was either take some AU liberties with them, or not include them at all.

What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 82 - Both


- Saturday, March 26th, 2011 -

Schllrrrppp.

Ssfffffffhh.

Schllrrrppp.

rrrRRRRRRRrrrmmmm...

It was a lazy Saturday afternoon. The three of them were lined up, side by side, on the wide stone steps of the concrete porch. Some empty cans and bottles rested behind them, with a few cigarette butts stamped out at the base of the stairs.

Bolin took another sip of his beer.

Mako took another drag of his cigarette.

Korra, only able to work through one or the other at a time, finished off her third beer with her right arm - her left was still in a sling, having had its shoulder dislocated earlier that week. Being thrown through a table could've broken something, so she considered herself not lucky but too tough to have had it worse.

Another car drifted by, which they all watched with eyes glazed over.

Korra skillfully pulled her box of cigarettes from her leather jacket's interior pocket, slipped one between her lips, and put the box back. She spit the nicotine-filled stick to her right side.

"Wanna gimme another light, Mako?"

Without a word, her level-headed roommate retrieved his lighter and ignited it onto her cigarette. Korra sucked it a deep puff and held it briefly before slowly letting the toxic vapor seep out of her nostrils.

"So, uhh...Korra," Bolin piped up, tapping his fingers with boredom against his silver Sapporo can. "How much longer 'til your appointment?"

Korra sighed out the remnant of smoke and shrugged up her right shoulder.

"I don't know," she replied grumpily. "An hour or so. It's at four."

"Ah. Yea..." Bolin double checked his cell phone. "Yup. 'Bout an hour, then. What are you going in for?"

"Eh." Frowning, Korra set her cigarette on top of an empty can and reached her hand up to her head, scratching an itch behind her ear. Her hair was hung down loose and tangled, since she was too lazy to bother with its upkeep these past few days. She was beginning to feel a little self-conscious about it, living with two guys who kept their hair styled all of the time. "The doctor wants to check to make sure the shoulder's healing, and she's been worried I might have a concussion or something, soooo...lookin' at my head, too, I guess."

"So, when are you thinkin' you'll need a ride back?" Mako wondered. Bolin had work in the evening, leaving it to Mako to come scoop Korra up from the hospital.

"Uh, I'm not totally sure," confessed Korra, picking her cigarette back up and breathing it in. After puffing gray wisps out of her mouth, she clarified. "The freakin' cops keep bothering me about shit, and I promised my cousin I'd go in so she and her boyfriend wouldn't have to, and so...bleh. They're taking me in for a while after my hospital visit to interview me and shit."

A solemn "Huh" was Bolin's response to this. Mako sighed audibly and puffed out his own smoke.

"So, are you holdin' up all right?" Bolin asked.

"Wh-?" Korra felt a bit flustered by the concern in his voice. "O-of course I'm all right. Why wouldn't I be? Fff. You know me well enough by now to know I'm solid as a rock, right?"

"No, yea, of course," came Bolin's hasty easing. "It's just, I meant, like...with your job situation, and...umm...I-I was just...you know, curious, is all...if you'd heard back on that."

"Yeeaaaa," Korra groaned out, bobbing her head down with discouragement. "Honestly, I, uh...have no fuckin' idea what's gonna happen with that. President Bumi says they'll find a place for me, but...I-I dunno, Mako, weren't you saying the college is on the ropes with money lately?"

Mako shrugged half-heartedly, not giving a verbal response - because he knew the situation wasn't pretty and didn't want to get her discouraged.

"Nah, they'll...they'll work something out," Bolin insisted, trying to collect confidence to bestow upon his friend. "No way they'd just leave you out to dry - I mean, after moving all the way out here? They'll find a place for you. For sure."

"I just don't know why they would. Really, what makes me worth holding onto. You really think they'll give me a new job?" Korra lamented, cocking her head to the side.

"Yea, I do," assured Bolin, nudging up his can to her before slurping some beer down. He looked her straight in the eyes - those iced, sky blue eyes were looking...oddly vulnerable in that moment. "You've got grits, brawn, determination, and...-" Beauty. "-...they will...totally find something. You watch."

"Thanks, Bo," Korra mumbled with a weak smile. "Yea, you're right," she reaffirmed - Bolin's delivery of confidence seemed to have arrived. "They must think I'm an asset, right? Why else would they have had me move all the way down here?"

"That's the spirit, Gal."

"You know, for now," Mako poked in, "I think it'd be a good idea to just relax, take care of your injuries..."

Korra smirked at him, raising an eyebrow.

"Oh. Is Mr. Cool all worried about me now?"

Mako's eyes dulled a bit at her assertion and he shrugged.

"I'm worried about you not being able to work and pay the bills, yea."

Bolin frowned at his brother's stern words, while Korra's eyes narrowed slyly at what she perceived to be concern for her well-being.

"I've already got April paid off," Korra smoothly reminded.

"I know that, but if you don't start-"
"And by the time April's over, May will be paid off."

Mako snorted out a small cloud.

"Yea, she'll be fine, Bro," insisted Bolin, giving Korra a pat the left side of her back.

"Shoulder, shoulder!" Korra winced, her body tightening.

"Sorry!" spat out Bolin sheepishly.

"Anyway," huffed Mako, dropping his burnt-out cigarette to the sidewalk at the stairs' base and crushing it beneath his shoe. "For now, I think you should deal with what's right in front of you - your injuries, and helping the police get to the bottom of this."

"Yes Sir, Team Captain, Sir," Korra bellowed with a mocking two-finger salute.

Skritcha-skritch-scratch.

"Yarp! Yar-yarrp!"

Korra craned her neck toward the house's entrance, from which her puppy was clawing at the door.

"Man, we've gotta get her a post or something so she can hang out on the lawn," Bolin mused, slowly rising to his feet. "Poor girl."

"Hm." Korra nodded. "I think you're right...Oh, uhhh...Thanks," she called to her friend, who entered the house and began getting the dog's collar ready.

"Anything for the lovely ladies of this house," Bolin called back, rubbing his palm all over Naga's face with a grin.

"When did I become a 'lovely' lady?" Korra spurted out.

"Are you...Wait, are you serious?" Bolin gasped, flabbergasted as he walked Naga out. She pranced around, licking at Korra's arms and causing the injured woman to flinch, nudging her pet away for fear of her arm being puppy-tackled.

"Bo, take...-" Mako groaned as the panting young dog jumped over to him next. He stubbornly pushed Naga off of his lap by the snout. "-...take her out onto the lawn, already!"

"All right, all right," Bolin eased the dog down the steps and to the grass. "But Korra, come on, are you kiddin' me? You are totally lovely."

"Ha! I don't think so, pal." Amused, Korra lifted her eyebrow at Bolin's goofy smile of encouragement.

"Bolin!" Mako scolded. "Watch the dog."

Bolin flinched with fright as he realized that Naga was trying to run off into the street, and he tugged on the leash, reigning her in.

The family ferret scurried outside, jumping right up onto Mako's shoulders and sniffing at his neck.

"Argh, you left the door open," he sighed, running his hand along Pabu's back.

"Sorry 'bout that!"

Korra hummed out a laugh at the stout young man standing in the lawn, running circles around her puppy. This kind of behavior was stupid and childish when her cousin Sokka acted this way, but when Bolin did...well, it still was those things, but also oddly attractive.

"Watch it!" Mako cried out as Pabu bounded into lap and dashed down into the lawn the play tag. While his eyes tracked the animal with some worry, Korra's remained fixed on his stern profile. Hm. Mr. Serious wasn't so bad, either.

Korra remembered a recent chat she'd had with said idiotic cousin, and how he was having trouble dealing with the hots for two different girls. Korra couldn't deny that she was having increasing trouble ignoring the same kind of issue she was developing, living with this two men.


"Woohoo! Yeaaa! Party-party!"

"Meelo, no, you've had quite enough!"

"But I'm hungry, Dad!"

"I understand, and just as soon as your mother finishes work we're going to be going right to dinner."

"What's taking her so long? I don't get what's taking her long. She's late. Why is she late? We've been waiting here for like an hour it should not take this long to see one person why would it take this long I don't understand-"
"Ikki, it has has only been five minutes…"

As Korra meandered around the crowd of mixed-race children, she was confused by their loud and irritable nature, feeling some sympathy for the father - a stern-faced, rigid-jawed man in his early 50's with a sharp chin beard. Having been told to wait here in the lounge area to be escorted by a police officer, Korra was doing her best to oblige. In the corner of the room sat a brunette teen, her hair hugging her cheeks. She kind of reminded Korra of Aang, in an odd way - her features, the way her focused gaze seemed to stare right through the pages of paper before her. It was plain from her looks that she was related to the other kids, and by proxy a daughter of the poor man trying to calm the younger two down. She had gentle but focused eyes, and a thin frame.

Korra was almost bewildered by how calm and unassuming the teenager was, drowning herself in a book in spite of the chaos before her. Korra eyeballed the cover - black background, white and red flower, a title reading {new moon}.

Korra recognized the title only based on what she'd heard of a movie series popular with the demographic this girl was squarely representing. Korra was about ready to shrug it off and sit a wall away when the book was lowered.

"Oh," came the girl in observation, looking up at Korra from her chair. "Is my mom done seeing you?"

"Err…Uh…" What's she talking about?

"The Doctor - she's my mom," the girl explained with a smirk, closing her book and setting it neatly in her lap. "She's told me about you - I read about what happened in the paper."

The paper? As in, newspaper? A teenage girl, in this day and age, who read the newspaper? Korra was baffled.

Oh, and now she was sticking out her hand? Weird. Korra shook it, perplexed.

"I'm Jinora. Sorry about what happened," she said, tossing a glance to Korra's arm sling.

"Tsh. Nah, no problem," insisted Korra, squinting dismissively at her own injury. "I'll be fine. Especially with your mother looking after me."

"Yea, she's pretty good like that," Jinora declared with a grin.

"Uhh…" Korra nodded awkwardly. Was this conversation going somewhere, or…-?

"My mom said the others are all right, too."

"Oh. Er, y-yea. They're doing much better."

"That's good."

"Yup…"

"Jinora, Dear," bellowed the deep voice of the father. "We're getting ready to leave in a moment."

"All right, Father," the girl sighed, the light of curiosity in her eyes immediately dimming.

In looking up at the man, Korra suddenly noticed the swift approach of that nasty woman - the one she'd had spoken to the last time she was here at the hospital. The father's voice glowed with formal praise at her.

"Lin, you are looking radiant as usual."

Unfazed by his compliment, she blew right past him.

"Cut the bullshit, Tenzin. I didn't come here to see you."

Tenzin, stroking his pointed beard thoughtfully, watched her stomp by, a calm, knowing look on his face.

"Chh, that police lady said a swear," snorted out the youngest child, scratching his oddly lumpy head.

"That's right, Meelo, she certainly did," Tenzin observed aloud to his son, projecting to ensure that Lin overheard.

"Heheh. You're bullshit!" the young boy whispered sneakily to his sister.

"Daaa-aaad!" Ikki whined, her lips pouting at her sibling. "Meelo just said-"
"I heard him," Tenzin darkly put her at ease, glaring down at his sheepish boy. "And he'd better not say it again, or he'll be grounded to his room while we have a party for your sister."

Meelo swallowed audibly, his fingers fidgeting together while Ikki wore a boastful smirk, flaunting her victory. At his young age, the prospect of missing out on birthday cake might as well have been a death sentence to Meelo.

"Crazy family you've got, kid," Korra mumbled, avoiding the piercing eyes of the woman in uniform as she drew near.

"Tell me something I don't know," Jinora puffed out, tucking her book under her arm pit and getting up to join her family as the doctor, now out of her white coat, joined them.

"Is your business finished up here?"

Korra flinched at the icy voice of Chief Lin Jia, who was glowering at her, arms folded behind her back, her body clad in a gray uniform. Korra's eyes wandered across the polished badge on the woman's chest before regaining her bearings and nodded in reply.

"Good," Lin hissed. "Because I haven't got all day."

Great. Another interview with Miss Personality…Why did I agree to this shit, again?

"So this is the girl?" came the deep voice of Tenzin from behind Lin. Korra was startled by his sudden approach, and a quick glance across the way revealed Dr. Rabten was tending to the children.

"This isn't of your concern, Tenzin," Lin muttered darkly out of the corner of her mouth.

"With all due respect, Lin, I think that-"
"Chief Jia."

Tenzin's head cocked back for a moment and he sucked in air through his defined nose before snorting out a quick burst of air.

"I'm sure you and your little clubhouse are quite interested in this mess," Lin snarled under her breath at him, humor in her tone. "But don't you forget that this is my business. Not yours."

"Lin," Tenzin extended his hand to Korra, who was bewildered and embarrassed by whatever was going on here. "This young woman isn't connected with the-"
"I'm aware, and I intend to keep it that way. We don't need any more of that fuckery around here - I'll bet it's the cause of this whole mess."

Tenzin pinched the bridge of his nose tiredly.

"I'm just making sure you're aware that she's done nothing to deserve this," he insisted.

Korra swallowed a lump in her throat. It went down like a pebble. The man's defense on her behalf was reminding her of the fight she'd instigated - and ended - in the recent past.

Lin's eyes narrowed at him as her scowl somehow intensified.

"I will be the judge of that. Now, don't you have a family to attend to?"

Tenzin peeled away from the police officer's piercing gaze to look at the perplexed woman gawking at them, her arm in a sling.

"Miss Kesuk," he greeted her, extending his right arm - she shook it, still dazed by whatever these two old farts were yammering about. "I'm Congressman Rabten."

"Uh…" She was at a loss. First of all, how did he know her name? And why did he seem to care about her in the first place?

"It's a pleasure to meet you."

"Y-yea, same…" Congressman? Like, government stuff?

"I just wanted to say how sorry I am to hear of what transpired this week."

"Erm, n-no, it's…fine, I'll live. Besides, not your fault." She noticed the sympathetic doubt in his sharp eyes. "Seriously," she chuckled. "No need to worry about me. I'm just…tryin' to help the cops here…-" She cleared her throat, that lump coming back up. "-…uh…ya know…take care of the guy that did this."

"Then I won't delay you any longer," said Tenzin with a nod. Standing up tall, he glanced across the two of them. "Ladies…Good day." And with that, he mysteriously vanished back to where he'd come from - his family.

Before any kind of relief could settle into Korra's gut, Chief Jia's stone-cold stare was right up in her face.

"You're in a whole mess of trouble, young lady," she seethed into Korra's ear.

Nice to see you again, too…


"No!" Korra huffed. "I'm telling you, I only saw the guy twice - a couple days before it happened, and then the night of."

The police chief inspected the sketch that had been put together from Korra's description. An eye tattooed on his forehead? Someone eccentric like this shouldn't be so hard to track down...

"So what was it, then?" Lin snapped, dropping the sketch onto the table. "What did you do to provoke him?"

Korra's jaw was clenched in aggravation, and she gripped the coffee mug she'd been given tightly. The interview room was well lit but cold and empty. Or maybe it was an interrogation room. That's what it felt like, which was pissing Korra the hell off, since she had been the victim here, obviously.

"Prov-? I didn't do anything to provoke this creep! I served him fucking hamburgers and steak, all right?"

"Mm." Lin's lips tightened. "And I'm sure you didn't 'provoke' those scooter-head numbskulls when you publicly pummeled them?"

There was that hard-to-swallow lump again. Go figure, the cops had found out about that.

"That's right," Lin jabbed with a belittling tone. "I know all about your history with violence, young lady, and I've researched your less than stellar record up in Toronto. This isn't exactly your first run-in with the police, is it?" Korra's only reply was a stubborn glare. "You're lucky those idiots deserved a beating, because that's the only reason I let that one slide - those fools are on my shit list, too, I assure you." Lin had circled the table and was hovering over Korra's back now. The woman bent over and growled into Korra's ear. "Let me be perfectly clear: this town may not be anything worth writing home about, but right now, it is my town. And I will not tolerate stunts like that here, especially during such a volatile time."

"Huh...?"

"Now tell me," Lin pressed on. "Did you see him speak with anyone? Anyone at all? Either time he was there?"

"Uh, n-no...I mean, I don't think-"
"I didn't ask what you thought, I asked what you saw."

Korra's teeth were grinding together, and she forced herself to take a drink of coffee if only to force her jaws open. Lin came back around to her side, staring down at her.

"Didn't see him talk with anyone," Korra firmly stated, her lower lip poking out grumpily. "Come to think of it, he didn't talk at all."

"Was he a mute?"

"I don't know," Korra tossed tossed her arm, her back tightening from the slight jostle she'd caused to the opposing shoulder. "Might as well be...And-and his arm...-" She grimaced with disgust, remembering the unsightly flesh.

"What about it?" Lin demanded.

"It was...I-I'm not sure, his right arm was just...really messed up bad. Like, it looked infected, or...burned, or some shit. It was...bad."

"Hmm..." Lin's fingers ran along her jawline in contemplation. "So when he approached you, he just...attacked? Unprovoked?"

"I already told you this," Korra groaned, recalling going through this on her way out of the hospital that night. "He was in the bathroom while I was closing up. After I did, he came out, just walked right up to us, and hit me - no fucking reason."

"What had you said to him?"

"Psh! I don't-...Just...something like 'What do you need?' or whatever."

"Hm...If he'd wanted you dead, I'm sure you would be right now..."

"What? He left me to burn in-"
"He knocked you out and left you on the floor. He overpowered you, but he left you."

"He didn't overpower me," Korra snapped, her ego scratched. "He...got the jump on me."

"He walked right up to you," Lin flatly reminded her.

"Y-yea? Well, he fought dirty. And he ran away like a...a coward."

"You imbecile - let me state the perfectly obvious: a psychotic serial killer isn't going to play by our rules. He's going to make up his...-" Lin's eyes popped open for a fleeting open, and she snapped her fingers in realization. "We're done here," she announced boldy, her expression withering straight back to disinterest. "Get out of my sight," she commanded, to which Korra immediately acted, stumbling her way out. This nasty woman made Korra feel inadequate, weak, feeble...she couldn't stand it.

"If you can be of any more use to this investigation, you'll be hearing from us."

"Can't fuckin' wait," Korra grumbled under her breath.

"And young lady?" Lin's tone spilled out.

Korra flinched, on her way out of the door. She turned around begrudgingly.

Lin raised a fist to her face, her pinky and index extending. She gestured the fingers to her eyes, then flicked them out at Korra.

"I've got my eye on you," she reminded.

Korra's expression contorted indignantly at this - what was she, some fucking criminal herself, now? Nostrils flared and eyes wide, Korra mocked the police chief by repeating the gesture back at her before stomping out of the room, leaving Lin with disgusted, baffled look on face.


- Sunday, March 27th, 2011 -

Sokka came in to see his roommate, eyes still aglow, gawking over the blue, shiny device in his hands. Aang had placed a pre-order down on the thing a couple of months back, and had been diligently saving up for it from even further back. Today was the day it had finally come out, and despite his rough week of recovery - perhaps because of it - Aang had insisted on picking up his new Nintendo 3DS today, its launch day. Bandages still wound around his back underneath his shirt, he was sitting in a beanbag chair on the floor of their bedroom, mesmerized by the optical trickery on display.

Sokka could hear relaxing elevator music pouring from the speakers on Aang's electronic toy, and as he peeked over his friend's shoulder, he saw a character flying around on a hang glider, maneuvering over an island resort.

"Hey, Sokka," Aang greeted to his back, eyes glued to the screen.

"Still playin' that thing, huh?" Sokka noted plainly, pulling off his Appa's uniform hat and hanging it in his small closet.

"Yea, it's...really cool," Aang murmured as the game chimed his completing a task. "I love this flying game. The 3D effect just works awesome 'cuz it's...so relaxing and smooth, you know?"

"Mm-hm..."

Sokka pulled off his shirt with a groan and tossed it into the pile of dirty laundry at the bottom of his closet - he'd take care of that tomorrow.

"How's the back holding up?" Sokka asked, scratching at his bare, hairy stomach. He frowned at it for a moment, pinching at its somewhat flabby stature.

"I'm doing OK," Aang said with a nod, still transfixed on his virtual hang gliding. Everyone had kept asking him that question, every day. He was taking his medications - as much as he didn't like that idea, he understood the necessity - and he had gone back to have it looked at and all...so he didn't get why everyone kept babying him about it. He kept his irritation in check, though, and was keeping his mind off of his injury, his mural's destruction, the United Republic a pile of rubble, and everything else - that was part of what the stereoscopic display in front of him was there for.

"My Sis isn't still wearing that silly fedora around, is she?" Sokka wondered, grabbing a stick of deodorant and rubbing it under his furry armpits.

"Ha, actually, she has been," Aang chuckled, finally pausing his game and closing the system into sleep mode. He looked up at his roommate with a grin. "That plaid hat actually looks so cute on her, is the scary thing."

"Jesus," Sokka sighed facetiously, changing from a pair of jeans to shorts. "You would find that weird-ass looking thing attractive, wouldn't you?"

Aang scratched his hand across his head sheepishly.

"She can wear it crooked - so it's not covering up her stitches - but still look, like...stylish. And stuff." Aang had initially needed to remind Katara that she couldn't hide her stitches because covering them up was unhealthy and wouldn't give them room to breathe and heal properly. Katara was frustrated with this prospect, but after a couple of days of constant encouragement from Aang, she eventually accepted the temporary change of appearance for what it was: temporary. Though Aang had hoped he had managed to convince her that even if it had been permanent, she was still beautiful and always would be.

"Heh, well, I honestly got it for her as kind of a joke, but hey, if she actually wants to wear it, I sure ain't stoppin' her..." This was a half lie from Sokka. He had secretly hoped she would wear it and had been a little disappointed since she hadn't been very much. Her tapping into an eccentric side made him feel like some of his silliness was rubbing off on his sister, and he liked that.

"Yea, she likes it," Aang insisted. "Said it's special because it came from you."

"She said that?"

"Yea."

"Heh." Sokka smiled, looking into the mirror that was perched atop their dresser and fussing with his hair. It was admittedly a bit of a mess, having been squished under a hat for the past few hours, but he didn't have time to do much with it.

Aang went back to playing his game for a couple of minutes while Sokka tidied up his 'wolf tail' and popped a couple Tic-Tac's. Before long, their dorm room door knocked.

"Come in," Sokka called from his chair.

Suki entered, dressed just as casually as Sokka was, wearing a jersey and baggy athletic shorts.

"You ready to put your rubber where your mouth is?" she taunted. Sokka's expression jolted into one of embarrassed shock, and Aang likewise did a double take. "Errr-" Suki's face went pale as a ghost as she fumbled to clarify, her hands rubbing together nervously. "B-because we're playing racquetball! Racquetballs are made of rubber, and...-"

"The damage has already been done," Sokka smoothly picked on her, shaking his head slowly. "See, Aang? I told you, she's a pervert."

"I'm not a pervert," Suki grumbled with a slight pout, stuffing her hands into her pockets. "You're a pervert..."

Aang stared at the two of them, raising a brow. He wasn't entirely sure what to make of their interaction.

"Uhhh..."

"We're just going to play some racquetball at the gym," Sokka assured him. "To settle a friendly bet," he added, casting an arrogant grin in Suki's direction.

"It won't be friendly by the time I'm done," Suki teased with narrowed eyes and a toothy devil's grin.

"Challenge accepted," Sokka declared, rising up from his desk chair and dramatically pointing at him.

Before long, the two of them were clashing racquets to rubber, smacking a volatile blue ball across the walls of an enclosed court.

Whap!

"AhhhhhhhhhfffFFFFFF...-!" Sokka winced, clutching his arm, shooting a snarling expression at his opponent. "It's like you're trying to hit me!" he suspiciously growled at her. This was the third time he'd been smacked by the racquetball. Suki wasn't playing nice, that was for sure.

"It does seem that way, doesn't it?" Suki innocently agreed, playing dumb as she widened her eyes and stuck out her tongue. "You should wear your goggles, Sokka, like I told you. Accidents do happen..." She tapped her fingernail against the plastic goggles she was wearing.

"Rrrffmmfrzzlegrmmph." Sokka stomped over to the still rolling ball and plucked it from the ground. He bounced it angrily as he walked back, then handed it to Suki.

Sokka moved back as he let Suki prepare to serve. He found himself getting lured into gawking at her profile, something that was becoming more of a problem as the match went on.

"Fourteen to two," Suki announced the score before swiftly sending the ball into play. The rally lasted only three strikes, with Sokka barely cinching a win when he lucked out from hitting the ball into a corner, where it flat-lined and ended the play.

"Yes," he cheered, partially out of relief. "Finally, my turn..."

"That was great, Sokka!" Suki complimented with encouragement, snagging the ball for him. "Good job!"

"Don't patronize me, woman!" Sokka seethed in jest, readying himself in the serving area. He bounced the ball a couple of times as Suki spun her racquet in her hand impatiently.

"Geez, Sokka, what's up with you today?" Suki chuckled as she stared at him grouchily bouncing the ball another couple times. "Lighten up, relax!"

"I am relaxed!" Sokka huffed. "I am...so lightened up, I'm like...a light bulb."

Suki snorted out a laugh.

"Shut up!" Sokka whined.

"Stop being a sourpuss, then!" Suki eased him.

"I am not being a sourpuss!" Sokka raged. "I am calm, and happy, and joyful!" He furiously whacked the rubber ball, which flew off at an angle, hitting a side wall, then the front wall, until colliding with his forehead. "Ow!" he grunted, grasping his head in agony.

"Pfff!" Suki had to smack her hand over her mouth to stop from laughing at his self-inflicted misfortune. She rushed to his side, and he immediately jabbed his index finger up at her.

"Sokka, are you all right? I told you to-"
"...Not...a word," he moaned, eyes squinted from pain.

Suki placed a hand on his shoulder and eased him to look up.

"Come on, stop being a baby. Let me see."

With a sigh, Sokka removed his fingers from his face and Suki carefully studied the red mark on his head.

"It's fine, you didn't hit yourself too bad..."

"Ah, that's...good to know," Sokka mumbled. "I think I'm done, this game is stupid."

"Well, sure, if you're accident-prone," Suki picked, giving a slap on the back.

"Meh-meh-meemeemee-mehhh," Sokka childishly mocked her intonation.

"Oh, stop it," Suki giggled. "I didn't mean to hurt your ego so much, tough-guy."

"Pheh." Sokka spit out air in a grump, stumbling over to the side wall and sitting himself down.

"You need me to kiss it and make it better?" Suki scoffed, rolling her eyes. Her expression flinched awkwardly when she'd realized the connotation of what she'd just said. "Er, I...-"

"Why, you want to?" Sokka asked, unsure if he was intrigued, offended, or interested.

"Whhhh-..." Suki blinked down at him, her cheeks turning pink at his own slightly abashed puppy eyes of dejection. She cleared her throat, casting her gaze to the small window in the door to their enclosed court. "Uhh, m-maybe we should call it quits for today."

"Right," Sokka sighed. "You would quit while you're ahead," he decided with irritable snark. Suki frowned at his remark, still avoiding his glare. "While I look like an idiot," Sokka added, to which Suki puffed in anger. "Without giving me a second chance," Sokka went on sharply. Suki rolled her eyes. A heavy pause. "I'm not talking about racquetball, by the w-"
"Yea, I figured that one out, thanks!" Suki snapped at him, nearly tossing her racquet to the floor.

She took a deep breath, rolling her head back. She pressed her back to the wall beside Sokka and slid down next to him.

"Suki, what are we doing?" Sokka asked tiredly, staring at the floor. "Where is this? Where are we?"

"I...am not sure," Suki admitted, gazing up at the ceiling.

"I just don't get what else you want from me," said Sokka. "I'm working hard on class, I'm picking up extra hours at work - that's where I just came back from, by the way - I've send out hella resumes to people, I've got that interview next month...And I'm even here trying to play sports with you and stuff. I'm trying here..."

"Yea, I know," Suki admitted. "I have noticed, it's not like I haven't seen all that."

"Then what gives?" Sokka demanded, baffled. He shrugged up his arms at her and she shrugged back with uncertainty.

"I said I'm not sure, Sokka," she insisted. "I mean...when I said we should take a break, I meant, like...a little longer than this..."

"But what's the point in dragging it out if things are better?"

"Sokka..." Suki bumped the back of her head against the wall. "I mean...I know we agreed that we'd leave it open to...try this again, but...it's too soon. We both need more time."

"So we are still thinking about it, then."

"Yes, that's what it means when you say 'take a break,' instead of 'break up.'"

"OK, OK! Just...clarification. And all that. I guess I'm just confused, because lately, it seems like that...interest...is still there."

"Well...maybe because yes, it is," Suki acknowledged. "I mean, we had a lot of fun on St. Patty's Day, and we've been hanging out again...And after what happened this week with...the fire...I guess it did get me thinking that maybe I shouldn't be waiting around forever, because, well...you never know what could happen..."

"Y-yea..." Sokka swallowed, his throat suddenly very dry as crunching metal, shattering glass, and splashing blood washed over his mind. "You, uh...Yep." He coughed. "Ya never know."

"But for now, can we just...dial it back?" Suki requested. "Keep things...normal?"

They both tried to mind-read each other through cautious glances.

"Yea, you're right," Sokka agreed. "Maybe we should stop trying to...spend time alone together for right now, then."

"Yea...That's...probably for the best. I don't think either of us are ready."

The two sat, side by side, in disgruntled silence. Sweaty skin and pheromones in the air weren't helping, which had them both questioning themselves as to whether or not emotions were actually talking, or hormones were.

"Well, ermm...I think it's safe to say you win," Sokka cut the silence.

"Huh? Oh! Ha..." Suki let her concerns drift off. "Of course, was there ever any question?"

"Miss Powderpuff Perfect." Sokka blew her a stubborn raspberry. "All right, well..." He grunted, pushing himself back up onto his feet. He tenderly touched his head, the red tint of skin fading back to its standard tone. "I owe you a milkshake. So." He watched Suki rise beside him. "How about you meet us all down at Appa's for dinner in a hour and I'll get you one? You haven't hung out much with the group lately."

"Sure, that sounds good."

Sheepish, uncertain smiles were traded.

"You uh...can take your goggles off, ya know," Sokka jibed. "You look pretty stupid."

Suki pushed the plastic gear up over her forehead, her eyebrows curved with amusement.

"You hit yourself in the face with a ball and you're calling me stupid?"


- Monday, March 28th, 2011 -

"Omigosh, totes! Like, I do stuff like that, too!" Ty-Lee chirped with a merry giggle.

Jane found herself flinching at the vocabulary this air-head was using. 'Totes?' What did that even mean?

"Right? Isn't it so embarrassing?" Sokka sought acknowledgment from his peers.

"Sounds more like...retarded to me," grunted Toph, to his right at the cafeteria table. She was practically glowering at her food with her empty eyes, stuffing forkfuls of spinach into her face. Aang, on her opposite side, was keen on how uncharacteristically quiet she was being, and was studying her mannerisms cautiously.

"Dead-Eyes has a point, Sokka," Jane chimed in from across the table, uncomfortable with her position between Katara and Ty-Lee. "Suki told you to wear goggles. There's a fucking sign-" She chuckled, raising up her hands. "-right on the doors, that reminds you to wear goggles. And you still managed to hit yourself in the face."

"You'd think you'd at least be more careful if you weren't going to wear them," Aang pointed out.

"I think it's funny," Ty-Lee insisted, smiling at him brightly with a single giggle that made Toph want to hurl. Sokk shuffled a bit in his seat, smiling back as he dug into his leafy green meal of lettuce and vegetables.

"At least someone finds him funny," Katara picked, eliciting a few light laughs - none from Jane, though. She just stared blankly down at her food while she finished it off. She'd be really quiet lately...And hadn't hung out with Katara - apart from the group - in some time. Katara knew something was off with her, but couldn't figure it out. She extended a hand to her friend's shoulder while Ty-Lee and Sokka continued rattling at each other. Jane froze up, giving a sideways glare. Katara retracted her touch, confused.

"You OK?" Katara asked in a hushed tone. Jane's eyes wandered to the still-healing stitches near Katara's hairline, something she'd told herself she'd stop doing but...couldn't.

"Eh," was her eked out reply, and she guzzled down the last of her milk. This reaction didn't help Katara's confusion. Before Katara could think of a way to react, Jane was already up and ready to head off. She offered a "Later, ya'll," before whisking herself away, Katara keenly watching her with concern.

When she turned back to her own food, however, she noticed she was about done herself. A cursory glance to her boyfriend's plate indicated he was already finished, and seemed oddly intent on what was going on with Sokka. Katara and Aang had discussed their worries about Sokka's behavior as of late, but Katara had decided she wasn't going to try butting in - not yet, at least. Sokka was in a weird place right now, and he deserved some space to feel things out. Er, not literally, of course.

"Hey. Hun?" Katara nudged him with her arm.

"Mm?" Aang blinked at her, taken out of his stoic staring.

"You ready to go?" Katara prodded, worming her hand around his own under the table. He smiled and rubbed a thumb against her wrist.

"Sure."

"OK." Katara raised herself up, their hands still loosely linked, and they each took their trays. "We're going to head off, too," said Katara, nodding to the group. She pinched the brim of the red and black plaid fedora she'd been wearing lately, and tipped it down toward her brother, who smiled.

"Are we still up for that movie tonight?" Aang asked Sokka, jabbing out as finger.

"Yea, if you're still up when I'm done with homework," said Sokka with a casual nod.

"Awesome. All right, later!"

Toph's fully stomach was getting queasy now that she was here, alone with...these two. She let them idiotically flirt for a couple of minutes until her plate felt empty.

"Zuko makes her sound like this crazy person, but, like, she is so gorgeous, and smart, and...just really cool."

"Wait, you mean, Zuko's sister?"

"Exactly!"

"Hmph. Zuko does make her sound a little insane..."

"No! She's not, she's...just...a little misunderstood. That's all."

"Damnit," Toph growled, pretending to be just realizing something and cutting into their conversation.

"Huh?"

"Argh, it's...-" Toph huffed, putting an intentional air of irritation on. "I forgot my cane back at my room, and...the girls already left..." C'mon, MeatHead. Take the bait...

"Oh no," Ty-Lee gasped. "Poor thing." Shut the hell up, I wasn't talking to you!

"Oh. No big," Sokka assured. "I can walk you back." Yessss. Success.

"Aw, you're such a gentleman, Sokka!" Rrrrrrrr...

"Well, ya know, just bein' me and all..." Stop being a show-off and walk with me, damnit.

"I, uh...kinda need to get going, like...now?" Toph sharply pointed out. "Please?" she added.

"Oh, right. Sure." Sokka blinked at Ty-Lee with hesitation. "Uhhh...-" She shook her head gently and eased a flick of her wrist at him, encouraging him to leave.

"It's fine," Ty-Lee chirped. "I need to go to the library to work on a paper, anyway."

"Ah, OK." Sokka got up, stacking Toph's dirty plates over his own. He was a bit startled by how Toph's grasping hand found its way to his elbow. She looped her arm around his, and once they were linked, placed her opposing hand around his bicep for extra support, limited Sokka's movement.

"Erm, could-...?" He shrugged her off lightly, and she loosened her grip. "I'm trying to clean up the dishes here, and so...-"

"Yea," Toph muttered, letting her hands drop into her pockets with a sheepish downward twitch her lips. Real smooth there, Toph.

She found herself craving the touch of that arm like a drug she'd just been given a taste of. Biting dry skin from her bottom lip impatiently, she tapped her sandaled foot as she waited for Sokka's acknowledgement.

"There we go. 'Kay, we're good now."

Refraining from acting too eagerly, Toph re-linked their limbs, latching her palm through his elbow and resting it on his bare forearm. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt today, mm.

"I'll see you later, Ty," Sokka announced his leave with an almost sarcastically suave tone.

"Ciao~!" Ullghh.

Toph's hands felt at home as she was led toward the dish disposal, the waves of student chatter and clattering of silverware soothing like rain in the comfort of Sokka's arm. Through the movement, her single hand held tight, especially as she felt other brushing up against her, squirming their way through the busy hall. The familiar buzz of the dishwashing conveyer belt was relaxing, signaling their exit from this place.

She heard Sokka greet the busboy working at the belt tonight, and off they went.

It was taking most of her willpower to prevent herself from running her fingers across the hairs on his fleshy forearm. Sokka wasn't a muscle-house, but he had some girth to him all the same.

As they whisked themselves down the stairs and into the Avatar Center Lounge, Sokka found himself wishing it was a different girl's arm he was attached to instead one of out handicapped obligation.

By the time they exited the ACC, Toph finally worked up the nerve to initiate conversation.

"Soooo. Heh..."

"Huh?"

"Oh, erm, nah, it's...-" She smirked, hoping he was looking at her. "It's just...amusing, watching you play your little game lately."

Sokka indeed looked after she said this, off-put by her cocky tone and the

"Seriously. It's cute," she remarked with a dry, belittling tone. Sokka frowned at this as they walked across the sidewalk, the trees and grass around them rustling in the early evening breeze.

"What are you talking about?" Sokka asked with a sigh, almost unsure if he wanted to know. With Toph, whatever it was, it would mean him getting made out to be an idiot.

Toph blew at her bangs, which had gotten caught in her eyelashes from the wind. Failing that, she pushed them aside with her free hand.

"Ya know, your umm...Vagitating."

Sokka's eyes bulged wide with confusion.

"Huh?"

"Like cock-teasing, only the other way around," Toph casually explained. "Vagitating. The game you're playing with those girls."

"Psh, yea, clever, there, Toph. So you're on my case now, too?" huffed Sokka, rolling his eyes. If she wasn't blind, he'd push her right off of him, but he was feeling gentlemanly today, so he let her hold on. Toph was intrigued by that remark, since it made it sound like someone else had brought this up already. A bit relieving, at any rate - made her feel less crazy if someone else was noticing it.

"Uh, yea, I'm on your damn case, ya dunderhead. What's your problem lately? It's like all you're doing is flirting with every woman in sight." But just ignore me, ya know. Not like I count as a woman, apparently.

"Guh. Listen, I'm just...keeping my options open."

"Oh! I see!" Toph quipped with some offense. She could feel her face flinching with some rage that she worked hard to suppress. "So we-I mean, just women, in general - we're options to pick from. Like a buffet."

"No, you're not...like, buffet options. Ugh."

Huh, so I'm not even a fucking option here, is that it? Hmph...

"What do you care, anyway?" Sokka grumbled. "Just because you can't get over your baggage doesn't mean I can't have-"
"Excuse me?"

"You and your little temper tantrums with everyone else? You're jealous of everyone hooking up."

"Uhhh, yeaNO. First of all, Meat-Stack, no, I'm not." Bleh. Maybe a little. Whatever. "Second? Not talking about me. Talking about you here. And thirdly, did-"
"Yep, classic Toph, just dodge the topic once it's about you." Sokka jaws gnashed together at how Toph's fingernails dug into his skin.
"And thirdly-" she pushed, "-did it occur to you that I'm saying this 'cuz I'm worried about you?"

Sokka stared at Toph, her face pointed to her side but not quite toward him. Her brows hung heavy with determination, but the expression beneath flashed with worry. He didn't really know what to say, so instead opted to be silent and await and explanation.

"Ya know, I am your friend, Sokka, not just some bitch who loves to make you feel like the bastard you are."

An almost involuntary laugh spilled from Sokka's mouth, and Toph let one of her own tumble beside it.

"Fff...Like, I'm serious. And I know I'm not the only one, I've heard everyone else mention it - the way you've been acting lately. Why are you pulling this shit? Aren't you above that?"

"Above what? I'm just having a good time. I'm just being open and honest with my single status."

"Ha! That's a load of a bullshit. You're acting."

"Acting?"

"Yea. Playing two fuckin' parts in the same retarded ass play. Jekyl and Hyde stupidity."

"Uhhh...?"

"Ugh, you don't even get it, do you? And I thought I was the blind one around here..."

"Could you cut the sarcasm and cut to the chase?" Sokka huffed, coming to a stop. "We're here."

"Oh..." Toph stood in place for a moment.

"You need help getting to your room?" Sokka begrudgingly offered. Again, with the gentle-manliness. Why?

"Er, n-nah, I've got it," Toph assured. An awkward pause followed, until Sokka wiggled his arm, which Toph had been loyally glued to this whole time. Oh, hey, her other hand had found its way onto his bicep at some point. Yikes. So much for being self-aware... "Sorry," she said, clearing her throat and dipping her hands into her pockets. "Um...But...So...Ah, right. Do you seriously not see what you're doing, or is Snoozles' brain asleep on the job?" She rattled her knuckle on her forehead, though she was directing the gesture at thin air.

Sokka breathed out a very audible sigh, crossing his arms and leaning back against the brick wall beside the doorway to Aqua House.

"You act like a fuckin' moron around that...that air-head, and then you're trying to act all responsible and serious because...what? You still wanna get back with Suki? 'Cuz that sounds smart."

Sokka scratched at his nose, his eyes lingering around Toph's t-shirt. Her chest jiggled with each flustered motion she made. Pff, she wasn't wearing a bra, he could tell. A loose little glass canon, she was.

"Well? Is that your fuckin' plan?" Toph demanded, eyes blazing with anger. Jesus. Still staring at her boobs, and the slight protrusions he noticed when he looked hard enough. That's how Sokka knew he was horny and hormonal today: he was even gawking at Toph at this point. Purr-ritt-ee sad. His Thunder-Down-Under hadn't seen any lightning in a while now, and it was painfully clear because it seemed like every girl was more attractive than usual lately. "'Cuz it's dumb," was Toph's irritable conclusion.

"Wh-!...No! I...Wait, I mean, yes? Maybe. I don't know!" What were we talking about, again?

"Obviously not. That's my damned point, retard! Maybe stop thinking with your other head for a change. The one above your waist?" Heh, if only you knew...

"You know what? This isn't even your business, so-"
"Like hell it isn't! It's all our business. You're our friend, and you're being stupid, so just...stop." What do you know? Not exactly Miss Sensitivity.

"Because I'll hurt some girl's feelings?" Sokka sarcastically expressed his apathy about such a thing.

"Fuck no!" Toph snarled. "I don't give a crap! The problem is that I-...Us, the whole group, we have to put up with you pretending to be two different people, instead of just being you."

Sokka gave that notion some thought. He hadn't really considered this until now. Toph had a good point. Well, two points actually, when he looked at her shirt. Heh. Was she cold, or something? It was a little windy today...

"I mean, yea," Toph prattled on, completely oblivious to Sokka's periodic ogling, masking her own heated attraction with anger. "You do have two sides and all that, but...I don't know about the other guys, but I like it better when you're just...all of you at the same time, instead of this...on-off crap."

Sokka's throat tightened when Toph said this, thoughts of Yue fogging up his mind like misty memories.

"All of me, huh?" he mused. His scratched his unshaven jaw with uncertainty, and Toph relished the satisfying 'scrifff-scrifff' sound this produced.

"Yes, you gotta stop puttin' on a fucking show and just be Sokka, or you're never gonna be happy."

"Mm...Guess I'll have to think on that."

"Using that brain of yours?" Toph teased, cautiously stepping in the direction of Sokka's voice. "Good idea, Plan Guy." She thrust out her arm in a flash to land a punch at Sokka, but missed him by inches, bumping her knuckles on the brick wall of the building. "Fffffff...-!" She seethed. "Agh..."

Sokka, who hadn't moved at all in some time, watched her flicking pain from her hand. Jiggle, jiggle. Pff.

"I'll try using my brain if you try not to hurt yourself so much," he slyly offered.

"Deal," grunted Toph, her cheeks burning with embarrassment. Damnit to hell, she just had horrible luck with that lately.

"So that's your pep-talk for me, eh? 'Don't be a dick, be yourself?'"

"You got it."

"Your logic is flawed, Dead-Eyes."

"Yea?"

"Being me means being a dick!" Sokka cackled before administering a wet willy in Toph's ear. She squealed with discomfort and shock, flailing her hands out to push him away. She opted to swing a blind punch, but whiffed air as his footsteps bounded away. "Peace out!" he taunted, jogging down the sidewalk.

"Asshole!" she roared back. As she felt her way forward to the Aqua House's main double door entrance, she realized that butterflies were swirling around her stomach. Her heart was thumping, skin tingling, hands shaking, knees weak...It was horrible and wonderful at once, and she hadn't felt this way in a long time. Maybe he'd gotten a bit of a hint?


- Tuesday, March 29th, 2011 -

"I don't care what you think, we sounded like shit."

Jane paused in midstep, having walked right into some kind of argument between Suki and Toph within Toph and Katara's room, though Katara was absent - probably at the boy's place tonight. Jane honestly didn't mind.

"I'm telling you, we sounded fine."

"No. We didn't," Toph coldly insisted. "Your damned percussion was overpowering me."

"We did a thorough sound check, Toph," Suki reminded, struggling to maintain her cool while Toph sparked with irritation. "The guy said it was fine."

"Ha. You say it like what he said matters. That idiot didn't know what he was talking about."

"Why are we even discussing this? We got our money, everything went fine, people loved it."

Jane lifted a finger and opened her mouth, but Toph spouted out before she could speak.

"You think I'm doing this for money? Listen, Powderpuff. I'm doing this to get my name out there."

"Well...I'm doing this to help you with that, too - and people loved you, by the way. But I'm also doing this so you actually have your own income, so that Sokka's not always having to spot you whenever you guys do anything together!"

"Oh, whatever, what's that even matter to you, anyway?"

"I don't like the idea of watching my friends get used by someone they trust."

"What? 'Used?' Really? You just tried telling me I'm using my friends?"

Having not even been noticed, Jane rolled her eyes. Ugh. Not in the mood for more of this. Bye. She looped back out of the room, entering her own room instead while she poked at her phone. She'd just come back from a late night biology lab she had to make up due to missing one from the week prior - the late-night hospital visit from last week and ensured she'd overslept the next day and missed the morning lab. The bickering of the two musicians behind her faded away as she closed her own door, since they hadn't the decency to close theirs. What was the deal with those two lately, anyway? Toph was doing a lot better lately, but for whatever reason, Suki seemed to be getting on her nerves. It didn't make much sense to Jane - then again, when did Toph ever make much sense?

"Hello, Jane."

Jane nearly had a heart attack at the sound of Ginnie's voice. It was so unexpected, since the girl was hardly ever there.

"Jesus, Jin," Jane sighed out a laugh, still clutching at her chest. "Scared me halfway to hell," she laughed, making her way to her desk.

"Oh, haha, sorry, didn't mean to startled you," said Jin, leaning over her own desk. She seemed to be studying a page of the newspaper, making marks on it with her pencil. Jane's curiosity got the better of her, and she leaned over the mousy girl's shoulder to observe. It was a grid with a bunch of numbers doodled on it.

"Whatcha doin' there?" Jane casually pondered. It was rare for the two of them to be present in the room at the same time, and that prodding 'social butterfly' Katara had seemed to plant in her gut was determined to try fluttering about tonight.

"O-oh, it's...just the Sudoku puzzle," Jin mumbled, staring at Jane with wide eyes. She pinched at her glasses, moving them upward. She went back to work on it, leaving Jane perplexed.

"Looks...eh...fun...?"

Just looked like a crossword puzzle gone wrong to her. At least that explained why each issue of the paper had an empty grid on the back page - she'd never cared to figure out what that was about on the rare occasion she even read the White Lotus. She found it odd that Jin would be working out the puzzle to the paper, seeing as how she wrote for the paper.

"Soooo...Everything going all right with you...?" Jane mumbled, her scratchy voice mustering up some kind of empathy as best it could.

"Mm-hm," Jin hummed complacently. "Really stressed lately. Super stressed," she rectified her statement. "This past week has been nuts."

"Heh...I hear ya," said Jane, amused, dropping her backpack off her shoulders and setting herself down on her bed. She felt confident that whatever Jin was stressed about, people nearly dying in a burning building had not been one of them.

As Jane re-examined her phone, she continued scrolling through the day's messages.

[From: Katara]
[We haven't really hung out in a while. I'll be with the boys tonight if you want to stop by, we can go somewhere together after. =) ]
[Sent: 5:32pm]
[Deleting...] - [Deleted]

[From: Aang]
[yea, things are ok. it's gona be fine trust me. you should come over tonight after lab. bring toph when she's back from her show.]
[Sent: 6:02pm]
[Deleting...] - [Deleted]

[From: John boy]
[Meet with him tomorrow. Trust me.]
[Sent: 6:21pm]

Jane did a double take at this one. Wait, what? What did it m...-? Oh, wait up...

[From: The Duke]
[Smellerbee. Tomorrow night. Pizza Hut. Eight o clock. Come alone. Friendly. If you can't show, call ASAP.]
[Sent: 7:00pm]

Jane could feel her hands getting clammy as she re-read the text message twice, then went back to Johnny's. Couldn't be a coincidence. She dropped the phone into her lap. Fuck. Fuckity-shit-ass-fuck-rarrr. This had to do with the UR. She knew it did, because the Rough Rhinos were involved, obviously, which meant ahhhhhh no-no-no-no-no-NO, she knew it. She knew this kind of shit would happen. She couldn't take this. No way.

"You all right?" Jin wondered, gawking at her roommate with a befuddled look. Jane suddenly realized she'd pounded her fist against her calf, and the other hand's was dug into her forehead, having scraped against her eyebrow a few times.

"Nnn...No, not really," Jane confessed. Nope. Wasn't gonna happen. No way she was going back to all of that shit, because-actually, what in the hell? How could the Freedom Fighters even still be...a thing? After what happened, Jane couldn't decipher any possible way they could still be operational. They hadn't seen any activity in months, by her count. Hm.

Johnny's words - such a precious commodity to her, especially these days with him so far way - tore at her.

[Trust me.]

He wanted her to trust him. Maybe if she did...whatever it was Johnny wanted tonight...it would earn her more respect in his eyes, maybe he'd be more prone to talking with her a bit? A phone call, even? Christ, just a single phone call with him would help so much. But even apart from that, this was Johnny. He was always working to keep her out of harm's way, to the point of even breaking up with her just to push her back when things with the Rhinos had gotten dicey. Technically speaking, he'd taken a bullet for her in that regard - well, literally speaking.

She couldn't really know how he still felt about her entirely, especially given how...complicated...things had become concerning her feelings for Katara - which he had figured out and consequently put her at ease about. But she was still here, waiting for...something...to happen with him. She didn't know what. She still felt things for him, too, she'd accepted that. And she'd accepted that Katara was not interested in her - not in that way - and was trying to move on.

But seeing Katara hurt and vulnerable lately, it was triggering difficult reactions within Jane.

"You need anything?" Jin probed politely, still disconcerted by Jane's sudden outburst.

"I'm fine, just...something came up," Jane eased, fumbling with her phone.

[Reply]
[To: John boy]
[what's going on? what happened?]
[Sent: 8:34pm]

Creasing her eyebrow, she stared at her phone, awaiting a reply. Fortunately, it came as soon as she'd hoped. Unfortunately, it only increased her doubt.

[From: John boy]
[What we've been waiting for.]
[Sent: 8:35pm]


A/N: There are some references to Legend of Korra in this chapter, obviously. I had to make changes from canon with Tenzin and Lin's relations to other characters, etc., but remember some of the other crazy things I've done here: like make Smellerbee a main character, add Korra/Mako/Bolin into the narrative, make Meng a primary supporting role, etc. This is the beauty of AU. To be very clear, though, Tenzin and Lin are NOT biologically related to Aang/Katara or Toph in this story.

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A/N: So I went pretty loose and crazy with the music last chapter. So THIS chapter, since the music that makes me think of these events isn't inherently important or symbolic and I don't have specific scenes intended for them, I'll just lay them out, and those of you interested can give them a listen. I think of them as music from the guys' perspectives. ;) These will all be songs by Billy Joel. For SRU!Smellershot, listen to "Just the Way You Are." For SRU!Tokka, "She's Always a Woman," (this song was actually referenced under a very different context a logn time back) and for SRU!Kataang, "She's Got A Way." If you've never heard these before, I hope you enjoy them - if you have, I hope the context of SRU's story adds a little something to them for you, as it has for me.

PLEASE NOTE that this chapter starts with a flashback.


What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 90 - Secrets


- Saturday, September 19th, 2010 - The Night of Jet's Death

Yellow tape surrounded the grim scene. Photos were being taken as analysts surveyed the evidence.

In his black coat, a tall, short-haired man with pale skin surveyed the investigation from the sidelines, just outside of the crime scene's boundary. A man of Asian descent, he wore a thin mustache and a sliver of a black beard. His arms were folded behind his back, his expression calm.

A stern-faced woman with piercing eyes and grayed hair approached him, a scowl on her face. She was dressed in a long trenchcoat and carried two small cups of piping hot coffee. She begrudgingly handed one to the man in the dark suit, and they stood side-by-side, watching things get tidied up.

"You did remember the cream this time, right?" checked the man, his voice stoic and deep.

"Mmph," was the only reply he received to his.

He took a sip of the hot liquid. Meh. Cheap, bastardized stuff. But at this hour, coffee was coffee. And it did have cream in it.

"So what do you make of this, Lin?" he asked with a casual tone unbefitting the grisly sight before them.

"Does it matter what I think?" Lin growled back with disdain. "I already know you and your boys are going to tidy this one up under some bullshit guise of it being a matter of 'national importance.' My opinion is irrelevant."

The man chuckled lightly.

"Mm. So you're going to make this easy on all of us this time, are you?"

Lin shot him a glare, her grip on her styrofoam cup rigid.

"Special Agent Feng," she quipped, her proper use of his title loaded with disrespect. "A young man died tonight. It shouldn't be 'easy' for anyone."

Feng sighed, sipping more coffee.

"Lin, if you put half as much feeling into a living person as you do any old corpse, you'd be a much happier woman."

"Spare me," she retorted with flat disinterest.

"I intend to. We will take all responsibility regarding this matter off of your back."

"And with it, you're going to take away any solid means I have of bringing down these ass-clowns."

"The 'Rough Rhinos' are but a minor inconvenience for now. If we deal with them too soon, it will only scare off the bigger fish waiting to be fried. And the longer it takes to catch those fish, the longer this remains a federal matter."

"And the more people will be hurt in this gang war brutality."

"Chief Jia," Feng spat out, his seemingly boundless patience suddenly worn thin. They exchanged glares. "We already tried your approach, long ago. This town will not be a repeat of what transpired in New York. Or have you forgotten the very reason you were expunged from the NYPD?"

"I haven't," Lin immediately came back, her voice plagued with regret.

"Constant news of an escalating crime war will put the citizens of Wayward into a state of panic, undermining everything we have worked to accomplish since its foundation. You should know by now that organized crime is far easier to contain than chaotic crime, which is exactly what we will have on our hands if this situation gets out."

Lin frowned with frustration at his words, her nose wrinkling, her lips tightening.

"Which it will," she pointed out. "Sooner or later."

"Not if I have anything to say about it," Feng remarked. "But...should it come to that, Lin...then it will be within your bounds of duty to control the situation."

Lin tore her gaze from his ever-stern expression and finally took a drink of her coffee.

"And in the meantime," she huffed, "I'm supposed to wait and watch more innocents get harmed?"

"Innocent?" Feng laughed. "Have you reviewed his record?" He turned to face the body. "Jack Chavez; aka 'Jet.' Felonies and misdemeanors across the board. We've merely let him play Peter Pan with his Lost Boys, his...'Freedom Fighters,' without consequence, all this time...in hopes of baiting out what we can about the 'Phoenix Clan'. This imbecile even disposed of Mongke, robbing us of valuable information. I'm certain that's the entire reason he's met this fate."

Lin's expression was distant and scornful.

"Come now, Lin." He went to pat her on the shoulder, but she retracted her body, stalking off. "You really shouldn't be so down-trodden over all this," he called to her back. "These matters always have a way of working themselves out."

With a light sigh, Feng shrugged, took a swig from his cup, and approached the scene. He surveyed the mangled, twisted body of the young Hispanic man sprawled across the pavement. Feng shook his head slowly at the sight.

Foolish boy...You've chosen your own demise.


- Friday, April 29th, 2011 -

Jane clicked off her radio, turned off her air conditioner, gripped her steering wheel tightly, and took a deep breath. The familiar plains of grass greeted her in the afternoon sunlight with vigor as she slowly drove down the dirt road. It was a nice day out. The small house she remembered well appeared before her, and she carefully pulled her dingy car onto its gravel driveway. In the stillness of the moment, she checked her phone.

[From: aang]
[just tell the truth. be natural. don't overthink this.]
[Sent: 11:48am]

She found herself scratching at her eyebrow, staring at the message, re-reading it to herself. When she caught this, she stopped herself, prying her finger from her forehead. She pulled out her green worry stone from her pocket, and rubbed her thumb along its groove. The front door opened, a skinny young man with a tall head and distant eyes peering out at her. Jane's insides hollowed. She fumbled around, stuffing the stone back into her pants and quickly exiting the car. She dusted her pants off and fidgeted nervously with her hair, which she'd brushed quite neatly at the last gas stop. She paused in the driveway, hands in her pockets.

There was a heavy silence as her pleading eyes stared into his. His face warmed up and he swiftly approached her. he walked with a slight limp in his leg, and Jane was reminded of his time spent in the hospital earlier that year. Her heart ached at the sight.

"H-hey, Johnny, I...-" Jane's mumbled was interrupted as slender arms squeezed across her back. Her heart pounded at her ribcage, her breathing shallow from his body against hers. Familiar feelings swirled, chemicals rushing through her at his presence. It was like dropping dry kindling on glowing goals, prodding at them to spark the fire back to life. Her chin on his shoulder, she timidly put her own skinny arms over his back. When his hands slowly slid down, hugging at her hips, she bit at her lower lip, reciprocating the motion.

She pulled back her head to look up at his face. Her eyes trembled with shame and regret, but his radiated sympathy and understanding. He bent his neck forward, pressing his forehead against hers. They simply stared at each other.

Was it really any surprise that Johnny didn't need words to understand? He didn't need a discussion on this. It seemed as if he'd seen this coming, and given their exchanges over the phone for the past few days, it was no wonder he had.

All of Jane's worries, all of her doubts, gradually disintegrated away over the next few seconds. She clawed her fingers tips at his waist, scratching across the fabric of his shirt, their eyes still locked.

She wanted to say, 'I missed you.' But she dared not break the comforting quiet. She cocked her head to the side and kiss his lips. A minute or so of affection later, and Jane noticed Johnny's mother curiously peering out of the front door as she was kissing at Johnny's neck. She intook a sharp breath through her nostrils, breaking their bodies apart gently.

When their gazes met this time, she smiled along with him.

"Goodness gracious," came the voice of Johnny's mother as she flung open the door. "Jane, Darlin', is that you? Just lookit you! Your hair! Ya put on some weight, 'aven't cha?" Jane awkwardly shrugged, bashful at this remark as she was attacked by a motherly hug. "Lookin' just fit as a fiddle, Dear."

A half hour of meet-n'-greeting later, and Jane was completely at ease. It had been nearly a year since she'd last seen Johnny's family, and they all were just as welcoming as they had been the summer before. It was a 180 flip from what she'd encountered with her own family's home. And yet, she could hardly think of much to say. They were, after all, still somewhat like strangers to her, in a sense, especially given the long time since she'd visited. Johnny had helped her pick up the slack, offering to the discussion. Jane had completely forgotten how much more vocal the man was in the presence of his family. He was almost like another person.

But now, in this moment, Jane desperately wanted to take Johnny off outside in the afternoon sun. Coy smiles and knowing waves of goodbye saw the couple out of the back door. The two walked, side by side, through the expansive backyard. The bright sun glowed above in the clear sky. The two hiked for a couple of minutes until the house behind them was far off.

"That was...kinda cool," Jane muttered, opening up dialogue between them after the familial encounter. Jane cleared her throat, her hands jammed into her back pockets as she walked. "A lot better than my folks welcomed me..."

Johnny breathed in deeply and sighed out in peace, looking over the dry plains stretched out before them.

"Shit," Jane puffed out in relief, tousling her hair as she enjoyed the view around them. "Forgot how...nice it was out here."

Johnny nodded in compliance with this.

"Uhh...So, you and me...-" Jane tapped the back of her wrist at his arm, drawing his attention. "-...we're...good?"

Johnny's lips curved up and he laughed through his nose.

"Right?" Jane sought affirmation. "We're a...'you and me' kinda deal? Again?"

Johnny nodded, and Jane gently took off his hat, carelessly tossing it into the yellowed grass behind her. She narrowed her eyes at him.

"You thinkin' what I am?" she asked him with her raspy, cunning tone.

He shrugged, playing innocent.

"Heh, still nothin' to say, huh?" she teased.

He avoided her aroused gaze, hands behind his back.

"Ugh. Ya freakin' weirdo," Jane snickered. "Not up for small talk, I see."

She grabbed his vest, unbuttoning it and and dumping it to the ground behind her. She pushed at his chest, easing him onto his back. She dropped herself over him and exerted a heaving breath as her chest pressed into his. He laughed out at her exaggerated seduction - something she was not known for.

"Well..." She kept up the act. "Don't need to talk to have some fun, right?"

Johnny sighed out at the end of his laughter, moving his hands up to her face. He caressed strands of orange away from her olive eyes, savoring the sweet, sly aggression in her toothy grin.

"No," he agreed. "We don't."


Toph rubbed her palms across his face, stretching his skin around. He grumbled in protest but didn't move. His eyebrows, his jaw line, his cheekbones, his nose, his chin, his chin hair...She took it all in through her fingertips.

"Are you done yet?" Sokka sighed as she tugged at his ear lobe.

She giggled devilishly, finding her way to his face Again. Pinching her hand across his cheeks, she grinned while she squeezed his cheeks in.

"There. Got a good look at ya," she coyly concluded their interaction, finally letting go of him. He let out an exaggerated huff of discomfort, laying back into the couch. She scooted beside him, leaning her head against his. His spine tingled at the sensation of her hair tickled at his neck. He wormed his hand around the back of her waist and rubbed his palm up and down along her hip.

"How do I check out?" he asked.

"Eh. I guess you pass," she decided facetiously. "I'd say you're more of a kisser than a looker, though."

"That a fact?" Sokka came back with a smug smirk. He twisted his head to the side, using his nose to push some of her messy bangs aside, and kissed her on the forehead. "I oughtta stick to my strengths, then."

Toph ran her hand across his thigh, savoring the density of his flesh beneath his denim pants. She squeezed just above his knee, and he twitched in reaction.

"Oogie!"

Both Toph and Sokka were jolted by Katara's shout.

"It's your brotherly duty to not let me be exposed to your oogies, isn't it?" Katara teased, approaching them with a raised eyebrow and a scathing smirk.

"Uh, I was-"
"Ooooogie!" Katara cut him off.
"Yea, yea, get it out of your-"
"Oogie! Oogie!"
"OK, I get the p-"
"OOGIE. Yea, how do you like it?"
"Ya know, not that much, actually, I can-"
"Ooooooooogie~" Now Toph was joining Katara in reciting the word.
"Hey! She's making fun of both of us, ya know!"
"Nope. Just you, Sokka."

Toph laughed out and smacked Sokka's stomach with the back of her wrist.

"Ha! Yea, see? Just you, Mr. Oogie."

Sokka sighed, letting his head flop over sideways.

"Oogie Boogie," Toph continued.

"Look what you've done," Sokka lamented up to his sister, who was beaming down at the two of them.

Katara cast a curious glance at Toph, who was continuing to rattle out the word 'Oogie' in various combinations and manners.

"She is quite impressionable," Katara observed.

"Chyeah I am," Toph chortled, beginning to tug down the collar of her T-shirt. "Wanna see the impression Meat-Head here made last night?"

Katara saw the hickey near Toph's collarbone and burst out into a giggle fit as Sokka slapped on the backside of her skull, pulling her shirt back up.

"The hell's wrong with you?" he whispered in embarrassment.

"Oh, shuddup," she taunted, reaching her hand around his waist. "I could be much worse." Sokka's face went beet red as Toph's fingers grasped around his groin, and he gripped her wrist, pushing her away. Katara was only laughing harder at this, clutching at her stomach.

"Well, all right, then!" Aang put in, onlooking from a distance. "Looks like you two are...erm...progressing right along."

Toph was now wrestling with Sokka, trying to grope at him again as he pushed her off.

"Ya know-" Toph grunted out through the physical thrashing. "-what they say...Different...strokes...for different folks..." She finally managed to grab at him, just slightly, before he pushed her off in a panic. "Get it?" she squealed childishly, snorting with laughter. She was on her back now, having been shoved aside onto the cough. "'Cuz-! 'Cuz I said strokes, and...and...I was...-" She was gasping for breath, so consumed by laughter.

"Oh, Lord," Katara sighed with amusement, rolling her eyes.

"They sure seem comfortable," Aang observed as he approached Katara.

"Hello?" Sokka growled. "I was just molested here!" he whined with exaggeration. "This is not comfortable."

"You liked it," Toph balked slyly.

"Mehhhh," Sokka retorted with uncertainty, as if he himself was trying to ascertain whether or not she was right.

Katara watched Aang's puzzled expression, and she wondered what he was thinking. He seemed almost off-put but their sudden and intense degree of physical affection.

"You two...eh...have fun, there," he mumbled to them awkwardly, wandering off to the kitchen.

"'Having Fun''s our middle name!" Toph cried out, flailing her hands up at the ceiling.

"Are you...-?" Sokka narrowed his eyes at her. "You drunk?"

"Drunk on...you!" Toph spat back.

"That...doesn't make sen-"
"Oooogie."

Katara followed Aang into the kitchen as Sokka desperately argued with Toph, clearly embarrassed by her actions. He had used their fridge's built-in dispenser to add ice cubes to a glass, and was now pouring water into it.

"Are you...OK?" Katara mumbled to him. They were still in a strange place right now, but Toph and Sokka's recent hooking up had put Katara in a more optimistic mood today. Aang shrugged weakly in retaliation, taking a sip from his glass as he stared into it. Toph shrieked with playful surprise over who-knew-what in the next room, and Aang's eyes narrowed with disapproval.

"Are they making you uncomfortable?" Katara whispered to him, hands latched behind her back.

"A little, I guess," Aang grumbled. "It's no big deal, it's...just weird, seeing them like this all of a sudden."

"Mm-hm," Katara nodded thoughtfully. "I understand."

"I'm sure Sokka felt the same way about us a while back," Aang acknowledged.

"Yea..." Katara's eyes drifted sideways for a moment, and she walked up behind him, putting her hands on his back.

"Agh," he flinched, and she retracted immediately, realizing she'd probably touched a bad nerve from his back injury.

"Sorry," she spat out quietly.

"It's all right..."

Katara wrapped her hands around his stomach gently.

"You know...they don't have to be the only ones being all lovey-dovey," Katara timidly offered. Aang smiled and twisted his neck around to give her a kiss.

"I guess it's...-" Aang stared down at his half-empty glass. "-...hard to imagine being that way."

"Hm?"

"Being able to just...go at each other...like that. So easily. Being so physical so fast."

"Ha..." Katara kissed the back of Aang's neck. "They both have been attracted to each other for a while, Aang. And, I mean...they're just very physical people."

"Oh, I know," Aang mumbled. "I know..."

Katara smirked sheepishly from behind him.

"And there's nothing wrong with taking more time with that sort of thing."

"Right, no, I'm OK. It's just, like...-" Aang rotated his body around so the two of faced each other, inches apart. "I want to be...doing...more stuff like that," Aang muttered awkwardly with a shrug. "But I...don't really know how to...approach that, and...-"

"Hey, hey," Katara ran her hand through his hair, straightening it out. "You don't need to. We approach things together. That's how it works."

Aang nodded to this with another small smile.

"Yea..."

"Ohhhh, yesss-yess-yesss!" moaned Toph from the living room. Aang and Katara's eyes alike popped open wide.

"I'm not even-!" Sokka yelped. Toph continued to cry out in exaggerated arousal, but when Katara and Aang poked their heads across the kitchen counter, through the wall to the living room, Sokka was standing up, hands raised, while Toph was snickering on the couch, thrashing her limbs around.

"I don't-!" Sokka pleaded at his sister in a panic. "I didn't...-! She just...-! Why is she...-?"

"She's being an idiot," Katara knowingly concluded with a reassuring nod. "You're fine, Sokka." There was uncomfortable pause as Toph cackled. Katara added, "You should quiet down, though, Toph - Dad's upstairs trying to take care of some stuff..."

"Eh," Toph dismissed, rolling onto her side across the couch's length. "Look what you've gotten yourself into, Meat-Head," she taunted. "You're stuck with me now! You're stuck with this crazy bitch, heheh..."

The creaking sound of footsteps traveling down the old staircase gave way to a worried Hakoda staring down the hallway into the living room.

"Is...everything all right down here?" he tiredly wondered.

"Everything's fine!" Sokka spat out, tossing his arms.

"Uhh..." Hakoda blinked at him suspiciously for a moment. "Well, I was trying to handle a phone call just now, and I thought I heard...-"

"Th-that was me," Toph piped up sheepishly, but intent to ensure Sokka didn't take any flak for her immaturity. "Just-...heh! You know me! Goofin' around..."

"Mm-hm..." Hakoda raised a brow at his son, who shrugged pleadingly. "Please keep it down in here, I've got to take care of these calls."

"Yup! Totally," Toph insisted, red-faced. "Um...Quiet as a mouse!" she called out as she heard Hakoda's steps fading upwards.

"Yelling that to me isn't reassuring!" Hakoda shouted back with a tint of irritation.

Toph slapped her palm over her face, teeth grit.

"Er...Sorry 'bout that," she mumbled to Sokka as a giggle slipped out.

"You're fine," Sokka breathed with relief. "Try to calm down a bit, eh?" He lifted her feet up, as she was sprawled across the couch. He plopped himself down beside her, then dropped her legs back into his lap.

"It's...kinda hard to be calm," Toph confessed with that goofy grin on her face. "You're...my boyfriend now n' shit," she murmured with a sigh of disbelief. "How do you expect me to be calm about that? We had so much fun as it was already, but now, with us dating? The possibilities...Mwahaha..." She crossed her feet in his lap and stretched out her arms. Sokka ogled her as she did so, smiling at her oddball attempt at complimenting his character, and his cheeks heated up bashfully.

"Possibilities..." Sokka mumbled to himself, running his hand along her shin, traces of growing hair beneath his fingertips. "That's for sure," he agreed.


- Saturday, April 30th, 2011 -

Jane sat at the kitchen table, hand against her wrist. She just stared at him across the way as he ate his breakfast. She had hardly touched hers yet. She was still waking up. The entire reality around herself was still sinking in. A quiet, peaceful day in the country. A night spent in the warmth of another's arms. The very fact that Johnny had been so patient with her - she hadn't even needed to ask for another chance at a relationship - was simply astounding to her. She could make so many dumb decisions, all while he was doing his best to look out for others, and all this time, he still forgave her, he still wanted her.

Suddenly, the prospect of getting over her romantic interest in Katara seemed...easy. For all she knew, she already had - it was too hard to tell, having not interacted with the girl in a week or so now. But one thing was apparent to her as she gazed at his morning stubble, his messy bed hair, and his intense eyes, scanning the newspaper pages: she was still in love with him, as she had been back in the fall.

He looked up from his paper, noticing her bleary eyes gawking, and smiled back at her. He gestured his fork to the freshly scrambled eggs on her plate, tilting his head up slightly. Jane rolled her eyes in humor at his concern and began to eat. As she acknowledged that he was, in fact, reading the paper, all of her doubts and questions about SRU splashed against her, waking her quite rapidly. She needed to talk with him about all of that, didn't she?

"We should go to that old tree on the hill, like we used to," Jane suggested in-between bites of eggs. Johnny looked up at her with curious eyes. Damned boy hadn't spoken a word all morning to her, as expected.

Jane glanced through the window behind Johnny, the bright rays of sunshine beaming through the curtains, filling the kitchen.

"Damn, it's such a nice day out, right?" she observed. Still no reply. She cocked her brow at him. "Hey, you're not still givin' me the silent treatment, are you? Haha."

"Heh." Johnny waggled his own bushy eyebrows up and down a few times.

"Come on," Jane goaded, sticking her fork onto his plate and swiping a chunk of his eggs. "Stop playin' that shit, John-Boy," she said teasingly. "Let's have a day where we actually talk." She ate the bite she'd stolen.

"Is...there something you want to talk about?" Johnny mumbled.

Jane nodded solemnly. She had the urge to scratch her eyebrow but resisted.

"Uh...Y-yea. Some stuff," she explained in the vaguest of terms. She fished her worry stone from her pocket and stroked it with her thumb beneath the table. "We should go out after we clean up. Visit the old tree. Have a good talk, n' stuff...Ya know?"

"All right," Johnny agreed calmly. "Is...everything OK?"

"Er, kind of?" Jane conceded, still rubbing at the rock in her hand. "Look, let's...just eat our food here," she decided. "We'll talk when we're outside."

Johnny shrugged in compliance to this. They both rushed to finish eating in a hurry before tidying up their hair and changing into fresh clothes. The great outdoors greeted them with its tall, yellowed grass, bright blue sky, and tickling breezes. The pair hiked side by side, stepping further and further away from Johnny's home. Jane had to pry her eyes away from him or else she'd get fixated on his slight was a small hill tucked away in the middle of a plain, and a lone, familiar tree sat at the top. Already sweating from the summer's heat, the two of them gladly sought shelter in the shade of the oak tree they had spent many chats beside during the summer prior.

Johnny spread out on his back and tipped his hat over his eyes with a peaceful sigh. Jane laid down perpendicular to him, resting her head on his chest. For a minute or so, they both enjoyed the solace of the rustling of leaves above. Jane watched as small waves of grass rolled in the distance.

"So..." Jane began, biting at her lower lip with some doubt. "I, uhh...found out something kinda crazy the other day?"

"Mm?"

"My dad. I was telling you about the stuff I found of his, right? Uh...I also found out that he used to go to SRU."

Johnny didn't seem to have a reply to this. Jane sighed through her nostrils, gazing up into the leaves above.

"I asked my uncle about it," she went on. "Guess that's why he suggested the school in the first place..."

"Makes sense."

"A bunch of my friends...-" Jane paused, swallowing the lump in her throat. Were they still her friends? "Well, a lot of them go to SRU 'cuz their parents did. So...Not such a coincidence. Got me thinking 'bout how you ended up there..."

"We...already discussed this, didn't we?" Johnny muttered. True, they had briefly talked about it via text messages when Jane had learned more about matters regarding Jet.

"Yea, but...-" Jane scratched her nose. "-I wanted to hear you tell me more about it."

"Mm..."

"So, yea. Would you?"

"I can." Johnny pulled his hat up from over his face. "Sure."

"'Kay."

"Like you already know, one of my family members is in the FBI - which is, well...what I want to do eventually. Attending SRU has basically been like a...sort of initiation, in a way."

"Right."

"I was supposed to find out as much as I could through Jet, the Freedom Fighters...the Rough Rhinos..."

"Did you...find out everything you needed to know?"

"Yea. I did."

"That why they let you off the hook? Helped you...get back here?"

"More or less," sighed Johnny. "I had a contact from the FBI in Wayward. He sort of...has a talent with cleaning things up, you could say. When the shootout happened, he's the one who arranged things for me to...well...get out of that mess."

"Yea..."

"You understand, don't you?"

"Huh? What's that?" Jane rolled onto her side to look at Johnny's sullen face.

"Why I'm so silent."

Jane's glance wandered away from his face with uncertainty.

"I get trusted to keep a lot of secrets," Johnny explained. "I have to be able to be calm - steady, silent - or I could never do it. I could never carry all of these secrets. And...-" He lifted his torso from the grass, and Jane was forced to lift her head up. She crossed her legs, her stomach empty at the way Johnny was talking right now. Johnny pulled off his hat, holding it in his lap. He rubbed at his eyes. "Jane, there's one I've been holding onto that...I think you have a right to know now."

"What...-?" Jane could feel her eyes quivering, her fingers shaking. She didn't know why - Johnny's seriousness was getting to her, though, either way.

"Jane..." Johnny reached out his hand, and she took it. "This killer-...This 'Combustion Man.' He's part of why I was sent to SRU."

"R-right," Jane affirmed her understanding of this, blinking rapidly as her eyes darted to and away from his intent stare.

"I never wanted you to get wrapped up in this."

"I...-" Jane puffed out a tired breath. "Yea, I get that, but...I am, Johnny."

"No, you're...-" Johnny shook his head, tightening his grip on her hand as he wiped sweat from his forehead with his other arm. "I know. It's fine. It's...only natural that you'd find your way into this. And now that you are...there's no point in hiding this from you anymore."

Jane's eyebrows bent down with suspicion.

"So...spit it out, then," she grumbled in anxious impatience.

"Jane, the reason why I...first took an interest in you was because...-" More rubbing at his eyes. "-...I actually thought back then that you were involved with the Freedom Fighters for the same reason Jet was."

"Huh...?"

"For revenge."

"I...-" Jane's head twitched in a shake of denial. "No, I don't...-" Her mind was already putting the pieces together, and she didn't like the picture it was producing.

"Jane," Johnny said with insistence, tilting his head in a solid gesture of severity. "I knew that your father went to SRU. I knew that he was involved in all of this. Part of his work is...exactly the reason why the FBI has taken an interest in that town in the first place."

"So?" Jane spat out. "Why's that...such a big secret? That's...fine, I get it. No...no big deal. You...had your reasons, and...-"

"These criminals - they target specific SRU graduates."

Jane shrugged, eyes wide. Her hand was up to her head now. Her thumb was rubbing at her eyebrow.

"The 'Combustion Man,' he's...a psychopath," Johnny pressed forward, despite her unease. "How does he kill his victims?"

Fire.

Jane shook her head, her eyes dampening at confronting this train of thought. Johnny let go of her hand and gripped her shoulders tightly, insisting that she look him right in the eyes.

"How did your parents die?"

Fire.

Jane sucked in a trembling breath before choking out a half sigh, half sob.

"Fff. That's-! Naw, they're-...They moved all the fuckin' way out here. To Texas, man. Way away from...-"

"Your father thought he'd be safe out here," Johnny agreed in lamentation.

"It was an accident," Jane insisted in a panicked tone. "Like...like a broken...gas line, or...-"

"Jane." Johnny pulled her in for a tight hug. "I'm sorry. But...if you're really going to try to do something about this man, I think you have a right to know the truth."

Jane let two tears drop onto Johnny's shoulder.

"You're saying my parents were...murdered?"

"Yes...as near as we can tell. Like Jet's parents were. It's...kind of why Jet trusted you so much."

"What?" Jane backed up, glaring at Johnny. "Jet...? Guh." She was bleary eyed from tears, her nose starting to fun. "He knew?"

"He did find out about it," Johnny confessed. "I think he believed that after he'd found the people responsible, he'd be able to use that to...convince you to help him get revenge. As leverage -- give you motivation to join his cause, because...Well, because he seemed to think you two would have the same goal. It's what I read in his journal, at least." Jane did remember that damned book, the very one that had led to their initial break back in the autumn. The way Jet could continue stabbing pain into Jane's heart after his death was aggravating.

"So...it was all a fucking lie," Jane hissed through grit teeth. "That's why Jet put so much responsibility on me? Why he trusted me with all his shit?"

Johnny's shoulders popped up, his eyes sliding closed.

"I...can't say for sure, but...-"
"So what about you, then?" Jane demanded, her brain spinning in circles. Did everything in her life have to be unraveling like this? All some secret, some conspiracy. Were the friends she'd made this school year the only fucking thing in her life that wasn't based on a lie or a coverup? "You take an interest in me 'cuz of my dad?"

Johnny sighed, holding Jane's flinching biceps tightly in an effort to settle her down.

"I admit-" he began slowly, and Jane immediately rolled her eyes, turning her head away. "-that, at first, that was what made me curious about you. At first!" he insisted, when Jane tried to struggle from his grip. "And when I met you, I was fascinated by you - so many awful things in your life, but you were so strong. You just needed someone to trust."

"Oh!" Jane huffed. "So it was pity. Fuckin' great. Yea. That's-...Ugh..."

"But when I got to know you," Johnny pushed on, "I saw you for you were, not for what had happened to you. And I...really began to admire that person. And now..." Johnny grabbed her freckled cheeks and nudged her to look back at him. She sniffled from the emotional trauma of this discussion and wiped at her eyes. "I look at who you are, right now, in front me, and...I am so proud of you."

Jane's memories flickered with every time Katara had uttered those same words to her: 'I'm proud of you.'

"And I love you, Jane. I maybe don't say it as much as you'd like. But just know that I do love you. I've missed you every day. All of these politics, and secrets...those are maybe the reasons why I came to SRU, but you...-" He shook her gently by the arms."You are the reason I wanted to stay. You are the reason I still care about all of this. And...you are the one who should have the right to bring this man to justice. Not me. Not the FBI, or the police. You are the one who's life was turned upside down. It should be your choice to decide how to end all of this. And that's what I'm trying to grant you with everything I've been doing."

Jane's cheeks were trickling tears. When he was finished, she pulled in air through her nose, pushing up her bangs and wiping her eyes.

"Guh...I love you, too," she panted out, letting her tense shoulder fall down. "I...I get it." She curled up on the grass and dropped her head into his lap. "Wish I could just say 'fuck all' and...and just stay here."

"I know," said Johnny quietly, brushing her orange hair with his fingers. "So do I."

"All of this...shit," Jane bemoaned. "Violence and...fuckin' murders, and...what-...I don't even know anymore. Just-...I want it done. Want it to be over."

"Mm." Johnny kissed her on the temple. "It will be. Soon."

"I want...them. Back in my life."

"Your friends."

"Yea," Jane croaked. "Argh. They're like, the only fucking part of my life that's...normal."

"I'm sorry," Johnny muttered.

"Nah, it's...-" Jane sniffed, clearing her nose. "You're good. Just...nice. Having a fucking life with those guys. Right? I gotta do for them what...you've done for me."

"Mm?"

"Carry my secrets. Keep them safe. Keep them out until...this shitstorm blows over."

"For right now, you're in the eye of that storm. Let's try to forget about all of this, and appreciate the peace and quiet while it lasts."

Jane nodded in compliance, running her hand along Johnny's leg.

"I'd like that."


- Sunday, May 1st, 2011 -

Rrrmmm.

Katara's attention was piqued by the vibrating device on the coffee table. The television was paused at a funny moment where the character on screen looking constipated, but that had only been interesting for all of five seconds. Aang's bathroom break seemed to be taking a little while, and Toph and Sokka were out on a second date today. Any distraction was welcome. Katara peeked at the phone on the table - it was Aang's - and noticed the text that lit up its outside screen for a moment.

[New Txt]
[From: jane]

Katara did a double take. When the screen automatically turned off, she was still glaring at the phone. She shook herself from her shocked stupor and pressed one of the phone's outside buttons to turn the screen on again.

[New Txt]
[From: jane]

Nope. She hadn't misread. Her nose wrinkled in disbelief, and she scooped the phone up, opening it to view the contents of this message.

[From: jane]
[yea man. it went well. like..super easy somehow. it's like we just picked right up again where we left off.]
[Sent: 7:41pm]

Katara fumed at this. Aang and Jane were texting each other? What the hell? Jane wasn't sending Katara texts...She had said she never wanted to speak to them again! What was going on, here?

Katara examined the phone's contents.
[Inbox: 1]
Just the message Jane had just sent.
[Outbox: 0]

Oh, so Aang was deleting everything as soon as he got it, huh? And erasing anything he sent? Why would you do that? Because you were hiding something. Katara couldn't believe this. Just as she was feeling OK with Aang talking to her father - behind her back - now he was talking with Jane - behind her back! Didn't he know better than this? She ought to-
FwwssshhhhHHHHHHH...

The toilet flushed from upstairs, startling Katara from her angry thoughts. In the moments that followed, Katara pondered what to do. Her emotions were overpowering. She set the phone back down on the coffee table and crossed her arms, glaring at the hallway door, waiting for Aang's approach.

When he finally appeared, trekking down the stairwell, he slowed to a stop before he reached the couch, unnerved by Katara. She had flared nostrils, she was tapping her index finger on her opposing bicep, and her right leg was bouncing on its toes with impatience.

"Uh...Sorry I...took so long?" Aang apologized, hazarding a guess that she was just getting moody again. This was half correct, anyway.

"You got a text message while you were gone," Katara snipped, closing her eyes in disgust.

"Oh...kay?"

"From Jane."

"And...you would know that because...?"

"Because I saw it right here on the table," Katara burst out, flicking an aggravated wrist at the device.

Aang, his brows furrowed, went to pick up his phone. He bent over, he and Katara still locking eyes all the while. He finally broke away from her piercing glare to check. The message was new, but it wasn't marked as such. He closed the phone, now reciprocating Katara's anger.

"You read it," he accused.

"Yea, I did," Katara snapped. "You left it right there, and-"
"That doesn't give you a right to-"
"-didn't know there was still something going on with you and-"
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"I don't know, Aang! You tell me!"
"Jane is...going through some heavy stuff right now, and she-"
"She said she was never going to speak to us again!"
"I think that was probably an exaggeration."
"So it's just great that she stays in touch with you, but decides to butt me out, for no reason!"
"She has a reason!"
"And that's supposed to make me feel better? That she'll tell you but not me?"
"It's...complicated."
"Not very reassuring!"
"It's not supposed to be reassuring! It's the truth."
"Which you've been hiding from me."
"Because she asked me to."
"So she's more important than I am, now?"
"N-no! But...When someone asks me to keep a secret, I actually do it."
"Augh! And I don't?"
"You practically told Sokka about Toph's crush, like, right away."
"That-! Nnn...No, I didn't! He asked me about it!"
"Oh, so that suddenly makes it OK to break a promise."
"W-well...sometimes, yes! When...when circumstances change."
"When circumstances change."
"Right! And besides, I told him because I knew it would lead to good things."
"OK. Well, I knew that telling you this would lead to bad things."
"Is that so?"
"Yes! And you're yelling about it, so...Looks like I was right."
"I'm not-! Ugh...I'm not yelling."
"You kind of are..."
"Because I'm hurt that you've been doing all of these things behind my back."
"Because I made a promise."
"I don't see how that makes it better!
"Because...
A promise is a promise. That's how I always thought of it."
"Yea? The world's not...always so ideal, Aang."
"It never will be if people don't actually do their part."
"I...I do my part!"
"I know you do. And so do I! So don't get so mad at me when I'm only-"
"You lied to me!"
"How did I lie to you? When?"
"You...just...have been acting like you don't know what's going on with her."
"Acting isn't the same as lying. And I kind of don't know what's going on!"
"You still talk with her."
"We've been texting. That's it."
"Texting is...is still like talking!"
"She made me promise not to tell you."
"Sometimes being honest is more important than keeping someone's promises!"
"OK, OK. So. Hypothetical situation: someday, we get married...-"
"Aang. Just...stop."
"-...and I promise you that I'm never going to cheat on you."
"Aang."
"Then I do. I break the promise I made. But I'm honest with you about it."
"This is...totally different."
"You're telling me...That's better that just keeping the promise I made in the first place?"
"Stop it! That's...completely irrelevant! You...you would never do that. And I would never do that."
"Right. Sure. Because we're apparently better than that."
"Huh?"
"Because we're not like Toph, or Jane, or Sokka. Huh? We don't ever make mistakes."
"I didn't...I didn't say-"
"We're just better people. That's, like...how you act about this. About everything."
"No! No, I...I just wonder sometimes, if...if other people maybe aren't...trying as hard as we are, and-"
"We're not better people. We do make mistakes. We do, sometimes, do things that might hurt people we care about."

Aang sat down beside her.

"People we love," he added. "Sometimes, no matter what choice we make, someone is going to get upset with us. So we try to choose to help whoever needs our help the most."

Their eyes were raging with ferocity from their argument. Aang scratched at his ear, and Katara tugged at her hair a bit.

"Aang..."

"Jane needs me right now. I don't know why. I don't even...know for what. But I know she needs me."

"But...but why doesn't she need me? I'm...I'm always the one who...-"
"You're always the one who's been there the most," Aang agreed. "Maybe that's exactly why she wants to keep you away."

"I...I don't-...How does that make any...-?"

"I think she cares about you so much - and is so thankful for you - that she hates watching you burdened with all of her problems."

"But...but it's not a burden, I...-"
"She seems to think it is. Whatever is going on."

"Ugh..." Katara whimpered out in anguish with her head bobbed, rubbing her fingers up and down her temple. "But...I'm supposed to be...-" Her voice cracked, and she trailed off.

"What did Jane ask you to do?" Aang tried to calmly present the question.

"Huh...?" Katara looked back up to him, still touching the side of her head.

"Jane asked you to give her space," Aang reminded. "She specifically asked you for that."

"But...but what if what she needs is-?"
"No, you...-" Aang sighed, clamping his hands gently onto her cheeks. "You have to stop thinking like that, Sweetie. You cannot make all of her decisions for her."
"But...what if she doesn't know-"
"You are not her mother."
"I'm her friend."
"And as her friend, you have to let her make her own decisions..."
"But if she's hurting right now, then-"
"Then if she is, it's because she chose that."
"That doesn't make it OK!"
"It doesn't matter. She's doing OK enough right now, from what she's told me. If things were really bad, it'd be different, but right now...-"

Katara retracted her head from his grip.

"I can't," Katara groaned, getting up from the couch. "Let's...just stop talking about this." She clutched at her stomach, which felt a bit woozy, as she retreated upstairs.

Aang grunted with anxiety to himself as she scratched his hands through his hair. The longer Katara held onto this, more it was going to keep poisoning her mood. And, potentially, the worse off it would make the whole situation.

[link] <--- Chapter 89, Part 3
Chapter 90, Part 2 ---> [link]

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