What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 128 - Imagine (Part 3)
- Sunday, June 19th -
"Oh, man. Feels good," said Sokka, watching the golf ball he'd stricken sail through the air. It was veering off to the right. "Feeeels goo-ohp!" The ball disappeared between some trees in the rough. He shrugged in spite of his failure and smiled, turning around to his friends. "Mulligan?" he requested, using golf lingo to ask for a second shot to start things off.
"No mulligans," Zuko wryly declined, hands in his khaki pockets. "That was your rule from last time, remember?"
"Heh." Sokka grinned slyly. "Worth a shot. Eh? Get it?"
Aang and Zuko swapped dull glances at Sokka's pathetic pun. Sokka let it roll off his back.
"Ahhh," Sokka sighed out the pleasing scents wafting around them and twirled the club in his hand a bit. "It's been a while, hasn't it?" Sokka adjusted his visor and scratched his scalp as he passed Zuko's golf club back to its owner.
"It has been a while," Zuko agreed, taking his tool in hand and approaching the tee, swapping places with Sokka.
"I thought we were going to do this more often," Aang recalled, taking in the fresh air above the golf course. The skies were pale and gray, the air cool and crisp, and the the trees rustled in the distance now and again from a recurring gust.
"Yea," Sokka agreed. He savored the sensations all around him, for he knew this would very well be his last time here. He watched Zuko set up his golf ball on a wooden peg and ready his swing. Sokka elaborated, "We were gonna make this like a weekly, or bi-weekly, sorta...'guy's day out' kinda deal. What happened with that, eh?"
Zuko drove a clean shot straight down the fairway, and the golden glint of his wristwatch caught Sokka's eye as he paused at the end of his swing.
"Nice," Aang quietly complimented his friend's play.
"What happened?" Zuko said solemnly, adjusting his polo shirt's collar. "My family's past caught up with me. That's what happened."
"...Ah," Sokka mumbled, realizing the error of his insensitive words.
Zuko and Aang switched positions. Aang was eager to take his turn, quickly setting things up.
"Well," Sokka said to Zuko. "Thanks a lot for setting this up today on short notice and everything."
"Not a problem," Zuko stated. "I needed a break, anyway."
"Heh, yea," Sokka empathized. "All this...stuff going on...must be looney."
Aang swiped the club with much less ferocity than Zuko or Sokka had. On the one hand, his gentler drive actually landed on the green, unlike Sokka's - on the other hand, it traveled only half as far as Zuko's had.
"C'mon," Sokka lamented his friend's swing. "Holding back something, Bud?"
"Wh...-?" Aang seemed perplexed by Sokka's disappointment.
"Korra was tellin' me that the other day she was teaching you boxing, and you went ballistic on her," Sokka recanted. "But we play golf and you can't even swing?"
"I did swing," Aang defended, handing the club to his roommate with some light irritation. "And I actually landed on the course, by the way."
"Yea," Sokka conceded with a sigh, taking up the club. "Better safe than sorry for you, eh? I'm just saying..." He strode up to the tee and readied his second attempt.
"You're just saying..." Aang tiredly mocked his friend's repetitious phrase.
"I'm just saying!" Sokka said again in another tone. "You'll never get Birdies taking shots like that."
Sokka took another fierce drive. This time, his shot landed in-between Aang and Zuko's distance - but close to the edge of the fairway, where a bend in the course meant that a clump of trees was now inbetween his ball and the hole.
"But," Zuko defended, patting Aang on the shoulder. "You'll probably manage to get another Par or a Bogey." His eyes slid to Sokka. "Instead of a...Quadruple Bogey like the last hole."
"Bah!" Sokka spurted out, giving Zuko the club. As Zuko slipped it into his golf bag, the lot of them started trekking across the fairway. Sokka declared, "Ya know what? Who cares who wins or loses, eh? We're enjoying some...male-bonding time. That makes us all winners."
Aang smiled at this, and Zuko nodded in agreement.
"Well said," said Zuko with a chucke. "Come to think of it...-" He glanced over to Aang. "With me and Sokka graduating, what are you going to do?"
"Huh?" Aang blinked at his more formally dressed friend. "I thought-...Aren't you staying in town?"
Zuko shrugged up the shoulder opposite the one that bore the weight of his golf explained, "I'll come back after a while, but...my sister and I have a lot of...family business to take care of first. There's no telling how long she'll need my help."
"Oh, right," Aang muttered, recalling vague details that Zuko had mentioned. Aang anticipated that this impending press conference was related.
"So," Zuko continued his initial thought. "It doesn't seem to me like you have a lot of close friends outside of...you know, your group. Doesn't that mean that next year you'll be surrounded by...well...women?"
"Girls," Sokka corrected.
"Women," Aang counter-corrected.
"Right," said Zuko. "With Sokka gone, doesn't that mean your...'Fearsome Fivesome' will be all broken up?"
"Fearless Five," Sokka came again with the correction. "Plus One," he added. He dipped his head back, gawking up at the gray, clouded skies, then fluttered his lips in a dejected sigh. "And nah, Aang'll be just fine." Sokka wrapped his arm around his friend's back. "He's one of the Five. But me? I'm...the Plus One."
"Sokka," Aang grunted, not keen on Sokka's self-deprecation.
"I'm serious," Sokka insisted, losing his hint of sorrow. "It's not just that I won't be around, it's also-...I dunno...Last night sorta made me realize that you guys'll be fine without me."
Aang was a tad startled by the particularly wistful look on his roommate's face.
"W-well, I'm not sure if 'fine' is the best word," Aang said sheepishly.
"Oh, it is," Sokka insisted, squeezing Aang against his side before nuggying the back of his head and shoving him off. "I have taught you all I can, padawan."
"Heh." Aang readjusted his cap from Sokka's friendly assault. "Everyone seems to be trying to 'teach' me something these days..."
"That's a good thing," Zuko noted. "You surround yourself with so many different kinds of people...you learn all kinds of things."
"No, I know," Aang quickly agreed. "I'm not really sure what to do with it. Like with the Harmony Restoration Movement? I'm not really sure...-" He trailed off with a huffy and uncertain shrug.
Sokka croaked out his Yoda impersonation, waggling his finger at Aang.
"Mind what you have learned. Save you, it can."
"Yea," Aang sighed, struggling to maintain positivity. "I just feel like...a tiny fish in a big pond..."
Sokka rebutted, "Size matters not."
"OK, Yoda," Aang remarked with a raised eyebrow. "I get it. I'm...not giving up, I'll try harder."
Sokka stroked his thumb and index finger across his goatee as he stared Aang down. The trio continued their trek across the fairway's finely cut grass. After pausing for dramatic effect, Sokka replied.
"Do or do not. There is no try."
Aang breathed out a tired sigh at Sokka's quotations.
"Is this...like a roommate-bonding-thing?" Zuko prodded with uncertainty, handing Aang a golf club he deemed appropriate.
"Something like that," Aang muttered, accepting the iron. He lifted up his white cap, wiped sweat from his forehead, and set the cap back down. Sokka was still staring at him expectantly, and Aang rolled his head around with some impatience. "Can we just get back to the golf game?" he pleaded to Sokka.
"It's all right," Zuko eased Aang. "We're here for each other, not the game, aren't we?"
Sokka nodded to Zuko and slyly narrowed his eyes at Aang. "Patience you must have, my young padawan."
"...Do you have a movie quote reply for everything?" Aang dryly grumbled. His wide, manic expression remained a fixture as they reached Aang's golf ball.
Twice, Sokka opened his mouth to speak, a breath moved, a gesture made, but he retracted. Sokka continued to consider his options, and Aang made another safe but steady swing of his club with a loud grunt.
Aang bemoaned, "There's bigger things to be thinking about right now, and I don't know what I'm supposed to do about them..."
Sokka nodded, having decided on one. This time, he spoke in a more solemn, earnest tone.
"Even the smallest person can change the course of the future."
Aang's irritation melted at the edges, and he laughed through his nose as he watched his golf ball land inconspicuously at the edge of the fairway, three-fourths of the way to the hole. Aang was aware of the fact that Sokka had moved from one of his favorite sources - Star Wars - to another - Lord of the Rings. Aang decided to speak to Sokka in his own language.
It was a language that Sokka had taught him over their time spent together as roommates and friends over the prior school year.
"There's still some good in this world, Mr. Frodo," Aang said, an involuntary smile spreading as he handed Sokka the golf club. "And it's worth fighting for."
Sokka beamed with a wide grin, slapping Aang roughly on the back and flashing him a thumbs up.
Sokka eagerly concluded, "I'm glad to be with you, Samwise Gamgee…here at the end of all things."
"When the good dreams come, hang onto them with all of your might."
~ Ursa; ATLA: The Search
- Monday, June 20th -
"Future Communications Incorporated." Azula read the proposed company title aloud for the first time, glancing at the sheet in her hands. "FutureComm?"
"My father used to talk about expanding Sato Mobile," Asami explained. "I'm sure this...isn't exactly what he originally intended, but...I'm not the person my father is. My vision of the future requires letting go of the past, not holding grudges, like he did."
"When Hiroshi hears the news," Azula remarked slyly, "I'm sure he'll regret having ever introduced us to each other."
"Maybe," Asami said with a sigh and a nod. "But I'm glad he did."
"I do wonder, though, Miss Sato...-" Azula set the sheet down on the stack that resided on her side of the table. "-...why you seem so sure you can trust me."
"I'm not sure," Asami confessed candidly. "That's why it's 'trust.' But we've both been scarred by trusting our misguided fathers. The way I see it, you value the weight of this risk, because you're making the exact same kind. The dispute between our families can never be put to rest without taking a leap of faith - without us trusting each other."
"Mm." Azula nodded in understanding. "Stubborn old men stuck in the past can never see the future ahead," she stated. "I have no interest in being held by the past, but rather, in preserving it. Holding on it, wearing its crown - not letting its crown wear me." On Azula's end, she'd simply agreed to this to spite her father and to free herself of the judgments of her father's old friends - she didn't need Daddy's judgmental shareholders stifling her progress. Miss Sato seemed equally interested in this freedom, and Azula could respect that, even if their specific motives were not in total alignment. Such was the nature of politics and of business.
"And are you...-" Asami began, watching Azula's assistant approach. "-...sure about this?"
"Not in the slightest," replied Azula casually, watching her assistant set down heavy folder on the table before Asami. "I used to be certain that the path ahead of me was pre-paved, and I merely required the diligence to follow it. But recent events have illustrated to me that, should I wish it, I can traverse whatever path I might choose, so long as I arrive at my intended destination."
The late morning sun poured in through both of the kitchen windows, filling the cramped, white room with bright light.
Asami observed the maroon business suit her soon-to-be colleague was wearing. Azula Kurosawa nodded to her silent servant, seeing the man off, then gazed out over the small kitchen table to the outside. There wasn't much to see. With the intimidating woman towering over the table she sat at, Asami cleared her throat nervously. She pushed back a curly clump of hair behind one ear as she looked down at the folder of paperwork.
"So..." Asami murmured. She swallowed, then spoke up more properly. "What changed your mind? Why are you helping me?"
"Why do you still have stock in your father's company?" Azula retorted calmly. "I'm speaking literally, mind you."
Asami paused to put together her response.
"I suppose it's because part of me still believes that there's hope for him."
"And if there isn't?" Azula posed, seating herself in the rickety seat across from Asami.
"Then...-" Asami shrugged. She stared Azula right in the eyes – those sharp, frigid eyes. Asami spoke with resolve. "At that point, the company my parents built together would be...all that I'd have left of my family. And...I still want to honor that."
Asami caught a brief glimpse of a smirk at the edge of Azula's face. The business woman nodded, then glanced down at her golden wristwatch.
Azula spoke. "Then it seems you and I do have a shared understanding of honoring our families. To answer your initial question, it is simply that I've come to realize that with my Father, there is no hope left for him. But I have realized that I have a different means with which I can honor my family – and this partnership would help us both accomplish that mutual goal."
"This whole situation is a dangerous proposition," Asami made clear, readying her pen from her blouse pocket. "Crazy risky," she amended.
Azula nodded slowly, and her smirk widened to a smile as she watched Asami sign through the documents they'd gone over.
"I savor 'crazy risky' propositions," said Azula wryly.
"Then I'm willing to try if you are," Asami replied, scribbling away.
Azula extended her arm down to Asami. Asami stood up and took Azula's hand firmly. They shook with a decisive energy, eyes sparking with an eager drive to move forward.
Azula concluded, "Let us put the disputes of old men in the past."
"Let's," Asami agreed. With determination, she signed her name alongside Azula's, stating, "I'm ready to face the future."
"The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children."
~ William Shakespeare; The Merchant of Venice
Aang's jaws worked their way up and down, trying to consume the gooey bits of tapioca through the straw he'd slurped them up through.
Aang expressed, "I don't think I've ever had tea that was so...chewy...before."
"Blech," Zuko sighed, smacking his lips with some disgust.
"Nom-nom-nom," Toph was playfully murmuring as she swallowed her gummy blobs along with her tea.
"It's good," Katara decided. "We've had it before," she explained, patting Toph on the shoulder.
Toph slurped more bubble tea through the large straw in her cup. She confirmed Katara's statement with more "Homm-nom-nom-hom..."
The lot of them were seated at a recently opened chain shop - a place that specialized in unique tea beverages. The walls of the place were decorated with bright circles and swirls. It was a little nauseating to look at directly.
Iroh announced to the table, "I am thinking of expanding the Jasmine Dragon's selection. Bubble tea seems to be becoming quite popular these days...I have to keep up with these trends in the world of tea."
Aang nodded his support of Iroh's idea, Katara hummed an affirmative, and Toph was guzzling up a whole string of tapioca bubbles.
"Besides..." Iroh glanced around to make sure no one else was within earshot, and hunched over the table, whispering to the lot of them, "I also haveto uphold the honor of 'bubble tea.' There is no love in these bubbles."
Katara and Aang giggled a bit, the rest of the table quiet - the couple shared endeared looks with each other.
"How is it?" Katara quietly asked Aang.
"Mm," Aang replied, drinking some down. He knew Katara was really asking more about how he was feeling about being present at this meeting, since she'd asked him to attend on short notice.
"Shouldn't we be focusing on other things besides tea?" Zuko dryly proposed, throwing the energy of the table into a more cynical direction. "Like getting you back into a house? Or putting an end to, say, the socio-political dispute that we're meeting about right now?"
"...Mm," Iroh grunted his acknowledgment after a moment. He scratched his beard a bit, then took a sip. "I do suppose I might be getting a little ahead of myself," he confessed with a light laugh.
Katara was off-put by the weird tension between Zuko and Iroh. She shifted her attention to her left, where Azula was sitting with a stoic and bitter look on her face, scrutinizing the stapled sheets of paper before her. She nonchalantly took a drink of her sugary tea - without bubbles - seeming to tune out the noise around them.
"Yes," Zuko agreed with Iroh's statement. "You are." He'd spoken the phrase through a tired sigh.
Katara opened her mouth toward Azula, but Aang ended up speaking before she could.
"Azula, what do you think?"
"I don't like it," Azula replied to him with a stern deadpan, still staring at the sheet. "It is...too sweet. Too flowery."
"But...-" Aang lifted his brow. "I thought you wanted your tea sweetened...?"
"Mm?" Azula glanced up to him with icey eyes. "Not the drink," she irritably clarified. "This simpleton speech." She slapped the sheets of paper on the table.
"Wh...-?" Katara felt as if like Azula's razor fingernails had just scratched her in the face. "What's wrong with it?" she demanded, struggling to not be too defensive.
"I thought it was all right," Zuko defended, glancing down at the speech Katara had printed off for them to review.
Even that remark left Katara a bit disheartened. 'All right?' Not 'good' or 'effective' or anything?
"I'll not have our family's name sullied by such inane text," Azula criticized. "This reads like a child's picture book."
"Well," Toph puffed, "You sound like a grumpy Shakespeare actor."
Toph received a handful of puzzled looks from the table, which she was blissfully unaware of as she slurped air and gummy balls from the bottom of her cup.
"Shakespeare is a household name for a reason," Azula cited, giving Toph a narrow-eyed stare. "And it is certainly not for writing lazy, uninspired sermons of misplaced hope. This isn't a matter of delusions of grandeur - it is of being frank and taking action."
Azula's words stung at Katara a bit more. Pakku had seemed satisfied with her third draft of the speech Katara was to deliver at the fundraiser, but now this new speech for Azula's press conference was being rattled and smacked down without any hesitation. Maybe Pakku was being easy on her or something?
You know what? It doesn't even matter. If Azula doesn't like it, she can...-
"This isn't iambic pentameter," Katara defended herself.
"No," Azula agreed. "It is a disgracing apology. I have no reason to apologize to random strangers. Azula Kurosawa bows to no one."
Toph nearly choked on a bubble of tapioca. Azula's attitude her was really bothering her. As Katara pounded at Toph's back, she coughed and cleared her throat, her mind buzzing to decipher why this remark irked her so much.
"Fuhh...-!" Toph choked out, smacking her palm down on the table where her throat was failing her.
"Something to say?" Azula taunted. "I would suspect a child as yourself wouldn't understand. Rather than upholding your family's traditions and your father's honor-"
"Azula," Zuko growled, trying to get his sister to back off.
"-you gallivant about in promiscuous clothing whilst...rattling a guitar, flaunting yourself to the masses in some imprudent attempt to find affection or self-worth."
Toph's face was red hot, the skin around her nose wrinkling with disdain and embarrassment.
"Hey, fuck you," Toph seethed, keeping her voice at a reasonable level given their public location. "I dunno where you got my life story from, but you don't know me."
"And that is perfectly fine," Azula sighed. "I'd rather not know you."
"Guys," Aang prodded at them with his plea for peace.
"I've made some shitty choices," Toph spouted, "And I used to think like that - no bowing down to anyone, ever. But I grew the fuck up - a little bit, at least. And I didn't need a fancy perfume or high-heels or a rich daddy to help me."
"My, how fortunate for you," Azula bitterly mocked before taking a prim sip of her drink. "How admirable. Perhaps if I, too, had been consumed in a self-perpetuating sphere of ego, doing whatever my heart desired, rather than tending to my imprisoned father's errors and my deceased mother's wishes, I might have time to 'grow up a little bit.' How foolish of me to do something about the domestic issues left behind by non-existent parents. I surely should have run away from them, instead. I pray you forgive my lack of maturity."
Toph was being out-stubborned here, by someone with a more fancy-dancy vocabulary than hers who was also immune to the bite of Toph's sarcastic tongue.
Not to mention that the stuck-up woman had a fair enough point. Azula didn't know Toph...but Toph also didn't know her, either. And it sounded like maybe Azula had more complex reasons for her life choices than Toph did.
With her arms grumpily crossed over her waist and her head bobbed, Toph let a grouchy huff of hot hair flutter her bangs.
"She's just trying to make you feel bad," Zuko stated firmly, giving his sister a disappointed glare. Azula shrugged back passively, and Katara rubbed her palm across Toph's back a couple of times.
"It's a gift," Azula said airily, checking her elongated nails as she drank more of her tea. "One that Miss Beifong and I happen to share - isn't that right?"
"Whatever," Toph groaned, struggling to keep her temper under wraps.
"A princess who'd prefer to be a peasant," Azula noted in a breathy tone. "Attempting to lecture me on how to carry myself." With a click of her tongue and a shake of her head, Azula stood up from the table.
"All I'm saying," Toph tried one last time, "is that if you maybe let go of your pride even just a little bit, people might not hate you so much. I've got no fuckin' clue what your brother here, or your uncle, or...or Ty-Lee, what any of them see in you, but you oughtta listen to 'em, 'cuz they care about you."
"Aw, how sentimental," Azula cooed with a yawn. "While I've studied up on your situation before remarking on it, you see fit to blindly toss advice my way - oh, I do apologize for the phrasing." She smirked as she clasped the golden buttons in place on her maroon business coat. "But perhaps it had already occurred to you that the entire reason I am here is because I have been listening to them, genius. Don't meddle in my family's affairs when you aren't even capable of dealing with your own." As Azula was speaking, she'd crumpled up Katara's speech copy and tossed it alongside the second half of her tea into the trash bin nearby. "You are only here by association, to discuss our course of action, not to swap personal histories. I did not ask for your irrelevant advice, yet you force it upon me. And since you can't see, I should tell you: I'm rolling my eyes at you." True to her word, Azula exaggerated an eyeroll for the benefit of those at the table.
Toph slapped her fist into her lap and fumbled up from her seat, nearly tripping over Katara's foot.
"I'll roll your whole head," Toph hissed.
Katara clutched Toph's arm in a silent bid to calm the irate girl down.
Azula giggled in an odd way, her laughter carrying through the beverage shop - the artificiality of her giggling denoted that she was humored by some light-hearted joke, thus diffusing any curious glances from passers-by.
"Roll my whole head, you say?" Azula mused, a bizarre smile about her. "I'm afraid I've already taken care of that, myself."
Azula offered the group a wave. Iroh nudged Zuko's shoulder with his pudgy elbow, springing Zuko to take some action.
"Where are you going?" Zuko inquired, shuffling up from the table to follow her.
"I can tell when I'm not wanted," Azula plainly stated. "I have better things than to do than waste precious time squabbling with spoiled urchins."
"OK," Zuko grunted, catching up to her. "Enough with the fancy insults...Why are you...-?"
Zuko's voice dropped down to a whisper as he kept pace with his sister, who was leaving the shop.
Aang and Iroh swapped discouraged expressions as Katara watched the two Kurosawas exit, and Toph strained to listen in.
"I think she bad-mouthed your writing again just now," Toph observed in a mumble as the shop's bell jingled, signifying Zuko and Azula's exit.
"Toph," Katara grumbled, displeased with her friend's behavior.
"I was standing up for you," Toph explained. She added sarcastically, "Oh, and thanks, by the way, for returning the gesture, guys."
"Wh-?" Aang balked, confused.
"We weren't going to be a part of that," Katara stated firmly.
"No," Toph confirmed. "So ya just sat there and let me make an idiot of myself."
"What are you talking about?" Aang instantly retorted. "'Make an idiot?' To who?"
"Well-! To...-!" Toph paused at this. She realized she'd dipped into a sort of 'auto-pilot-ego-correct' mode, or something.
"We already know about all of that stuff," Aang reminded her. "We're not going to suddenly think any less of you just because someone else - someone who doesn't know you like we do - says something bad."
"You've got nothing you need to prove to us right now," Katara added, giving the still flustered Toph a sideways hug. "I appreciate you trying to stick up for me, Hun, but...where it counts with arguments like this, I can take care of myself, by myself."
"Heh..." Toph smiled, squeezing Katara back. "Where have I heard that one before?"
"That's right," Katara said, her defensive tone dropping. "I picked that one up from you. So no need to go picking fights on my behalf," Katara said, scratching Toph's back before letting their hug break.
Katara's chair squeaked across the tile floor as she grabbed her tea - no need to let it go to waste.
"And on that note," Katara stated, "I've got a pair of grumpy siblings I need to have a word with..."
"Whoa, hey," Aang tried to ease her, grabbing her hand before she slipped off. "Azula seems...a little off right now. Do you want me to come?"
"I appreciate it," Katara said with a smile. "But like I said - I'll be fine." She bent over and shared a soft kiss on the lips with her lover. "You guys relax, don't let all of this stop you from enjoying your tea."
"Waha," Iroh chuckled. "You don't have to tell me twice."
Katara's face squinted with endearment at the elderly professor as she waved to him.
"I'm sorry for this, Iroh," she said. "Thank you for the tea."
"You are quite welcome," Iroh assured. "Please talk some sense into my niece, if you can."
"I'll...try," Katara warily said as she took a gulp from her straw and headed out the door.
After the situation had calmed down, Iroh inhaled a deep breath and let loose a long, raspy sigh of relief.
"Ah, to be young and full of passion..." he mused with a plodding set of nods.
Aang was sitting alone on one corner of the table, Toph two seats to his right, and Iroh right across from her. He shifted his position, scooting over to Toph's immediate side.
"More like, full of drama," Toph bemoaned under her breath, shoving her palm over her cheeks with some embarrassment. "That was my bad, I didn't mean to...-"
"As I said," Iroh cut her negative talk off. "Full of passion. Drama is passion, Toph. Is it not? To openly express one's mind, one's soul...that is drama. In our day-to-day lives, we become so self-aware of what others may think of us, we hold that back. But drama is emotion. The hearts of man - oh, and woman, haha! - you see, a human heart is a complex thing. If only every problem between people was so simple as the arithmetic implies. But we are beings of passion."
Toph was frowning with some bitter resentment. She also wasn't a big fan of Iroh's prattling rambles, but his scratchy old-man voice was pleasant to listen to, at least.
"Well, Azula's right," Toph sighed. "She and I are kinda alike - we both hurt the people around us. For all my 'passion,' it seems like all I end up doing is...manipulating people to get what I want. Even when I don't realize I'm doing it..." Toph loudly sucked up air from the bottom of her empty cup. She extended her left arm to her side, gently punching Aang on his skinny bicep. "Like with this guy, here," she recalled with some gloomy regret.
"But it's like Iroh just said," Aang countered with sympathy. "We cared about each other - so we had 'drama.' And we worked things through, because we had 'drama.'" He reached out and took her hand below the table to reinforce his words with touch where the sight of his face was ineffective.
Toph, in her lost state of 'passion,' let this brief moment's intimacy take her back to a time merely months ago where that specific touch - Aang's hand - had been the force raising her up from the earth into the air. But even now, it still did just that, but in a different way than it once had.
"And now we're even better friends than before," Toph affirmed Aang's notion, clasping his hand back before they resumed their neutral positions. "I guess that's why I'm so frustrated with Sokka right now - he's so...anti-drama, and it's let us drift apart. I hate it."
"To openly express one's soul," Iroh reiterated. "That is drama. Perhaps your friend needs some right now, even if he does not know it."
"Yea," Aang agreed. "Toph, you've been so quick these days to stick up for Katara, or me, but...maybe you actually need to stand your ground instead of someone else's, at least right now."
"Psh! Sooo, what? Like...go profess my love for him or somethin' cheesy like that?"
"W-well, I mean...I don't know, Toph."
"I just don't know what our problem even is," Toph vented. "I mean, with you and me, it was 'cuz we couldn't be on the same page with sexing it up, but...-"
Aang's cheeks went pink at Toph's brutal honesty and the 'TMI' raised eyebrows that Iroh was sending their way.
"-...that wasn't an issue with Meat-Head. Not at all. If anything, we went in too fast."
"Wait," Aang mumbled, a bit startled. "You two were already...-?"
"C'mon, Twinkles, we're us, it isn't exactly some big surprise. With you and Katara, it was this, ya know, whole big thing, and, I mean...you guys figured that out. I'm happy for ya. Me and Sokka just dove in too fast, and it-...I dunno, it was like it sorta didn't mean anything, but...but I wanted it to mean something with us, and...so we decided to stop for a while, work on, ya know, more 'feely' stuff instead of 'touchy' stuff, and then he started acting all weird 'cuz he's graduated now, and...bleh."
"Sokka started acting stoic," Aang cited. It was Sokka's self-defense mechanism against emotional turmoil - Aang was all-too familiar with seeing him get that way. Whether it was coping with the loss of his mother or Kya, with his breakup with Suki, with frustrations with Katara or Korra or Jane, and now with Toph...Sokka's response was always to lock things in, push them aside, and try to be as logical as he could.
"Stoic?" Toph mumbled, trying to remember what that word meant. She'd asked a split second too soon, as the idea hit her, along with the flood of instances she could recount. "Oh, no, yea. I know what you mean. Right. It pisses me off when he's like that."
"And it pisses him off when you act childish when he's trying to have a real conversation with you," Aang stated, trying to put it gently as best he could.
"Well, yea," Toph meekly admitted, scratching her cheek. "When he gets all weird and quiet like that I try to break the ice - being an idiot is how I do that."
"I could tell something was wrong with you two a while ago, based on how he'd been acting. He barely ever talks with me about you two. But I know you talk with Katara, and with me, and...-"
"Yea, I'm trying to, like, communicate n' shit, here, and he just...-"
"He tries to keep his cool," Aang stated, "And he tries to be rational. But you could shake him out of that. You've been holding back from him. He's tried to commit to you, and you shrugged it off."
"But-! Twinkle-Toes, it ain't easy for me to just...-"
"It's easy for you to start arguments about things that make you mad," Aang pointed out. "Maybe think of it like arguing about...something you love."
"Ah, to be young and full of passion," Iroh repeated himself, bellowing out a hearty chuckle. "Young love is indeed a battle. There is no shame in retreat, but you cannot hope to win a fight in which you never strike."
Toph chewed at her lip as she considered this perspective. Iroh's words sounded really familiar, too - hadn't he said something like that when she was frustrated about opening up to Sokka in the first place? And being angry and arguing...about love? Huh.
"S-sorry, Professor," Aang sheepishly muttered, scratching behind his ear with a shrug. "We all sort of...have issues, and...-"
"Everyone does," Iroh casually stated with a shrug, leaning back in his chair and tending his rotund belly full of tea and tapioca. "Zuko and Azula are...certainly no exception..." He sighed after this remark - it was an exhausted breath.
"Yea, they...-" Toph swallowed the lump of shame in her throat. "Um, their mom passed away a little while back, huh?"
"She did," Iroh solemnly confirmed. "And their father - my brother - was not a very...understanding man. Some of his...social tendencies seem to have rubbed off on his Azula, while their mother's sympathy has been inherited by Zuko. They are two siblings, born of different cultures, different families...opposite in so many ways." Iroh glanced up across the table to the two students before him - one with combed hair, a school-branded vest and buttoned shirt and matching tie, the other with messy bangs, a low-cut tanktop with vulgar language, and a green denim vest. "But I know in my heart that those two Kurosawas will work through their differences, as Zuko has told me you two have."
"Maybe if they can get their acts together," Toph mumbled, "they can help fix this whole mess your jerkish family started. Er, no offense."
"None taken," Iroh sighed with a shrug. "I know that my nephew and niece may seem rather out of sorts," Iroh confessed, "but I can assure you that a plan has been set in motion. We simply need to help Azula understand how important her decision is in all of this."
"Because she's running her father's company now," Aang put one and one together.
"Yes," Iroh confirmed.
Aang sighed to himself as he stared at the pile of tapioca bubbles sitting at the bottom of his cup, the tea having been sapped away.
"I feel like...-" Aang cleared his throat as he considered his words. "In a way, I can relate with Azula - wanting to uphold the legacy of your family. But on the other hand, this whole movement - Harmony Restoration - it's about tearing down the old barriers that have been keeping the people of this town apart."
"Mm..." Iroh was scratching at his beard.
"Uh, so...-" Aang gave Toph a pat on the shoulder, while looking at Iroh. "Toph says you give pretty good advice - on top of all of the great tea."
Iroh smirked, glancing over to Toph. She was smiling with a hint of bashfulness.
"The key to both is proper aging," Iroh advised. "What is on your mind, Aang?"
Aang watched Toph try to suck up more non-existent gummies from her cup, and he swapped her cup with his, letting her continue to gleefully indulge herself.
"Well, it's...-" Aang fidgeted with his tie. "With everything going on lately, I've felt...so little. Like-...Hm. How to put it...?"
Iroh patiently waited for Aang's words, watching his friend slurp up gobs of tea-soaked tapioca and chew on them.
"Zuko, Katara, and my friends...Everyone has been putting work into the Harmony Restoration Movement. And even that pastor - Noah? I've tried listening to what he has to say, and...he's made some really good points, too. This town has become so violent and chaotic lately. Part of me feels like I'm...supposed to be doing something about it. But I feel so...imperfect. All of this...this drama, with my friends? It's true, I mean, it's a good thing, right? I should feel like it is. But then other people witness it - people outside of our group. People like Zuko, or Azula, or...well, you. And I feel embarrassed. I feel like we're...all just messed up. And it makes me realize just how lost I actually am. That the reason I wear SRU clothes, or care so much about promoting the school, it's...all because this school is the closest thing I've ever had to a home. And the more I think on it...-" Aang's eyes wandered off into a blank, spaced-out state.
Toph had stopped scrounging up bubbles, intent on hearing her friend out.
Aang shrugged off his moment of contemplation and tried to continue.
"I just ask myself, 'What right do you have to tell other people to think?' You know? Like Azula said - I don't know everything about this whole situation. Katara thinks I should be putting my face out there because people know me from the news - from the things I've gotten involved with. I never wanted any of that. I'm just a mess. I don't even know where I'm going with my life - just letting the wind carry me. My friends expect me to be doing something, setting some...example. Being some role model. But that's not me. I don't want to tell other people what to do, I just...wish everyone could get along. I just want to be there for my friends, and-...But then maybe I do want something more than that, and I can't...-"
Toph clawed her hand over to Aang, scratching at his back with encouragement in the same manner Katara just had for her minutes earlier.
"Especially after the teachings my grandfather gave me," Aang concluded, "I worry that I'm not living up to what I should be, no matter what I do. I can't be the man he was - I can't even be the man I want to be. So people think I'm...some kind of wimp, or...not 'manly,' because...all of my friends are girls, and I'm so...-"
"Don't let Bacon-for-Brains get to you. Don't let me get to you. We're all, like, bouncin' ideas and shit off of each other, but, Aang, bud...don't let this idea of 'harmony' and stuff make you think you're supposed to be some...some conglomeration of everyone else. You still gotta be you. Now, so, me? I'm more sensitive than I used to be, yea?"
"Mm. A lot more than you were when we first met."
"Right. But I'm still me. I let some of you, some of Kat, some of everybody rub off on me. I let it, at my own pace. I had to have...ha...a fucking breakdown, on myself, before I built myself back up. I did that. I had to make that choice. Don't let anyone else make those choices for you. You're already a man if you've figured out what you care about and why. That's what I think. I might joke around and stuff, but, end of the day, it doesn't really matter how tough you are, how big your reputation is, whether you're living up to whatever ideals of perfection your monk teaching is about..."
"I want my friends to be happy," Aang stated simply. "I love you, I love Katara, I love...this weird, stupid group we've...cobbled together. I want to keep that going, and help other people see that...it's possible for them to put their differences aside if it is for us. Nobody's perfect, but that doesn't mean we can't be here for each other and learn to understand where others are coming from."
"Right," Toph agreed with some vigor, eager to enjoy this rare moment where Aang's feelings lined up with her own.
"Perfection and power are overrated," Iroh stated. "I think you two are very wise to choose happiness and love."
"But...-" Aang murmured, twiddling his fingers together. "What happens if we can't convince the people to work out their differences?"
"I don't know the answer," Iroh replied. "Sometimes life is like a dark tunnel." The entrance door bell rang again, and Iroh noticed his niece and nephew walking in, side by side, Katara nudging them together from behind. "You can't always see the light at the end, but if you keep moving...-" Iroh grinned at his two bashful relatives, who were avoiding each other's gazes. "...you will come to a better place."
The three who had just been talking outside lingered by the table, behind Aang and Toph. Iroh studied their conflicted expressions, and Aang twisted his torso to look at them - Toph tilted her head to hear over her shoulder.
"Go ahead," Katara encouraged the two, patting them both on the shoulder. Azula's face contorted with disdain at Kat's touch, and she shirked away from their contact.
"Uncle," Zuko began. "We were discussing the conference coming up, and...we think maybe it'd be best if you spoke on behalf of our family."
Iroh's brows lowered, his face stiffening.
"No, Zuko," he replied. "It won't turn out well."
"You can end this political squabbling," Azula insisted. "We could allow your...elderly wisdom to...win over the people. And we shall stand by your side."
Iroh shook his head slowly before explaining.
"Even if I tried to stop this - and I don't know that I could - it would be the wrong way to end this situation. The press would see it as just more power-mongering. Us against them, them against us, a race for control between the university and the town's organizations. The only way for this situation to end peacefully is for the people to make amends, to come together as one. I am going to retire from my position at the school, breaking the Kurosawa family's influence from it entirely."
"...And then?" Zuko pressed. "Then would you join us? Help us build this new company?"
"No," Iroh persisted. "Someone else must do this. Not one single person, but a group. Miss Sato, a sympathetic engineer whose family has been a victim of our mistakes...allying with the Kurosawas, despite the trouble we have caused. Zuko, an idealist with a pure heart and a desire to pursue new beginnings...-" He stared at his nephew, who smirked bashfully. He turned his gaze to Azula, whose lips hung just the slightest bit open at his smile. "-...and Azula, an industrialist of unquestionable honor who understands the value of tradition. If the Kurosawa and Sato families can finally end this bad blood, we can all put this behind us. But it must be the new generation who leaves the past where it lies. It has to be you, my niece and nephew. You are the passionate youths with the fresh perspectives this town needs."
Toph leaned over to Aang and whispered in his ear, "All I'm hearing is, 'bla-bla, political mumbo-jumbo, something about families.'"
Aang snickered at her remark, rolling his eyes at her insistence on not being swept into the cerebral mindset.
"...A pure heart?" Zuko mumbled, still uneasy at Iroh's words. "But...I've pushed so many people away, I've...-" He glanced sideways to his sister with a remorseful glint in his eyes.
"And unquestionable honor?" Azula added. "I talk a big game, Uncle, but in truth, I've merely been...-"
Katara tried to gently ease Azula closer to Zuko, and linked their hands together with an eager, childish smile. Azula and Zuko flinched at first, but...their hands folded together. Katara took a step back as the two siblings lost themselves in a hug that neither had planned or anticipated, their wary souls tired of their arguing.
"We've been horrid to one another," Azula confessed, her lips twisting as her inner-turmoil barely bubbled to the surface. She could not remember the last time she and Zuko had...touched. Shown physical affection of any sort.
Zuko sighed shakily, wishing that he had merely opened himself to his estranged sibling sooner.
"We've made so many mistakes," he muttered over Azula's shoulder.
"Yes," Iroh agreed, his eyes watering at the sight before him. "You have." He nodded sagely, brushing his eyes, and stretched his hand out across the group. "You all have."
The Kurosawa siblings let their hug dissipate, each red-faced with embarrassment as they turned to listened to their uncle. The group fell quiet at Iroh's solemn words, and he elaborated.
"You've struggled..." He glanced to Katara. "You've suffered." He nodded to Aang. "But you have always followed your own paths." He smiled at Toph's bobbed head. "And you two...-" He looked up to Zuko and Azula. "Where Ozai and I failed to reconcile our differences, you two have reconciled yours. And only you two can restore the Kurosawa family's honor, because you have made the choice to live out what you will ask the people of Wayward to do: to accept, to forgive, to rebuild...to seek harmony, and balance. It is too late for Ozai and me - but it is not too late for you two. It is not too late for the Kurosawas and the Satos. And it is not too late for the people of Wayward."
"We'll try, Uncle," Zuko assured, exchanging a warming expression with his makeshift father.
"Miss Kesuk," Azula mumbled, clearing her throat and staring at her high-heels.
"...Yes?" Katara replied, confused.
"I...apologize for hasty remarks," Azula said, dabbed her thumb across the corners of her eyes, her makeup smudging a bit. She stared to Katara with earnest. "Just as I have hoped to continue my father's work, so, too, are you trying to continue your mother's. Your words may not be to my personal liking, but...these are words meant to encourage people. And I do not work well with people - but it seems as if you do. Perhaps yours are the words that must be spoken. And I am in a position to speak them."
"What she's meaning to ask," Zuko intruded with an amused look at Azula, "is if you would be willing to help my sister win the town's trust."
Katara nodded to both of the Kurosawas.
"It would be my pleasure," she replied eagerly.
"What about us?" Aang asked Iroh. "What can we do in all of this?"
"What do you think?" Iroh posed wryly.
"I'm a musician," Toph stated. "And I'm gonna do what I've been doing - using that music to get people's attention so they'll listen to what you guys have to say. Cutting their faces off with awesome so...that...they can wear...new faces...of peace?"
"That's a gross metaphor," Katara chuckled, walking over to Toph and patting her on the head. "And what about you, Aang?" she coyly wondered, scratching her nails through his air. He shrugged sheepishly and slipped out a nervous laugh.
"Uh...-" Aang grimaced with self-doubt. He began tugging at the collar of his buttoned shirt, undoing his tie as he felt constricted by its discomfort. "I'm not-...I mean, I haven't...figured out...-"
"Ih-it's all right," Katara warily eased, trying to retract that she'd just put him on the spot.
"No, no, it's fine," Aang sputtered out quickly, his words tumbling in speedy, jumpy syllables. "I want - need to - I've gotta do something - I'll - there's gotta be...-!"
Aang was whapped on the arm by Toph's palm.
"Just breathe, Twinkle-Toes," Toph suggested with some amusement. "I'm sure an idea'll hit ya."
Aang's face snapped with realization.
Just breathe. I'm sure an idea'll hit ya.
His brain had instantly jumped to thoughts of meditating with Korra, of boxing, of hitting her with his fists, of breathing out their stresses.
"...Yea," Aang slowly agreed, his eyes glazing over with consideration.
Katara sat down on Aang's left and took his hand beneath the table. She stroked her thumb over his wrist as the Kurosawas rounded back to sit with their Uncle.
"Iroh," Zuko spoke back up. "If Azula and I are going to start this new company with Asami, and you're going to retire from the school...what are you going to do?"
Iroh took a deep, steady breath as his eyes spaced out to something no one but him could see.
"I think I will focus my efforts on the Jasmine Dragon," he concluded. "If FutureComm is going to be attracting more people to our town, they will need the right drinks to get their work done!" He grinned, bending over the table and tapping his finger at his empty plastic tea cup. "And if I have competition now, I'd best redouble my efforts to show this town what true tea tastes like."
The group had a short laugh at Iroh's hushed enthusiasm, and as Iroh rose up from his seat, the rest followed suit.
"In older days," Iroh recanted, "I used to dream of two embittered Kurosawa siblings setting aside their differences toward a means of peace and prosperity. Destiny is a funny thing - my dream is coming to pass, but not at all how I thought it would. And yet, I think things will be all the better for it."
"Things we lose have a way of coming back to us," Katara quoted Luna Lovegood. She opened the shop's glass door for the rest to follow. "If not always in the way we expect."
"I suppose we can adjust to getting used to the unexpected," Azula remarked, glancing to Zuko. Her bodyguard that had been standing by the shop's entrance silently and obediently led them down the sidewalk, not uttering a word, and evidently not wishing to be recognized.
"I do not think that random chance has brought us all together," Iroh mused as they started off down the sidewalk. "Destiny has been at our side - I know it has. But it is a destiny that we are choosing for ourselves, and building together."
"That's moving the extra mile," Aang decided. "That extra mile that puts 'harmony' further than 'peace.'" Aang smiled to Katara, who was walking between him and Toph, holding hands with both of them. Aang went on, staring into Katara's eyes all the while. "And like you were saying, Iroh...even if we don't quite find the light we're looking for, as long as we're moving forward, we're still going to find a better place."
"If this 'better place' has better tea," Toph confirmed, "I will be all for it."
"You know, Miss Beifong," said Iroh, "as much as I agree with you, I must also point out: it is the truest of delights when tea is shared with good people. Especially during these dark times, the hearts we share drinks with help bring out just a little bit of light in every cup - those are the lanterns illuminating our paths, helping us see our way to that better place."
"Uhhh, that's pretty great and all," Toph said, her face assuming an amused smirk. "But I think a bit of your light-dark metaphor is gonna be lost on me."
Katara let slide a "Psh" at her roommate's remark, swinging Toph's hand to and fro as they walked.
"Waha," Iroh belted out at Toph's words. "We all find our paths in different ways, don't we?"
"Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open."
- J.K. Rowling