A/N: Just to help clear up any confusion, anything written in brackets [like this] is something digital, like a phone or screen, and if it's in quotes ["like this"] then it's supposed to be audio coming from something digital. I just kind of like the visual effect and feel like it's a quick way to illustrate what is artificial or recorded/typed, or helping portray which perspective a phone conversation is happening from.
What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 2 - Seeds of Doubt</p>
-August 27, 2010-
"So...Tell me again: what's the point?" Sokka stared dully at the TV screen across the room, watching a pudgy boy with a horned hat scamper through oddly patterned grass.
"The point?" Aang asked, eyes glued to the screen.
"Of that game," Sokka clarified. "All I see you do is run around and talk to animals. And run around some more."
"I'm helping them out," Aang explained.
"By...trading furniture?" Dry skepticism.
"Yea. So I can get stuff to put in my house. And make it look cool."
"So...it's a furniture simulator. With talking animals."
"I-...Sure. I guess," Aang muttered, unfazed. Gibberish sounds flowed from the TV as he spoke to a squirrel in a t-shirt.
["What's up, aang? I've been thinking...I need a new catch phrase. Got any ideas?"]
[_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _]
Aang entered in his answer immediately as Sokka went back to his textbook. The gibber-talk happened again, but he ignored it this time, focusing on his studying. Sokka tried his to best to get as much work done before the weekend as possible so he could properly enjoy Saturday and Sunday to their fullest.
["Wow, that's a great catch phrase, aang! Here, lemme try it out: Hi, aang, how are you doin' today, YIP YIP!Haha. Awesome. Thanks!"]
"What time is it?" Aang asked, finally prying his eyes from the screen. "It's gotta be getting close to dinner time."
"It's past dinner time," Sokka replied, checking his watch: 6:43pm.
"Wha?" Aang wailed. "We missed dinner?"
"We didn't miss dinner, Dude," Sokka explained. "Katara's busy on Fridays until 6:30, remember? So we decided we'd eat out Friday nights. Do you not remember this conversation?"
"Ohhhh, yea." Aang's brows furrowed as realization struck. "So where are we eating?"
"Well, Katara decided that it's her turn to pick first." Sokka shrugged his shoulders, thick history book sill in tow. "So...I dunno. I'm sure we'll get a call when the girls are ready."
Speaking of calls, I should probably check my phone, huh?
Sokka rolled his wheeled leather chair over to his desk and pulled open the top drawer. His trusty phone was nestled between his schedule book and his fancy wallet - a gift from his dad. Some single US dollar bills and a couple of Canadian Loonies were spread across the drawer along with some fountain pens and a notepad. He flicked open his phone to observe his messages from the afternoon.
[I'm in the mood for Chinese tonight. :) We'll give you guys a call when we're ready to go.]
[Sent: August 27th, 3:12pm]
[Sent: August 27th, 6:45pm]
[how is everything going? first weeks usually easy right? i already miss you. good luck with senior year son.]
[Sent: August 27th, 5:52pm]
[Everything's pretty good so far. Definitely easy but I'm enjoying that while I can. I miss you, too. Love you, Dad. Have a good weekend. Stay safe.]
[Sent: August 27th, 6:47pm]
Sokka sighed, setting his phone next to his laptop on the desk. He scratched at the stubble forming on his chin as he contemplated the gravity of his current situation: being a Senior. A year from now he'd be done with school, ideally, and would be working a full-time job, living on his own. Where would he be working? What would he be doing? A History major with a Philosophy minor wasn't exactly a practical combination for work. His father's ever-pressing suggestion to return home and join the force lingered in the back of his mind.
Hakoda Kesuk was the Chief of Police in Akiak, Ontario, a small rural town where Sokka and Katara had been raised since birth. Since Sokka's last year of high school, his dad had been on a crusade to convince him to go through police training and join the ranks of Ontario officers. Sokka admitted that it was an appealing idea but could never truly see himself pulling it off in a satisfactory manner - and when Sokka was being serious, he either did things right or he didn't do them at all, and a career was something to be serious about.
Their door rattled, and Sokka leapt to his feet, still in his socks, and opened the door. A red-haired face that seemed familiar stared him down with a stoic expression, eyes dull and uninterested. Matted, bright orange hair and a mess of freckles complimented their face. A stickly frame was shrouded in baggy, camouflage cargo pants and a loose hanging black t-shirt.
"Hey." Not so much a greeting as a grunt, at best.
"Oh, uh...Hey," Sokka stumbled, eyes narrowed as he tried to piece together the person's identity.
"Hi," Aang chirped with a brief wave before going right back to his game.
"You Sokka?" Their voice was unsettling to Sokka, raspy and rough.
"Yea, that's me. Don't I know you?" Sokka theorized, propping his index finger out with casual curiosity.
"Biology last spring." A quick and blunt answer.
"Oh, right," Sokka extended his palm in concession. "James."
"Jane," corrected the androgynous figure through grit teeth.
"Ah," spilled out a shaky acknowledgment. "Right! Jane."
Aangwas occupied with his video game once again, but Sokka invited the intimidating girl into their room - in some respects it felt more like a jungle hut. A map of the world was slapped on the wall above Sokka's bed near the entrance, while various posters of paintings littered the space by Aang's bed across the way. Some exotic artifacts were placed around the room and tribal-theme bedsheets with tiki masks printed on them were splattered across both beds.
"Nice," the gruff girl mumbled with a nod, her dim eyes glancing about.
"Thanks. So, uh...What's up?"
What's with this girl? She's an odd one.
"Your sister sent me here," Jane informed dryly, kicking a stray pair of jeans across the carpeted floor with her army boot. "Said I could borrow her English textbook. Said you had it?"
"Oh! Right." Sokka pounced at his bookshelf, which rested between his computer desk and his bed. It was a tall, dark wooden temple of knowledge, compiling various school texts, literature, and magazines, not to mention Sokka's media collection on the bottom. Within second he retrieved a text that his Sister has lent him the previous spring and passed it to the red-head. "This one, right?"
The dreary eyes passed across the cover and she shrugged subtly.
"Looks like it."
"So you know my sister?" Sokka inquired.
"Yea, we're neighbors in Aqua. I live across the hall."
"Cool." Sokka nodded repeatedly, hands on his hips. The House of Aqua didn't seem like the best fit for this girl. She struck him as more of a Terra girl.
"Anyway, thanks, man," Jane concluded their necessary social discourse, obviously eager to take off.
"Yep, sure thing," Sokka said politely, reaching his arm to the door as she saw her way out.
He sighed deeply, falling back into his chair.
"That dude was weird," Aang threw his opinion out, his game saving his progress.
"That was a girl," Sokka chuckled. Aang had obviously not been paying attention. "She lives in Aqua."
"Oh." Aang shrugged, switching off the TV. "My bad. Didn't catch that-"
An elegant piano tone cut Aang off, filtering into the air from his pocket, and he eagerly pulled it out, flicked it open, and sang into it, "Hey, Pumpkin."
"Pumpkin?" Toph spat out in disgust. "Pumpkin?"
["Yea,"] Aang replied. ["What's wrong? Don't like it? I like it."]
Toph groaned in defeat, but a grin was plastered on her face as she propped her head into her pillow, laying on her side while the sound of shuffling clothes could be heard from straight ahead.
"All right, Twinkle-Toes," she taunted. "We'll play that game."
["So what's up?"]
"Katara's getting changed and then we're going to come pick you guys up. Should be there in, like, ten minutes. All right?"
"Love you, Twinkle-Toes," she said quietly, as if the words were just slightly embarrassing to utter in the presence of her roommate.
["Love you, too, Pumpkin."] His reply was casual and peppy.
Toph closed her cell phone and sighed peacefully, nuzzling her cheek into her pillow as she could hear Katara pulling together a zipper and clasping a button.
"Pumpkin?" Katara wondered from the other end of the room, on the verge of a snicker.
"That's his new nickname for me," Toph explained in disbelief. "He seems to think that if he can find a name I hate enough it'll get me to stop calling him Twinkle-Toes."
"Ha!" Katara was just as amused as she was. "That'll be the day."
"I know, right?"
Tophwallowed in recent memories of whispers she had shared with Aang, jokes made, kisses stolen, until Beethoven's 5th Symphony roared at her from her cell phone, still sitting beside her on the bed.
"Urgh," she puffed out irritably. "That's the third time today!"
"What do they want?" Kataragrowled, sympathizing with her roommate's annoyance.
"I don't know." Toph rolled onto her back, letting the phone continue to ring until the sound stopped.
"How were classes today?" Katara asked in an attempt to change the subject.
"Boring. My new guitar teacher is fucking pissing me off," Toph hissed. "He keeps acting like I don't know what the hell I'm doing, so he has me do these bullshit exercises that aren't teaching me a damned thing." Toph had been sure to squeeze in about as much profanity as she could, as memories of an utterly boring hour and a half flooded her mind like tar.
"Maybe you should explain that you're better than he thinks you are?" Katara suggested.
"Yea," Toph conceded with a sigh. "I just get so fucking sick of this crap - just because I'm blind."
I'm probably making a bigger deal out of it than I should - I'm just cranky. But seriously, I've been here an entire year, I shouldn't have to keep proving myself.
"I know," Katara cooed, sitting in Toph's desk chair beside her. "I'm sorry, Hun, I know that gets under your skin."
Toph's phone jangled out a quick ditty to signify that she had received a voicemail.
"There ya go," Toph grunted, crossing her arms. "Parents left a message this time. Guess it must be important. Or maybe they just really need to tell me what I'm supposed to be doing with my life - again - and it just couldn't wait."
"Hey," Katara prodded, placing a consoling hand on Toph'sshoulder. "Let's forget about them and go hang out with the boys. Aren't you hungry?"
"Starving," Toph admitted, rubbing her slightly queasy stomach.
"C'mon," Katara tugged at her hand, easing her out of bed. She jokingly went limp, letting Katarapull her out of bed forcefully witha giggle. Her bare feet touched down on the carpet and she spring back to life with a smirk, stuffing her cell phone in her pocket and slipping on her sandals from the same spot she always left them: just under the mattress by the foot of her bed.
"You got my money?" Toph checked, straightening out her disheveled shirt.
"Sure do," Katara replied. Toph could hear jingling of keys and shifting of objects in her friend's shoulder purse as she grabbed her new hoodiefrom the post at the corner of her bed. She slipped it over her, refreshed and comforted by the delightful smell and touch of its new, clean cloth.
"Then, let's bounce," Tophcommanded, extending her arm out with a grin. Katara's familiar hand latched on and the two made their exit into the halls of the House of Aqua. As they pranced down the hall, Toph'sears were filled with the sounds of a Friday night: various discussions, music, movies...In Aqua, doors being left open was common - Aqua was not a resident hall so much as a community of women contained within a building.
Tophwouldn't deny that sometimes she missed her freshman dorm, Terra, and how it allowed her to always have the space and peace she wanted (she had opted for a single student room, a rarity on campus), but after a single week of living in Aqua, with Katara as her roommate, she had already decided that there was no going back.
The humid air of a warm August evening stuck to Toph's face as they exited Aqua and traveled through the parking lot of their dorm. After hopping in the car and strapping herself into a safety belt, Toph's curiosity got the better of her and she retrieved her phone as Katara started up the car, surveying the message as they drove around campus to the House of Aero.
["YOU HAVE...ONE...NEW MESSAGE. FIRST NEW MESSAGE."]
["Good evening, Toph."]
It was her mother. Sigh was the appropriate response. She spoke at a mile a minute.
["It seems as if you've been preoccupied today - class and practice, no doubt. Your father and I were just wondering how everything was going. We haven't heard from you since you arrived. You're practicing your music every night, yes? Staying on top of all of your classes? We expect another 4.0 from you this year - Beifongsare known for their perfect marks, after all. Is that questionable young woman you're rooming with causing you any trouble? The staff had better be accommodating your needs, Toph - you have rights, you know. Don't let them push you too hard, it's not healthy. We've already made the proper arrangements to transfer you to Harvard if things don't improve. And you'd better not be there this year because of that little urchin boy. He has no future, my dear, I hope you reali-"]
["MESSAGE DELETED. YOU HAVE NO MORE MESSAGES."]
"Christ," Toph snarled, slamming the phone in her lap.
Damnit, Mom, what is your problem? I'm almost 21. Give me some space.
"Yea, I could hear," Katara bitterly concurred. "Questionable? How am I questionable? And she called Aang an urchin with no future. That's just...That's just-"
"It's fucking rude," Toph seethed, thumping her head against the window to her right and leaning against it in frustration. "God, I can't-...Ugh. Let's just...forget about this," she decreed. "It's Friday night."
A cheerful "That it is," from the driver's seat, and they had arrived. Toph could make out sounds of boys yelling from the dorm's front yard. It sounded like they were playing some kind of sport. The girls traversed the parking lot and up the entrance sidewalk together, hand in hand.
"Hey, Aang's girlfriend!" one boy shouted as they passed by. A flurry of repetition of the phrase erupted from their group before Toph, cheeks just a hint of pink, replied with a bemused "Hi, boys," and the grunting and mashing of male bodies started back up. They passed through the portal from outside to inside, where an uproarious applause was already in progress from the sporting event being played in the large lounge area.
"Hey, ladies. The House of Aero welcomes you this evening," a formal gent of a boy called out, his presence passing them by as he scurried downstairs. Katara almost burst out in a laugh, but held it back.
"What was that about?" Toph wondered.
"That guy was wearing nothing but a towel," Katara sighed. "Yup, we're sure in Aero, all right."
Katara led Toph up to the familiar stairwell she knew so well by now and they proceeded to the second floor of Aero, known across campus for its tribal pack of men like wolves - dorky, gentlemanly wolves.
"It's us," Katara's muffled voice called through the door to room 207.
"Hey," Sokka cried, popping out of his seat and flinging open the door. "How are you guys doin'?"
"Hungry," Toph's blunt reply cut in. "Let's go eat."
"Sounds good to me!" Aang cheered, rubbing his palms together.
Katara's hip was tingled by the vibration of her phone, but she ignored it for the time being, enjoying her dinner with her makeshift family on campus.
"You guys do not understand how to properly eat at a Chinese Buffet," Sokka deduced with a "Tch, tch" and a waggling finger, sucking in a deep breath before delicately munching on a small pile of garlic string beans.
"Oh, really?" Katara humored him, sucking some Orange Soda through a straw. "And how's that?"
"Do tell," Toph goaded, sipping on some tea from a tiny ceramic cup without a handle.
"You have to pace yourself, people!" Sokka decreed dubiously, his accusing hands pointing at their plates, each crowded with all manner of dishes like a garbage heap. "You have to start off with light stuff and work your way up, and take just a lee-tle bit of each thing," he pinched his fingers. "That way you have room to savor everything."
"And then you get a whole plate of sushi!" Aang jubilantly concluded.
"And then you get another whole plate of sushi," Sokka devilishly muttered, licking his chops with exaggerated glee.
"You guys get pretty serious about this whole 'eating' thing," Toph picked.
"Toph, my Dear," Sokka dramatically protested to her from across the table, "Your art is music. My art is food."
"And being an idiot," Katara added from his side through a mouth-full of General Tsao's chicken.
"And a dashingly intelligent idiot, at that." Sokka beamed in jest.
"Hey, Toph, can I have some of your tea?" Aang asked, having just swallowed a clump of noodles.
"Why?" Toph demanded with a suspicious expression, her face bent down over her food as she inhaled a dumpling.
"'Cuz," Aang replied simply. "I want some tea. Please," he sweetly stuffed the word in with a plastic tone.
"Fine," Toph conceded with an overstated groan. "I guess!"
"Yes!" Aang clapped his hands together, belted out a satisfied chuckle, and poured tea from the tiny metal pot between him and Toph into her itty-bitty teacup. He hoisted it to his face and slurped it with the eloquence of a hippopotamus. "I just wanted to get to use the little cup," he breathed out with mischief in his eyes.
"Yes, Twinkle-Toes, I guessed," Toph blurted expectantly, a smile on her face, eyes squinted just a tad.
"Katara, how come Jet isn't here with us tonight, huh?" Sokka suddenly asked with the casual courtesy of a needle in her am. Katara had told the group earlier that week that Jet would be joining them for dinner during this meal - it would've the first time she would've been able to see him in months. But as luck would have it, he had called her on Thursday night to explain that things had come up that he had to take care of before the weekend and he wouldn't be able to see her until Saturday. Katara had a hunch that 'luck' wasn't exactly the source of the problem, and the seed Sokka had planted nearly a week before had grown into a sprout.
"He, um...he couldn't make it," Katara mumbled, her brows tilting down with irritation.
"Ohhh, ya don't say?" Sokka teased, nudging her on the arm with his elbow. "Ya know, it's funny, I was looking forward to hanging out with him. Always seems like something comes up whenever we hang out as a group, wouldn't you say?"
Katara's lips tightened and her teeth ground together as her temper ignited like a match.
"Yea, ya know, that is a good point," Aang agreed, oblivious to the condemning undertone of Sokka's .
"Mm," Toph hummed with as neutral an expression as Katara ever saw on her face. She knew that Toph, too, had her doubts about Jet, but had been more silent about them given her gained insight into the situation by proxy of being Katara's roommate.
"I bet there's plenty of other guys that wouldn't stand you up like that," Sokka prodded with nonchalance, chewing into a slab of imitation crab.
Katara was propelled back to that moment at Appa's when she had been flustered over her contact with Haru. It made her angry. She felt...soiled, somehow. She had a boyfriend, she shouldn't be feeling loose-minded, much less flattered by this other kid's attention, with his greasy hair and goofy grin.
And he's a jock. I can't stand jocks! What is my problem? Maybe Sokka's right. Maybe Jet really isn't the best fit for me. He never wants to hang out with my friends. I can't deny it. I always have to hang out with his, every single time...
Seconds of awkward silence ticked away as Katara rumenated within her self exasperation.
"So, are we going on that camping trip this weekend, or what?" Toph asked, bailing Katara out of the topic of conversation.
"Yea, yea, yea," Aang rapidly insisted. "Totally. Sunday: we should go hike up the Red Dragon Trail, go swimming at that pond up the way, set up a campfire at the lean-tos, and then loop back around the Blue Dragon Trail."
Aang was obviously excited about this day-long excursion, and his excitement made Katara smile. Just under a year ago the boy was a nervous, shy mess with no confidence - how quickly that had changed. But he always had a tinge of naivete to him hidden underneath. It was endearing. Aang Leekpai was a goofy little sweetheart, and Katara could easily see what Toph admired in him. Why was it so easy to see the good in a dork like Aang, but so difficult to justify the very relationship she was in herself?
Suddenly, Katara found herself lost in whatever tangent her peers had plunged themselves into.
"Drag-ONZ!" Sokka squealed.
"Uh...Toph?" Aang poked Toph's nose and she snorted, shoving him away. "That's a pirate."
"I know," Toph matter-of-factly defended. "Pirates beat Dragons. Duh."
"Whaaht?" burst Sokka's misgiving.
"Are you crazy?" Aang grumbled. "Pirates don't beat Dragons."
"Pirates beat Sea Dragons all the time," Toph endowed them with confident knowledge. "And so what if it's a flying Dragon? Canons, dude. Canons."
"Meh," Sokka pouted. "Agree to disagree. It's not worth it - I'm still hungry."
"Mmkay," forced out Aang through his last gob of rice. "Mm weady foh fooshi."
"You said it, Bro." Sokka patted at his stomach with a hearty squint in his eyes.
"Hey, Twinkle-Toes, get me some of the stuff with the crab and the cream cheese in the middle," Toph 'requested.'
"Sure thing, Pumpkin," was Aang's jiving retort. Toph simply shook her head, unimpressed at his effort.
Katara's face brightened at the presence of her friends. In their bizarre actions they always managed to drag her from a stupor and appreciate her current situation, and the dynamics of their foursome had been sorely missed over the summer. She pulled out her phone and checked her messages as Toph quietly munched on some seafood salad.
[hey babe. sorry bout tonite i promise ill make it up to ya 2morrow. 3pm?]
[Sent: August 27th, 7:34pm]
Katara sighed, resting her chin in her palm, staring at the text wistfully. Her head ached all of a sudden.
Katara glanced up at Toph's blank gaze, her face inquisitively propped up toward her. Toph swallowed another chunk of seafood, but remained in a curious pose.
"I'm just..." Katara set her open phone on the table and rubbed at her temples. "Having a headache. I'm just wondering about this whole...Jet...thing."
"You'll figure things out, Katara." Toph exuded candid, aloof confidence.
"Yea." Katara wasn't exactly brimming with aplomb, herself.
[Yea. That sounds fine. I'll meet you at the entrance at 3.]
[Sent: August 27th, 7:41pm]