A/N: I know people have a lot of questions. Answers will come. I want this story to be a slow burn, with mysteries that get revealed over time - that's how my college experience was, after all. I want to express things that happened last school year via flashbacks as we go, out of order, piece by piece. I want to introduce more characters when I need to introduce them according to the plot I want to play out. I hope you stick with me, and I promise I'll work hard at keeping things interesting.
What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 4 - Special
-August 28th, 2010-
"C'mon, Toph. Get up. Get up." Katara nudged her hand into Toph's arm a couple of times.
"Nooooo," Toph whined through her pillow, slurping loose drool back into her mouth.
"I know it's early, Hun, but we agreed it'd be better to get up early then come back late."
"Because. Now up. If you don't get around soon you're going to delay everyone."
Katara pulled on Toph's right arm, stretching it out off the bed. When she let go, the arm went limp, flopping over the side.
"Unless you want to ruin Aang's plans that he's been waiting all week for...?"
Damnit all to hell...She's right.
Toph reeled in her arm and forced her body to roll over onto its back. She let loose a lion's yawn and scratched at her chest haphazardly. The itch relieved, she twisted her hips, dropping her bare feet to the floor. She mashed her palms into her eyes to remove uncomfortable sand. She made her way to the dresser that rested beyond the foot of her bed and felt around for the second draw from the top. Katara didn't offer any assistance, much to Toph's relief. It had taken all week, but finally, she had managed to convince her roommate that she did not need help changing her own clothes. Pajama pants were traded for cargo shorts and her fuzzy shirt was swapped for a tanktop. As she felt her feet around the foot of her bed for her sandals, Katara burst out laughing.
"What?" Toph snapped.
"Ya sure you're gonna just...go out like that today?" Katara asked through the eye of a gigglestorm - Toph could tell that her roommate was barely keeping another fit of snickers at bay.
"Uhhh, yea," Toph slowly replied, eyebrows furrowing. "Why?"
"Ya might want to consider putting a bra on under your shirt, Dear," Katara breathed out with an "Ohhhhh, boy..."
So much for dressing on my own. Grahh.
Her face on fire with embarrassment, Toph shuffled back over to her dresser and pried open the top drawer, grabbed the appropriate garment, and rearranged her outfit to incorporate it. This had nothing to do with her being blind, she was just being careless and her senses were dulled by fact of being half-awake. She could hear Katara stuffing things together into a bag as she finished replacing her tanktop.
"So, uh...What time is it, anyway?" Toph wondered, sticking her feet into her sandals.
"It's about 7:30."
"God damn," Toph grunted. "Why so early? It's a Sunday."
"You really don't like waking up early, do you?"
"Hell no." Toph yawned out again, setting herself down in her desk chair and brushing her bangs around with her fingers. Her hair was a mess of tangles - she could feel it - and she knew that while she could work it out on her own, they were pressed for time. "Would you mind, um...-?"
"Of course." Katara was over in a flash, as if she had seen this coming, and set to work brushing through Toph's hair. Having her hair brushed and fixed was a regular occurrence given her condition, but...not like this. The way her hair was cared for back home was so proper, so lifeless. The way Katara handled her hair instantly felt embracing. It reminded her of when Aang had first fiddled with it back in the spring, not far into their 'official' phase of dating.
"Seriously, your hair's super pretty," he had insisted, running his hands through it. It had been shorter back then, hardly touching her shoulders.
"That so, huh?"
"Really. I love it. It's all soft and smooth, and...stuff."
"Well, uh...yea. Hair's like that."
"No!" He let her hair loose and gently took her hand and guided it to his head. Rough, scratchy, bristly...He was right, it was rough. She admired it carefully, her fingertips and palm soaking in the sensation. She pressed down and rubbed, tickled by the way the hair felt as it was wedged in the spaces between her fingers. How had she never taken the time to appreciate it so thoroughly before this moment?
"So what?" she said. "I like it."
"Hee," came a bashfully pleased sound.
She had been so tempted in that moment to plant a kiss into his lips, but she knew that he wasn't ready for it. He had never kissed a girl before and had expressed to Toph before they had decided to give the 'dating' thing a try that he wanted to take it slow. So she instead directed her lips to his cheek, hand still in his hair. His arms were suddenly around her waist and she smiled, resting her head on his shoulder as they sat, side by the side, in the spring grass.
"Not as much as I like you," Aang layered on the cheese.
"Wow, Aang." Toph sighed as a huge smile overcame her. "So romantic," she sarcastically snickered, shoving his chest with her fingertips.
"Only the best for you," was the embellished followup she received as he nuzzled the side of his head against her neck.
"Good to know - only what I deserve," she declared jokingly. They both chuckled and squeezed each other tight.
"I'll always give you what you deserve, Toph," Aang assured, his tone suddenly solemn. "The best."
His words penetrated her humor and struck her core. Toph's parents had been tossing words like that around her whole life, and yet...when Aang said it, he said it in a way no other person had prior. There was a quality to his tone that spilled his spirit out all over, encasing her in security, in warmth. Her parents had never meant what Aang meant when they had assured her the 'best,' when they had promised her 'everything she deserved.'
"I...-" She was at a loss for words as she processed the overwhelming feeling. This boy who had known her for merely a few months, offering her his will and dedication in such earnest. "I'm grateful for that," she whispered. "I'll...I'm always going to give you the same, Aang."
She certainly wasn't going to let him down on this day and cause his plans to fall apart - something so minor in the grand scheme of things, it shouldn't even be considered a problem to simply wake up and be somewhere on time.
"There. Looks fine." Katara tugged on the ponytail, patted Toph's shoulders tenderly, and stepped back to let her rise. "Now come on, let's go get some breakfast."
"Whoa. Breakfast," said Toph, rubbing her stomach. "What is this...breakfast of which you speak?"
"They're girls, Aang. They will always be late." Sokka sniffed at his bacon strips with glee, rubbing his palms together.
"But your sister is usually early," Aang pointed out.
"But my sister isn't usually having to help your lazy girlfriend get out of bed," Sokka countered, jabbing a strip at him before snapping into it.
Aang wanted to shout, 'She's not lazy,' but had to acknowledge that when it came to waking up, Toph's blindness had nothing to do with it - she just plain sucked at getting up in the morning. Aang shrugged it off and went back to his cereal. The cafeteria was extremely slow - definitely slower than the average morning. No surprise, though: it was a weekend.
"Ah, there they are," Sokka observed after swallowing the second half of his first piece of meat. Aang rotated his head to see the two familiar girls climbing up the steps of the cafeteria. He immediately jumped up from his seat and joined them after they had scanned in for their meal. Toph was being led by Katara, so Aang latched his hand around her free arm. She twitched at first in a start, but quickly relaxed, letting go of Katara and leaning into Aang mid-walk for a light semi-hug.
"Hey, Twinks," she greeted, the corner of her lip propping up.
Toph imitated a puking sound and Katara went "Pffff!"
"Epic Fail," Toph chortled. "Keep trying." They reached the main bar for hot food - only one was ever open for breakfast.
"So, uh..." Aang surveyed the array as Katara grabbed a plate and filled it with a smattering of pancakes. "We got pancakes, um, eggs...and-"
"What kind?" Toph immediately interjected.
"'Kay. Go on."
"So, like...sausages, and some hashbrowns."
"Mmmm..." Toph tapped her foot, arms crossed thoughtfully. "All of it," she decided, pumping her fists down with anticipation. "Extra hash browns. And maybe some more extra hash browns."
Aang laughed, shaking his head, and took a plate from the stack, slapping on a portion of each food with careful attention. Toph couldn't stand her foods getting mixed together - naturally, she would inadvertently cause this issue on her own, but that was somehow OK.
"OK. Was that it?" Aang politely checked as they exited the line.
"Oughtta be plenty. What, do you think I'm a pig, or something?" Toph sneakily accused.
"No," Aang assured, throwing her own brand of sarcasm back at her. "Not at all."
"Hey," she sharply snapped with a grin, eyes wound down into slits. He giggled and forced his arm around hers so as to lead her back to their table.
"This is gonna be a long day, isn't it?" Toph theorized as Aang picked up a fork for her just outside the forest of tables.
"Probably," he admitted. "But...in the good way. I think."
Katara had already found their table, and by the look of things, Sokka had already said something that had put her in a foul mood - probably about her boyfriend. For some reason that seemed to be causing a lot of friction between them ever since school had started.
Aang set Toph's plate down between Katara's seat and his own, then pulled out her chair and eased her to it.
"What did you want to drink?" he wondered as she sat.
"Coffee. One cream, two sugars." Aang obediently scurried off, returning to her a minute or two later with her drink in a mug. He set it down, sat beside her, and took her hand, placing it on the cup's handle to show her where it was. "Thanks, Twinkle-Toes," she said softly, giving him a kiss on the cheek. This was their meal-time ritual. Toph had once been frustrated with always having to have someone prepare her food for her, but ever since Aang had started doing it, she had gradually become not only all right with it but actually specifically happy to be cared after. Aang wasn't entirely sure why this was, but he wasn't going to complain that he got a kiss and a rare 'thank-you' from Toph whenever he did so.
"Eat up, gang," Sokka instructed, pounding his fist into the table. "For on this day, we shall walk." He paused to stuff some eggs and ketchup into his face. He pointed his fork into the air like a sword and gulped his food down. "Into Mordor," he added with ice cold resolve.
"One does not simply walk into Mordor," Aang bellowed deeply.
"There is evil there that does not sleep!" Toph joined in with an even deeper, accented voice.
There was an awkward pause. Sokka and Aang stared at Katara suspiciously, who was distracted and fervently chewing, while Toph sat with a brow raised.
"Mm?" Katara blinked at them, utterly confused. She swallowed her bite of marmalade-covered bagel.
"There-is-evil-there-that-does-not-sleep," Toph rapidly repeated in a whisper.
"Oh. Oh!" Katara jumped up, her brain snapping to the current conversation. "It is folly!" she cried at last, her expression dire before melting into a smile as they all shared a chuckle at one of many recurring jokes they had grown to share.
"This was a good idea," Sokka decreed, merrily stamping his wooden hiking stick into the dirt path with each step he took, reviewing his map.
"I think so," Aang concurred, Toph's arm clung around his waist, his own over her shoulder.
"Meh, it's OK," Toph mumbled with intended apathy. Aang slithered his hand down and attacked her armpit, causing her to squeak and squirm. "Stoppit," she quickly growled, smacking his stomach with the arm he had tickled.
"The pond's straight up ahead, guys," Katara announced, trailing behind her brother but in front of the pair of sophomores. Aang peered down the trail and could see where it curved to the right - an opening in the woods was on the left, just before the curve.
"Good, my feet are getting tired," Toph grumbled.
"Your feet? What about my stomach?" Sokka whimpered. "It's been..." He checked his watch. "Like, three hours!" Indeed, they had been taking it easy with frequent rests, but had been hiking for the rest of the morning after breakfast. "Three. Hours. My body can't handle that kind of neglect! My rippling physique has probably already started withering away!"
"Has it withered away to the point where your sister can beat you to the pond?" Katara taunted with a smirk, catching up to his side.
"Doubtful." He seethed, accepting her challenge.
"Three-two-one-go!" Toph burst out, her words like lightning as she punched her arm through the air.
Sokka and Katara chortled in surprise, each stumbling forward, eventually hitting their strides as they dashed ahead to the pond, but Toph and Aang took their time - Toph wasn't a big fan of water and Aang didn't want to leave her by herself on the sidelines.
"Heh, that was easy," Toph congratulated herself. As they continued their walk, she rested the side of her head on Aang's shoulder, binding her free arm across his chest and scratching at it. Aang skritched his own fingers along her back to reciprocate, and as her palm stopped on his left chest, he became conscious of his increasing heart rate at their contact. Toph giggled quietly.
"Looks like I still strike fear in your heart, eh?" she baited him.
"Always," Aang agreed, ruffling his hand through her bangs.
"Good," she derived with mischief, squinting as his fingers fumbled over her forehead. "Can't let that change."
Aang leaned over and kissed her on the top of her head, sniffing in the aroma of her brushed but unclean hair. A small "Mm," hummed from Toph's nose as he did so.
"God," she panted. "I missed you, Twinkle-Toes." She ran her hand up and down his t-shirt in tiny motions. "Have I told you that?"
"I think this is the...third time since we got back?" he sheepishly replied.
"Oh. Well, damn. Don't want to let this go to your head." She flashed a playful grin, which he admired, as she turned her face up to him, clearly for the intent of showing him the devilish twinkle in her pale, ivory eyes. "Otherwise you might end up thinking you're special or something."
"Can't have that, can we?" he played along.
"Hell no," she grunted with a squeeze as the sounds of splashing siblings screeching at each other poured over them from up ahead.
This entire idea had started back in the early winter of their freshman year, days after they had been formally acquainted, weeks before the end of the semester. Toph had been barricaded in a compact practice room in the music building. A quick peek through the small window to the sound-proof door revealed the mysterious musical whiz, hard at work on a piano. Even from behind, Aang could tell that she just going through the motions - her hands flew across the keys not like a bird but like an airplane: mechanical, stiff, rigid.
He shyly cracked open the door and squeezed himself inside, her music unrelenting. The notes from the piano were fast and fierce, cold and unnerving...Aang sat on the carpeted floor. He waited, and he listened. It was beautiful, but frightening, akin to a lioness on the prowl. After a couple of minutes the blizzard of hammers on strings quieted.
"Who are you?" the black-haired girl flatly demanded, unmoving. "What do you want?"
Aang stared at the ratty mess of a bun of hair on the back of her head. She had been so pretty and dressed up and neat at the recital they'd watched...She was practically a different person.
"It's, um...It's Aang," he announced meekly. "Aang Leekpai."
"Oh," she said slowly, turning her body around on her bench.
"Why don't you take a break from your practicing?" Aang asked hopefully.
"And do what?" she growled, her head bobbed, expression sour.
"Come hang out with me and my buds."
"Why would I wanna do that?"
"'Cuz..." He scratched the base of his neck nervously. Damn, she was pretty intimidating for someone who never looked you in the eye. "Like I told you: I want to be your friend."
She huffed, crossing her arms around her waist and bouncing her bare foot on its toes rhythmically.
"What makes you so special?" Had that been a question? It sounded like more like a snarl. "Why do you wanna be friends with me, anyway?"
"I don't know," Aang honestly answered, his intestines squirming inside him. "I just do. That isn't good enough for you?"
Her brows furrowed and she rubbed the bags hanging under her eyes.
"You don't know?" Her incredulous tone lashed out like a vine of thorns. "Pff, you don't know, but you'll stalk me like a fucking creep."
What was I thinking? Maybe everyone was right: maybe she is just an angry-loner-psycho...
"I'm nothing special," he bitterly informed her, swiftly opening the door, breaking out of the room and breaking free from her cynicism.
A long distance they had come since that day. Somewhere along the way, that grouchy exchange had turned into an affectionate joke.
Toph groaned as she let herself sit down at last in the spot Aang had decreed as 'sittable.'
"God damn, my legs are so freakin' sore," she sighed, spreading her limbs out straight and leaning against the tree Aang had propped her against. He rested at her side and smiled as, on cue, she kicked off her sandals and wiggled her toes around.
"Mine, too," Aang sympathized, taking a deep breath. He watched Sokka and Katara's splashing war occur meters ahead. By now it had died down severely as the two of them had no-doubt quickly worn themselves out after all of that walking. He caught himself gawking at the tan-skinned girl in the dark blue one-piece as she waded out of the water and pulled his eyes away, re-adjusting his male nature toward the girl who was his, who he wanted to focus exclusively on in that manner. It wasn't hard to forget the Canadian beauty just ahead when he had a gorgeous Toph Beifong leaning against him.
"Lunch time!" Sokka shouted, patting himself down with a towel as his sister wrung her hair out. "Trail mix and crackers and cheese spread and ham sandwiches."
"What are you waiting for?" Toph demanded. "Break out the food, then!"
"There could be bears or pumas or something out there. Gotta be careful."
"Pumas, Sokka?" Katara criticized. "Yea, um, I'm not so sure we're likely to run into those out here."
"Yea? Well, that's probably what every single person who's ever been killed by a puma thought when they went out into the woods."
"Lead on, Fearless Leader," Toph mocked.
"Are we lost, Sokka?" Aang asked apologetically.
"Lost? Lost?" Sokka shook his head fervently. "Of course not."
She had asked that same thing on that winter's night during his sophomore year.
"Are we lost, Sokka?"
"Lost? Lost?" He choked on his own over-embellishment. "Uhh...Yea, actually, we're a little lost."
She giggled as he rubbed her knee while she drove through the dark, snowy streets.
"I hope my father doesn't get the wrong idea when we get home late," she said, humored by their predicament.
Ulrika Alfven was a Swedish born girl with bright blue eyes, a porcelain face, and flowing, elegant blond hair. Her well-endowed family had moved to America when she was very young and she grew up around American students, staff, and neighbors, so she was assuredly United-Statesian despite her exotic name. A child actress, Ulrika had found success in commercials and bit roles for TV shows and movies for years. At the age of 18 she landed a breakthrough role as the female protagonist in a teenage romance flick, and immediately thereafter made the decision that she wanted to attend college before continuing her career. Somehow, she had landed at Saint Roku University - specifically choosing a smaller, secluded college to avoid press contact as often as possible.
With such a foreign name, it was natural for people to assign a nickname. Her friends had taken to abbreviating Ulrika Alfven to "U. A." Upon becoming friends with her - and quickly getting entangled in a romantic relationship - Sokka had expressed that the name would look better if it was written out like "Yue." He'd insisted it could be her 'artist name.' "Ya know, like Cher. Or Ke$ha. Or Prince. Or something." On this evening in December of 2008, Yue had taken Sokka out for some fine-dining. Sokka admired Yue's insistence on being fair - he had taken her out to eat previously, so it was her turn now. He liked that a girl wasn't going to try and worm her way into romance but was going to put in just as much work as he was. It didn't hurt that she happened to be pretty rich, which meant that when she took him out for a meal, fancy meats were the order of the day. Also, she was very pretty. Pretty, independent, able to feed him lots of meat: Sokka couldn't really ask for much more than that during that point of his life.
"Your father's a pretty...laid back kinda guy...right?"
"Haha, usually. But I am his only daughter."
"You're makin' me nervous here, Yue," Sokka uttered, an intentional shakiness in his voice.
"Always, Darling," Yue said with a coy tone.
"Sometimes that's not so bad," Sokka told her, planting a kiss on her temple as they hit a red light. She turned her head and took the moment of pause to share a slow, affectionate embrace of lips.
"I'm starting to get the impression you might falling in love with me, Noble Sir Kesuk," said Yue with a facetious smile as the light turned green and she pressed down the pedal.
"That impression would be accurate, Princess," Sokka replied warmly.
It came from the left, like thunder striking a lone tree on a grassy hill. Sokka's world exploded in a flash of car lights, glass, and metal crushing against metal, red splattering against his face.
Water, trickling down from the heavens, brought him back. Rain. Light rain.
"If we're not lost-" Katara began, sorting through Sokka's pack - still attached to his back - to retrieve a pair of umbrellas taken for just such an occasion. "-then why are we not back on the path yet?"
"Ya know, Katara," Sokka hissed, spinning around. "If you wanna figure out how we get back on the path, by all means, go ahead!" He shoved the map in her direction as she un-velcroed the umbrellas.
"Geez, chill out, Sokka," Toph grumbled as Aang took one of the umbrellas and pitched it over her. The rain pattered gently on its taut surface and Sokka took a deep breath. "It's no big deal, we're not that far out."
"Yea," Aang agreed, clearly trying to placate the Kesuk siblings. "We went south off the path, right? Sooner or later, we should hit it again. And if not, then we'll reach the end of the woods, anyway. We're good."
He's right, we've been going dead south - I'm sure of it. We'll be fine, and we should actually cut down about twenty minutes taking this shortcut.
"Yea," Sokka agreed complacently. folding their map up and slipping it into his back pocket. Katara grabbed his hand and pulled him ahead of the duo behind them a bit, keeping the umbrella above them. "Sorry," Sokka apologized, his voice low.
"It's OK," Katara casually dismissed the conflict. "What's wrong?"
Sokka's eyes avoided her and he held in a sigh that was aching to come out.
"I know that face," Katara whispered seriously, the rain veiling their conversation as Aang and Toph mumbled out some humorous discussion behind them. "You're thinking about her."
"Maybe," Sokka admitted in a barely audible mutter, stuffing his hands into his pant pockets.
"You know what I'm going to tell you, Sokka," she solemnly warned.
"Yea. I do. So ya don't have to," he advised, his stomach churning.
"Sokka," his sister sighed, squeezing his shoulder as they marched through the twigs and dirt and grass, weaving between trees, raindrops dancing ballet around them. He could practically hear those tired words hanging from her lips, but she didn't say them this time, as he requested. Instead her voice echoed in his head: It wasn't your fault. There was nothing anyone could do. She's watching over you, just like Mom is.
None of these words made it any easier, but at least time had played its part in helping heal the wound. A scar was better than a bleeding gash. Sokka had already had one etched across his heart as a child, and now he had another one to criss-cross it.