What I Learned at SRU
Chapter 9 - Just Like That
- Saturday, September 4th, 2010 -
"She hasn't come back yet?"
"Sorry, Jane," Toph said apathetically, one earbud still tucked in as music trickled into her ear. "I dunno what's up."
"You don't think she's gonna chicken out, do you?"
"Nah," came Toph's confident reply. "She seemed pretty worked up about it."
"Guess you're right." Jane sighed and scratched her neck anxiously.
"Why? You worried about her or somethin'?" teased Toph with a grin, her arms folding behind her head on her pillow.
"Maybe," Jane laughed with a shrug that couldn't be seen. She sat herself down in Katara's desk chair, lazily propping her socked feet onto Katara's desk. "Getting mixed up with the Freedom Fighters was just a bad idea," she explained. "I just hope she can make a clean break."
"She'll be fine," Toph insisted. "Getting bent outta shape doesn't seem your style," she pointed out. "Take a chill pill."
"It's not my style," Jane grumbled, arms crossed as she tipped back and forth in the chair, pressing her toes against the edge of the desk. "I just know how Jet is. And Kat's too good for him."
"You seem to get along with your boyfriend pretty well."
"Heh." Toph smirked and brushed loose hair from her face. "Guess I got lucky."
"So, like..." Jane scratched her jaw lazily. "You think I'll get along with him?"
"Who, Aang?" Toph snickered. "Why?" she asked, immensely curious.
"Wh-? Just...Ya know," Jane mumbled hurriedly, setting the chair back on all four legs. "Just in case."
"In case you actually decide to come outta your shell and hang with us?" Toph picked. "Sure. Aang's...hard to not get along with. Ha. Probably the main reason why things turned out this way between us."
"What do you mean?"
Toph's snark dissolved into an appreciative smile.
"Sometimes people like you and me just need to find someone willing to put up with us until we realize what idiots we're being."
Jane's face eked out a similar smile as Johnny came to mind.
"Yep," she concurred, rubbing the bags under her eyes.
"Speaking from experience, Jay, our group's pretty awesome," Toph declared. "Don't get me wrong, being a total bitch has its perks," she smiled widely, "But it doesn't hurt to know when to dial it down. I know what's it like, where you're coming from. Trust me, we've got a good thing going here. If I can fit in, you can, too."
"Fit in? I never said I wanted to fit in," Jane put off the idea with her words while her mind still lingered around it.
"Hey, suit yourself," Toph advised, tapping her foot to a beat Jane couldn't hear. "But if you're gonna be friends with Katara and all that, and avoid us...Well, like...Isn't that the big problem she had with Jet?"
"Hm." Jane was stoic, deeply considering the idea.
"Take it from a fellow psycho," Toph joked. "Being crazy is more fun with company."
"You enjoy the movie?" Jet asked, slapping her on the back.
"Yea, it was good," Katara decided. A simple nod, a simple shrug. It was as good as gun-heavy action could be, anyway.
"Wuzza?" grunted the bartender with a slight tilt of the head.
"Here, get a pic of us, would ya?" Jet requested, passing the man his phone.
"Sure, sure," was the reluctant concession of obedience.
Jet slung his arm over Katara's shoulder. She was wearing a modest red sweatshirt with a cute cartoon monkey face printed on it - a gift from her brother a couple of years back. Her hair was fastened into an intentionally messy, disorganized bun. Normally, she would've worn a little makeup for Jet's sake but had specifically chosen not to today.
It was cramped and awkward, being drawn close to this person whom, with each passing day, she had been finding herself less and less attracted to if only by principle of knowing things would never really work out.
"Ahright," said Sneers gruffly. "Cheese." His complete lack of enthusiasm likely didn't help matters, but Katara could only manage a half-hearted, wistful smile, her eyes clouded and thoughtful. Her mind was afloat in that sea of questions of doubts and regrets that she'd been previously drowning in all week. At least now she had found her raft, her way out - she just had to ride it to shore.
"Whaddya havin' tonight, girlie?" Sneers' question jarred her from her scattered mind.
"The lady'll just have a Coke," Jet answered for her, having caught on to a beverage he knew she preferred.
"Comin' up." Sneers filled a glass with fountain soda as Katara watched Jet sip on his whiskey.
"Somethin' goin' on, Kat?" Jet wondered with a curious glance as he typed away on his phone. Katara's eyes fled to her drink as it was set on the counter before her.
"Just...long week," she spurted out as she went to sucking on the straw propped in the glass. Her phone vibrated in her pocket as Jet set his aside. She knew he had just sent to her the picture they had just taken - he always sent pictures as soon as he took them.
"Yea, Smellerbee told me you guys had a bit of a cat fight a while ago."
"Mm," Katara admitted through her nose, still drinking the cola. She breathed out after she gulped it down and added, "But we sorted that out. Just...ya know. Girl stuff."
"Girl stuff, huh?" Jet muttered, amused. "With Smellerbee?"
"Well, she is a girl," Katara remarked with a tinge of defense. Jet 'hmphed' at this as if to express, 'If you say so.'
Katara wanted to kick him and shout at him and defend Jane after what she had been recently told concerning how the two had broken up a couple of years prior - Jet had decided that Jane wasn't 'girl' enough for him. And while there may have been some valid reasoning behind this, it was downright rude and insensitive, the way he had gone about it. Granted, Katara had heard this story from Jane, but...At this point Katara trusted Jane's words more than Jet's. Jane was as straight with her as could be expected. She'd say, 'I can't tell you that,' not pretend like there was nothing being hidden. How could she let herself get involved romantically with such a judgmental person who exerted so much effort for the sake of hiding things? Ultimately, though, this was not about Jane, as had been established earlier.
"Anyway," Jet cut over the topic, grabbing her hand tightly. "Let's make better use of this weekend than last, huh?" He lifted her hand up and kissed her on the wrist. Her insides went empty and she fought to contain herself. She had been letting hormones win over long enough.
"Jack," she mumbled, her gaze still avoiding his.
"What's up, Kat?" he asked intently.
"What were you really doing Tuesday night? With all of those other people in the back." She nodded her head to the rear of the Treetop Pub. She finally felt empowered enough to resist his temptations and stared him down insistently.
"Wha?" he whispered out, slack-jawed. "Are you still bothered about that?" He sighed and rolled his head back incredulously. "Kat, babe, it's no big, it was just a business meeting."
"Then why did you lie to me about it? Why won't you tell me what it was about?"
"It was about donations, like I said before," Jack insisted, his voice low but tempered now. "What is the problem here? You don't trust me?" His chocolate glance pleaded like a puppy.
Katara pulled her hand out of his grasp and covered her eyes with a bitter frown.
"I guess I don't," she confessed. "Those people didn't look like the 'donating' type."
"What are you implying?"
"I don't know, Jack," Katara seethed quietly through grit teeth. "Why don't you tell me?"
"Do you have a paranoia problem, or somethin'?" Jack pondered aloud, taken aback.
"Do you have a lying problem?" She refused to look him in the eye and even risk giving in. She drank some more soda and took a deep breath in their moment of awkward silence.
"The specifics are the business of Freedom Fighters only," Jack explained, jabbing his index finger into the counter. "And you don't seem like you want any part of being one."
"Because I don't," Katara put it simply. They continued their exchange with quiet, sharp words.
"Yea," Jack growled, "Been gettin' that impression lately."
"You can't be with someone who isn't going to join your little club? Is that it?"
"This is my work, Kat. Not just some hobby."
"Well, your work rubs me the wrong way. I just have this bad feeling."
"Yea. Like maybe some of what the Freedom Fighters do isn't as charitable as it's made out to be."
"Listen, Kat." Jack drummed his fingers impatiently as Katara finished her drink, angry eyes stuck to the counter. "Hey. Hey." Jack snapped his finger by her ear. She twisted her head around and gave him a dagger glare. "If you can't trust me, Kat," Jack mandated, "then maybe this ain't gonna work out."
"Maybe it isn't," she tartly agreed, raising her brow.
"So...What, then? You're gonna just...break up with me?"
Katara's heart was pounding through her rib cage, a sense of freedom and strength surging out.
"Y-yea," she blurted, her eyes shifted to the side. She had raised her voice to a more standard volume level, collecting her confidence.
"Are you serious?" Jack asked, clearly confused. "Just like that?" He snapped his fingers again before raising his hand up to his mouth in befuddled aggravation.
Katara wiped her palm across her forehead, distraught.
"I've...had my doubts for a little while now," she informed him. "If you need to hide behind...behind secrets, and lies, and-and constantly be trying to make yourself look good, then...I can't be with you." Sure. That sounded reasonable. Right?
Jet bit his lip, his tongue irritably poking at the inside of his cheek as he nodded repeatedly, the gears coming together.
"Fair enough," he said at last, obviously dissatisfied. "So you're just gonna take off, then? We're not even gonna work at this?" There were those puppy eyes again, despite the edge in his tone.
"There's nothing to work at, Jack," Katara declared, tossing her arms up. "You won't be honest with me."
"You...you're in a gang."
"Don't you think that's exaggerating it a bit?"
"If it's such a tidy operation, how come you're so secretive?"
Their eyes locked again until Jack retreated.
"Whatever," he huffed, tossing his hand. "Take off, then. Seems like you've already made up your mind about this."
"I have." Katara scooped some cash out of her pocket and slammed it on the counter beside her empty glass. "Good bye, Jack." She refused to show weakness, to crumble under the pressure he somehow suppressed her under. She stuffed her hands in her pockets, turned away, and took a deep breath. The words, 'I'm sorry,' were writhing to come out, but she wouldn't let them. If she showed any regret or vulnerability, she'd set herself up to be pulled back in all over again.
This is what's best. I should have done this sooner. Why did I let myself fall into this situation in the first place?
"Good bye," Jack called out dismissively.
Katara walked out of the pub and into the dry evening air. She stood on the sidewalk and stared at the motorcycle before her - the one that had carried her here. Her memories assaulted her: the very mystery and intrigue that had made this relationship so refreshing and exciting months before was exactly what had turned her away from it in the long run.
She had been so blunt, rash...It felt strange. In retrospect, she knew that this was how she had needed to act in order to break things off. During the summer, she had spent so long interacting with Jack, the man of mystery and charm. Once she was physically around him again he was Jet, not Jack, and she had become more fully aware of just how incompatible their lives were. Their friend groups just didn't mesh together, nor did their lifestyles. He seemed like a decent enough guy, aside from the secrets he insisted on keeping. But her gut feeling was that he simply wasn't right for her. She knew how he was capable of tugging her strings, and acknowledged that the only way to end things was to cut those strings.
She cleared her head and took out her phone. She ignored the picture message she had recently received and made a call to her brother. She sighed as his ringback played, something she had grown tired of months before.
[~"Never gonna give you up."~"Never gonna let you down."~"Never gonna-"~]
["Uh, yea. Hey. What's...up?"]
Katara's breath shortened and wavered as she talked. Somehow she'd managed to keep her cool back in the pub but now that her thoughts were running circles around her she was getting dizzy.
"I, um..." She swallowed. "I need a ride back."
["Oh. Uhhh...Sure. Yea."] His voice was muffled for a moment. ["Yea, it's my Sis, she needs me to pick her up."] His attention came back to her in full. ["Everything OK?"]
"Y-yea, fine," she insisted with a sniff. She raised a shaky hand to her forehead, fingers trembling. It dawned on her that she was starting to choke up. Sokka was her brother, the person who knew her better than anyone else. She knew that he knew that everything was not fine.
["A-all right. Well...Well, uh, yea, Suki and I are at the ACC. We'll hop in the car and come get you. Where you at?"]
"Oh, I'm...-" She glanced around for a point of reference. She'd rather he not pick her up in front of this bar. For all she knew Sokka was already aware of this place, but she wasn't certain, and she'd rather avoid a potential gasket-blowing. A familiar red-roofed restaurant was down the block. "I'm at the Pizza Hut," she told him, knowing he'd be familiar with the only on in town.
["Gotcha. All right. Hang tight, Sis. we'll be there in like, 15 minutes."]
Katara nodded out of habit and stuffed her free hand back in her pocket.
"Mm-hm. Thanks," she squeaked, her voice losing the strength it had found minutes prior.
Some fragment of her heart was kicking the rest of her, shouting, 'You idiot. A gorgeous man was all about you and you're throwing him away. Nice job, Stupid.'
Why did I even bother dating a guy like him?
The question gnawed at her. She had thought she'd figured herself out - that she knew who she was, what she stood for, what she wanted. And here this dashing biker fellow came around, swept her up, and practically hypnotized her. How could this have happened? Katara Kesuk was not impulsive. Was she?
[so you dump him yet or wut? ]
[Yes. -_- I feel horrible.]
[i thnk that's natural kat]
Katara couldn't think of what else to say, but before she could consider it for too long, her phone started ringing.
[~"So what?"~"I'm still a rock star."~"I got my rock moves."~"And I don't need-"~]
"Hey, Toph," Katara mumbled after flicking open her phone, finding her roommate's timing too coincidental.
["Hey, Katara,"] Toph greeted with her sneaky cheer. ["You kick that guy to the curb or what?"]
["Wait, did you just call her?"] came a distant voice.
["Yea,"] Toph loudly called back.
"I'm guessing you're with Jane right now, huh?" Katara observed, amused despite her melted mind as she paced down the empty sidewalk.
["We've been like, on pins and needles here, man,"] Toph teased. ["Jane was worried for a second that you were gonna chicken out, but I knew you'd stick to your guns."]
"I did," Katara sighed. "Doesn't feel too good, though."
["Nothin' some rocky road ice cream can't fix, right?"]
Katara found herself smiling through the stress at her friend's comfort.
"I suppose not," she choked out.
["You're better than him, anyway!"] Jane's shout echoed from the distance as Katara said 'not.'
["Yea, I'm with her on this one,"] Toph agreed. ["Good riddance. Now I don't have to put up with all your whining about him,"] she teased.
A sound that was half-laugh, half-sob dribbled out of Katara's mouth and she dabbed her finger at her swelling eyes. She couldn't understand why she was suddenly so emotionally shaken and it was beginning to get frustrating. Perhaps her roommate was right, and that she'd be better off just doing something comforting and not thinking about it. It was done. Like a menial chore she'd be putting off, she'd brazenly shoved herself away from him, and the sooner she could separate herself from the thoughts and feelings associated with him, the better.
["Hey, you still there?"] Toph checked with a more serious, almost apologetic tone.
"Oh, yea. Yea," Katara breathed out, her intestines tied up. "Sorry."
["Sounds like someone's got the post-break-up jitters."]
["I dunno, I just made that up,"] Toph confessed in a rush. ["Just get yourself back home so we can smother you in ice cream."]
"I don't think Aang would approve of that kinda thing," Katara mockingly scolded.
["Heh. What he doesn't know won't hurt him,"] was Toph's devilishly flirtatious reply.
["Ice cream's a turn off for me,"] Jane flatly declared from the background.
["You pick friends with bad taste,"] Toph decided, speaking to Katara.
"What does that say about you, then?" Katara countered.
["Exactly! This is why we need to find friends with good taste so that I can learn. I don't know any better!"]
The familiar sight of the Kesuk family car that Katara and Sokka shared cruised down the road ahead.
"My brother's here," Katara announced, her voice more clear and firm after that bit of humor. "I'll see you guys in a few minutes."
["'Kay. Chin up, Katara."]
The car slowly pulled into the restaurant's parking lot, rotated around, and pulled up beside Katara, just beside the lot entrance. Katara could see Suki in the passenger's seat, so she slid into the back and buckled herself in.
"Hey, Sis," Sokka greeted. "How ya doin'?" His tone was delicate - he knew how to dance this line. He'd try to be optimistic and jovial per his usual self, but not so much as to be irritating. This talent was something that had taken Sokka their entire childhood to master, and one that many like-minded guys never completely attained: being able to temper his boyish stupidity when the situation called for it without diving into complete seriousness.
"I've been better," Katara bluntly admitted as they took off down the road.
"What happened?" Suki wondered with some concern.
"I, um..." Katara shrugged, staring out the window as the buildings of Wayward slipped by. "I kinda...broke up with my boyfriend just now."
"Oh," Suki blurted, stupefied as to how to respond.
"Really?" Sokka muttered, his tone a mix of sympathy and relief. "That seems...kinda sudden."
"I've been...kinda thinking about it all week," Katara explained, fidgeting with the pencils holding her hair bun in place.
"Why did you break up?" Suki inquired, glancing at her through the rear-view mirror.
"It was just...-" Katara blew out a sharp groan and shook her head quickly. "It didn't feel right. It wasn't going to work out between us."
"Yea," Sokka was quick to agree. "I'm sorry," he added his condolence.
Katara laughed at his words and plunked her head against the window, eyes following the street lamps as they sailed by. This was what Sokka had wanted - for her to break things off. But she understood what he really meant: he was sorry that she had gotten hurt.
"Thanks," Katara expressed, the car window chill against the side of her head.
"Anything I can do for ya?" Sokka asked after a moment. Katara smiled and shook her head, though he likely couldn't see.
"It's OK. I just need to go back to Aqua right now, that's all."
"Gotcha," Sokka solemnly acknowledged. The rest of the quick car ride was free of discussion - only the sounds of the radio, which Katara tuned out for the sake of her sanity.
[you fuckin knew bout this didnt you?]
[so what? maybe I did. whats the problem? I didnt do anything.]
[you could have told me kat was nurotic]
[my fuckin bad. didnt realize fixin your gf trouble was my job.]
[and btw shes not neurotic. she knows your lying.]
[did you put her up to this? did you tell her anything?]
[no. but i think shes right. dont think you two would work out. and you LIED to her so yea.]
[like you never lie to people]
[you were the last one. so no. i dont anymore. stfu.]
[whatever just show up tmorrow on time w/the noobs]
"Is he still texting you about this?" Katara groaned to Jane.
"Hey, hey," Toph snapped, kicking her foot out and bumping Katara's chair. "Stop worrying about that. Ice cream. Eating. Now."
While Katara shoveled more dessert into her mouth, Jane huffed out an exasperated breath of distress and collapsed, burying her face into Katara's pillow.
What the hell am I gonna do now? Do I really want to leave the Freedom Fighters? Even if I did...I can't risk it at this point. Not right now, anyway.
"Frick, now I'm hungry for ice cream," Toph grumbled, rubbing her stomach with an exaggerated pout.
"Soooo...Have some," Katara offered. "It's your ice cream, remember?"
"If you insist," Toph sighed jokingly, reaching her arms out. Katara chuckled and passed her the half empty carton, then the spoon.
"I still can't believe all of this," Katara murmured, shaking her head to herself as Toph slurped away.
Jane sat up and let her legs dangle off the side of Katara's raised bed.
"What? The fact that you just broke up with your boyfriend?"
"No, the fact that I was dating him at all," Katara moaned, turning to look at her neighbor with furrowed brows. She shrugged and continued. "I shouldn't have even started. I just let myself get swept up by him."
Jane snorted and raised her eyebrows knowingly.
"Yea, that bastard'll do that," she growled, gnashing her teeth slightly.
"How did I ever think that was going to work?" Katara went on, eyes filled with perplexation. "It's like...We had a thing for a couple weeks, and then summer hit...and I was lonely, so I just...clung to him. It's like it made more sense over the summer when we were apart then when we could actually see each other."
"'Course it did," Jane agreed. "All you saw was Mr. Charming with his slick as hell sweet-talk and bullshitting."
"Yea." Katara nodded, seeming to be at peace after logicking her way through it. A small burp slipped from Toph's mouth and she wiped her lips with her finger, licked said finger clean, and went back to work.
"Take my advice, Kat," Jane insisted, established fierce eye contact. "Just stay away from that whole scene. You don't belong there. And you don't want to belong there. Speakin' from experience here."
Katara's eyes pried for details but Jane wasn't going to divulge them.
"Probably a good idea," said Katara solemnly, pulling the pencils out of her hairbun and letting its mass tumble down. She tugged at it with her hands to straighten it out. "What about you?"
"I've still got work to do," Jane stated, tossing her hand. "Don't worry 'bout it."
Katara was in fact worrying about it, though - Jane could see it in her face, despite her lack of response.
"Argh," Toph gasped. Both girls glanced at her, clutching at her forehead. "Fuckin' brain freeze," she hissed, eyes squinted shut.
"Whoa," Katara cried, peering into the practically empty ice cream carton. "Toph, Hun, maybe you should take it easy with the ice cream next time, huh?" She swiped the container away and set it on Toph's desk, an amused smile on her face.
"I refuse," Toph defied dramatically, still grabbing her head. "I shall not give in to my mortal enemy. Do you hear me, ice cream? You may have won this battle, but the war rages on!"
"Is she always like this?" Jane wondered, scratching her head.
"Pretty much," Katara chuckled, patting Toph on the back as the blind girl smirked.
- Sunday, September 5th, 2010 -
Aang carefully studied his nearly finished product. He'd been sketching away for the past hour or so. This had to look just right - it wasn't for some class, it was for his friend. The image he had created displayed a willow tree, swaying in the breeze, with stars inexplicably hanging from the tips of some of its branches. It rested on a small hill, alone, a large crescent moon arching over top from the left. When Aang's friends were feeling down, he'd try and draw them something - it was his way of showing that he cared and instilling hope without any action on their part. They didn't need to talk to him, or listen to advice, they just had to look. After Sokka had come back late the night prior, he'd informed Aang about Katara's breakup with Jet. He hadn't wanted to bother her about the matter, since he had a feeling she was probably trying to take her mind off of it. Instead, he had engaged a simple exchange with her.
[hey katara, what's your fav type of tree?]
[Um...Probably willow trees. Why?]
[just wondering. ]
As Aang darkened the outline of the moon, the sound of flatulence popped his thoughts like a burst bubble. Hunched against the wall on his bed, he glanced across the room to the pile of blanket on the opposing bed. He checked the time: [11:33am]. It'd be lunch time soon. If Sokka missed out on lunch he'd get pretty cranky.
"Hey, Sokka," Aang shouted.
"It's almost time for lunch."
Within seconds, Sokka had slid out of bed and into his desk chair. He slowly opened his laptop, like a zombie, and began his morning protocol of checking e-mail and the like.
"You sleep all right?" Aang wondered.
"Meh," Sokka drawled. "Guess."
"How did things with Suki go?"
"Awwwwwsummmm." Yea. He wasn't quite awake yet.
Aang went back to scribbling extra blades of grass onto the hill to fill it out as he let his roommate awaken. A few minutes passed, and he felt his work was complete. He got off his bed and flashed the sketchbook to Sokka.
"You think your sister will like this?"
Sokka stalled for a moment, his attention still on the screen, before twisting his head to see the picture.
"Yea, yea," he muttered with a sloppy nod.
"I hope so." Aang tucked it into his messenger bag and peeled open his dresser to find a shirt to wear for the day. "Gosh," he mused, "Seems real sudden that she'd break up with her boyfriend like that, don't you think?"
"Honestly, I think it's about damned time," Sokka grumbled, closing his laptop at last. He yawned and stretched as Aang fit himself with a plain white t-shirt. "That jerk's a menace. She should never have even started dating him in the first place. Good riddance."
Oh, right. Sokka was always against that whole thing, huh? Well...Guess I don't blame him. But still, I'm sure Jet can't be that bad a guy if Katara dated him. Kinda wish we coulda met him.
"So, uh...We should probably head out, right? Don't wanna be late for food."
"I am never late for food," Sokka declared, jamming a striped button-down shirt on with a pair of khakis. He popped on his familiar black loafers and straightened his shirt while Aang slipped a newsboy hat over his head and slung his messenger bag across his shoulder.
"Onward," Aang bellowed, stabbing his finger into the air. Sokka joined him in shouting, "Onward to Sunday!"
A/N: Sokka's ringback is inspired by the fact that one of my best friends had that as his for a while. Toph's tone on Katara's phone is inspired by a music vid my wife made me about Toph. Seemed appropriate. Also, I know that we're crawling through time as a snail's pace day-by-day here. The whole story won't be that way, there will definitely be skips in time. I'm just taking it easy right now and making sure that I establish everything I need to first.