A New Start For All
"Hi Mom, thanks for picking us up," a fifteen-year-old boy with tan skin and hair tied into a ponytail stated, climbing into the back of the Toyota Corolla. He took the seat right behind the passenger's seat, which was occupied by a girl who looked similar to him. "Dad's car just broke down, so Yue and I were stuck at the theatre without a ride," the boy explained, gesturing to his white-haired girlfriend, who took the seat behind the driver's seat, "What are you and Katara doing out so late?" he asked, leaning over and sticking his head between the front seats.
"Sokka, did you forget that I have a school project to finish? I've been busy with my group, hammering out the details, while you and Yue get to enjoy a movie," the fourteen-year-old in the passenger's seat retorted. Katara had long, dark brown hair, with two unique hair loops twirled up near her temples. "Seriously though, how are we going to deal with Dad's car? Dad won't be happy that Sokka borrowed it for his date, only to have it break down."
Kya, the mother of Katara and Sokka, could only shrug. "Just explain it to your father. I'm sure Hakoda can handle it," she suggested, pulling away from the curb and into the night. They were still in midtown, with the lights from buildings and other cars illuminating the streets quite well. "So we will drop off Yue first, okay? Yue, does Arnook know that you'll be late?"
"I called him on my cellphone, so he knows. Thanks for the ride, Mrs. Kuruk," the albino fifteen-year-old girl called from behind Kya's seat. Sokka and Yue met earlier in the school year, when they kept running into each other in their classes. After a quick introduction, they found it easy to bond with each other. Sokka's humorous nature matched surprisingly well with Yue's quiet seriousness. Before long, the two were a couple, and tonight was their official first date.
There was only cheerful banter as Kya turned into the less densely populated residential neighbourhoods. Moments like these made her happy to be part of this family, having a son who took after their father's intellect and a daughter who got into the art of water bending. It felt like nothing could her away from them. Braking at a stop sign, Kya turned on the left signal light, looking both ways before proceeding through the intersection. They were in more sparsely populated areas now, the roads were shrouded in darkness save for a few lampposts. With a slight drizzle appearing since they left the cinema, the conditions became difficult to navigate.
Taking a deep breath, Kya slowly eased the vehicle through the intersection. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary among her, Katara, Sokka, and Yue. Katara was looking down at the notes in her backpack, placed between her legs in front of her seat. Sokka and Yue were talking in the back, making the occasional cuddle or kiss. As for Kya herself, her eyes were peeled for the road. Yue's home was located on the outskirts of town, meaning they had to cross this wide highway. The Toyota Corolla edged itself across the first three lanes of the six-lane expressway, slowly making its way to the other side.
Then everything happened in slow motion when a vehicle, driving way over the speed limit of the expressway, and not using the highway headlights, barrelled into them. Kya barely had time to react when that vehicle, an SUV, T-boned their car. The left side was crushed, throwing the smaller car onto its right side. Katara and Sokka, who were on the passenger's side, were slammed against the windows, trapping them in the debris. Before long a massive wave of pain smothered the young water bender's body. "Mom, Sokka, Yue, you guys okay?" she called weakly to the passengers around her. There was no response, which chilled Katara to the bones.
Katara was barely conscious when a series of flashes appeared before her blurred vision. She could hear the mangled remains of the vehicle being torn off above her, with slurs of people's words echoing through her ears. The pain washed over her once more as several arms tugged on her, pulling her onto the ground wrapping straps against her body. As she was lifted and placed on a higher surface, her consciousness gave way. She had no idea what happened to Sokka, Yue, and her mother, and by the looks of things, she wouldn't find out any time soon.
By the time Katara arrived to the hospital, she was already out cold. The paramedics rushed her through the halls on a rolling stretcher, placing an oxygen mask on her face and constantly checking on her vital signs. In the operation room, the surgery team frantically set everything up for the teenage patient being wheeled in, with adjacent rooms prepared for her brother, her mother, and their white-haired friend. "Stay with me, stay with me," the paramedic closest to Katara called, "We're going to get you through this, so just hang on a little bit longer."
Outside the operation rooms, a man in his forties approached the nurses gathered next to the doors. He had dark brown shoulder-length hair, sported a goatee just on the tip of his chin, and wore a blue sports jacket, marine slacks, and dark brown dress shoes. "My name is Hakoda Kuruk, and my wife and kids are in that accident. How are they doing right now? Will they be okay?" he asked the medical staff, wiping his mouth with a shaking hand.
"Your wife, your children, and their friend are currently in surgery right now. We can't say what their conditions are until that's completely done," the nurse closest to Hakoda informed him, "We're very sorry about what happened, and we assure you we'll do the best we can."
Hakoda nodded weakly, his trudging feet brought him to the closest row of seats. His body slumped into a chair, the blood rushing out of his face. He was at home finishing some prep work for his job the next day when Sokka, who borrowed Hakoda's car for his date with Yue, called to inform Hakoda that the car wouldn't start. Kya, who was to pick up Katara from the library, then offered to pick up Sokka and Yue as well. Never did he imagine that an unexpected breakdown would lead to a disaster like this. Now, with four people that he cared about hanging on by a thread, he could only sit helplessly and wait for whatever result the doctors had.
After what could only be described as a harrowing few hours, a physician dressed in a full-body green hospital gown approached Hakoda. "Mr. Kuruk," the physician called, gently shaking the sleeping Hakoda awake, "I'm sorry to say that two of the patients didn't make it. Your wife Kya, and the white-haired girl she was with, Yue, ended up succumbing to their injuries. Your children, Katara and Sokka, are still in operation, but they should make it out alright. Do you have the contact information for Yue's family, so we can inform them of this?"
Hakoda looked like he had been hit by a truck. His eyes were almost glossed over, and his expression was stuck in a mix of shock, hurt, and sadness. He tried to sit up straight, but his whole body just turned into jelly. Kya was the love of his life, and he treasured her more than anything in the world. Never did he imagine losing her like this, in a traffic accident where no one in the Toyota Corolla was to blame. Before Sokka left the house to go on his date, Hakoda and Kya were teasing him about being a new driver, having gotten his license only a couple of weeks ago. Now, with one quick message, Hakoda's whole life just collapsed.
"Mr. Kuruk?" the doctor's voice snapped Hakoda's attention back to the hospital. "Do you have the contact information for Yue's family?" he asked, a concerned look on his face as well. Right now, it felt like Hakoda would require more help than the patients inside.
"Yeah, I'll get you his number," Hakoda murmured, shakily pulling out his cellphone from his pants pocket. He scrolled to Arnook's number and showed it to the doctor, who quickly copied it onto his notepad. The doctor quickly scurried away with the number, leaving Hakoda to sit alone in the silence. For the first time in his life, he was truly at a loss.
"We are all here today to celebrate the life of one Kya Kuruk," the master of ceremonies announced to the sombre crowd. Both Katara and Sokka nursed injuries as they stood solemnly in the front row, their eyes downcast and their shoulders hunched. Both were in the hospital for weeks before being released, and even today there were various aches and pains across their bodies. For Katara, it would mean no water bending for at least the rest of the school year.
But both siblings realized how lucky they were compared to the other two people in their vehicle. Neither Kya nor Yue made it out alive, and today was the day Kya would be taken on her final journey. Per the traditions of the water tribes, Kya's body would be placed in the closest natural body of water as a way to allow her spirit to be one with her element. Due to changes in laws and customs, this funeral rite had been modernized where only the ashes of the person's body would be placed into the water, meaning Kya's body had to be cremated first.
Katara lifted her head back to the front, where an urn sat in the middle of a wide table. The master of ceremonies was, like the two assistants standing behind him, clad in the traditional blue parka, lined with symbols commonly seen in water tribes of old. "I invite Hakoda Kuruk, the husband of Kya, to come give a eulogy," the man stated, gesturing at Hakoda. It was agreed upon by the family that Hakoda would eulogize Kya, while Sokka and Katara would do the honours of sprinkling Kya's ashes into the river behind the stage.
"First of all, let me thank you all for coming," Hakoda began, his blue eyes scanning the crowd. He then proceeded to describing the relationship Kya had with him, expressing how they were truly a loving couple. Kya would always be there to support the family, through thick and through thin, and would never turn down any of her children's requests. Upon hearing that, Katara couldn't help by shed a few tears. The last few nights leading up to this ceremony had Katara crying herself to sleep every night, reminiscing the times she spent with her mother. It was all too cruel how she was torn away from the family in one freak accident, and Katara truly didn't know what she could do to truly move on from this event.
"And now, I ask my two children to come up and complete the ceremony," Hakoda announced, waving at Katara and Sokka. The siblings gravely glanced at each other before trudging up the steps to the stage. The master of ceremonies already had the urn opened, and the mission for Katara and Sokka was to pour all the ashes into the river. As Katara and Sokka approached the table, the entire crowd rose to their feet and bowed their heads.
"Now we play Kya's favourite song as a way to bid her spirit farewell," the master of ceremonies declared, signalling to one assistant to turn on the radio. Another man slipped past Hakoda to insert a CD into the player, pressing a couple of buttons before a soft tune could be heard from the speakers. Within seconds, Katara could recognize the tune as a lullaby that Kya used to sing to her and Sokka countless times when they were younger.
The whole world seemed to blur away as Katara struggled to hold onto her side of the urn containing Kya's ashes. The Cantonese lyrics seemed to be directed at her, and the singer's voice was soon replaced by Kya's in her mind. It reminded Katara of all the love between her and Kya, how Kya held Katara's hand countless times, guiding her through all steps of Katara's life. No matter what turbulence they ran into, or what the surroundings were like, Kya's love for Katara and the family would forever be unchanged. Every day, Kya treasured this family, and this song only reminded Katara to treasure Kya for the rest of her life.
As the last notes ended the mellow song, Katara's limbs were completely numb. She lifted her head to watch Sokka, who was equally paralyzed by the song's lyrics. The two literally had to drag their feet to the riverbank, the urn now feeling like it weighted over a ton. Positioning themselves just over the river, they tilted the urn, ready to pour the ashes into the water. "Kya, you're with the spirits now. May you rest in peace," the final announcement called.
Heeding to the signal, Katara and Sokka tilted the urn, watching the grey material flow out of the container and into the water below. The water grew slightly murkier at the point of contact, but the ashes soon flowed with the water away from the stage. As the last bits entered the river, Katara could feel Kya's spirit watching over her, giving the Kuruk family one last glance before parting ways. Sensing the tears, Katara lifted her free hand and dabbed her eyes.
"Well, I hope Mom and Yue can finally get their eternal rest," Sokka murmured, tearing up as well. Yue's father Arnook did their ceremony a while back, before Sokka and Katara were released from hospital. Arnook chose to perform the ritual at a body of water closer to Yue's hometown rather than here. But either way, the ceremony was complete. While their spirits were now flowing with the water, Katara and Sokka knew they would never forget Kya and Yue.
"What do you mean, we're planning to move?" Katara demanded, her body stoic and tight. Months had gone by since the tragic incident that left her family incomplete. Now Hakoda was their only parental figure, and Katara and Sokka had a hard time adjusting to this.
But Hakoda had other plans for the two siblings, opting to start fresh with their lives. "I know it's sudden, and you and Sokka may not be ready for it. That's why I'm waiting until you both finish your exams before moving," he explained, drying a dish from the sink, "It'll be your last summer holiday here, and we'll move to the new place in time for the new school year."
Katara scowled, turning to Sokka to gauge her brother's reaction. She had friends here, she felt at home here, but most importantly, this was where Kya made most of her mark on the family. By leaving all that behind just to journey to somewhere in hopes of a new start, wasn't Hakoda being a bit too nonchalant about Kya's contributions to the family?
Yet Sokka seemed open to this opportunity. Initially, the family was bombarded by condolences, including some from people they didn't know well. While Sokka was kind enough to thank each person, it was evident their words grated on his nerves. It made the family feel like they were too weak to stand up again, and reminded them of the incident more, rather than helped them move on from the event. Privately, Sokka once stated that the next time somebody gave him another half-hearted condolence, he would smack that person with a boomerang. Clasping his hands before him, Sokka asked, "Where exactly are we moving to?"
"It's a place called Republic City, which I heard is quite beautiful," Hakoda responded, wiping his hands dry. He tossed the dishcloth back into the sink before pacing up to his children, pulling out a chair across from them and plopping himself down. "My company recently opened a new branch there, and they could use some experienced staff to make that place work. The new supervisor is a man named Lao Bei Fong, who I heard is a very efficient business manager. He's someone my current supervisor trusts, and I'll look forward to working under him."
"Yeah, I'm sure you're happy, but what about us?" Katara retorted, shooting daggers at her father, "Sokka and I will have to give up everything just to make this work for you, and don't forget all the contributions Mom made while we're still here. How can you just let all that go so you can go off to some far-off adventure?" she concluded by crossing her arms.
Hakoda cocked an eyebrow. "I don't think this is an attempt for me to forget about Kya, Katara," he replied, rubbing his lower arms apprehensively, "Kya will always be in our hearts, and I'll always cherish all the moments we had with her in this family. And even if we do move to Republic City, her memories will still be with us. This can be a new start for us all, a way for us to move forward and be reborn as new people. Nothing wrong with that, right?"
Before Katara could even respond, Sokka did the unthinkable to her. "Hey, I care a lot about Mom too, and don't think I'm not upset after she died," he pointed out, turning his body sideways to face the girl on his left, "But if Dad believes this can put us back on the right path, then I'm all for it. The guy who hit us was drunk, he's already been sentenced, so what more is there to say? We should move on from the event, and keep the best memories of Mom alive."
Katara's jaw nearly hit the floor. "Sokka, you can't be serious, right? Don't tell me you're agreeing to this madness either!" Katara exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air. With her outnumbered on the issue, was there any way she could get her point across here?
Sokka's unpredictable streak continued when he turned the tables on Katara. "What's madness is how stubborn you are on this issue. Why can't you just let Dad be happy with his choice? I thought water benders are supposed to control the element for change, so why can't you act more like that and just adapt to the surroundings?" he challenged, narrowing his eyes.
Katara's mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. None of Hakoda, Kya, and Sokka were benders, meaning Katara was ultimately the only one who got in touch with the elements. But here was a non-bender telling her she wasn't in touch with her own element. "Sokka, did you just say what I heard you just say?" Katara retorted in shock and anger.
Before the siblings could aim for each other's throats, Hakoda stepped in to lower the heat. "I assure you we won't be alone in this new place. Our old friend Bato has been recruited into the same company as me, so you'll be seeing him a lot more often," Hakoda stated. Bato was an old college roommate of Hakoda's, and the siblings treated him like an uncle of sorts.
Katara and Sokka paused to glance back at Hakoda, who now leaned his back against his chair. "Don't forget your grandmother Kanna lives in a town just on the outskirts of Republic City, so visiting her will be fun too," he added, especially staring at Katara. Since Katara was very close to her paternal grandmother, this could convince her that the move was beneficial. "I'm sure your Gran Gran will be more than happy to see you two when you visit."
Katara bit her lower lip. Knowing there were people she trusted in Republic City, it would be easier for her to turn to someone for support. Yet Katara was still a bit overwhelmed by the drastic and sudden proposal Hakoda made. With only the sound of the ticking clock in the living room echoing off the walls, it felt like the dining room lamp was zeroing in on her.
Sokka's hand being placed onto her shoulder snapped Katara back to attention. "Look, I'm not as observant around people as you are, but just think about this," he described sympathetically, "I do have to look out for my little sister every now and then. Give it a chance."
Katara's eyes alternated between Sokka and Hakoda like a metronome. While she had reservations, she also understood where they were coming from. A new opportunity awaited them all, giving them a chance to be happy as a family again. Moreover, being a water bender meant embracing change, not being stubborn and refusing to accept it. Given how proud her family was when they found out about her abilities, what would Kya think if Katara failed to live up to that expectation? "Alright, I'll do it," she whispered, clenching her fists in determination.
Hakoda and Sokka both smiled as Katara excused herself from the dining room table. "I'll have to tell all my friends about this first," she explained, heading for the stairs and to her room above, "I want to spend some time with them all before I move. I only got one chance before the only way I can contact them is via Facebook or Skype, so I won't blow it, alright?"
"This is one big city," Sokka murmured, his eyes wandering around the building at the downtown core. The Kuruk family were not small-town people, but to be in a large metropolis like this was truly something else. Skyscrapers smothered the family with their shadows, while every road lane was filled with cars lining several blocks down. And with the crowd of people they saw in the mall they were in earlier, and Sokka truly believed he was in a sardine can.
Katara, however, wasn't impressed. Something about the frenetic pace of the metropolis made her feel uncomfortable. Smaller settings with slower paces meant people were friendlier. Here, it felt like people were just brushing past her, whizzing back and forth like a blizzard in winter. "Can we just get home already?" she asked in annoyance, "You're the one who decided to go on this hare-brained scheme to go shopping in downtown this morning anyway."
"There's nothing wrong with shopping!" Sokka retorted with a cracking voice, giving Katara a look darker than the alleyways between the buildings. It was an odd quirk in the Kuruk family that Sokka, the male sibling, was more into shopping than Katara, the female sibling. Most households usually had this trait in reverse, but it was evident that Katara didn't enjoy it.
"Settle down, you two," Hakoda warned, slowly marching up behind them, "Katara, part of the reason I took you downtown is because I want to show you around. The Yee-Dong Centre is one of the largest shopping malls in the city, and it's quite a tourist attraction. And Sokka, while I'm glad you enjoyed the trip, I must say you did go overboard with the buying. Having Katara and I carry so much of your stuff is a bit inconsiderate, so show some moderation, okay?"
Sokka tilted his eyes between Hakoda and Katara. His father and sister bought relatively little, with some clothes and gifts that barely took up one bag. But they also held another bag stuffed to the brim with things Sokka bought, ranging from clothing, to socks and shoes. Sokka also bought a couple of belts, an extra laptop bag that he claimed matched those belts, and a variety of trinkets and knickknacks that Katara didn't even want to start guessing what they were about. "Dad and I had one bag each, while you ended up filling three bags," Katara pointed out.
Before things got out of hand, Hakoda gestured at a tunnel on the sidewalk. It was a small flight of stairs that would take them underground, and above those stairs was a large sign that had a red symbol on it. "Let's just catch the subway home, okay?" Hakoda suggested, heading to the stairway, "You still have to go to your school to pick up your new schedules this afternoon, so try not to be late. Besides, the school told me that two current students were asked to show you two around. I'm sure you can make a couple of new friends with this opportunity, right?"
Katara gently shuffled her feet. She was still a bit hesitant with the new school, not sure what to expect from the student body. Moreover, it was a large change for her, given she still had visions of the crash that took the lives of Kya and Yue. Slowly lifting her hand, she placed it at her throat, where the water bending pendant that her mother left for her hung. She vowed that her mother would always be a part of her life, but was she ready to bring new things into her life?
"Katara, today please?" Sokka's impatient voice snapped her back to reality. The water bender lifted her head to see her brother and father standing before the subway entrance, both with concerned looks on their faces. The crowd of people rushing out from and around the subway stop made Katara feel like some specimen being put under a microscope.
Katara weakly nodded, rebalancing the bags in her hands. Looking on, her father and brother already headed down the stairs, causing her to quicken her pace as well. "Queen Station," she murmured, taking a glance at the subway sign, "Wonder why they named it that?"
By the time they returned home, the only thing on Katara's mind was on how to sort through the ridiculous mess known as the stuff Sokka bought. Hakoda made them a quick lunch, which got Katara's mind into the more pressing matter that was student registration. "Do you two want a ride to the school, or do you prefer walking?" Hakoda asked, taking the dirty dishes.
"Walking is fine," Katara murmured, trudging her way back to her room, "Just let me use the washroom first, then Sokka and I will be on our way." With that, she closed the door, the ticking clock on the wall outside counting down the final seconds to judgment day.
Even though they lived in the suburbs, the atmosphere around was unusually dead. There were no children in the playground, few people jogging along the streets, and even the birds were quiet. Katara's heart pounded with each step, clearing the last block of houses before reaching an open field where their schools were located. It was odd to see two buildings housing a junior high and a senior high school at the same campus, but according to the parent information sheet Hakoda had, both schools had the same administration team. They were to check in at the senior high school, get their schedules, and then a student from each campus would show them around.
Now, with only a set of red metallic doors before them, Katara felt like she was running the gauntlet. The bright colours beckoned her to come forth, but the sheer size of the doors also challenged her to fight for what she wanted. "Let's do this then," she muttered, taking a deep breath. With that, the siblings grabbed the hinges and pulled as hard as they could.
The siblings were in awe at the large foyer, which was a mix between a museum's exhibit hall and a courthouse's entrance. Glass cases showing school achievements lined each side, and four pillars beckoned them towards the main office, located conveniently behind the columns. There were already students marching in and out the office doors, some already holding their timetables. "Well, let's not lollygag," Sokka suggested, leading the way to the office, "You'll have to go over to the junior high campus later, so there's a lot to do for us both."
The siblings lined up behind ten to fifteen students, with Katara avoiding eye contact with those around her. She alternated between adjusting her blue jacket and twirling the hair loops near her temples. Sokka, meanwhile, tried to get attention by flashing a big grin, especially to female students. Unfortunately for the pony-tailed teen, the girls either got irritated or were crept out. If this was how Sokka dealt with getting over Yue, then it wasn't a good development.
It was close to twenty minutes before the Kuruk siblings entered the office. Sitting behind the desk was a short lady with brown hair. The front was cut in an unnaturally neat horizontal line above her eyebrows, while the back was tied in a pony-tail. She had gold stud earrings on both ears, and had green eyes that could freeze anything into ice. "Names?" she barked.
"The last name is Kuruk," Sokka eked out, rubbing his arms up and down. He wore a short-sleeved blue T-shirt, and Katara could see goose bumps blasting up and down each limb with the secretary's daggered eyes. "I'm Sokka, in grade ten, and this is Katara, in grade nine."
The stern woman said nothing in return, opting to shuffle through her massive wall of papers instead. Neither sibling had the courage to ask any questions about how she could navigate this ridiculous mess. With a look that could kill even the fiercest Platypus Bear, it felt like the first person to speak would have trouble making it out of this office alive.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the siblings were handed their schedules and locker information. "For Sokka, who will stay in the high school campus, your locker is located at the bottom of Staircase C," the lady pointed out, her eyes not even looking the siblings in the face, "Katara will have to go to the junior high campus, and your locker will be on the first floor, in the blue wing. The combinations are on your schedules, so make sure you input it right."
Katara and Sokka alternated confused stares between their schedules and each other. "Uh, not that I'm trying to be rude, but we were told that there are people who will show us around the campuses or something like that…" Katara meekly requested, her hands shaking uncontrollably.
"What are you, in kindergarten?" the lady snapped, rearing her body over the counter and pressing her face dangerously close to the siblings. For a lady that could barely lift her head over the top of the cubicle, she sure made herself large when she was angry. "You're in your teens already, so you should know the way! Why should you require special assistance?" she yelled.
Sokka tried to wipe his brow clean of his cold perspiration and the secretary's saliva, leaving Katara to take several deep breaths before trying again. "Well, Sokka and I are new here, and we registered with the school less than a week ago," she stated as diplomatically as possible, "The school told us that when we pick up our schedules, there will be a couple of people to…"
"What? So you two are the new kids? Why didn't you say so in the beginning? Seriously, people nowadays," she grumbled, shoving off her chair and marching into the back. Katara and Sokka could only stare at her incredulously. She was the one to cut them off before they could explain, so why was she blaming them now? "Kyoshi, Anil, your guests are here!" she roared.
Within seconds, two other students came out from a long hallway leading into the deeper offices. One was a girl, looking around fifteen years old. She had auburn hair, grey eyes, and had on a green sports jacket and track pants of a similar colour. The other was a boy, standing a head shorter than the girl, looking at best twelve years old. But the most surprising details about him was that he had no hair, instead sporting a blue arrow tattoo that went from the back of his neck, around his cerebellum, and ended at his forehead. He wore an orange T-shirt, dark brown khakis, and dark dress shoes. "Your tour guides are here," the secretary spat, trudging back to her desk.
Katara shot a dark look back at the secretary, who merely waved the next student into her cubicle, or more appropriately, her torture chamber. Marching out the other set of doors, the two newcomers introduced themselves to the siblings. "I'm Suki Kyoshi, and I'm in the tenth grade," the girl spoke in a clear tone, "I'm supposed to show Sokka Kuruk around today. Are you him?"
"Uh, yeah, I'm Soccer, or sorry, Sokka," the pony-tailed teen stuttered, rubbing the back of his head nervously. His eyes darted around and his body fidgeted anxiously, which Katara could tell was due to the attraction that was Suki standing before him. Heck, Katara recalled the way Sokka acted when he first met Yue. The way he stuttered when he asked Yue on a date, Katara swore she might have to finish his sentence for him if he kept struggling. "So, uh, you want to show me around, then?" Sokka asked, gesturing wildly in random directions, "Maybe we can spend some time looking around, doing some activities, you know…"
Suki rolled her eyes before leading Sokka away from his sister and the bald boy, almost having to drag the stammering teen away from embarrassment. Katara pressed her empty palm against her face and shook her head. "Don't mind my brother," she whispered to the boy, "Let's just go see the junior high campus, okay?"
"Sure," the boy replied. There was a distinctive gentleness and politeness about his voice. Earlier, Katara was all nervous, not knowing what to expect when she moved into this new city and stepped into this new school. But here, around this boy, it was like all her tension was stripped away from her. "My name is Aang Anil, and I'm in the eighth grade," the boy stated.
Katara did a double take at Aang's comment. How could this youngster possibly be in grade eight? He looked more like he just graduated elementary school! But before Katara could inquire, it was like Aang had read her mind. "I actually skipped grade five, so I'm just twelve years old this year," he replied, flashing off a goofy grin, "Last year was my first year at the junior high, and I have two more years to go before coming over to this campus."
Katara could only nod in intrigue. Aang took her through the cafeteria, down a flight of stairs, and out a side door. When Aang led the way, it was like there were springs in his shoes, with his feet almost floating off the ground with each step. Crossing a large sports field, Aang soon took Katara into an adjacent, two-storey building, where the junior high classes were held.
"And that's pretty much it for our school," Aang concluded, bringing Katara back to the front foyer of the junior high. Throughout the last hour, Aang took Katara through both floors of both wings of the junior high. Katara was especially impressed by the drama room on the second floor, which was coloured in pure black and had many props, likely for school performances. Also impressing her on the second floor was the art room, where paintings and sketches of past years hung. So far, it seemed to be a welcoming place for her to spend the ninth grade in.
"So Katara, do you have any other questions?" Aang asked, turning to Katara with a gentle smile. Based on first impressions alone, Katara was definitely looking forward to attending the same school as Aang, even though they were one grade apart. "Do you think you'll be joining any clubs or teams at school?" Aang asked, folding his schedule and tucking it neatly into his pocket, "What are you interested in?"
"Well, I do like aquatic activities, so maybe something along swimming or diving may be good," Katara responded with slight eagerness, "I suffered an injury a while back, so I don't do as many sports anymore. But it doesn't mean I've given up on it, though. I guess I like being in the water, which is my element. It's too bad bending isn't allowed during school time…"
"Oh, you're a water bender?" Aang declared, his eyes twinkling and his grin getting even wider, "That's awesome, Katara. There are a few water benders in this school, but I don't know them well. Besides, like you said, the school rules prohibit all types bending on campus due to safety concerns. So if you have free time, you can show me some skills!"
Katara tilted her head back and forth. Part of her was glad that there was someone that interested in her skills, but she also realized that she was anything but an expert. "I'm the only bender in my family, so everything I do is self-taught. Other than the most basic elements, I'm not that good at all," she replied, her free hand suddenly finding the right loop of her hair very fascinating, "Besides, you're an air bender, right? I heard the arrow tattoos are supposed to mean an air bender is really skilled. So I'm sure you have a lot to show me too, right?"
Aang's face flushed scarlet, his eyes trying to tilt away from Katara while keeping in his goofy grin. "Well, my family has taught me air bending since I was little, and I train whenever I have free time," he shyly explained, shifting his weight back and forth, "The tattoos mean that an air bender has mastered thirty-six skills, although I actually mastered thirty-seven. I made up a skill by myself, and I'll show you when we're not in the school. Other than that…"
"Hey, Twinkle Toes, is that you?" a gruff female voice called from across the hall. Aang and Katara turned just in time to see a petite girl stalking their way. She was dressed in a green T-shirt with a yellow fleece vest slightly caked with dust. They were matched with beige cargo pants, sandals, and a bag that slung diagonally across her body. But the thing that shocked Katara the most was the girl's eyes, which were slightly covered behind black bangs that dangled past her forehead. The irises with milky and blurry, and if they were stared at from a distance away, it was like she had no irises at all. "I figured you'd be enough of a keener to show some newbie around," the girl pointed out, placing her hands on her hips, "Who's the new girl?"
"Uh, maybe I should introduce you two to each other first," Aang stated apprehensively. Rubbing the back of his bald head, he positioned himself between Katara and the smaller girl. "Katara, this is my friend Toph Bei Fong. She's supposed to be in grade seven this year. Toph, this is Katara Kuruk. She moved here from another city, and will be in grade nine."
Katara glanced back at Aang, who seemed a bit uneasy making that introduction. Trying to stay polite, Katara stuck out her hand at Toph. "Pleased to meet you," she greeted Toph in a sweet tone. No point in getting in an argument on the first day, right?
To Katara's surprise, Toph balled up a fist and slugged Katara on the shoulder. "Same to you, Sugar Queen," she responded with a cheeky grin, much to Katara's dismay. The water bender rubbed her shoulder and glared at the shorter girl, not sure what shocked her more: the nickname or the punch. If this was how Toph greeted a friend, how would she greet an enemy?
"Don't be so surprised, Sugar Queen," Toph chided, seemingly reading Katara's mind, "I can feel your body getting all nervous and stuff. Your heart rate is increasing, and I can even hear your breathing getting faster. You can't hide anything from me, Katara. I have ways of sensing vibrations through the floor, which is made of cement, and that's a type of earth."
Before Katara or Toph could say another word, Aang interjected to bring some sanity back into the conversation. "I guess I forgot to mention that Toph is an earth bender, but the way she deals with earth is different than most earth benders," he explained, waving his two hands to reassure Katara, "Toph, if you haven't noticed already, is blind, so she relies on earth bending to get around. Because of this, her other senses are extra sensitive, and she can detect things that most people cannot detect, like breathing or heart rate. But of course, I'm sure you're just as special as well, Katara, with your water bending skills and whatnot…"
"Since when did you become such a suck-up, Twinkle Toes? Are you trying to impress the lady by telling her how you skipped a grade?" Toph snorted, crossing her arms across her chest and tilting a sly grin at Aang, "Water bending is fine, except you won't find any water to bend unless you go into the washroom or the showers. Other than that, what else is new?"
Katara hissed. She was a bit put off by Toph's dismissal of water bending, but was also intrigued to see a blind bender for the first time. Part of her wanted to lash out at Toph for her underestimation of water, but her head insisted that she stayed civil. Perhaps it was best that they changed the topic? "So Toph, how did you enjoy your elementary school last year?" she asked.
"Weren't you in another school outside the neighbourhood," Aang added, relaxing his posture and turning back to Toph, "Why did you transfer here? I thought you'll attend…"
"Not another word," Toph warned, jabbing a finger in Aang's face. Aang's eyes grew larger than plates, while Katara gawked at the crazy scene. "If you don't want me to bend two stalagmites, one up each of your nostrils, you will keep that information private for now."
"Hey, what's going on here?" Katara and Aang both whipped their heads towards the front doors. Standing at the doorway were two figures, one Katara recognizing as her brother. "Suki and I were wondering why you guys didn't come over," Sokka described, trotting over with his guide Suki, "Everything going smoothly in the junior high campus so far?"
"Toph? What are you doing here?" Suki asked incredulously. Like Aang, she expected Toph to be attending another school, so to see her younger friend in this junior high, with her schedule roughly shoved into her bag, was truly a surprise.
"Suki," Aang whispered, using the slash-throat gesture to make her cut it short. Turning back to Katara, he explained how he knew both Toph and Suki. "Toph, Suki, and I grew up in the same neighbourhood, so we always run into each other in community events. There is one other friend I want you to meet, but he's in the high school campus, and I haven't seen him yet."
Katara took this opportunity to introduce Aang and Toph to Sokka, her brother. Sokka, like Katara, tried to be polite to the group, but it was obvious to Katara that he was a bit out of his element. Somehow, Katara found Sokka a little intrigued, if not intimidated, by Aang's tattoos and Toph's lifeless eyes. It was odd too, considering Sokka was the guy in the Kuruk family with the most dynamic mind, always thinking up of new ideas and innovations. "So, now that we've gotten a chance to see everything, maybe we should call it a day?" Katara suggested.
"Toph, why did you run off?" another voice called from the doorway. The whole group, minus Toph, turned to see a man in his forties with neat black hair and a thin moustache. He had on a cream-coloured dress shirt and a brown tie, but neither was more eye-catching than the frown on his face. "Your mother and I are still working out details for your classes. What if this public school doesn't have a good braille program? Besides, it's dangerous for a small, blind girl to run off. What if you get hurt in this big place? Come back to the registration office right now!"
Toph sighed in defeat. "Meet my father, Lao Bei Fong," she murmured to the foursome, trudging back towards the protective man, "Dad, you know Aang and Suki. The other two are Katara and Sokka Kuruk," she muttered, gesturing behind her. Lao always drilled the ways of formal greetings into his daughter, and while Toph found it tedious, she still tended to perform them in his presence. "Now that we're done the formalities, can you stop grabbing me like that?"
"Wait, Kuruk? Did you say their last name is Kuruk?" Lao stuttered, squinting his eyes at the water siblings, "Ah, I do see the resemblance. My name is Lao Bei Fong, and I'm the general manager of the Gaoling Company. I recall hiring a new employee named Hakoda Kuruk a while ago, and he told me he has two children. Looks like you're the people he was talking about." Lao nodded sagely and kept mumbling about how he ran a top-notch firm in the field. "I'm sure Hakoda will tell me more about you when he starts work in a few days. Good day, kids." With that, Lao guided Toph out the doors as quickly as he burst through, leaving the four speechless.
Katara and Sokka finally turned to look at each other with looks of pure discomfort. If this was the man that would supervise their father, then Hakoda was in it for the long-haul. With that haughty and nose-thumbing attitude, how could anyone deal with someone that bombastic?
"We're settling in fine, Gran Gran," Katara spoke into her cellphone, lying on her bed and staring holes into the ceiling. She had been in Republic City for close to a week now, and yet she hadn't had a chance to have a true heart-to-heart talk with her grandmother. Kanna had been living on the outskirts of Republic City since her husband passed away. So to finally get this chance to speak with someone Katara bonded well with, it soothed Katara's nerves and mind.
"Have you seen your new school yet?" Kanna asked on the other line, "Hakoda told me earlier that you went to pick up your schedules already. How do you like your new school?"
"The new school's okay. A student there was kind enough to show me around," Katara replied before pausing, thinking back to the tour given to her by Aang. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, but something about the way Aang conducted himself really left a mark. Aang had the playfulness and cheerfulness of a pre-teen, but also the maturity of someone several years older than. "He was really nice too, introducing me to some of his other friends," Katara added, absently twirling her hair loop again.
"Well, it's always good to make new friends," Kanna pointed out, "Things were a bit tough for me when your grandfather passed away, but I kept myself active in the community. I met some very helpful people, and we called or visited each other quite a bit. Remember that you can always rely on your family and friends to help. Don't shut them out of your life, Katara."
Katara tilted her head a couple of times, chewing over Kanna's words carefully. Maybe that was the reason why she was so against Hakoda moving to Republic City in the first place. All Katara could remember was that when Hakoda suggested the idea, a flurry of emotions went through her head. In the heat of the moment, she accused Hakoda of giving up Kya's memories for the sake of moving on. While no one in the family had proven they were forgetting Kya so far, it was still something in the back of her mind. Did moving on truly meant leaving Kya behind, or did that just mean new opportunities were ready for her, as Kanna mentioned?
"Anyway, I guess I shouldn't bother you too much now," Kanna's voice echoed off the earpiece, snapping Katara back to reality, "It's getting late and you should be getting to bed. School does start for you two tomorrow, right? So good luck to you two, and keep in touch."
Katara soon turned her phone off after Kanna hung up. Kanna's words applied so well to Katara, making the water bender wonder if she was being too close-minded to the possibilities. While Katara did get too emotional at times, she never believed she would let her emotions cloud her judgment. At least, she hoped her emotions wouldn't make her do stupid things that harmed her loved ones. Besides, being a bender meant controlling the elements, and that took a strong mind and will. She could never good at bending if she couldn't keep her head on straight.
Yet it was because Katara was a bender that she felt she had to take on this challenge. Just like how she taught herself all the basics, she had to teach herself once more to face life's challenges. All those years when she was little, she recalled being in the bathtub or the pool, just doing the water bending techniques over and over again. It didn't stop her when she got stuck or tired; rather, Katara would continue on, persevering until she improved. If she approached her current life the way she approached bending, maybe things would be different? Sighing and shaking her head, she decided to peel herself off the bed and fetched her pyjamas.
She stepped out of her room just in time to see Sokka exit the bathroom, her brother also changed into his sleepwear and getting ready for bed. "How's the call with Gran Gran?" he asked, stepping into his unorganized room. There were still boxes and other containers that had yet to be opened, making Katara wonder if Sokka ever wanted to settle down at all.
"Oh, it's alright. She asked us how we're doing, if we're ready for school, that sort of thing," Katara replied nonchalantly, wriggling her nose at the mess in her brother's room, "I told her how Aang showed me around, and I think Aang's really nice to introduce his friends to me."
Sokka tilted his head back at Katara, one eyebrow nearly reaching the roof. "Aang, the goofy kid?" he retorted, his tone a mix of disbelief and unimpressed, "I still say he doesn't have his head on straight. Just don't let him be a distraction for you in class, okay?"
"First of all, Aang's a grade lower than me, so we won't be in any classes together," Katara stated, crossing her arms and shooting Sokka a dark look, "Secondly, he skipped a grade, for crying out loud! He's got to be pretty smart to do that. Heck, you're supposed to be the smarter sibling between us, yet you can't even do it!"
"Hey, I'm just pointing out the obvious. My instincts tell me that Aang isn't what he seems to be. As your big brother, I have a responsibility to warn you," Sokka insisted, defending himself by lifting his hands to the level of his cheeks, "Just don't get distracted, okay?"
Katara rolled her eyes. Again, she had two points for rebuking her brother. "First off, when have your instincts ever been right? Secondly, if you want distraction, how do you explain what happened between you and Suki? You could barely talk properly when she introduced herself to you, so who's being distracted now?" Katara challenged, a smirk crossing her face.
Sokka threw his hands into the air. "Suki's just a girl, okay?" he responded, his voice cracking like it usually did when he got excited, "There's nothing between us, and I won't let a girl show me up at school!" Sokka bragged, inhaling a deep breath and shoving out his chest.
Katara shook her head and covered her face. Chalk it up to her brother to find some lame excuse to show off, only to fall flat on his face later on. "Say what you want, Sokka," she replied, waving him off as she headed into the bathroom. Closing the door, Katara got into her nightly routine, quickly changing into her pyjamas and brushing her teeth. Returning to her room, Katara flipped off the lights, and flopped onto the bed. Maybe it was a premonition, but Katara had a feeling that her new friends were about to become a bigger part of her life real soon.