A/N: It's been about a year and a half since What I Learned at SRU concluded. In that time, I've been struggling to start new, original projects, such as DownRight Fierce (an entirely new story inspired by Street Fighter, Kill la Kill, and Scott Pilgrim), as well as revising SRU into a new, original form, as What We Learned at Rokudai. This revision would be more than just swapping some names around. Some characters would be removed entirely, replaced with new ones. Many scenes are adjusted, altered, or outright replaced. Main beats of the story are being adjusted (such as the crime drama side plot), and many new romances will exist (such as Kat x Jane being an item for a while, or the characters who used to be Mai/Ty-Lee being a couple) all to better express things I didn't let myself dive into the first time around. These new projects can be read on my DeviantArt (Destiny-Smasher) or my FictionPress account (Eddy Fettig).
While I'm a good ways into both of these projects, I'm still unsure as to what to do with them to get them off the ground. Where to submit them, how to publish them, etc. I recently submitted SRU to a contest on a website called 'Inkitt,' under the 'Fandom' event going on right now. If you want to support me there, 'reccomend' SRU on Inkitt. (You can easily find it by just searching for the title What I Learned at SRU.)
I have different plans on how I could adapt my projects into other formats, but these all require money that I don't have (my attempt at using Kickstarter had a strong first couple of days, then went nowhere and missed its goal by a lot).
I've been sinking into a state of depression this year, as I'm stuck working dead-end retail jobs for years on end, with my writing not getting any attention, even as I start original projects. I have no idea where to submit my work, what to do with it, and ultimately, I've been feeling lately like none of my work really matters to anyone - that the only reason anyone cared in the first place was because it was fanfiction, even though from the start, SRU was basically an original work with heavy Avatar references.
Any support, whether through suggestions, recommendations, advice, or just words of encouragement, would all be appreciated during this time.
Here are the prologue and first chapter drafts of the revision for this story, in order to not make your trip here without something to read.
What We Learned at Rokudai
- Prologue -
-Friday, August 22nd -
[MagiKat: You ready for the new school year?]
[killerbee-fitz: fuck no.]
[MagiKat: That bad, eh? =( ]
[killerbee-fitz: i dunno.]
[killerbee-fitz: just in a shitty place right now.]
[MagiKat: I understand. I'm not doing the best, either, TBH.]
[killerbee-fitz: how come?]
[MagiKat: Nerves, I guess. We're about to go visit my cousin on our way out of Vancouver.]
[killerbee-fitz: the cousin you hate?]
[MagiKat: She's our only cousin, actually.]
[MagiKat: And I don't...hate her. It's complicated. I'm frustrated by her.]
[killerbee-fitz: fancy way of saying you hate her. ;) ]
[MagiKat: =P ]
[MagiKat: But seriously, she's family. I love her, but she can be...]
[MagiKat: ...a bit too much sometimes.]
[killerbee-fitz: yea i feel ya.]
[MagiKat: Come to think of it, how are things with your mom going?]
[killerbee-fitz: not good. prolly reason why i'm shitty mood today.]
[MagiKat: I'm sorry.]
[MagiKat: ~hug~ ]
[killerbee-fitz: thanks. i'll live.]
[MagiKat: I tried to help, but she didn't seem interested in hearing me out.]
[killerbee-fitz: nah not your fault. no worries.]
[killerbee-fitz: just a bitch. nothing we can do.]
[MagiKat: I'm sure there's just misunderstanding.]
[killerbee-fitz: like you n your cousin?]
[MagiKat: That's a good point. I guess Coral hasn't done me as wrong as your mom has...]
[MagiKat: Oh, my cousin.]
[killerbee-fitz: ok. uh.]
[killerbee-fitz: that sounds like a granma name.]
[MagiKat: In case you haven't noticed, my family likes weird names. ;P I guess I lucked out on that one.]
[killerbee-fitz: whats your bro's name again?]
[MagiKat: He goes by Zeke a lot, though. You'll meet him this weekend. =) He's...a character, all right.]
[killerbee-fitz: uh yea. i dunno when i'll have time. but..]
[MagiKat: Are we not on for meeting up anymore?]
[MagiKat: ='( ]
[killerbee-fitz: bout that. really busy. unpacking shit and stuff.]
There was a pause in the conversation – an awkward lull. Katrina's stomach writhed as she waited for a reply. She tried to look out the car window to clear her head – the Canadian sky was gray and clouded above the busy highway her brother was navigating them through. Despite the dull day around them, the orchestrated soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings films was filling their vehicle. It was her brother's choice in music – he was a big-time 'LotR' fan – but she sure didn't mind. When it was her turn in the driver's seat, she'd probably reply with some Harry Potter music or something.
Doo, duh-dah doo, duh-doooo, dooo...
'killerbee-fitz' replied after three minutes, pulling Katrina's attention back to her phone's instant messenger program.
[killerbee-fitz: your pissed huh? ]
[MagiKat: Um, yea, a little bit. I've been waiting all summer to see you.]
[MagiKat: We've known each other since April, we've chatted all summer now, but we've never once spent time face-to-face. Just us.]
[killerbee-fitz: just not big on that sorta thing, ok? ]
[MagiKat: If you don't actually care about spending time with me, that's fine, just say so and I'll leave you alone.]
After typing at her phone with flurrying fingers, Kat set the device between her legs and sighed out through her nose.
From Katrina's left, her brother cast a curious glance at her expression just long enough to get that she was irate over something or another.
"Drama-llama stuff?" he inquired flatly.
Katrina chose not to dignify his ever-annoying label with a response.
Her elder by one year (actually, 10 months, to be particular) Siku had been cranky all day. He'd been saddled with driving duty between their small home town and Vancouver, and he always made a fuss when he had to drive for more than half an hour.
Kat checked her phone again – nothing yet.
"Who are you talking to?" asked Siku.
Ah, there we are. A question instead of a judgment.
"A friend," Katrina vaguely replied.
"A boy friend?" Siku came back dryly, and with extra disinterest.
Aaaand the lack of judging lasted all of one sentence. Great job, Bro.
"No, not a boy friend," retorted Kat with a sigh through her nostrils. "She's a friend I made last spring."
"...'She' got a name?" Oh, brilliant. Of course. Now he was suddenly intrigued, the horn dog.
"Her name is Jane," Katrina muttered.
Jane Fitzpatrick was a curious girl Katrina had met the prior semester due to mutual ties with the guy Kat had started dating. Jane was Katrina's opposite in many ways – which was actually the reason why Kat was so intrigued by her. She harbored secrets, and some dark ones, at that, but over the course of a summer of chatting, she'd opened up to Katrina a bit. This had only further reinforced Kat's suspicions that the girl needed someone in her corner, looking out for her, and thus had they formed a loosely symbiotic friendship since then. Katrina's need to feel relied on was filled, as was Jane's need to vent to someone she could trust.
"Have I met her?" Siku asked, brows furrowed, but eyes still on the highway.
"No," Kat replied plainly. Scratching an itch at the top of her head, Katrina picked her phone back up, feeling antsier by each passing second.
[killerbee-fitz: look i like you kat. your cool. but my life is packed fulla shit right now n don't got time for meet n greets.]
[MagiKat: Is because I mentioned my brother?]
[MagiKat: It can be just us if that makes you more comfortable.]
[killerbee-fitz: ok. fine.]
[killerbee-fitz: i can do that.]
Ah. So that was it, then. Jane just wasn't ready for new faces. That made sense. She seemed like a hermit of sorts.
[MagiKat: Are you sure?]
[killerbee-fitz: i said i can so yea. i'll make time.]
[MagiKat: I don't want you to feel pressured. I just want to spend time with you in person.]
[killerbee-fitz: dude we're gonna be living across the hall its not like you won't see me.]
[MagiKat: Nevermind, then, we don't have to.]
[killerbee: why you want to hang out with me so bad anyway?]
[killerbee: shouldnt you be setting up a date with jack?]
That question stung. Katrina was quickly facing up to the fact that going back to school was going to mean owning up to how distant she'd become from her boyfriend.
[MagiKat: We already have one set up. But I've spent a bunch of time with him, and we always end up ignoring you. Or you become the third wheel. I just want you to not feel left out, I guess.]
[MagiKat: Like...It'd be nice to be friends apart from your group. You know? I care about you and TBH I don't really have many girlfriends on campus to hang out with.]
[killerbee-fitz: dude I don't care about the third wheel thing. jack n me put that behind us its done and over so dont think about that.]
[killerbee-fitz: yea i don't have gf's either...i care too. suck at showing it i know.]
[MagiKat: It's OK. I understand that you have a lot going on. I'm not trying to get in the way of all that, I'm just trying to be here. I think it'd do us both some good to take this to the next step and actually hang out together.]
[killerbee-fitz: fine. we can do it.]
Katrina chewed at her lower lip as she contemplated what to say next. Siku started humming along with the Hobbit-themed violin tune that was playing through the car's audio system. She couldn't tell if Jane was really getting where she was coming from.
[MagiKat: So coffee on Sunday is still a go?]
[killerbee-fitz: yea yea. just us. that's fine.]
[MagiKat: Am I being too pushy?]
Well, that totally means 'yes.'
[MagiKat: Sorry. =_= ]
[killerbee-fitz: nah its cool. i dont do this kinda crap so it's awksauce.]
[MagiKat: … ]
[killerbee-fitz: lol yea.]
[killerbee-fitz: jack uses that word lately. its dumb but whatev.]
[killerbee-fitz: sorry to OFFEND you miss english major.]
[MagiKat: Ha! I'm so offended I'm going to go read a book now. Clear my palette.]
[killerbee-fitz: k. should get back to work here.]
[MagiKat: All right. What time on Sunday, then?]
[killerbee-fitz: after lunch. 2pm work?]
[MagiKat: Yes, that's great. =) ]
[killerbee-fitz: coffee shop. right?]
[MagiKat: That's the plan!]
[killerbee-fitz: see you then kat.]
[MagiKat: Take care of yourself, Jane.]
"Is it worth it?"
The question floated around Katrina's head for a second. She wasn't sure what was being talked about, though. Truth be told, she'd kind of phased out of the conversation, losing herself in anxiety and excitement. She was about to start her Junior year of university studies, she'd just endured an all-day car ride with her frustrating sibling...
Katrina looked up at the barkeep – her older cousin Coral, an Inuk woman of girth. Coral made the perfect bartender, so she claimed: she loved a good drink, she could woo drunk men into becoming more drunk, and she had the muscle to stop a fight from breaking out if need be. Granted, her method to stopping a fight often involved picking a side and ending things quickly, but...Katrina found it prudent to not bring up that point when it was bragged about.
"Well...-?" came Coral from behind the counter. "Is it?"
"Is...what worth it?" Katrina checked, fidgeting with her glasses.
"College," Coral clarified, wiping a black rag against the bar's counter, scrubbing some residue off.
"Oh. Yes," Katrina replied without hesitation now that she was back on track. She took a sip of her drink, a foamy-capped glass of Guinness that Coral had pushed on her – at least it was on the house. "Of course it's worth it," Kat added, as if the very question was unnecessary.
The bitter beer stuck to her taste buds. It felt good in that moment, despite her disinterest in the flavor.
Coral offered Kat a dubious glance as she scooped a loonie coin off the recently emptied spot to Kat's left. Katrina nodded to seal her remark in spite of the uncertain glance she was receiving. Kat then shrugged, fidgeting with the chain on her metal necklace. Scratching her pudgy nose, she took another sip.
Katrina then cited in a buzzed mumble, "College is a life-changing thing. You can't...put a price on that."
"Oh, yea?" Coral, said skeptically. "What do you think, eh?" she posed to the young man in the stool at Katrina's right, who was working through a glass of the same beer. Coral leaned over the bar to stare at him, dropping her broad elbows down on the countertop. "Am I missin' out, Cuz?"
"Meh," the boy shrugged, gazing off toward the shelves of colorful and shapely glass bottles stacked behind Coral's back. "My sister here's a year further back and thus a year less jaded, so...-"
Ugh. There Siku went, dismissing Kat's opinion again. And Coral would always take his side, anyway, so why had she even asked for Katrina's thoughts in the first place?
"So it's a runaround," Coral concluded flatly, and with a certain smugness shot in Kat's direction.
"College is the biggest runaround there is," Siku deadpanned, sucking down another gulp of beer. "Especially in America."
"Yep, well...-" Coral grunted with doubt, shifting her position. "I kinda figure it ain't much better up here, either. You guys coulda picked a school in Canada."
"Hey," Siku was quick to retort, "I had a school picked out, but...-"
His remark stung in Kat's chest. Was he regretting his decision? She had kind of guilted him into it, but that...was , like, three, three-and-a-half years back. Besides, it had been for his own good – both of their own good. Yea. She'd-...They had made the right choice, attending Rokudai. Siku had wanted to try for something smaller and local initially...
"But-" Coral stepped in off of Siku's remark, "-you got roped into going to school down in the States."
"We like it there," Kat defended, drumming her fingernails along her glass. She'd been growing them out over the summer a little bit – it fit the secretarial summer job she'd worked – but she had a feeling she'd be clipping them short soon enough. Long nails, makeup, that sort of thing was fun and all for a while, but it definitely didn't fly for her in the college setting. She decided to followup by adding, "It's a beautiful place. With beautiful people."
"Meh," Siku spat in a dry syllable. "Coral's got a good point, though – we could've been more practical."
"You know why we weren't," Katrina grumbled, pinching at the bridge of her nose.
"Yea, yea..." Siku breathed out through his nostrils, staring at the thinning layer of foam drifting at the top of his beverage.
"You're both gonna be stuck in debt until you die, eh?" said Coral, still slouched over the counter. She added sarcastically, "But it's worth it."
Katrina interjected the negativity by stating, "There are things you can learn in college that you just aren't going to learn in a place like...-" Katrina gestured her wrist across the bar. "-...like this."
Coral's fearsome eyes slid to Katrina's, brows dipping down a bit.
"Learning isn't the same as doing," Coral grumbled.
"What does that even mean?" Kat sighed, burying her face in her glass. As expected, her older cousin was getting her flustered. Just because Kat and her brother had decided to go to university while their slack-off cousin had flunked out of the academy...-
"It means-" Coral started up, pushing her body upright off the bar. "-that classes 'n crap don't do any good if you're just gonna be stuck in a rut under bills and shit. You can have a fucking diploma, and yay, whatever, but it won't do anything if you don't take what you want for yourself."
Coral's bold mini-lecture was met with a fairly cold glare from Katrina, whose heart was starting to pound with anxiety from her own socially contained rage at her relative.
Kat mumbled with much passive-aggression, "Well, you would know about taking what you want, wouldn't you...?"
Coral instantly shot Kat a retaliatory glare, eyelids lowered.
"...What was that?" Coral snapped quietly.
"Now, now, ladies," Siku eased in that exaggerated, demeaning way he often did. "Tonight is a night for drinking and being merry, not...-" He stared at the two womens' irate glances, wearing one of mild disgust himself. "-...this."
Coral suddenly left them, rather conveniently and swiftly. In truth, it was because she'd just been flagged down by a pair of customers needing refills.
Siku let out a deep sigh, rubbing his stomach in small, slow circles.
"What does she care, anyway?" Katrina hissed into her older brother's ear as they drank at their stools. "Like it's her business what we're doing with our educations..."
"She doesn't care," Siku calmly cited. "Prolly just trying to make herself feel better about what she missed out on."
"And you're encouraging her," Kat winced quietly, creasing her forehead with her palm. "Why are you encouraging her?"
Siku gave his sibling's quietly exacerbated look a glance of disinterest. He scratched at the stubble on his wide jawline and fluttered out another sigh, shaking his head slightly as he looked away.
"I'm just being honest with her," he defended with nonchalance.
"Wh-?!" Kat puffed. She firmly set her glass down and folded her arms across her waist with impatience. "And I'm – what? – lying by being optimistic?"
"Puh-ritty much, yea."
Katrina sharply recited what she interpreted as her brother's view. "Being hopeful and seeing the bright side of things is the same as lying to her. Chyuh…-!" She rolled her eyes fiercely, rubbing her warm cheek. "Do you know how that sounds?"
"Lying to her? I dunno." Siku tilted back his head and swallowed a gulp from his glass. "Lying to yourself? Now that...-" He wriggled his index finger up in the air as he continued to drink.
"How am I...-? Wh...-?" This was really infuriating Kat. Had Siku already jumped into full-on 'Senioritis' mode before classes had even started?
Big Brother elaborated his view to her.
"I know you're dead-set on turning college into this TV-sitcom-fantasy-fever-dream, but-"
"I'm loving it there," Kat insisted in a whispering rage. "You don't-"
"Uh, yea, I distinctly recall back during finals week, you having this mental breakdown, so...-"
"That had nothing to do with school, you know exactly why that happened."
Siku rolled his slightly-intoxicated head over to his sibling with a look about him that smelled of misogyny, and true to Kat's expectations, he replied in a way that just made her more upset.
"It happened because you have a vagina and estrogen and your body is telling you to have babies but you're telling it 'no' so it hates you, and-"
"You're such a child."
"You're on your period."
"I am not, and if I was, it wouldn't be your business, anyway – not that it matters because you need to stop writing me off by saying that!" Katrina sucked in a deep break through flared nostrils as she whispered out her anger. "I clean your room and wash your dirty laundry – which, by the way, is disgusting, and there's a basket for a reason – and you and Dad go off on your trips and leave me to take care of the house all summer...I take care of the 'mom' things if I don't, who else is going to? Mom's dead, so she's sure not going to! So I take on that responsibility!" Katrina thumbed her collarbone, her face hot from booze, her eyes damp with frustration, her words hissing through hushed syllables. "And now you're going to tell me that I'm..-?!"
Katrina's crazy taxi full of pent-up familial grief screeched to a stop at a red light when her brother's eyes, widened at her mini-explosion, glanced through her.
"What?" Kat grunted. She twisted her head to notice her bulky relative glowering down at her, knuckles against her hips.
"Soooo...-" Coral began awkwardly. She fussed her fingers through her mess of untamed hair and braids. "Kitty Kat's claws are out again, eh?"
Katrina lulled her head down in defeat, her rising anger reducing itself from a hot boil a simmer.
"Shut up," Kat sighed, making to fuss with her glasses to avoid her cousin's gaze. She hated when Coral called her that – 'Kitty Kat' - and Coral knew she did, and yet the name was still dropped. She buried her warm face in her palm, sliding her glasses up at an angle over her forehead. With her elbow on the counter, she closed her eyes, the headache starting to set in. Probably a mixture of the booze and her immature cousin.
Coral glanced at Katrina, who'd recently expelled steam, and Siku, who seemed content to not care. Coral was familiar with this process. She was glad she didn't have any siblings to go through drama with all the time.
"Did you take your medicine?" Siku asked Katrina quietly.
"Yes," Kat said in a dulled groan, still face-palming herself. She wriggled her glasses evenly onto her forehead, propped by the bases of her ears.
"'Cuz it...-" Siku's voice squeaked with uncertainty. "-...doesn't seem like you-"
If he wasn't blaming it on estrogen, he would blame it on that. This wasn't either of those, it was just...frustration. Anxiety. They were about to start another year of college, for one, and Kat hated long car rides, so she was already in a bad mood over the prospect of the one they were preparing for. A freaking 15 or 16 hour car ride stuck alone with Big Brother – but the prospect of that was still better than taking a plane and being without a car all school year. Their school was a little bit secluded, a ten minute drive from the closest town. That was great, but not when one didn't have a car to use.
"I'm just in a bad mood," Katrina tried to explain after a tense couple of seconds of quiet.
"Maybe it's the beer talkin'," Coral theorized, not interested in getting caught up further.
"...Maybe," Kat puffed tiredly. She let her hand slip off of her face and rubbed at her eyes. The world was a blur. She was having trouble deciding whether to put her glasses back on and risk worsening her headache, or leaving everything blurry. Ugh, that could just make it worse, too. She opted to lazily slide her glasses back down over her eyes, and her vision was restored, only to make out her brother's unbelieving eyes casting doubt her way.
"As long as you can do your part tomorrow," Siku advised.
"Yea," Kat shrugged defensively. "I didn't-...I'm not trying to get out of driving duty or something, I'm just...-"
"Because it's already gonna be a long trip," Siku cited. "And I had to drive today."
"I know," Kat firmly acknowledged. What was he implying, exactly?
"Obviously," Coral interjected, "You two need more to drink."
"I...I'm not sure that's...-"
But Katrina's hesitation was steamrolled.
Coral interrupted by arguing, "More alcohol is always the best idea."
"Yes," said Siku. "Alcohol! More! Of that!"
"But we have to drive all day tomorrow," Kat whimpered. Oh, bleh. She had whimpered it out. Must've sounded way more whiny than she'd intended.
"Which means-" Siku concluded, "-we've gotta relax tonight and get a good sleep. Relaxing – you remember how to do that, I know ya do." He slapped Katrina on the back roughly.
Kat rolled her eyes at her brother's patronizing tone while absorbing his slightly painful back-pat.
"I dunno," Coral picked. "Kat? Relax? I've never seen it happen."
Kat just shook her head, fiddling with her glasses just for something to do with her hands. They were going to give her hell if she didn't have more to drink, so screw it.
"Fine, sure, OK..." She gestured her wrist inward, toward herself. "Gimme more, then, if you're offering."
Every chat within this family seemed to turn into some kind of a debate. What would Mom have said if she was still around? Probably something like how there was a time and a place for letting things out, and this was not the time, nor the place.
"Finish that Guinness," Coral offered, "And I'll...work something else out for you guys."
"Appletini?" Siku was quick to request.
Coral gave the chunky, scruff-prone college boy a disappointed shake of her head.
"Seriously?" she balked in a monotone.
"I'm not really a beer guy," Siku reminded. "So Guinness isn't exactly the best going-away drink, eh?"
"And I never asked for a Guinness in the first place," Katrina pointed out flatly.
"I never asked for a little sister," Siku took a playful jab, literally nudging Kat on the arm with his fist.
At first, Katrina couldn't decide whether to let herself smile at his dumb humor or pull herself another inch away at his demeaning remark. What would Mom have done? Well...
"We get things we don't ask for, I guess," Katrina recited plainly with glazed eyes at her half empty glass - er, half full.
"Ain't that the truth?" Coral sighed, noting that she was being waved to for more bar-tending duties. "Be back in a sec, guys..."
"Yep," Siku said with an upward nod. He took in a deep breath, then exhaled slowly.
Katrina and her older brother sat side by side in the dive bar, each contemplating what the next year of college down in California held for them. Katrina was already dreading being stuck in the car with her brother after the mood he was in today, and the mood he had dragged her into. Not to mention that they still had to stop by their storage room after they got there and move crap into their dorm rooms, and...Oh, jeez, and she was moving in with Juniper this year, too. That girl was probably going to need a lot of help getting her half of the room in order, and...urrgh. Bleh. Blah. That junk would take up what else was left of their weekend before classes started up. At least on Monday they could just get their supplies and textbooks in the morning and call the rest of it a day, since classes wouldn't begin until Tuesday. Ugh. And then the real cycle would begin, and she'd be drained before it even did.
Katrina was excited for school to start back up. Really. But getting through that hump at the start was always so tiring, and once college started, it became so ridiculously hard to recover and recup.
"What's with all the doom-'n-gloom, guys?"
Coral's inquiry broke them both from their stupor.
"It's this Vancouver air," Siku dryly replied, lathering his words with smarm. "I'm tellin' ya, everything just stinks more around here, eh? Oh wait, that might just be you," he jibed at Coral.
Coral shrugged, letting his joke roll off her broad shoulders.
"My pits are probably hairer than yours," she cited matter-of-factly. "Fuck, I've probably got more hair between my legs than y-"
"Oooo-kay," Katrina winced, flashing up her hand. She got that Coral and Siku had to be...Kesuks, and assert their dominance over each other and whatever. But, ew.
"So," Siku progressed the conversation with blunt force. "Aside from trying to de-masculinate me-" he said to Coral, "-was there anything you wanted to do before we head out?"
Coral passively shrugged, then stuck up her index finger to them as a signal that she had to rush off to the counter's opposite end to assist an elderly gent.
"Siku, she's in the middle of a shift," Katrina grumbled to her brother as she watched him finish his beer. "What are you expecting?"
"I dunno," said Siku with defense. "It's just awkward to try and spend time with her while she's working."
"We told her weeks ago that tonight was the night we'd be in Vancouver," Kat sharply reminded. "She had time to schedule the evening off."
"Maybe she couldn't," Siku theorized.
"Well...-!" Kat honestly didn't think that their city-slicking cousin had much interest in hanging out with college-bound small-town relatives. "OK, you might be right," Katrina conceded. "But that doesn't change the facts: she can't hang out with us right now, and we have to get a good night's rest."
Siku observed dryly, "You're really quick to blow her off, aren't ya?"
"Oh, please," Katrina spoke into her glass as she tipped to her lips. "Like she wasn't doing it to me first." She took a few steady gulps, struggling to finish her own drink. Not quite there yet, she needed some air for a sec. After her throat was clear and she'd taken a breath, glass still hovering by her face, she added, "I've already tried with her, and you know how well that went."
"...Eh. Fair enough." Siku let the matter hang at that. "I just thought you were big on second chances, and all that."
"I...am," Katrina begrudgingly admitted, finally finishing off her drink. "But not when they don't care." She wiped bitter foam off of her lips with a paper-towel-like napkin from the countertop. "Second chances are-...They're supposed to be earned, or...or at least wanted. Coral doesn't-"
"She's back," Siku quietly but keenly interrupted.
"There ya go, guys," Coral congratulated them, nodding with approval as she grabbed their glasses. "Now that you've had a draft like a proper Canuck-" Katrina was indifferent to the term 'Canuck' but something about how Coral said it always irked Kat's sensibilities. "-tell me what you want for round two and I'll see what I can do here."
"Girly shit," Coral playfully intruded Siku's quick-draw request. "Got it," she chuckled. "You?" She glanced to Katrina, who avoided eye contact.
"I...I dunno, I'm not...-"
"Wine, right?" Coral guessed, rinsing out their glasses. Oh, sure. She'd forget all kinds of stuff, but when it came to Kat's preference in alcohol, she'd remember. "How about somethin' white, a bit sweet?"
"Shhhh...uurrre," Katrina slowly, awkwardly replied, a small shrug of her head acknowledging Coral's effort to accommodate. She was usually a red wine kind of lady but something white sounded especially good right then. Damn her cousin and her...being right. About booze. But, well, that was the one thing Coral was right about, and she was a bartender, so...there. It was her job.
"I think I've got somethin'," Coral said confidently with a snap of her finger at them. "Hang tight, be back in a flash."
Fifteen minutes and one really good glass of wine passed by in a blink – a full glass, not a half glass. And Katrina was really feeling it hitting her head. It was a headache, but a relaxing one. For five minutes now, since she'd gotten to the bottom of her wine glass, she'd been trying to subtly get Siku to understand that she was ready to leave. Their hotel was within walking distance, and she was more than ready to check in for the night, but was dreading the ten minute or so walk in the dark that would precurse a short night's rest.
Coral had disappeared as Siku was done with his second appletini, and she took it as a chance to finally push for their exit. Siku carelessly agreed through slurred mumbles, placated by a belly of booze. Kat had a feeling she would end up getting stuck with driving first thing in the morning, even though Siku had promised he would this time. Urgh. He was so irresponsible. How was he going to make it after school was over? Hell, how was he going to finish school in the first place?
Coral approached them from behind – the opposite side of the counter she had been occupying. She had her blue denim jacket on over her tank top. Its arms and shoulders had belts tied around for a bit of flair. It looked nice on her. The blue denim really caught Kat's eyes – it complicated her cousin's complexion pretty well. Kat found herself wishing she had a coat like it. Maybe she'd be able to find something with her saved up summer funds.
Coral sauntered over to them and stood, pelvis slightly pushed forward, hands on her hips – it was a proud kind of stance. Katrina, by contrast, was huddled over her wine glass, head shrunken into her neck a bit – she was feeling a bit bloated by now. Siku though...he just looked positively ragged, run-down. He was usually not that bad about holding his liquor. He was a bit of a stocky boy – thick limbs, sturdy abdomen. A bit of a barrel, really. And usually full of food. But not today. Siku had been acting more disinterested than usual, and as such hadn't eaten much. Katrina couldn't help but conclude it was because he'd wanted the alcohol to have more impact, given that they'd planned this stop a week beforehand.
"Wow, those hit you like fuckin' bricks," Coral observed, casting a dubious stare at Siku, who was slumped over in his stool. "You're such a pussy," she chuckled with a smile, slapping him on the back of his head.
"Arghhh," Siku growled in retaliation, swiping his wrist out in dismissal.
Katrina took the opportunity to do one of the few things she and Coral both got behind – slapping Siku upside his thick skull. Kat's strike was severely lacking in pep, however, and Coral noticed.
"You two look like shit," declared Coral – more brusquely than Kat would've preferred.
"Gee, thanks," Katrina sighed, realigning her glasses. She had realized from Coral's remark that they had found themselves into a crooked slant. Her hair probably looked awful, too. Aghhh...
"I thought you were both happy drunks," Coral recollected as she eased them up out of their seats.
"Not today," Kat said grimly.
"Where we goin'?" Siku murmured with a yawn as he was forced onto his wobbly feet.
"I'm on break," Coral cited, nodding them to follow her out. "Figured I'd see you two idiots off, eh?"
"Sounds good," Katrina obliged, sifting loose hair behind her ears.
As they passed through the dimly lit dive bar, Coral twisted back toward the bar and waved.
She called out, "'Kay, Vince – I'm out!"
"Be back in fifteen," a smooth voice commanded her from behind the bar.
Coral didn't reply, heading straight for the door as she shuffled her hands through her coat's pockets. Katrina had to nudge her brother against his back to get him to move forward. The air outside was crisp and cold, a refreshing change for Katrina's wine-addled face.
Coral barged through dinged up metal entrance door with the brunt of her bicep. It almost whacked Siku in the face on the back-swing, eliciting a sympathetic smirk from Katrina. She was normally the one bumping awkwardly into things, but when drunk, she ironically felt less clumsy – she was more relaxed, so her body was less tense, less prone to tripping itself up.
No sooner had they made their way outside did Coral pull a pack of cigarettes out of her breast pocket, slam one out of the carton, and light it with a match. Kat was keen to Coral's habit – she didn't approve – and found it funny the way her cousin relied on matches instead of a lighter. And in that instant, just like any other, Coral lingered with the lit match in her hand – staring at its flame in a half moment of entrancement – before igniting her cigarette. Coral then watched the match burn itself two-thirds of the way down before dropping it to the sidewalk and stamping it out beneath her hiking boot.
Siku's loud belch jarred Kat from her gawking observations.
"Excuse you," Kat grunted when he smiled and said nothing.
"Nope," Siku defied in a lazy syllable of drowsiness, stretching his arms up and arcing his spine.
"So, erm...-" Coral started up. They were standing in a tight ring by the edge of the sidewalk. "Can't give you guys a lift to the hotel." Coral added with a hint of pride, "We wouldn't all fit in my new ride."
"Oh, yeaaaaa," Siku breathed with some realized excitement. "How's that going, eh?"
"I fucking love it," Coral declared, in reference to her recent motorcycle purchase. "The way it roars and growls – shit." She grinned. "Like riding a goddamn grizzly bear."
"But smaller," Siku added. "'N not...as likely to eatchoo."
Coral puffed out a "Heh" at that remark.
Well, well. Wasn't she just a Cool Customer? Bleh. A motorcycle? Really? Such a waste of money. And dangerous. Of course Coral would piss her money on that.
Coral caught wind of Katrina's defensive, disinclined posture and expression.
Trying to appease her younger cousin's frown, Coral asked, "How far's this hotel at? I can walk ya."
"It's a few blocks this way," Kat was quick to point out, motioning her finger toward the direction they needed to go. "Maybe a fifteen minute walk?" Kat was conscientious of Coral's fifteen minute break allotment. "Don't worry about it, we don't want you to get in trouble with your boss."
"Who, Vincent?" Coral scoffed. "Psssh! Fuck 'im." Letting her cigarette hang on her lips, Coral swooped in between the two siblings and slung her heavy arms over their shoulders, ushering them onward. She took a drag on the cigarette, then exhaled smoke through her nostrils.
Kat's intoxicated face let out a disapproving glance. Coral never bothered to take other people into account – it was plain contradictory and dumb to Kat, that the woman would blow off her boss to walk her cousins to a hotel. She wasn't doing it for Siku and Katrina's sake, she was doing it as an excuse to extend her break or show her boss that she didn't recognize his authority. Something like that, right, Coral? Yea. Kat had it figured out.
Then the cigarette stench hit Kat like a cinder-block and she coughed. They continued to walk in steady silence for a few seconds, and Kat coughed twice more – Coral just kept right on smoking. What a...-! She was just...-! Urgh.
"Could you...stop, please?" Kat requested slowly, each word a little more difficult to structure while under the influence.
"Nnm?" Coral arced her head a bit at Katrina's shrunken posture. The girl was shrugging her way out of Coral's firmly friendly grip.
Kat grimaced and coughed a couple more times, squirming her way out from under Coral's heavy arm. She then checked her tanktop to ensure that no cigarette ashes had dropped on her.
"Y' OK, there?" Siku wondered, glancing over Coral's back to check on his sister with a bit of amusement.
"No," Katrina sighed – her sigh was cut short, turning into another cough.
"Ehhhh, stop bein' sucha grouch," Siku insisted. "Yer lettin' the Grumpies getcha."
"Ugh," Kat groaned at her brother's reference. She hated that stupid familial joke. It was embarrassing. She'd been a little child when that had happened, and still it haunted her.
"Ohhhh, yea," Coral chuckled. "The Grumpies..."
"Just stop," Katrina pleaded with a bite to her voice. "OK? Please?" Her head ached and her arms were getting goosebumps for no explicable reason. It was a bit chilly out - that was probably it.
Siku recognized his sibling's mood and let up with, "Yea, 'kay."
Coral pulled her cigarette out of her mouth with her newly freed hand and blew a wisp of gray into the night. Katrina's nostrils tightened at the sight and her breathing stilled until the smoke had cleared.
"Ya know...-" Coral said, tapping off some ash before taking another drag and another puff. "Kat, you're full of wine, you're with family, you're about to head off to this magical place of learning...And for how 'worth it' you say it is, you're in one pissy mood, eh?"
"Hey," Siku murmured into Coral's ear. "Yeaaaa, don't...-"
"No," Coral grunted. "I'm sick of this passive-aggro shit."
"Passive-aggressive?" Kat dryly corrected, staring straight ahead with dull eyes as they walked.
"You've got got a grudge," Coral plainly pointed out.
"You stole my boyfriend from me," Katrina bitterly reminded. "And then you just tossed him aside a month later."
"I didn't steal anyone from anybody!" Coral grunted with a dash of uncertainty to her tone – like she wasn't sure she was recollecting things right, just defending herself. "He...got with me and...I scared him off, and so...-" She huffed, shaking her head. "Anyway! It was three fuckin' years ago, get over it."
"Ha, ohhhh...-" Kat's jaw tightened, her face steaming a bit as she stilled her tongue, thinking a bit before speaking. "It was two and a half years ago. And I am...very over it, I have moved on."
"Have ya?" said Coral. "'Cuz whenever we see each other, ya pull this."
"And how often does that even happen?" Kat grumbled. "We never see each other in the first place, so I don't see how you expect me to just...forget about it."
"Everything's different now," Coral cited.
"No, it's not," Kat swiftly disagreed. "You're the exact same."
"Like you're any different," Coral countered, nudging Siku out of her grip and burying her hands in her coat pockets. "Shit around us has changed, but we're both still the same, eh?"
They all walked in silence. While Katrina and Coral brooded with steam rising from their ears, Siku scratched at his stomach and yawned.
"So...this is awkward," Siku stated plainly, and without interest – Coral was still walking side-by-side with him, her arm latched across his back.
"I'm sorry, OK?!" Katrina snapped. She'd spoken louder than she'd intended, drawing attention from a couple across the street. Sheepishly, she bobbed her head, arms wrapped around herself. She was starting to slip a little. The alcohol, maybe? It was inhibiting her self-control, or...something. Because alcohol did that. Right? It...broke down the barriers that prevented you from really speaking your mind.
"Sorry for what?" Coral skeptically inquired. She dropped her consumed cigarette to the sidewalk and crushed it with her next step forward.
"You really...piss me off, Coral," Katrina blurted, glaring at her cousin. "You hurt me, and you...still do. You're arrogant, and...and inconsiderate, and you...you just...-" Katrina choked on her own words, her eyes watering back up.
Coral was wide-eyed, confused, unresponsive. Rather than reply, she looked ahead, pockets stuffed with fists. Then she glared at the sidewalk. After about twenty seconds of the trio of Kesuk family members pacing side-by-side in tense silence, Coral stopped, letting the two siblings move forward. Then, those two siblings stopped, looking back.
"Coral..." Katrina moaned in a plea. "I'm trying to...to be honest with you, I...I just...-" She shrugged, rubbing her sleeve against dampened eyes. She breathed out shakily, steadying herself.
"We're both bitchy to each other," Coral bluntly observed with a shrug. "So whaddya want from me?"
Siku blinked at his elder cousin, then at his younger sister. He scratched at his scruffy facial hair, apparently intrigued by where this was going.
"We're Kesuks," Katrina cited, trying to clear up her face with her wrists. Her cheeks were warm on the inside, cold on the outside, and damp from traces of tears. "Remember how close we used to be? How we used to look out for each other? Whatever...happened to that?"
Coral's expression waned with impatience, and a grunt slipped out of her nose after a moment of forcing it back.
"We grew up," Coral concluded plainly, popping up one shoulder. "I've gotta find my own path, eh? Live my own life." Coral took another hit on her cigarette and sighed out the smoke. "So do you two. It's that simple."
Katrina soured at this response. Typical Coral. Whatever. Fine. She'd tried. She decided to let the matter rest at that, then. She spoke not another word to her cousin during the rest of their tense walk to the hotel. Coral managed get Siku to chatter with her about some current events, but Katrina spaced out of the conversation. She was too busy brooding over how aggravating it all was.
At least the people she was meeting at Rokudai could appreciate the effort she was willing to make.
- Sunday, August 24th -
Katrina stared down at the book in her hands like the old friend it was. She had decided to visit the coffee shop a half an hour early to give herself some time to build up an appetite for a caffeinated drink and do a bit of reading. She was at a halfway point of sorts – the cusp of her Junior Year of college in the States. Just another couple of days and classes would be upon her. Her body ached from the past day and a half – a miserable day-long car ride with her elder brother from their home in Canada down to northern California, followed the morning after by the process of transferring possessions from storage to their dorm rooms. Bleh. Exhausting. And in a couple hours or so, Katrina would be helping her new roommate move in, as well. The girl was blind, so as tired as Kat was, she'd feel like a real jerk if she didn't help. And Juniper could get really grouchy if things didn't go her way, which wouldn't be a good start to the new school year. Katrina suspected that half of why Juniper had taken up Kat's offer for roommate-hood was because Kat was so eager to please folks.
But as her acquaintance entered the shop – the person she'd been waiting to meet – Katrina was reminded that it was all worth it. College was a stressful environment but one full of energy, populated by others who shared her same desires, fears, hopes, and frustrations. Meeting new people from different perspectives who she could still relate to...that was proving to be the one aspect of this university environment that she could always rely on.
On that note, Kat was...a bit taken aback by the revised appearance of her coffee mate that afternoon.
Jane Fitzpatrick was a pale-faced youth with a pointed nose, bright orange hair, a lanky frame, and freckles to spare. An androgynous sort with a penchant for androgynous clothing, Jane complained that she was often mistaken for a boy – Kat could see why. And given what she knew about Jane's history, she could also see why that could be frustrating. But on that particular afternoon, Kat was more confused by Jane's new haircut. Jane had...half a head of hair, and half without. It was a bit jarring for Kat, as Jane had carried a full head of hair at the end of the school year when they'd last seen each other. It looked as if the girl had grown it out all summer – but just the one side.
Katrina flagged the gloomy-looking girl down with a peppy wave of her hand and a warm smile – said smile brightened a shade when Jane bashfully waved back from her spot at the counter. Kat touched up her appearance a bit after setting her book down on the table (Glasses? Check. Hair? Check. Collar? Check.) then got up and found her way through the sparsely populated shop to the main counter.
"Hi," Kat chirped when she'd reached Jane's side.
"Yea," Jane curtly mumbled with a slight upward nod, her eyes darting around nervously.
Kat reached out her arms and wrapped the stickly red-head within them. Jane seemed to shrink at the contact, so Kat kept the hug light before taking a couple of steps back. Hm. Jane was avoiding her gaze – was she being too friendly or something? They'd gone back and forth all summer through instant messaging. They were basically friends now, right?
Katrina gave Jane her space as the two ordered their drinks. The person behind the counter offered a timid compliment to Jane's haircut, which she brushed off awkwardly as they swapped change. Katrina couldn't help but smile at the encounter. Jane had been single for a solid year or so if Kat was doing her math right. If anything, a flashy haircut could get the normally-ignored girl some attention. Was that maybe the cause of the change? Well, wait – if so, then why had Jane shrunken at the attention? Hm.
"And you?" asked the reasonably cute barista.
"Oh, a White Chocolate Mocha for me, please," Katrina replied to him, pulling out a fiver from her wallet. "Venti size."
"Name?" the attendant asked, taking a pen to an empty coffee cup.
"Got it. It'll be a few minutes."
Kat accepted her minimal change – a few coins, and the first American ones she'd obtained for that school year. She dropped them into the pocket of her slacks before turning around to find Jane, who was standing idle before the pond of half-empty tables.
"Here," Kat gently advised, pacing past her coffee guest and heading for the table where her book resided. Kat courteously pulled out the opposing seat for Jane before resuming her spot at her own.
After they were both seated, Katrina studied her acquaintance's posturing, noting Jane's lack of enthusiasm and generally wary demeanor.
"So!" Kat began, hoping to inject some pep into things. "You, uh...-" She cleared her throat. "How was the summer here in Wayward?"
Jane's drab eyes of olive glanced up to Kat and she wiggled her left shoulder up a bit.
"It was kinda shitty," Jane bluntly replied. "Janitorial crap. Not like I expected any better. But it paid my rent."
Katrina had figured that Jane's summer hadn't gone so well given the conversations they'd had in their IM chats. Why had she even asked? Urgh, so stupid. Just dumb social habits...
"Rrrrright, sorry," Kat quickly changed course. "I was, um...stuck at an office job. So boring, you know?"
"Mm." Jane had a bitter look about her. "Musta been easy money..."
"Oh, um...-" Katrina's fingers drummed nervously in her lap. "No, it was...tiring in a mental way, is all. My boss was kind of...-" An arrogant asshole. "-...difficult to deal with sometimes, and so...-"
"My boss was a douchebag, too," Jane put out unceremoniously. Katrina was intrigued by how blunt Jane was about stuff. She sure didn't seem to worry about making enemies...In a way, Kat had been starting to admire Jane's blunt ways – not being afraid to say whatever was on one's mind had to be kind of liberating in a way, which made sense, given the secrets Jane carried.
"Well, at least that stuff's in the past now, right?" Maybe if Katrina kept being light the conversation would move in a more optimistic direction. "Um, so-...Any classes you're looking forward to?"
"Whichever ones are easy," Jane sighed. "Or whatever's gonna teach me shit I can actually use in real life."
"Ah...Y-yea, I guess a lot of stuff we get taught ends up not helping out much once the tests are over, huh?"
"Fff, exactly...I mean, fuckin'...Pythagorean bullshit ain't gonna help me pay debts."
"Ha. I, um...suppose not." Katrina scratched an itch on her temple as she considered that Jane's financial situation was likely not the best to begin with. "Come to think of it, aren't you trying to get in the army?"
"Yep." Jane nodded sullenly. "ROTC's gonna be even more shitty this year." She pronounced it 'rot-see,' which Kat found funny. "Tryin' to fuck around with all these textbooks, and keep my part-time job, and do the ROTC training? Shit...I'm fucked, pretty much." A tired sigh. Hm. Classes hadn't even started, but Jane already looked defeated.
"Um...W-well, can't you drop something? Make things easier on yourself? There's still time to switch up your schedule..."
Jane puffed an indignant laugh through her nostrils at Kat's suggestion.
"Yea, OK. I can't afford to do that, it's a catch-twenty. Either I-"
"Wh-...? Oh. Whatever, sure. English major." They shared half a second's worth of mutual smirks.
"Sorry," said Kat. "You were saying?"
"So, ugh...-" Jane scratched her nail against her eyebrow as she regained her thought. "It's-...I dunno."
"Jane?" called out the barista from the front counter. "Katrina?"
Eager to quench her thirst for caffeine, Katrina was up and on her way before Jane had even mustered the strength to get up from her chair.
Kat grabbed both cups by their java jackets and passed Jane's over to hers with vigor. Kat lingered as she watched Jane trudge over to the coffee prep table. Lifting her own cup to her lips, Kat could tell it was way too hot for her to drink yet, so she abstained from taking a sip. Jane sighed under her breath and flicked her hand out a bit – probably got some of the steaming stuff on her skin when she'd popped the cap off of her cup. Jane awkwardly fidgeted with the goo-infested honey dispenser – shaped like a bear – and poured some honey into her drink. Kat smirked to herself as she watched Jane half-heartedly lick honey residue off of her fingertips and cautiously re-seal her cup.
Jane seemed a bit surprised that Kat had waited for her, and the two quietly made their way back to their table in the middle of the shop.
As they sat down, Katrina popped open the top of her cup to let it cool down a little. She found herself startled, if not impressed, by how Jane was already taking a careful sip despite having just pricked her hand with its heat. At first, Katrina wanted to jump back into conversation, but opted to let the moment pass in tranquility between them.
The cafe wasn't terribly filled at the moment – two other tables were occupied, and one student was seated alone on a couch in the back corner of the shop. The Java Dragon was a quaint little coffee and tea shop owned by one of the college's elder professors. Being located right in the basement of the campus center meant that it was a prime social spot once class was in session, and a very common meeting place for mingling students who were too lazy – or too young – to make the trip downtown to hit a pub. It sported lantern fixtures shaped like blooming lotus flowers and a beautiful tile floor speckled with all kinds of simple but elegant symbols and patterned lines – almost like a Chinese checker board if you looked at it as a whole. The walls held hand-picked pieces of artwork, some student-made and for sale. The ones that really caught Katrina's eyes whenever she entered were a series of four large woodblock style paintings laid out against the wall opposing the entryway. They depicted each of the four seasons with mythological grace. Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Kat had learned recently that the set of paintings was a series entitled 'Four Loves' which the owner of the shop had commissioned from a student years back.
Rokudai College was a bit atypical for universities in the United States, rooted in Japanese culture grown through its founders that still echoed through much of the architecture. Katrina could see why her mother had attended. It was unique, if anything, but it was also a culture that was very welcoming of folks from all sorts of backgrounds. A Canadian Inuk like Katrina Kesuk could have a peaceful coffee with a Scottish-Irish Texan like Jane Fitzpatrick, both coming from wildly different walks of life. Technically speaking, most colleges could probably offer that, but Kat liked to think that something about Rokudai was special and encouraged meetings such as these.
"Uhh...-" Jane was attempting to start conversation.
"Oh." Kat cleared her throat and pulled her gaze back to the emo-tastic-looking girl before her. "Sorry, just taking in the sights. I missed this place."
"Mm..." Apparently, Jane had not.
"So, you, um...decided to have a change of pace, hm?"
"Your, you know, um, your...-" Kat wriggled her index finger toward Jane's face. Those olive eyes looked sunken in, with bags hanging underneath. One half of her head was shaved, buzz-cut down to orange fuzz. The other half was frizzy at the ends, shoulder length, like she'd tried to iron it straight and it wasn't holding. "Your hair, it's...different."
"Yep..." Jane's glance turned sideways and she sipped her drink.
"What was the inspiration?" Kat wondered, taking a careful sip from her cap-less coffee cup.
"Your-...I mean, what made you change it?"
Jane's eyes returned to Kat's with a deadpan look.
"I...felt like it?" she mumbled.
"...Ah." Kat nodded delicately. "I-I mean, it's-...You look different."
"Kinda the point."
"Right. It's, um-...Well, the boy up there seemed to like it, eh? Do you get compliments about it?"
"Mm." Jane shrugged. "I guess, yea..."
"I bet Crackerjack approves."
Jane's face soured a little and she sighed, rubbing her thumb against the edge of her brow.
"Yea," she acknowledged. "Sure he does."
"How's he been doing?"
Jane's thumb drifted away from her brow so that she could lift said brow in skepticism.
"Uhhh, he's your boyfriend, why don't you ask him yourself?"
Oh. Yikes. Wrong topic to bring up, then?
Jack Chavez, aka 'Crackerjack,' was the leader of a local 'peace corp' of sorts called the Eagle Eyes. They held all sorts of community events and fundraisers to support the local businesses in Wayward, the town closest to Rokudai's campus. Katrina had gotten herself interested in the community politics the spring prior, and the bad-boy-turned-better vibe that Jack had radiated was one she was guiltily attracted to in an instant. It was perhaps a bit sick in a way, but Kat was self-aware enough to acknowledge that a part of why she'd started dating him back in April was out of a desire to be that one person who helped 'fix' him, 'cure' him of the demons of his past. Kat usually didn't fancy herself one to fall for the 'bad guy loner' type, but Jack had been some kind of surprise exception. As much as Katrina liked rules, there were always exceptions to them.
Ah, right. And up until the prior October, Jack had been dating Jane. Hm, wait, maybe Kat's math had been off. Not quite a year, then. Anyway, that was actually how Kat had met Jane – through their mutual friendship with Jack. It confused Kat how Jane was still a participant in the Eagle Eyes' activities – her aforementioned part time job on the side – yet the girl seemed to carry a weird bitterness toward Jack. Kat hadn't pried but during their summer IM sessions it had become evident that Jack had somehow broken Jane's heart, or something akin to such. Yet the girl still stuck around...Jane insisted that they'd sorted things out between the two of them and that their relationship was strictly platonic and business. Katrina had trouble believing it was as clean cut as all that. Either way, she was understanding of such complexities, and was willing to work through them. If anything, she'd do what it took to maintain a friendship between the two. Having interacted with both, Katrina figured they each needed it. She would bridge the gap between them and help them hold onto that friendship. True friends were a precious commodity and people like Jack and Jane desperately could use them.
"Actually," Kat replied to Jane's defensive remark, "He doesn't seem to do long distance too well."
Jane laid her cheek against her palm, elbow on the table.
She muttered, "Fff, real shocker..."
"H-he's been busy all summer, though," Kat rose to his defense. "W-well, I mean, you've been, too, right? You guys had all kinds of stuff going on. Basketball camp, the watermelon party, that farmer's market thing...-"
"Yep," Jane puffed. "He kept me real busy..."
"He, um...he mentioned he promoted you a month back?"
"Ech..." For someone involved in charity events, Jane seemed...incredibly lacking in spirit about it.
Kat prodded, "So how's that been going?"
"I'm like his right-hand kinda deal now," Jane unceremoniously replied.
"Oh, wow," said Katrina. "So what sorta stuff has he had you doing?"
"Cooking," Jane blurted with some irritation. She sipped at her drink and scratched at her face again. "Uh, like, more than just that, but-...Lately, feels like that's all it is..."
Kat chuckled at the idea of this woman preparing hot dogs and hamburgers for a youth event – a little apron and a tiny chef hat, with that hair and that face? All grumpy looking? The kids might get scared of eating...Aw, that was...kind of a mean thing to think, though, huh?
"Sooo, he's...-" Kat pushed her glasses up a bit as she went for more of her coffee. "-...got you doing more mundane stuff, you're just...more in charge now, huh?"
"Y-yea, so-...Negotiations n' shit." Jane's eyes shifted around when a student passed by their table. "Like this one day, he sent me across town to set up a meeting, n' then I had to go, uh, like, grocery shopping? Get stuff to cook for the meeting, and then actually have to set it up, n'-...ugh. Boring. Tiring. Fuckin' shit..." Jane buried the buzz-cut half of her face behind the palm it had been resting against.
"Um...-" Katrina was fiddling with a curl of her hair. "Why do you still...do it, then? I-I mean, it sounds like it...it stresses you out, and...-"
"I talk a lotta shit," Jane sighed, letting her hand drop and realigning her posture to be more upright. "Worth it, though. Pays good, gives me somethin'...productive to do, I don't...-" She shrugged. "Made some friends, so...that's OK, I guess."
'Pays good?' Wasn't the whole point that it was...a charity group? Hm. Maybe what Jane was referring to was a side job, then? Jack did seem to have all kinds of side things happening. The Eagle Eyes had their, well, eye on the goings on in town. When someone needed a lawn mowed or kids babysat, they seemed like a good source of local labor to hire. Maybe Jane joining their ranks was helping her meet people?
"Mm." Kat nodded sympathetically. "I remember you saying you'd been feeling pretty lonely last spring."
"Myeah, well...-" Jane trailed off, drowning whatever thought she was thinking into her her coffee.
"So you've found a group," Kat deduced. She'd finally found some solidarity in her own closely knit friend group. It would be nice to think that this gloomy girl had found one herself.
"Somethin' like," Jane mumbled, scratching her freckled neck.
"That's great, I'm glad." Kat sent a beam to her acquaintance – no, no, they were friends by now, right? "Maybe some time we can hang out with you guys," Katrina offered.
Jane's eyes flicked from her cup right to Kat as soon as this had been said.
"My friends – sometime we should spend time with your friends."
Katrina saw color drain from Jane's freckled face after she said this.
"Bad idea," Jane dismissed quietly with a slight shake of her head.
The immediacy of Jane's reaction was unnerving. It led Kat to decide some aspect of Jane's loose story wasn't so great. Well, wait – duh, of course it wasn't. The girl looked utterly miserable. But how could Katrina fix that?
"Oh, w-well, I mean...-" Kat once again offered something a step smaller. "Maybe just you, then?"
Jane replied with a quick, slight shake of the head, citing, "Don't do social...ness."
"Jane, you...help organize community events," Kat pointed out with a wary laugh. "I'm sure that-"
"Business," Jane grunted, pointing her finger at Kat as the rest of her hand held up her coffee. She took a sip and set it down, shaking her head again. "Business n' pleasure ain't the same, n'...people are...business."
Kat let that remark simmer for a moment. It felt like a prick to her stomach.
"OK, so...-" Kat shrugged with some defensive posturing emerging. "What is-...?" Her eyes lulled up as she sighed, then refocused. "OK, so, us, right now, is that...'business' to you, or...-?"
Jane's head rolled back a bit and she took a deep breath.
"Nah, Kat, you...you know what I mean. Not my thing. Groups n' shit."
"Yet you go out of your way to work as part of a group. Doing community events."
"Business. Work. Yea. I...put up with people to pay the bills."
"So what do you do to relax?"
"Nothing," Jane spat. "I don't-...! Ffffuck." She rubbed her wrist against her eyes with a sigh. "No time to relax."
Katrina grimaced slightly at Jane's almost aggressive reaction. The girl was being dodgy. Something was going on. Katrina had figured as much based on how little contact her boyfriend had with her over the summer, combined with how vague Jane always seemed to be – but Jane obviously wasn't going to open up about specifics yet.
"OK, sorry," Kat muttered, a little offended at how bluntly Jane was deflecting her offer. "Ih-if you change your mind or anything, though, just...-"
The pair avoided eye contact for a moment or two as they focused on their drinks. Kat played a game of sneaking a couple glances at Jane's hollow expression without being noticed.
Drumming her recently trimmed fingers against her cup, Katrina posed a question.
"Are you happier than you were last spring?"
"That...sounds like 'no,' then."
"Look. Fuckin'-..." Jane clawed her nails at the shaved side of her head, and some dandruff drifted down onto her hoodie. "What do you care, anyway?"
"We're...-" Katrina's eyes widened at Jane's almost pained expression – like the girl was frustrated to have someone trying to look out for her. "Jane, we're friends, right?"
Jane's unsettlingly dull eyes flickered with some confusion before darting awkwardly away.
Jane mumbled, "Just don't get you, Kat..."
Katrina smirked, laughing through her nose at that remark.
"I guess that's mutual," she said with some humor, trying to not let her doubt get the better of her. "But I don't have to 'get you' to worry about you."
"Didn't ask to be worried about."
"You...sort of did when you spent time talking with me all summer."
"Was just...internet chats, I didn't...-" Jane was shaking her head a bit, tinkering with a metal ring pierced into her exposed ear.
"All right, well...-" Kat took a deep breath and got up from the table. "It meant something to me," Katrina explained softly, sliding her coffee cup toward the table's edge. "If it didn't to you, that's...fine, I don't want to bother you. It sounds like you have a lot going on."
"...Yea," Jane puffed out, wiping her nostrils against her hoodie sleeve.
"I spent two months talking to words – to killerbee-fitz – I just wanted to...talk to Jane today."
Kat picked up her coffee and let some white mocha calm her nerves.
"OK," Jane replied simply – tiredly. She was looking down at the residue on her sleeve from wiping her nose, while Katrina was looking at the ornate wall clock that depicted a red and blue dragon circling each other.
"I'll see you at the Treetop," Katrina bid, giving one last glance to the girl. "I won't bother you if you-"
"Nah, not a bother, just...don't know how to...-"
Jane's blurting interruption had been a mumble, but Kat was being as receptive as she could to any kind of response. That one had seemed almost desperate, something Kat could relate to.
"It's all right," Kat assured. She went to place a hand on Jane's shoulder, but the girl leaned back a bit, eliciting Kat to withdraw. "Just keep in mind that I'm around – and Jack is, too. I mean, if there's anything I can say to him that'll help y-"
Well...that had been a suspiciously sudden reaction.
"Agh, just...-" Jane was jittering her head left and right again. "Crackerjack's got...enough goin' on, he don't-...So just...-! Augh. Don't worry about it."
"You know saying that makes me worry a little more."
"Whatever, but...don't do anything."
"'Do' anything? Like what?"
"Nothin'. Nevermind." Jane planted both elbows on the table and buried her speckled, pinkening face in her hands. "Caffeine's not doin' shit for me," she grumbled through her palms. "Thought I'd be...in a better mood, but...-"
"It's fine," Kat assured, maintaining her patience. She wasn't sure why – normally with this kind of interaction she'd have up and left at this point, let the troubled girl have some space. Instead, she offered, "We can try again after we've got our bearings."
Jane took in a deep breath and exhaled through her hands, then tiredly uncovered her face, glancing up at Katrina's optimistic, tiny smile. Jane, conversely, looked run-down and discouraged. But Kat could tell that her patience and understanding was having some kind of effect when Jane's drab eyes of olive sparked with some gratitude and the corner of her lips twitched upward for a second.
"Sure," Jane replied. "Yea, sounds good..."
"All right." Katrina nodded, lifting her index finger. She tapped the tip of her finger against her nose, then pointed it at Jane. "I'll see you soon, then?"
"Sooner or later," Jane shrugged, sucking coffee from her cup. "Next time on my turf," she cited, pointing at Katrina with the same hand holding her cup. "We'll have my kinda drink." A sly smirk was exchanged between the two, and Katrina nodded complacently – while uncertain as to whether she'd actually take up such an offer.
Kat bid with a wave, "Take care of yourself in the mean time, OK?"
"Yea, I dunno 'bout that," Jane chuckled warily to herself, watching Katrina disappear from the coffee shop.
After exiting the shop, Katrina found herself in the tiled basement floor of the campus center. She checked her student mailbox while it was nearby – more out of habit than anything, as she'd just checked it that morning – then proceeded upstairs and out onto campus. With its reception now restored, Kat's phone hummed with activity.
[1 Missed Call]
Ah, so Juniper had called. That probably meant that she'd just gotten on campus, or was about to, entailing she'd need to enlist her new roommate's help moving stuff in. Then the two of them would meet up with Siku and his roommate for dinner. From one social event to another. Classes hadn't even started and Kat was already busy working people into her schedule. It was exciting, especially after the tedium of her summer desk job.
With a phone in one hand, a novel in the other, and a chip on her shoulder, Katrina set off toward her dorm house, determined to make this school year one to remember – and for the right reasons this time.
What We Learned at Rokudai
Chapter 1 – Seed of Inspiration
-Sunday, August 24th-
But she was never sure about that.
Having read the final sentence of printed text in the novel she'd been re-reading that weekend, Katrina lingered at the end. She re-read that last paragraph again, soaking it in, letting it settle, filling the cracks and wrinkles of her cortex. So bittersweet, so...real to her understanding. Inbetween her recent coffee date and before her roommate arrive on campus, Katrina had taken some time in her mostly set-up half of a dorm room to drink in the ending of the beloved novel. She flipped the last page pf narration and stared absent-mindedly at the flyleaf. The final page of the book, just like the first page: utterly blank.
A blank page – one at the beginning, and one at the end. Blank pages had so much potential. A scribble, a sketch, a note, a letter, or a story. Any manner of things could find its way onto a blank page.
Katrina took in a deep breath as the fictional faces she'd just revisited – for a third trip – flashed through her memories. She'd really marathoned through the book this time. Something about it...she hadn't been able to put it down. Despite being a book intended for children, Katrina felt she understood and appreciated it so much more now than she had back then.
Flipping the pages backward against her thumb, Katrina wandered back to the dedication page. It contained a solitary clump of words, two thirds of the way up.
To all children
who have ever felt different
Katrina let the theoretical empathy wash over her, grateful for the work of one Eloise McGraw – the author of The Moorchild, the book in her hands. With a sigh, Katrina did what she knew she shouldn't do: she glanced at the first flyleaf. The one at the beginning of the book. The one that was not, in fact, blank.
Never forget where you came from,
Never forget where you're going.
That half-faded marker scribble had been left by Katrina's late mother. A birthday present in her youth, Katrina had loved The Moorchild right at the start, if only because her mother had read it aloud to her. She had fond memories of listening to that foreign accent come from her mother's lips. Mom had always loved the accents. She had really nailed the Harry Potter books. The thing Mom had taught Kat with all those stories about folks from other countries, other worlds, other accents, and other walks of life was how there was always something anyone could find to take away from their stories.
And now – especially now – her mother's written advice felt so appropriate. The Moorchild was a story about a halfling of sorts, someone who was a hybrid of species trying to figure out her place in the world. Katrina herself wasn't technically one to share in this struggle – she was a full on Inuk, from a pretty decidedly Inuk heritage. But Mom's words and the fictional child's story were still applicable.
After having stared at the handwritten note on the book's flyleaf for a few moments of contemplation, Katrina tucked her Hermione Granger bookmark between it and the hardcover.
The impending Junior year of university studies in America was just another flyleaf awaiting its hand-scribbled notation.
Aaron glared at the sketch book with thoughtful wonder for a moment, chewing the eraser end of his pencil. Inspiration was not coming, but Aaron Leekpai was determined to defeat his lifelong adversary: the blank page. The gentle bustle of his peers whirled around him as he sat alone on the sofa against the wall. His lanky shins and purple paisley socks were exposed in his cross-legged stance, his tight patchworked jeans taut against his knobbly knees. With the sigh of one whose mind was scattered, he removed his white newsie hat, scratching at his dried scalp. It was warm that day – he probably should've worn shorts and a t-shirt. Aaron readjusted his position to more of a slouch, his socked feet encompassing his sandals on the hideously vomit-colored carpet of the campus center.
His friends had to show up pretty soon, or else they'd miss their first dinner of the schoolyear. Aaron's right leg jiggled up and down as his left hand tapped his pencil's eraser against the empty page. He was getting pretty antsy. It had been a couple of months since he had seen anyone in the group face to face, and the summer had been a rather drawn out rinse-repeat process of working at a grocery store in the small town he had been moved to that summer. Inspiration. Hm. He needed something to spur his soul to draw.
The sound had come from the arm of the couch - his cell phone. He immediately set down his notebook and grabbed the device, flipping it open to read the message he'd received.
[The girls are ready. I'm gonna go pick 'em up and meet you at the CC in a few.]
Finally. The wait was almost over. Aaron was already crafting plans for their first weekend of the school year: a trip in the nearby woods, with a campfire, s'mores, swimming in a pond, petting salamanders and newts and frogs and-...
Newt! Newt, newt, newt...chicken? No. Monkey? No, no. Dog?
Dog. Newt-Dog. Bingo.
His pencil savagely attacked the blank space of his sketch book in a flurry of curved lines and shade scratching, whittling out the basic structure of a mutated combination between a German Shepherd and an amphibian lizard. He'd work out a finalized design later using photo references but the idea was set - another creature added to his ever growing zoo of mix-and-match animals. His task complete, he inhaled a deep breath of satisfaction, closed his notebook, and leaned back, soaking in the much-needed atmosphere around him after a long and lonely summer.
Stray tables and couches were sparsely populated, but within the next day or two they'd fill up quite nicely around this time of the day. A small shop carrying school supplies, souvenirs, and textbooks resided ahead, past the open stairwell that led upstairs to the cafeteria. A lounge area was to his left, and the security office was off in a corner beyond. An elevator and an information desk were to the right. The basement contained a recreation room for billiards, ping-pong, and Foosball, along with the college post office, some student resource and study rooms, and the social hotspot that was the burger and fast food joint, B&S. This place was like his home away from home - away from his dorm room, anyway.
This was the Campus Center, located smack in the middle of Rokudai College. This was where college memories were made: two-in-the-morning heart-to-hearts, pizza parties, passing time away while you waited for your friends to show up so you could finally go eat dinner...Some people practically lived there. Aaron anticipated that this year would be no different. It'd be better, even, because the hard part was already over: he'd found his group, his niche, his clam-shell in the ocean of college.
Ripped from his nostalgia and startled back to his senses, Aaron's attention focused back on his phone, which was vibrating in his pants pocket.
[We're in the parking lot.]
[Sent: August 22nd, 7:03pm]
The time had passed swiftly while Aaron had been sketching.
A quick survey of the building yielded no sarcastic grin or wave from his partner in crime, so Aaron whipped his body up off the couch, jammed his paisley-clad feet into his sandals, stuffed his notebook into his shoulder bag, and burst through the entrance double doors beyond the Information Desk, shoving his phone into his unnecessarily tight pocket as he pushed his way out with his shoulder. His well-worn sandals merrily bounced along the sidewalk in brisk steps - they had been tired out from their first year of use but Aaron had faith that they would carry him through the months to come, and they seemed determined enough to oblige.
Aaron reached The Circle - a large, round path of sidewalk that surrounded the CC. Different branches of campus trickled off from this Mayan path, and all roads on campus led to The Circle. Straight ahead was the particular road that Aaron was looking for: the entrance gates and parking lot. Not wanting to get too lost, he stayed put at the point where The Circle and the entrance path joined, and within moments the figures of his three favorite people in the world came into view, including that anticipated sarcastic grin of the brown-skinned Siku Kesuk – aka 'Zeke' – the closest thing Aaron had to a brother.
Without a doubt, it was Siku: blue button-down shirt, not tucked in, black slacks, and those ever-present brown loafers of his, accented by loose hair over the sides of his face that evoked the image of a 'surfer-dude' archetype. Aaron wasn't so sure how he felt about the new hair, but that wily smile had been unmistakably missed. Aaron thrust his arms up and waved like a crazed bullfighter, bellowing out a war cry to his roommate that was reciprocated.
"Oh, my God," snickered Siku's younger sister, coming from behind, her arm latched to her own roommate's. "The boys are back in town," she muttered with an eyeroll above a smirk. "Jun, are you sure we can handle it?"
"Pff, I have no idea," sighed the girl at her side, fidgeting with the sunglasses over her eyes. "I immediately regret this decision."
"Don't act so surprised, Kat," Siku scolded his younger sister. "Men of the House of Aero have a certain obligation to uphold tradition," Siku clarified with pride, puffing out his chest as Aaron drew near. Upon the word 'tradition' being thrown into the air, Aaron pumped his fist into the air and repeated the word 'tradition' in the thundering melody from the opening moments of Fiddler on the Roof. Upon concluding the word, both boys cried out, "Tradition!" before joining tunes and continuing the song of their own accord.
"OK, there, Tevye," Siku's sister cut them off right after the second pair of 'tradition's.'
"Yea, thanks for that," Juniper joked, rubbing her pinky finger against her inner ear. "Two flat notes are not better than one."
But the boys were too enraptured in a manly hug full of superfluous back pounding to pay the girls any heed. It would normally be uncharacteristic of them, but when it came to expressing pride in their dormitory, nothing quite seemed out of place for Aaron and Siku, no matter how extravagant or loud.
"You guys live in a dorm," Katrina pointed out. "Not a frat."
"Ignorance is bliss," Siku countered, glaring at Kat with a manic grin as he practically punched Aaron's back with the side of his fist. Aaron choked a bit.
"Don't hurt him," Kat sighed. Not even two minutes and she was already needing to play the part of Big Sister, despite being the younger one.
"He's fine," Siku scoffed.
"I'm fine," Aaron not-as-confidently agreed before choking a bit from the pressure. Katrina just shook her head slightly.
Eventually the boys' hug died down to a more gentle embrace.
"Damn, I missed you, dude," Siku sighed out.
"Missed you, too," Aaron replied.
"Being roommates is going to be epic," Siku affirmed.
"Totally." Aaron nodded, and Kat was reminded of the boy's goofy grin. She'd missed that.
To her side, Juniper was scowling, despite not being able to see what was happening around her. Heck, Kat even missed Jun's scowl.
"They're still hugging, aren't they?" Juniper grumbled, her free hand on her hip.
"Yep," Katrina dully explained, rubbing her fingers across Juniper's wrist before leaving her side and approaching the two interlocked men. "Hey," she grunted, pulling them apart as they laughed at their own behavior. "My turn."
"Katrina!" Siku gasped incredulously. "We were hav-ing a mo-ment!" he whined with exuberance.
Katrina couldn't help but smile. Her brother just never quite seemed like himself these days unless he was with Aaron. Brothers to the end, they were. She appreciated that. Aaron deserved a brother. And a sister, for that matter. Poor guy had been through some rough times. She was pleased that she and her sibling had seemed to make a difference in Aaron's life.
"Come here," Kat said to Aaron warmly, wrapping her arms around her lanky sophomore friend and squeezing him tight.
"What?" Juniper growled, tapping her flip-flop impatiently against the concrete. "How come I go last?"
"I think you know," Siku coyly prodded, jabbing her in the arm with his knuckle. He delighted at how her cheeks went pink instantaneously. It was just too easy.
"Boy, did I miss you, Buddy," Katrina expressed with a delighted hum.
"Me, too, Katrina," came Aaron's equally affectionate reply.
"You missed yourself?" she teased.
"You know what I meant!" he chuckled back.
If Siku was like his brother, it came as no surprise that Katrina Kesuk had rapidly become like Aaron's sister. In truth, it had really been the other way around. Katrina had been his anchor during the beginning of college the year prior. She had been the first real friend he had made on campus, and it was through her that he had become such good friends with Siku, resulting in their decision to room together this year. Without Katrina, Aaron didn't know where he would've been cast in the wide sea of college life, but he sure was glad she had caught him in her net and hauled him ashore.
"OK, all right, girlfriend coming through," Juniper jokingly dismissed, wandering over to them slowly with arms spread open wide.
"Don't trip!" Siku teased.
"Shut-yer-face," Jun quipped in a growl, holding her arms out before her as she made cautious but confident steps.
"Should I get your cane from the car?" Kat offered Jun, a bit wary at watching her roommate fumble along on her own.
"Nah," Jun dismissed. "Mr. Twinkles here is about to swap places as my Seeing-Eye-Servant."
"Am I, now?" Aaron coyly rebuffed.
Jun replied, "That's the toll you pay if you want kissin'."
Katrina grinned at Aaron's flushed face and she gave him a pat on the shoulder before watching him catch Juniper in his arms. Her grip around him was tight and intense, her hands feeling their way around his back, his shoulders, his neck. 'Seeing' him again now that summer was over. Aaron's hands had found their way down to her hips, grasping them with tender relief in that they were together again after months of agonizing separation. At their age, even a week apart could feel agonizing.
Her head tilted forward, and Aaron caught it with his own. With foreheads pressed together, they both relished the sudden proximity - this was a moment they had each been yearning for since the early days of summer. Aaron nudged Jun's sunglasses up over her forehead with his nose, and stared carefully at her milky white eyes that focused on nothing, yet focused on him somehow through their glint. Her expression reciprocated his attraction.
A thick girl with a curvy build born into a wealthy family, Juniper Fong had been completely blind from birth, but she never let this fact tie her down. Whenever someone approached Juniper's blindness with an "I'm sorry," she would respond without skipping a beat with, "Don't be. I'm not."
Aaron admired her fiery determination, the way she picked on him relentlessly, the way she was able to poke fun at herself, as well, and the fact that beneath her rough attitude was a steadfast soul with a caring heart despite all she had to deal with - her blindness, her over-controlling parents, the pity that people tried to enforce upon her. Her independence always shone through, though that certainly had its drawbacks.
Juniper tended to dress very casual - a t-shirt and shorts pretty much did the trick, hair in a bun or tied into a convenient and bushy ponytail. On this day she had a green theme going on - green was her favorite color, which at first didn't make sense to most people, given that she had no concept of what colors were like. The way she explained it was that green was the color of grass, and the feeling of grass beneath her toes was one of her favorite things in the world. Given her penchant for walking barefoot as often as possible (which was not near as often a she'd like, unfortunately), she was quite familiar with grass.
Beneath the floppy lock of black bangs that hung between white eyes, her pale face taunted Aaron with a mischievous smile enveloped in reddened cheeks. He poked at her left earring, a fluffy ball of white fur. Those were new, and they were cute. Juniper reached her chunky arms up over Aaron's shoulders and draped her hands over his back, her fingertips tickling an excited chill up his spine. Their foreheads remained pressed together, neither going all in to lock lips.
Siku spewed forth an exaggerated groan.
"Gawd, kiss each other already, I'm hungry!"
Aaron and Juniper's already colored faces flashed red like stop lights.
Katrina cast her brother a sly smirk, citing flatly, "You're always hungry, let them have their cuddles."
"We are hav-ing a mo-ment!" Juniper mimicked Siku's earlier complaint, feeling her nose forward and nuzzling it against Aaron's. Her position confirmed, she leaned in and gave him a gentle peck on the lips. He returned the gesture, which she responded back to with more ferocity, and back and forth they went for a few moments until palms were planted on skulls and mouths were opening over top one another.
"Aw, ech, ewwww," Siku growled. "Come aahhn."
Katrina found it adorable. Aaron and Juniper had both struggled in their freshman year trying to find a place where they belonged, and she was more than happy to accommodate this need, delighted with their company and companionship. She had seen their budding little romance coming from a mile away the prior spring, and she had a bit of a pride in playing matchmaker. Her brother's lack of maturity was ruining the ambiance, though, so she slapped him on the chest and nodded her head to the CC, motioning him to follow.
"OK, so, yea! You guys have fun with that," Siku called out to their still interlocked bodies, his back turned. "We're gonna go and get some food now." He received no reply - as expected - and shook his head as they entered a side entrance that directly led downstairs.
"They're so cute," Katrina mused, hands clasped behind her back and a beaming little smile about her.
"Yea," Siku admitted, his sarcasm melting away. "Sure. They seem happy. As long as they don't get 'cute' all over our dorm room, I'm all good. What about you? Where's your little...hunk-o'-burning-street-thug?"
"Hey," Katrina snapped defensively, her cheerful demeanor swiftly receding. "He is not a street thug."
"Isn't he the leader of a gang?" Siku blurted out with spread arms, aghast at her nitpick.
"They're an organization," Katrina tartly clarified, index finger waving at him as their descent concluded and the CC basement welcomed them with wafting scents of burgers and fries. "They manage community events. Just because they're a little less formal doesn't make them a gang."
"Yea, yea," Siku dismissed with a flick of his wrist, crossing his arms. "Peter Pan and the Lost Boys weren't technically a 'gang' either, but...Anyway. The guy just rubs me the wrong way, Katrina."
"That's just because you don't understand him," she insisted, attempting to keep the recurring conversation calm. She had been debating this enough times over the summer and was far from being in the mood to go through the motions again. Siku always would criticize, nitpick, but then never let Katrina explain, never express interest in spending time with the guy...
"Maybe that's because he's made no effort to let me understand him," Siku testily pointed out, the booths of the B&S Grill restaurant mostly empty. "How about a, 'Hey, there, brother of the girl I'm dating, how are you?'" He mocked the gruff voice of the boy in question with jest. "I never see the guy, Kat. I know nothing about him. Maybe if I knew his name, that'd be a good start."
"His name is Jack," came an irritable specification from Kat. How many times had she told him this by now?
"Oh, good," Siku retorted with sarcasm. "Now tell me, is he a pina-coladas-and-walking-in-the-rain type?"
"What has he ever done to you, anyway?" Kat demanded.
"I've read some stuff on his crew," Siku cited. "Just seems suspicious."
"Read some stuff? What, were you, like, snooping around, trying to dig up dirt on them? Maybe you're just being paranoid because I finally have a boyfriend again."
"It's more than that."
"Uh-huh. Just like my last boyfriend."
"And I was right about him, wasn't I?"
"Whatever," Katrina huffed, already exhausted. Why was he ruining this moment of arriving on campus? What did it matter? "Can we just...drop this, Siku?" she pleaded in a whisper, unnerved, arms latched around her stomach. They stood in line behind a gigantic student in a basketball jersey - number 14 - who was placing his order at the counter.
"Fine by me," Siku muttered wth nonchalance, tilting his head to the side. "I'm just sayin'...I don't like the guy."
"Yes," Katrina hissed. "You refuse to support any love life I hope to have. You've made that pretty clear. Thanks."
It's none of your business, Siku. Butt out of it.
"And what I can get you today, guys?" greeted the familiar tone of the fellow student working the counter. His greasy hair was smoothed back into a thick ponytail that trailed out of the back of his white baseball-styled cap - part of the restaurant uniform. His skin looked a bit darker than Kat recollected – a tan?. It looked nice on him. Made a nice accent to his dirty blonde hair.
"Manu," Katrina acknowledged him, eager to use sociability to push her sibling conflict aside. "Hey, how are you doing? How was your summer? Got a tan?"
"Fer sure, fer sure...Aw, man, it was good stuff, yo," He always spoke with a relaxed tone, which made him incredibly easy to approach with even the most mundane of conversation. "Spent a lotta time out on the beach, worked construction for the first time. Hella hard – hella cash, though."
"That's right, you're from...-" Katrina fished through her memories and retrieved the answer. "San Francisco?"
"Honolulu," he corrected with a sly grin. Oops - wrong answer.
"Oh, yea," Katrina sputtered sheepishly. "Sorry."
"Nah, 's all good, Kat. I've got family in the Bay, so sometimes I chill down there." Ah, so maybe Kat's memory was misguided for a reason? "So what can I get you Kesuks, unh?"
"Double-Bacon-Cheeseburgerrrr," Siku mechanically spouted with rapid execution, like a flare firing from a gun held by a twitchy hand.
"I'll...-" Katrina shot an embarrassed glance at her brother, his hands casually tucked in his pockets. He gave her a perplexed look that read, 'What?' She finished by deciding, "-take a BLT wrap please."
"Oh, and a large drink," Siku added.
"Yea, and I'll have one, too." Katrina squeezed in.
"Gotcha." Manu scribbled some code onto his order sheet: 1 DBC, 1 BLTW, 2 CUP. Katrina studied his handwriting. Had she ever taken a good look at his handwriting before? She figured you could tell a lot about a person based on their handwriting. His was mostly print, but some of the letters were cursive. It bothered Kat's inner writer, but it was also kind of adorable. Or maybe that was his tan talking. Either way...
She watched his hands jot down numbers on their slips before tearing it off his pad and hanging it above the grill behind him. He rapidly punched some keys into his electronic register to ring up the price, and requested the amount. Katrina caught his eyes gawking at her brother, who was whistling as he rocked on his heels. The two boys nodded nonchalantly to one another as Katrina slapped a twenty dollar bill on the countertop, shyly gazing behind Manu to his co-workers who were busy with other orders. Manu stuck out his hand for her to take her change, and she accepted it in such a way as to allow unnecessary fingertip-grazing against her palm. Hm, kind of rough, calloused, dry fingertips.
In was this exchange that reminded Katrina that she been missing the physical contact of her boyfriend. If hands could be hungry, hers...certainly were. Being surrounded by cute college boys was probably only worsening the appetite.
Manu slid a couple of tall paper cups across the counter, and the two siblings took them. Siku went to fill his up right away, while Katrina lingered awkwardly, staring down at her cup. They had a new design on them; a sort of wave-like pattern running around the edge, forming a connected chain of brown bears grabbing panda bear feet grabbing brown bear feet. Cute.
Siku eagerly scooped up his drink and was immediately sucking down his carbonated nectar.
"So, uh, Zeke, man," Manu said to Siku. "We gotta get some game-time on ASAP, yea?"
"Mm-hm," Siku passively agreed, guzzling down his drink.
"What rank you at in League, yo?"
"Bleh," Siku shook his head. "Still stuck in Bronze Five Hell."
"Harsh," Manu sympathized with a nod. "Me n' Nestor still gotta shot at gettin' to Gold before Worlds."
"Psh. Good luck," Siku offered with a dubious shake of his head.
Katrina was a little lost in what she at least understood to be some 'gamer talk.' Katrina had a mild curiosity – probably instilled from her brother's hobbies. Aaron was pretty big into them, too. But the culture wasn't terribly welcoming, and Siku no longer seemed to invite her into such activities as he once had when they were younger.
Her lack of inclusion on the discussion didn't prevent her from taking something away from Manu's aid back posture. Manu caught her staring, and she immediately gazed off elsewhere – to her brother, as Siku sucked at his straw loudly. Jeez, the guy had already downed the whole cup? No wonder he was putting on weight...
"Anyway." Manu nodded at the trailed end of their conversation. He informed the siblings, "Be a few minutes."
"Thanks, Manu," Katrina mumbled sheepishly and spun around, forgetting her own drink in her flustered mindset. Siku grabbed it for her and joined her at a nearby booth.
The dim lighting of B&S was comforting and warm, like a crackling campfire at sunset on a windy summer's day. The practically empty restaurant was oddly welcoming, offering a homey feeling of privacy and comfort in a public place. Recognizing this reminded Katrina of why, exactly, this place had become such a hotspot for their social meetings.
"Why don't ya give that Manu guy a shot?" Siku suddenly asked in a subdued tone, seemingly out of nowhere. "I saw you checkin' him out."
"Wow," she murmured with bashful humor. "My brother is pitching men at me. You must really not like my boyfriend."
Siku, slurping down root beer through his straw, shrugged, waggling his eyebrows up and down.
"He's a soccer player," Katrina mumbled with some disdain. Secretly, she felt charmed by this fact, but acknowledged the lack of practicality of the idea in her tone. "Not exactly my type."
"Hey, he's a nerd in his off-time, too," Siku defended. "We were talking about a video game just now."
"Yes, I'm not ignorant, I caught that," Kat sighed. "You know, you could always invite me to play with you sometime..."
Siku seemed taken aback by that remark.
"Uhhh...Yea, didn't...know you were interested."
Katrina shrugged, her eyes darting around a little. Was she interested? She didn't really know.
"W-well, I...won't know if I don't get...like...a chance to try it, right?"
Siku reciprocated his sister's shrug.
"Mm, true story," he conceded. "Maybe I'll get you hooked, you n' Manu will bond, and you can ditch this other tool."
"Hey," Kat snapped in a quiet but severe syllable. "I just told you, he's not my type. And maybe you could invite me to play just to, you know, have you sister around?"
"Yea-yea-yea. All right. But not your type? And guys who carry around switch-blades?" Cynicism dripped from Siku's every word. "Hey, that's just fine."
"He doesn't-" she instinctively began, but gave pause when she seriously considered his remark upon the wide expression on her brother's face. "O-OK, maybe he does," she admitted, recalling him showing it off to her in a fleeting moment at the end of the previous school year. Funny how Siku had clung to that fact while she had put it off. "But he lives in the city - that's for self defense."
"And why would he be that concerned with defending himself?" criticized her concerned sibling. "And from who?"
Schluurrrpp. Sklllllurp. Schlp. Schlp. He'd hit the end of his beverage and was sucking up remnants through the ice, giving her a raised brow.
"I thought we were done talking about this?" Katrina seethed, bottom lip propped out in vexation.
To her rescue, a giggling couple emerged from the stairway they had come in through.
"Can't you come up with something else? Something...not girly?"
"You gettin' sick of it? You don't like Mr. Twinkles? I like Mr. Twinkles."
Aaron made a pouting whimper. "It makes me sound like a ballerina."
Juniper retorted insidiously, "Maybe you are like a ballerina."
Siku cut into their twittering debate with a wave: "Yo! Lovebirds, we're over here!"
Katrina twisted around to see Aaron leading Juniper to the counter, her arm amorously linked around his as the large boy in the jersey from before grabbed his food and headed off upstairs. Aaron emphatically waved to them while Juniper tossed out an aloof, "Hey, guys," before they went to order.
Katrina found herself longing what they had - side by side, hand in hand, accepted by their peers...All of Siku's nagging over the summer hadn't shaken her. Every time she had called him he'd bother her about it afterward. Every time they'd comment on each other's Facebook photos and Siku would catch wind of it, another dismayed comment. All of this hadn't shaken her will at all, yet seeing her two friends together, in that moment, and comprehending how different her relationship was from theirs...it planted a seed a doubt in her mind.
Before she knew it, Juniper was scooting into the booth at her side and Aaron was slapping his arm across Siku's back from across the table.
"So!" Siku began, his eyes suspiciously wandering to Aaron. "You two get all that lovey crap oughtta your system?" he badgered.
"Nope," Juniper matter-of-factly bucked back. "We're gonna pick up where we left off later. Months of catching up to do, ya know?" A gratified smile popped onto her face as she slipped her sandals off, rubbing her bare feet across the tile floor.
Aaron shook his head in amused chagrin, eyes rolled back at her blunt humor as the shape of his mouth gradually matched her own: a smirk of mischief.
"Good to know," Siku hurriedly dismissed with a jovial 'too much information' tone.
"So what do we wanna do tonight?" Aaron wondered.
"The evening is our oyster, ladies and gents," Siku smoothly proclaimed, leaning back and stretching. "Anybody got suggestions?"
"We should take our food outside - it's pretty nice out." Katrina suggested.
"Oh, sweet," Juniper cried, slapping her palm on the table. "Yea-yea. Sounds good to me."
As Siku proceeded to shoot off a quick-fire summary of his summer vacation, Aaron pulled out his notepad flipped to his second page, sketching a rough drawing: two boys and two girls sitting at a table who bore a vague resemblance to their own group. One of the girls had pencil-mark bangs covering where her eyes would go. After a moment of staring at Juniper from across the way, her engaged expression unable to detect his gaze, he bit on his eraser and made an addition. Above this girl's head he drew a heart, taking care to shade it and fill it with a level of detail that exceeded the rest of the picture. He signed it in the corner, 'Aaron,' with the end of the 'g' curving into a spiral, and inscribed '8/24/2014' in tiny writing with the title, 'Inspiration.'