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Rinkrats



(Fic)

LJ Name: hoshizora
Word count: 13,040
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Alternate Universe/Alternate Reality/'80s Sports Movie
Warnings and pairings: Sokka/Suki, Zuko/Mai, Aang/Katara, all canon pairings apply.
Summary: Sokka Amaruq is just an ordinary guy in the large East Asian city of Ba Sing Se, but when roller derby girl Suki Tachibana shows up in his skate shop one day, he's plunged into the world of roller derby. Now he has to team up with the Kyoshi Warriors against the Dangerous ladies to save Ba Sing Se's last roller rink from being closed down--but can the underdogs prevail against Azula's cunning? Will Sokka ever get a date with Suki? Will Aang be able to get time off from the Olympics to skate for the team? And what IS Zuko's secret job, anyway? Find out... in RINKRATS.


(Art)

LJ Name: Schellibie
Rating: G



*****

Photobucket


Long ago, in the 1970’s, roller skating reigned supreme in the city of Ba Sing Se. The best skaters in the world came here to play and to compete, but all that changed when Golden Phoenix Holdings began buying and closing rinks to make way for the high-end shopping malls and condominiums that were the vanguard of a wave of gentrification. Only one rink, the White Lotus Roller Palace, remains. Now, all that stands between Golden Phoenix and the end of both the White Lotus and a way of life is a ragtag band of misfits and losers on roller skates. They are...

 

RINKRATS

 

((In Stereo Where Available))

 

Boom Boom — Eli “Paperboy” Reed & the True Loves

 

***

It was a slow day at Hakoda’s Skate Pagoda. Sokka Amaruq was at the computer that also served as the cash register for the tiny skate shop, clicking idly around his ex-girlfriend’s blog, an over-designed monstrosity that had what Sokka was pretty sure was a photoshopped portrait of Yue at the top. Oh, she was pretty all right, Yue, beautiful even, but there was something distinctly off about the skin tone in this particular image of her, Sokka felt pretty strongly. Anyway there she was mid-death spiral, her white hair streaming back in the the most improbable way—it was both insufferable and a frustrating reminder of what he was missing.

He sniffed and frowned, closing the window and leaning back in the chair. This was definitely the last time he was loading up iceprincessyue.com. It wasn’t good for him. This was definitely the last time, at least until the national championships, or until he ran across her picture in a tabloid, or until someone mentioned figure skating, or ice. Or girls. Definitely.

Yes, definitely he would stop reading, just as soon as he caught up on the latest entry. He reopened the browser window, the URL field’s autocomplete jumping immediately to iceprincessyue.com as soon as Sokka typed “i.”

This would certainly be the last time.

And but to Sokka’s chagrin, the latest entry on iceprincessyue.com was all about Hahn, some macho-man figure skating sensation who’d medaled in the Ba Sing Se National Championships that year, and reading the entry Sokka detected a definite air of maybe not “I am dating him” but certainly “I am seriously considering asking him out,” and eventually he, Sokka, began to harbor dark suspicions that this blog entry was actually Yue’s way of gauging Hahn’s interest. Scrolling down, Sokka found another entry wherein Yue, in full figure skating-PR-diplomacy mode, denied the rumors that her family had banned her notoriously bitter rival Azula Cho from skating at any of their several rinks; Yue claimed that it was “by mutual agreement” that Azula had recused herself from skating at IceTribe, Inc., properties because of a “conflict of interest.”

Sokka knew this to be an oversimplification, and that there had been several unpleasant confrontations because of the girls’ rivalry, and he was thinking nostalgically about how nice it had been to have been able to comfort Yue back when she had needed his comfort. It seemed like a long time ago, indeed, and apparently now there was this Hahn guy whose triple axel was “perfect.”

It was just as Sokka’s regret and indignation was reaching a peak that a girl walked in the door of Hakoda’s Skate Pagoda.

In retrospect he would try to think back and remember what she had been wearing, but all he would be able to remember was her face, god, her face, framed by chin-length black hair, determined and perceptive and with approximately zero time for his bullshit. Her socks, too—he remembered those. They were striped green and white. Sokka definitely remembered the stripes.

And so this girl walked into the Pagoda and directly up to the counter.

“Hey, I’m looking for Speedline wheels. For quads.”

Sokka hastily closed iceprincessyue.com. “Uhm… quads?”

There was a restrained sigh from the girl. “Yes. Quads. As in skates.”

“You mean like roller skates. Not inline skates?”

“You’re really on top of things.”

“Well, it’s a skate shop, so I have to—” Sokka started, before realizing she was making fun of him. “…Right. We don’t stock a lot of roller skate parts… lemme check in the back.”

“I’ll wait.”

Sokka strolled back through the small, crowded skate shop and started scanning the shelves in the glorified closet that passed for a stockroom. He wondered if he’d be able to get her name—probably her number was out of the question, unless she made a special order, which if they didn’t have the wheels she’d be more likely to do, but—

—There they were, one set of eight Speedlines. Sokka frowned, his optimism dashed on the rocks of his father’s uncanny ordering instincts.

He came out with the box in hand. “As it happens we’ve got one set.”

The girl pursed her lips. Sokka tried not to gape. “Actually I was hoping to buy maybe ten sets.”

Ten?!”

“Yeah, well, it’s for my derby team, so.”

“Derby like roller derby? They still do that?”

The girl frowned. “Yes, we do. Can I order the wheels from you guys, or what? I need both the soft and hard compound.”

“Oh, sure. Sure! Just, uh…” Sokka rummaged for the pad of ordering forms. “Just fill this out… name, phone number, I’ll fill in the rest and, uh, call you when they’re in.”

He pinned the form to the countertop with one finger and spun it one hundred eighty degrees with another, then slid it toward the girl, following it with a pen—but she already had hers out.

Sokka looked sideways as she filled out the paper. “So… what’s the team?” He hoped he sounded as casual as he was trying to sound.

“The Kyoshi Warriors.”

“Oh, so you’re here from out of town?”

“No, we all live in the city,” said the girl without looking up. “But some of us are from Kyoshi originally.”

“Ah. Well… make sure to tell everybody to buy their stuff at Hakoda’s Skate Pagoda. Normally we stock more quad stuff than we had today, so…” This was a lie, but Sokka was already formulating the argument he’d present his dad as to why they should update their skate stocking policy, so it would be true soon enough, he felt, to not really actually be a lie-lie.

The girl raised her eyebrow and handed the sheet back to Sokka. “Sure thing, Sokka,” she said wryly, reading his name tag.

“So, um—”

“Sorry, gotta run—call me when the wheels are in, yeah?” She didn’t wait for a response; the jingle-bells that hung from the shop’s front door jingled, and she was gone.

Sokka looked down at the order sheet. “Suki Tachibana,” he murmured the name that was written there, trying out the sound of it. “I think I will call you, yes.”

***

Sokka flipped the sign on the inside of the shop’s door around so that the “CLOSED” side faced out, then took out his phone, flipped it open, and punched a number on the speed dial. He held the phone to his ear with one hand as he kicked his skateboard vertical and held it under his other arm.

“Yeah?” came a vaguely sullen voice.

“Zuko, my good man! The usual place?”

“Oh, sure,” replied Zuko. He voice became quieter over the phone, presumably turning away from his own phone’s receiver. “No, Mai, I—it’s just Sokka. Yeah.”

“Everything cool, man?” asked Sokka.

“Oh, yeah, fine. It’s fine. See you at the spot.”

“The spot” was near Bumi International Airport, in the western part of the city, most of the way out along the 3 line just before it intersected with the outermost loop, which itself was serviced by the C train. It was not close to where Zuko lived, which Sokka had always assumed was somewhere in the wealthier inner loop, but Zuko tended not to volunteer much about his personal life. For Sokka, though, it was just a few stops out along the 3 from Hakoda’s Skate Pagoda.

He slid his student pass through the turnstile’s reader. The turnstile readout helpfully informed him that his pass would be expiring in two weeks.

“Ah, and so my last student perq comes to an end,” Sokka mused to himself as he trotted up the stairs to the elevated steel platform where the outbound 3 train was slowing to a stop. He boarded the moderately full train car and grabbed a handhold, holding his skateboard by one set of trucks, letting it dangle alongside his leg.

The train’s wheels beat a familiar tattoo on the track as it headed toward the fringes of the city. The sun was near to setting, its beams spearing through the windows of the train car almost horizontally, washing out the detail of the passing buildings in its orange brilliance. Sokka found himself dozy from the familiarity of the ride.

The bored-sounding conductor announced the current stop—”Omashu Mills, Omashu Mills,” and Sokka blinked himself alert. Bumi International Airport was next.

At the Bumi stop, Sokka got off.

Bumi International Airport was commonly cited as the largest elevated construction project in history. Its two runways were built atop colossal concrete pillars which thrust redwood-like out of the much older architecture surrounding them. The parking structure that serviced the airport was less obviously a bolted-on afterthought to the extant city than the airport proper, but its interface to the existing roads still involved a crazy tangle of elevated on-ramps and off-ramps, and it was tucked beneath this tangle that Sokka had discovered a nearly perfect skateboarding spot, with rails, sculpted curves, and planar surfaces perfect for practicing tricks, yet sufficiently out of the way that the airport’s baton- and taser- wielding corps of security staff never hassled him.

Getting to the spot involved the furtive jumping of a few barriers, but nothing Sokka hadn’t done hundreds of times before.

Aang and Zuko were already there.

“Hey, Aang, Zuko.” said Sokka as he waved a greeting. He looked to Aang. “Weren’t you training for... whatever it is you train for on Thursdays? Or something?”

“I blew it off,” said Aang with good cheer, rubbing his bald head in mock chagrin. “Didn’t feel like messing around on the pommel horse today.” Something about Aang’s affect always struck Sokka as slightly prepubescent, despite the lanky boy’s nineteen years.

“So Thursday is gymnastics. What’s tomorrow?”

“Swimming.”

Sokka chuckled and shook his head in a kind of resigned disbelief. “Just don’t let Katara find out you were screwing around with us instead of fulfilling your athletic duties.”

Aang chuckled nervously. “Anyway, check out my new board! It’s a PenguinSled!”

Zuko rolled his eyes. “Uh, you bought it at his store. I think he knows all about it.”

“It’s still a cool board, though!” said Aang, unfazed by Zuko’s irritation.

Aang dropped the board to the ground with a clatter and immediately hopped on it, ollie-ing onto one of the many guardrails the spot offered, then flipping from a board grind to a truck grind, then pulling off another flip trick again to hit the ground. “Sweet!” he said, managing to sound genuinely delighted instead of just self-congratulatory.

Sokka and Zuko just watched; they’d long since given up trying to attempt anything they saw Aang do.

“Yeah so anyway, Mai? Were you talking to Mai?

“So what if I was?”

“Didn’t you guys, like...?”

“It’s complicated.”

“You say that every time,” Sokka pointed out.

Aang landed another impossible trick.

“Maybe it always is,” Zuko countered.

“Whatever. Are you an item now or what?”

“If you’re asking if she’s my girlfriend, the answer is yes,” Zuko said with finality—but then frowned. “I’m pretty sure.”

“Well have you made out a lot recently?”

“Maybe.”

Sokka shrugged. “I won’t quibble. Sounds like a girlfriend-type situation to me. You have the Sokka Seal of Approval,” he said, sanctimonious.

“No offense, Sokka, but I wouldn’t exactly be coming to you for girl advice lately.”

“Hey, just because—”

“How many times did you check Yue’s site this week? You checked today, didn’t you?”

Sokka grunted, tossing his board down in front of him and standing on the deck. “Ugh. There’s this ‘Hahn’ guy. I’ve been forgotten for a girlie-man figure skater.”

“That’s rough, buddy,” allowed Zuko.

“Yes, it is.”

“Maybe you should do some forgetting of your own.”

“I am way ahead of you, my friend. Listen to this: I’m manning the register at the Pagoda today, and this girl walks in the door—”

Sokka proceeded to related his encounter with Suki to Zuko.

“Suki Tachibana?” Zuko repeated back to Sokka, upon hearing the girl’s name.

“That’s right.”

“Yeah, I know her. Well, of her. Captain of the derby team. Good skater,” said Zuko vaguely.

“How would you know?” asked Sokka, his eyes narrowing.

Zuko shrugged. “I’ve seen her around.”

“You should ask her out!” Aang piped up between kickflips.

“Yeah, well, I’m gonna. So you know her? Like, where she hangs out and stuff?”

Zuko did a few modest ollies before answering. “I think she waits tables over at the Silver Sandwich.”

“The Silver Sandwich, you say...?” Sokka stroked his nonexistent beard. “Perhaps I should get lunch there tomorrow. Strike up a conversation, one thing leads to another, pretty soon we’re going for dinner and a movie...”

Zuko nodded in exaggerated agreement. “Sure! Showing up at her restaurant the day after she comes by your shop isn’t creepy at all.”

Sokka frowned. “You think?”

“Seriously, just wait for her to come pick the order up. She’s guaranteed to come by.”

“True... and I could like offer some tips on the wheels. You know, drop a few knowledge bombs.”

Zuko stifled a snort. “Yeah, you could. You might want to brush up on your roller derby first. Do you even know how to play?”

“Pff, it’s barely a sport, you just have to chuck the ball through the hoop while wearing a bunch of ridiculous makeup—”

“Sokka,” said Zuko, holding his hand up. “There is no ball in roller derby.”

“There isn’t? Could’ve sworn there was a ball.”

“No ball.”

“Huh.”

“She’ll totally love you, Sokka. You’re a great skater,” said Aang with apparent sincerity.

Sokka fluffed a 180 and stumbled off his skateboard as it clattered to the ground.

***

#

The period that followed was the longest seven to ten business days of Sokka’s life. He called the Speedline wholesale rep not once not twice but three times, inquiring as to when the wheels might be showing up at his shop. Each time the rep’s tone of teeth-grinding forbearance grew sharper until Sokka decided there was a real chance the rep might actually stall the order out of spite.

So in the end Sokka just waited.

And finally, the box of wheels arrived, along with the rest of that month’s reorders from the distributor.

Hakoda was very particular about the organization of wares in his Skate Pagoda, and so his son was careful to spend the morning stocking the shelves and putting kneepads and decks in order before calling Suki Tachibana, though it was no easy task with his concentration so fractured.

But the job was at last complete, and he now stood behind the glass display case that doubled as a front counter for the little skate shop. Just as he was picking up the shop’s ancient black bakelite phone’s handset to dial Suki’s number, he froze. What was his approach going to be? If he blew this shot, there might never be another non-creepy way to bridge the precipitous gap between a professional relationship and a personal one.

He’d spent the last week brushing up on roller derby rules. Jammer, Blockers, Pivot—he had a basic idea of how the game worked. Would it be enough for some friendly small talk?

Sure it would, he told himself. He’d spent the last several days reading articles and watching recorded video of derby bouts. There was a surprising amount of strategy to the game—each team put four blockers and one jammer on the track, and the jammers had to get past the opposing team’s blockers before they could score. Jammers scored by passing members of the opposing team, so speed was important. Moreover, the first jammer to make it through the pack of blockers was awarded “lead jammer” status, and could end the round, or “jam,” at any time, thereby denying the opposing jammer the opportunity to score.

It was a lot more involved than Sokka had realized.

He gripped the handset and stabbed the numbers with his extended middle finger. He listened to  phone ring, handset jammed secretarially between his shoulder and ear.

He chewed the end of a pen.

Click. "H’lo?”

“Uh hi this is is Sokka at Hakoda’s Skate Pagoda. May I speak with Suki?”

“This is she.”

“Oh uh hiSukithisisSokka. I was just calling to let you know the wheels you ordered are in.”

“Cool. I’ll be by later today.” Click.

Sokka’s brow furrowed.

He made another phone call.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Katara. I know I was just on for the morning shift today, but I’m gonna go ahead and pick up the whole day.”

“What? Why?”

“Figured I’d give my little sister the day off. You’ve got exams and all, and by my count you’ve never missed an opportunity to remind me that med school is No Joke.”

The voice on the phone turned suspicious. “What’s your angle?”

“Nunya.”

A sigh. “Fine. Just—hey, were you out with Aang last night?”

“Maybe.”

“He’s got better things to be doing than hanging out with you. Like the whole rest of his life. Aang is going places, Sokka, unlike—”

“Sis, please. Don’t finish that sentence.”

There was a pause, then the sound of a deep breath. “Thanks for taking the afternoon shift.”

“My pleasure. Study hard.”

“Yeah. I will.” Katara hung up.

Sokka listened to the silent receiver for a moment, then shrugged and replaced the phone’s handset. He tapped the chewed end of the pen against the glass of the display case, and waited.

***

It was afternoon when Suki showed up, breezing through the Skate Pagoda’s front door.

Sokka’s mouth was full of sandwich.

“Hey, you said my order came in?” said Suki without preamble.

Sokka gulped down an insufficiently-chewed bite of ham & swiss. “Uh, yeah! Yeah, it did. Got the wheels right here.” He squatted down behind the counter and hefted up a largish cardboard box full of Speedline Black wheels.

“Great.”

“So that comes to 342 pounds. Knocked ten percent off the price for volume.”

Suki flicked her wallet open and pulled a debit card out. “I swear, the team better thank me for this.”

“Shyeah, they’re nice wheels. I actually talked to the Speedline rep about the order—”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, he said they were a new compound, really great, but squirrelly if you weren’t ready for them.”

“Squirrelly, eh?”

Sokka coughed. “Yeah, maybe I should come by your next practice, just to... y’know... maybe give you guys some pointers.”

Suki raised her eyebrow. “Some pointers.”

“Y-yeah, I’d be happy to do it. As a—as a community service!” Sokka’s voice cracked pubescently.

“Wow, gosh, really? Well, we practice Sunday nights at the White Lotus roller rink. I’m sure the girls will really appreciate it,” gushed Suki.

“Cool! Uh... cool. I’ll come by this Sunday, then.”

“7 sharp,” added Suki.

“Gotcha. Oh, I’m Sokka, by the way. Sokka Amaruq. It means ‘wolf’ in Inuit, no big deal...”

“Nice to meet you, Sokka. See you Sunday, eh?” Suki jerked the box of wheels off the counter with apparent ease, then turned and left the shop.

It was in the quiet moments that followed that Sokka realized he hadn’t been on roller skates of any kind in nearly a decade.

***

Sunday arrived.

In the few days he’d had to prepare, Sokka had borrowed a set of quad roller skates from the shop and spent some time getting reacquainted with them. The first day was an unmitigated disaster. The second was merely painful. By the third, his moderate ice skating ability (this mostly thanks to Yue) finally began to transfer, and by the fourth the skates no longer seems so much actively malevolent as they did simply passive-aggressive, inasmuch as they now waited for him to make a mistake before they dumped him on his ass.

The White Lotus Roller Palace was more centrally located than Sokka would have guessed. It was well within the inner elevated train loop, its large, low building nestled among former warehouses that had long-since been converted into expensive loft apartments and condos.

It was not Sokka’s favorite part of the city.

He carried a beat-up canvas duffle containing his skates and pads over his shoulder, adjusting its weight as he stood in front of the large, low building, whose aging neon sign proclaimed it to be the “White Lotus Roller Palace.” Some of the neon lights were malfunctioning, though, so “Roller Palace” looked more like “Roll P lace,” which Sokka had to admit was still technically accurate.

The neon lotus design was, poignantly, missing a few petals.

Sokka paused in front of the entrance. He reflected on his few practice sessions. Sure, it had been hard at first, but yesterday he’d only fallen four times. And how hard could roller derby be, anyway? It wasn’t like there were any tricks involved, and you only had to skate straight and turn left. He nodded firmly, then pushed on the door to the rink.

There was a pudgy-looking old man with a beard at the ticket booth. “I’m sorry, the rink’s being used for practice right now,” he said, sounding genuinely sad to turn someone away.

“Is that roller derby practice? Because that’s what I’m here for.”

“Oh! Well, then, go right in,” said the man with an expansive gesture.

Sokka did.

“Cindy! Stay low! Rocket, get to the inside!” a girl’s voice yelled with shocking force. Sokka flinched.

As soon as he looked back up to the rink, he saw one girl in full pads and a helmet come around the track and crouch low, cutting across the front of another girl and hip-checking her right off her skates. The second girl went sprawling, skidding across the smooth rink surface and scrambling to her feet before she’d even fully stopped moving.

“Nice hit, Rocket!” came the same voice, echoing in the large space. Sokka looked over—it was Suki, skating around behind the group of practicing skaters.

Suki leaned forward and dug into the track for a fast lap, her strides deep and powerful, legs scissoring dramatically through the corners.

She looked just unbelievably strong and graceful.

Through his awe, Sokka suddenly felt unwell.

He raised his hand in greeting; she glance at him and smiled—it might have been closer to a smirk, but Sokka was trying to avoid pessimism. She swerved out of the oval track that was marked out on the rink’s surface with tape, and came to a sudden halt right in front of him, swiveling her hips sideways to execute an alarmingly noisy hockey stop, her skates’ wheels screeching as her her momentum forced them sideways across the rink’s surface.

“Hey, Sokka. Glad you could make it out. Want to suit up and give us some of those pointers you were talking about?”

“Uh... yeah. I’ll just... I’ll do that.”

“Great. Oh, by the way, everyone practices in uniform.”

“I don’t—”

Everyone,” said Suki with finality. “You got pads?”

“Yes.”

“Helmet?”

“Uh...”

“Hey, Cindy! Cindy! Get this man a helmet and uniform!”

The Kyoshi Warrior named Cindy glided over, sized Sokka up flintily, then skated off to one of the cafeteria-style tables that lined one side of the rink, on which several largish boxes sat. Shortly she returned with a helmet and a uniform.

“Bathroom’s over that way,” Suki said with a twitch of her head.

“...Right.”

***

“Alright, Warriors! We had a good bout against Omashu last month—we pulled out the win, but our roster is short now and we’ve got to make up for the girls that’ve moved away. Today we’re doing blocking drills and endurance. Also, Sokka from Hakoda’s Skate Pagoda is here today, to help us out with the new Speedline wheels. First up, paceline with sprints. Hit it!” Suki barked, and the girls—and Sokka—headed out onto the rink.

The paceline worked like this: Everyone skated single-file at a medium pace, with the lead skater sprinting off the end and going full-speed around the track, then taking up position at the end of the line. Then, the next lead skater would sprint—repeat until exhausted.

Sokka found himself painfully winded two minutes in, and by four he was having trouble keeping up with the paceline at all. When his next sprint came, he gamely tried to push ahead, but the fatigue made his stride unsteady, and his inside skate turned under, sending him sprawling to the rink’s wooden floor.

“Hng—!”

“So any pointers for the girls, Sokka?”

Sokka gasped for breath. “—the—”

“Yes?”

“Wheels.... grippy... careful!”

“Hear that, Warriors? The wheels are grippy,” Suki said with a smile, peeling off from the paceline and lending Sokka a hand.

***

Sokka wheezed, gulped water, and—weirdly—felt a disconcerting sensation that was almost like needing to pee, but not quite. He had never known it was possible to be this tired, and not also be dead.

None of the girls seemed significantly winded.

Suki blew a whistle. “Good job, Warriors. I liked your speed off the end there, Rocket—I can tell you’ve been hitting those intervals. Next up, blocking and hitting. Omashu had a couple of big scoring runs in the last bout, and we need to shut that down. The harder you can put a legal hit on a jammer, the more time it’s going to take them to recover.”

The drill began.

Sokka had read the official roller derby rules; legal contact could only occur between shoulders and knees; elbows, feet, shins, head—all off-limits. So how bad could it be, he reasoned.

There was a skater—Cindy Block, he thought—ahead of him. He had to try to skate past her.

Cindy was skating slow, and Sokka, though tired, managed to gain enough speed to come around her on the outside of the turn—when an impact from his left side, just past the corner of his vision, took him clean off his feet and sent him crashing to the rink floor.

Sokka coughed, gasped, spit out his mouth guard.

Suki skated up and spun around, skidding to a stop en pointe on her skates’ toe stops.

“Sorry... I guess that was a little hard.”

Sokka flopped over onto his back and looked up. “Hhuh... hnnng.”

“Are... are you okay?”

Sokka managed a thumbs-up. “G.... Grippy.”

Suki laughed, this time without an edge of mockery. She offered her hand. “You can sit the next one out.”

***

Sokka watched the rest of the practice from the sidelines, and as he recovered from the exertion and impacts (and as the extent of the soreness he would feel for days began to make itself painfully clear) he felt a deepening respect for the girls who played this sport.

He also began to accept that his chances with Suki Tachibana, Roller Derby Queen hovered somewhere around nil, but what the hell, it had been worth a shot. And the girls—all of them—were amazing to watch.

For moment, as the team launched into another exhausting-looking drill (skating high-speed slaloms around cardboard boxes strewn across the track) he considered how he would ask Suki out after the practice, but immediately dismissed the notion. He’d had his chance, and blown it. These girls didn’t need “pointers,” and Sokka felt retroactive embarrassment at having even suggested the notion. He tried not to dwell on how much of an ass he must have sounded like—and failed.

He thought of Aang. Sokka was used to seeing the younger boy do impossible things on wheels (and boards, and gymnastics bars) but in his mind, such feats fell solidly into the category of “insane stuff Aang does.” Now that he was trying something moderately insane himself, Sokka felt a brief pang of jealousy. Aang would have had no trouble impressing Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors.

Suki blew a long trill on her referee whistle to assemble her team around her in the track’s center.

“Good practice, Warriors. We may not have a full roster, but we’re at the top of our game. I’ve heard rumors of a challenge coming from the Dangerous Ladies, which is a rematch I know we’d all like after what happened last year. If we stay in the shape we’re in now, it won’t happen again. No way. Okay, let’s bring it in.”

Suki’s team closed around her, each girl reaching one hand towards the center of the circle.

“On three—one, two three, WARRIORS!”

Suki was joined in her war cry by the entire rest of the team, and their shout echoed throughout the rink’s space, clear and high and defiant.

Sokka wondered if they would let him come back to practice next week.

***

The sun had set during practice. Sokka pulled open the door marked exit and made his way out of the rink, duffel over his shoulder, the door squealing shut behind him as he walked. The door’s distinctive closing-squeal sounded again a few seconds later, and Sokka turned to see Suki, who trotted to catch up with him, dragging a small rolling carry-on bag behind her.

“Hey, tough guy. Where’re you headed?”

Sokka braced himself for one last round of hazing. “Home, to nurse my wounds.”

“Think you could handle a cup of after-practice coffee first?”

Sokka’s eyebrows went up. “Uh—sure! Yeah!”

Suki quirked a smile as the two fell in step. “I know a good place. I gotta say, you did a lot better out there than I wanted to give you credit for.”

“It sure didn’t feel like it. You’re... amazing. I mean, you guys are amazing.”

Suki laughed. “Well, we’ve been doing it for a while. Give it time, you’ll get the hang of it.”

“You don’t mind if I come again?”

“You should, if you want to. The team is girls-only, but we always need refs and support... and...” Suki paused. “...I mean... it says a lot, you know... a guy willing to put on skates and take some hits for a girl he likes. Hypothetically.”

“Hypothetically,” Sokka echoed.

Suki nodded. It was hard to tell under the orange glow of the sodium streetlights, but her face was flushed, and surely, Sokka told himself—surely that wasn’t just from the exertion of the practice.

***

#

Sokka stared at his alarm clock as he lay awake in bed.

5:58 AM.

One kiss from Suki had destroyed his jealously-guarded seven hours of sleep.

One kiss.

Bored, hungry, and still sore from the practice, he reached over to the alarm clock and felt for the alarm switch, preempting its 6 AM buzzer. He then rolled out of bed, trudged across his small bedroom to the dresser, pulled on a perfunctory pair of battered old Ba Sing Se University sweatpants, and trotted downstairs to see about breakfast.

And there at the kitchen table, sipping tea and murmuring quietly affectionate words to each other, were Aang and Katara.

Sokka was pretty sure that the baggy button-down shirt Katara was wearing had in fact been on Aang the previous day.

He paused; the two looked up.

“Heh,” he said.

“Oh don’t you even—” began Katara, but Sokka held up his hand and looked away serenely.

“Just so long as you’re using protection,” he said.

Sokka!” shrieked his sister, throwing a napkin at him.

Aang only grinned.

Sokka’s expression was unperturbed as the napkin hit his face and fell harmlessly to the floor. “Ooh, are those blueberry muffins?”

“Yup!” said Aang.

“Excellent.”

“So how was derby practice?” asked Aang.

“Got her number,” said Sokka as he poured himself a cup of coffee. “Who was the man, again? It’s on the tip of my tongue... oh, right—I’m the man.”

“Nice!”

“Who are we even talking about?” interrupted Katara.

“Suki! She plays roller derby,” said Aang, by way of helpful explanation.

Sokka sat at the table, gingerly easing his sore body into a sitting position. “Aang, buddy—she is incredible. I gotta get better at skating if I’m going to keep up.”

“Roller skates are fun—you’ll be great at it!” said Aang, his optimism relentless even at six in the morning.

“Yeah, maybe, but I need to practice. Want to hit the rink with me tonight? I could use some coaching.”

Katara gaped at Sokka. “He can’t do that, he’s got—”

“Actually, Katara, it’s Sunday, so I’m free.”

“O-Oh.”

“And you’ve got a shift at the hospital tonight, if I remember correctly,” said Sokka.

Katara nodded, albeit reluctantly.

“So I’m not even wrecking a date night,” said Sokka. This earned him a glare from his sister and a sheepish glance from Aang. “Anyway, so can you?”

“Oh, uh, sure. Do you want to invite Zuko along?”

“Nah, he’s got his Mysterious Other Job on Sunday nights. And sis—don’t worry. I’m not gonna waste Aang’s time, I just need some help with my skating.”

“...Fine. Just don’t be out too late.”

“We won’t.”

***

Late in the afternoon, Aang and Sokka approached the White Lotus Roller Palace.

“Wow, this place has really changed,” said Aang. “I used to come here a lot when—when I first came to the city.”

Sokka nodded quietly. Aang didn’t tend to talk much about his childhood, for which Sokka hardly blamed him.

“It was always pretty crowded, and you could hear the music from outside the building. Why’s it so quiet now?”

Sokka shrugged. “When I was here yesterday, it was closed for the derby practice. I guess we should go in and see what’s up, huh?”

“Yeah,” said Aang uncertainly.

The two boys entered the building, and bought admission to the evening’s session from the same affably pudgy old man. “Have fun!” he said, then peered at Aang curiously as he and Sokka proceeded past the booth to get Aang some skates.

“Does that guy know you?”

Aang shrugged.

“Huh.”

The music in the rink was classical, played quietly. Sokka frowned; the soporific playlist clashed with the hedonistic roller disco he’d been assuming the White Lotus would be during public skating hours. He and Aang walked over to the skate rental counter, secured a beat-up pair of skates for Aang, and laced up.

One song ended and another began—a waltz, Sokka thought. One of the famous ones—the Blue Danube, maybe? A handful of skaters glided counter-clockwise around the rink, with an area in the middle marked off for what looked like a dance skating class.

Aang was looking intently at one pair of dancers; the man was younger, tallish, his partner a woman at least two decades his senior, who seemed to be very much enjoying herself as they waltz-glided across the rink.

“Is that...?” Aang began.

Zuko?!” shouted Sokka in disbelief.

The male skater of the pair looked suddenly over his shoulder. “Who—”

“Holy what the—that is Zuko!” said Aang.

“Oh man. Oh man,” said Sokka, torn between shock at the revelation of Zuko’s Mysterious Job, and glee at what he might actually do with the knowledge.

Zuko extracted himself from his embrace with his dance partner, and skated over to the edge of the rink, and Aang and Sokka. “What are you doing here?” he hissed.

“Well, we’re skating, but that’s neither here nor there. Are you dancing? You dance? On roller skates?” Sokka’s voice nearly cracked.

“Dance skating is an art form!”

Sokka only rubbed his head in silent mirth.

“You looked really good!” said Aang.

“Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel any better,” grumbled Zuko. “Seriously, why are you guys here?”

“To skate,” said Sokka, composing himself. “I gotta get better if I’m going to keep up with the Kyoshi Warriors.”

“And what about you?” Zuko looked to Aang.

Aang shrugged. “Helping Sokka, I guess. Plus I used to come here all the time when I was a kid.”

Sokka butted in. “Anyway what’s up with this awful music? I thought roller rinks were supposed to be, like... funky.”

Incredibly, Zuko’s affect turned still wearier. “It’s a long story. You’d have to ask my uncle.”

“Your uncle?”

“Yeah, he owns the place. You probably bought your ticket from him.”

Sokka shook his head in disbelief. “Man... I never knew any of this stuff. Anything else you want to fill me in on?”

Zuko shrugged.

“So can we skate now?” Aang asked.

“Sure, go ahead.”

His skates now properly tied, Aang jumped out onto the rink and immediately executed a perfect waltz jump followed by a tight, fast spin. “Yeah!” he shouted, laughing out loud.

Sokka and Zuko looked on, by now well used to this sort of performance.

“Well, I’m gonna get some skating in while the getting’s good,” said Sokka, raising his arms over his head and stretching his sides, then grabbing his elbows to limber up his shoulders. “Are you done?”

“Not if Aang’s giving lessons. ‘The World’s Greatest Athlete is from Tibet,’ remember?” said Zuko. “Did you ever get him to sign that Sports Illustrated?”

“No, my sister threw it away.”

“Why’d she do that?”

“She went on this big rant about how if he were a white kid from Ohio he’d have been on the cover, but since ‘he’s bald and from Tibet and lives in the one city in Asia where Americans can never remember what language we speak even though we speak English, his story’s buried in a column in the back half.’ I dunno, it was kind of a long rant, I don’t really remember all the details. She was pissed, anyway.”

“Man, your sister is kind of—”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Sokka. “Let’s just skate, okay?”

***

The session came to a close just as Sokka’s legs were beginning to burn uncomfortably from the exertion. The serenely anemic music had done little to take the edge from Aang’s ruthless enthusiasm; his “tips” seemed to land Sokka on his ass as often as they helped, but he endured two hours of trying to improve his crossover stride by imagining Suki’s surprise at his hopefully rapid improvement.

Sweaty, he coasted over to the rink’s edge and tried not to think too much about how much better and cleaner Zuko’s skating was than his own.

Zuko and Aang didn’t linger on the rink, and soon it was empty.

“Your turns are super clean, Zuko. I wish I could skate like that!” said Aang.

Zuko rolled his eyes. “You skate better than that, and you haven’t even been practicing.”

“You think so?” Aang’s voice rose in apparently genuine surprise.

“Ugh. I can punch him for that, right?” Zuko looked to Sokka.

Sokka shrugged.

“I’m so glad that my nephew is finally bringing his friends over!” said a gruffly amiable voice; the three friends turned in surprise to see the man from the ticket booth smiling as he approached, a twinkle in his eye.

“Hi, Uncle,” said Zuko to the older man, who wore a jacket and tie that despite their moderately threadbare state were not un-natty. After a moment, Zuko seemed to realized that the introductions weren’t going to make themselves. “Oh, uh, these are my friends Aang and Sokka... Aang and Sokka—my uncle, Iroh.”

Iroh gave a smart little bow. “Very pleased to meet you. I hope you enjoyed skating at the famous White Lotus Roller Palace!” he said with an expansive wave of his arm.

“We sure did! I used to come to this place all the time when I was a kid,” said Aang.

“Ah, I thought I recognized you. I’m so happy you decided to return!” replied Iroh.

“It’s changed a lot, though,” said Aang. “It used to be more, I dunno... loud.”

“Yeah, seriously,” said Sokka suddenly. “What’s up with the terrible music? And why’s it so quiet?”

Iroh frowned at the question. “That’s a... complicated matter. Actually, it has to do with something I wanted to talk to you about, Zuko,” he said, looking to his nephew.

Zuko’s eyebrows went up. “Did you finally clear up the music thing?”

“What music thing?” asked Sokka.

“‘Cleared up’ would be one way to put it,” said Iroh, sadly. “I should explain,” he continued to Sokka. “Starting several years ago, I began receiving cease-and-desist letters from record labels, claiming that the rink’s playlists were ‘public performance’ of their music and that I was violating copyright by playing it. The White Lotus made enough money to operate, but never so much that I could afford to fight an international lawsuit, so... we had to switch to public-domain music. But then the old neighborhoods around the rink began getting bought up and rebuilt into expensive condominiums, and the new residents started making noise complaints, so... down came the volume.” Iroh shrugged helplessly.

“But you know those were just trumped up by—” Zuko began to protest.

“Zuko,” said Iroh, placing his hand on his nephew’s shoulder. “I know you think your father was behind those calls, but either way, when the police come knocking on my door...”

Zuko snorted. “It doesn’t take a genius to put the pieces together. First Golden Phoenix Real Estate buys all the land around the rink, and then you start getting threats of legal action and noise complaints? Yeah, I’m sure that’s a coincidence.”

Iroh sighed. “But it is the reality we face. And attendance is down, and... I’m sorry to break it to you like this, but... the rink is closing.”

“What? No! You can’t—you can’t just let him win! And where are people going to skate?” Zuko stood, throwing his hands into the air.

“Nephew, please... if you boys will excuse us?” Iroh took Zuko aside, leaving Sokka and Aang to consider this turn of events.

Sokka’s heart sank. Where were the Warriors going to practice? What would Suki do? What would happen to roller derby in a city with no venue for it?

Aang was sitting on the rinkside bench beside Sokka, hunched over, elbows on knees. He looked over. “Well... that sucked.”

“Shyeah. So much for skating, I guess.”

“There’s still parks and stuff.”

“I don’t think that’s quite the same.”

“Yeah... I guess not.”

Sokka sat there with Aang, mind racing in spite of his dejection. Ba Sing Se was a large city, but its size came mostly from its density. Indoor spaces large enough for a roller derby track were few and far between, and even the few hours per week the Warriors needed for practice would not come cheaply.

As he mulled the problem over, Iroh and Zuko emerged from the rink’s back office. Iroh looked cheerful enough, but whatever the contents of their conversation, the scowl that lingered on Zuko’s face hinted that it hadn’t done much to improve his mood.

“I’m sorry that you had the bad luck to come to my rink on the evening of such bad news,” Iroh began, “but let me make it up to you by inviting you all to the farewell party my nephew and I will host, here at the rink! It will be our last night, so I plan to throw caution to the wind—we’ll play all the music we like, as loud as we please! It will be a grand time, and I hope you’ll all come.”

Sokka stood at Iroh’s approach. “Oh, we’ll be here all right. Can I bring my—er, the Kyoshi Warriors along?” he asked.

“Of course! The Warriors are some of my favorite skaters. I would hate for them to miss it.”

Sokka nodded.

“Hey Sokka,” said Aang quietly. “It’s getting pretty late, we should probably get going. I’ve got early practice tomorrow.”

“Sure thing. Iroh, it was really great meeting you. Zuko—I’m gonna grab some coffee after I drop Aang off. Want to come along?”

Zuko looked questioningly to his uncle.

“Go ahead, nephew. After all the help you’ve given me, I can close up alone, for once.” He smiled warmly.

Zuko looked back to Sokka and shrugged a sure, why not?

***

Zuko and Sokka sat at a small table at a late-night cafe near the Amaruq residence, in the old quarter of the city. It was quiet enough here that the summer crickets were pleasantly audible.

Sokka sipped his coffee. “Still, I can’t believe you never talked about any of this stuff.”

Zuko shrugged. “My family is complicated. I try not to think about it too much. I basically got kicked out of my parents’ place at 18 for not going to the right college, and when my uncle put me up, I wound up helping him run the rink. It’s been years now and it’s still really messed up.”

“Sounds rough.”

“Yeah. But my dad loves my sister, she’s pretty much everything he ever wanted in a kid anyway, so that takes some of the pressure off me. In a way, I guess I should be grateful to Azula for that.”

“Yeah... whoah, hang on. What’s your sister’s name?”

“Azula.”

“Azula Cho?”

“Yeah.”

“As in the figure skater? As in Yue’s nemesis is your sister and it never occurred to you that ‘oh hey that might be useful information to pass on to ol’ Sokka.’ Really?”

Zuko shrugged. “It didn’t seem relevant.”

Sokka threw his hands up in complete exasperation. “Anything else you’d like to fill me in on?”

“Also she’s the captain of the Dangerous Ladies, which I guess are the Kyoshi Warriors’ arch rivals or something.”

“What.”

“And Mai skates for them, too.”

What.

“That’s pretty much it, though.”

Sokka stared at Zuko, waiting for the urge to strangle his friend to subside. It took some time.

***

#

The evening of the party, Sokka met up with the Kyoshi Warriors in the White Lotus parking lot; Suki drove an old minivan that ever since the loss of several skaters to college graduations, family moves, and marriages (the latter particularly annoying Suki, as she explained to Sokka on their impromptu date: ”If I ever get married you can bet your sweet ass I’m not quitting derby!”) could fit nearly the entire team and their gear. He waved as she pulled into the lot, the team beginning to pile out of the van even before it came to a complete stop. Suki yanked on the emergency brake after killing the engine, and Sokka walked around to the driver’s side.

“Hey, you made it!”

“I’m not gonna miss my last chance to skate at a real rink, no matter how pissed I am,” Suki said flatly.

Sokka hadn’t expected her to be cheerful, but her nearly-sullen cynicism was still disheartening. “At least the music will be good, for once,” he offered.

“I guess,” she said. Then, after a pause to contemplate, she continued. “I’m sorry, I’m just pissed. I don’t think this will destroy the team, but it will make a lot of things harder. We’ll keep going, though. We’ll always keep going.

“I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

“Thanks.”

“I think my friends are inside already. Shall we?”

True to his word, Iroh’s farewell party for the White Lotus Roller Palace was loud and packed. Word-of-mouth became a small story buried in the Arts & Entertainment section of the Ba Sing Se Informer, which in turn became a moderate groundswell of public interest in the closing of the city’s last dedicated roller rink.

The beat of the music thumped through the closed rink doors, and when they entered, it was every inch the disco wonderland Sokka had first imagined it to be.

Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swingin’” pulsed through the rink’s sound system, the disco ball and what was left of the neon were all turned up to their full campy glory, and a motley river of skaters swirled into and out of Sokka’s field of vision.

The rink’s population wasn’t dominated by an identifiable type of person; the attendees seemed to come from every walk of Ba Sing Se life. Sokka was even fairly sure he recognized a few people he’d known from his days hanging out with Yue at the ice rink.

“Where did all these people come from?” he asked aloud as he, Suki, and the rest of the Warriors sat down at a bench to put on their skates.

“There are a lot of people that skate, or ‘used to’ skate. Before the rink turned into... well, what it is these days. It used to be like this all the time, though, and roller skating used to be a thing all kinds of people did—not just freaks like me.” Suki gave her laces a jerk that was more forceful than it needed to be.

“You’re not a—” Sokka began, then stopped himself and concentrated on getting his skates on.

“Anyway, enough talk, let’s skate!” Suki grabbed his hand and dragged him onto the rink as the other Warriors bolted onto the skating floor with alarming alacrity.

Sokka was briefly unbalanced by Suki’s tug, but he recovered and looked down at his hand in hers. “So...”

“I haven’t had anyone to do the couples skate with since middle school,” she said in an artificially casual tone. “Huh.” She spun around, skating backwards as she faced Sokka, and smiled.

Sokka smiled back.

***

The couples skate was anticlimactic; Sokka didn’t know how to skate backwards or dance-skate or do any of the other moves useful for skating with a partner, and thus had another opportunity to envy Zuko’s secret occupation. Suki was good-natured about it, though, and seemed content to simply hold his hand as they glided around the rink to the slow R&B that accompanied the skate. Sokka saw other couples skating backwards while clasped in a close embrace, and silently vowed to one day be similarly suave, even if it meant humbling himself in front of Zuko to acquire the skill.

During the skate, Sokka spotted Aang, Katara, and Zuko sitting at one of the ancient formica tables bolted to the floor near the snack bar, and when the song ended he brought Suki over to meet them.

Sokka stumbled over a wrinkle in the threadbare carpeting that covered the floor of the snack area, “Shi—” he muttered, barely avoiding a fall but still irritated at the way his developing skating skills always seemed to fail him at exactly the best time to make him look like a clumsy dork.

He cleared his throat as they came up to the table. “Uh, hey guys,” he said with a wave. “Glad you could all make it out! This is my... um, this is Suki. Suki, this is my sister Katara, and my friends Aang and Zuko.”

“You, I know,” said Suki, quirking a smile as she pointed at Zuko. “But hi!” she said with a friendly wave at the group generally. “Sokka’s told me... actually, almost nothing about you.”

“Oh! Um. Yes. Well, Katara’s my younger sister, she’s in med school right now, and Aang is going to the Olympics.”

Suki raised her eyebrows. “Yeah? What events?”

Aang made a dismissive gesture. “Eh, a bunch of stuff, it’s not that big of a deal.”

“Gymnastics, track, swimming, and he’s on the Ba Sing Se Olympic basketball team as well,” said Katara. “And yes, Aang, it is a big deal.” She rubbed his bald head affectionately.

“Yeah, and you should see him skate. Guy’s incredible,” added Zuko.

“So let’s get back out there! It’s now or never,” said Sokka.

They did.

***

On the rink, Sokka noted the affection with which Katara watched Aang as he danced between the slower skaters. His irritation at her protectiveness melted a little.

Eventually the fatigue in his legs prompted him to take a break, so Sokka peeled off the rink and sat down next to Katara, who seemed to be taking a similar breather.

“Hey, Katara.”

“Hey.”

“So, Aang looks really good, huh?”

Katara smiled. “He does.”

“So do you, by the way. I was always kind of sad that you quit figure skating.”

Katara made a face. “That was a long time ago.”

Sokka shrugged. “But you really loved it.”

“You never said anything about it at the time,” Katara pointed out.

“You seemed like you’d made your choice. I know better than to try to get between you and whatever you’ve decided on.” Sokka glanced out at the rink, and Aang. “And after Mom...”

“I just didn’t want to do it anymore, okay? There’s no point in dredging it up now.”

Sokka paused. “I just think Aang would really like skating with you, is all.”

Katara was silent.

“You’ll be a really good doctor, too, though. Just don’t forget about the stuff you love.”

She looked out to the rink. “I won’t.”

***

Halfway through the session, Iroh climbed into the DJ booth and commandeered the mic. “Thank you all so much for coming to the farewell skate of the White Lotus Roller Rink!” This was met by enthusiastic applause—for the rink, if not for its closure. “We’d like to honor a tradition we’ve had here at the White Lotus for a long time, and with such a fantastic crowd I think it’ll be especially great. That’s right, I’m talking about the races!”

A cheer rose at Iroh’s pronouncement; Sokka looked over to Suki as they slowly came to a halt on the rink floor; she mouthed a decisive “oh yeah” in his direction.

“So if I could get everybody to slowly and carefully clear the skating floor, we’ll set the cones out and find out who the fastest skaters in the city are!”

The floor emptied as skaters rolled off of the hardwood and onto the carpet surrounding it. Once it was free of traffic, Zuko skated out and placed four small orange traffic cones roughly 20 feet inside the track at each corner.

“You can see the White Lotus referee placing the cones there—you must stay outside the cones at all times to win. The race will be a two-lap sprint of the track. Now, any skaters 15 and under that want to race, please line up beside the referee. The winner gets a free soda at the snack bar!”

A diverse gaggle of children filtered through the crowd and back onto the rink. They lined up beside Zuko, who held his arm out as a signal to stop.

“When the referee drops his arm,” said Iroh over the sound system, “you go! Ready?”

The assembled children cried out in the affirmative.

“Three!”

“Two!”

“One!”

Zuko dropped his arm, and the kids were off. Owing to the disparate ages, the older children were at a significant advantage, but one young girl in pigtails who couldn’t have been more than ten put up an incredible fight for second, beating out a boy easily a foot taller than her.

“All right, now for all skaters 16 and older—any skater 16 and older who wants to race, line up beside the referee.”

The crowd shifted as a handful of older skaters headed out to the floor. Sokka looked over to Suki, a question in his eyes. Suki grinned her response, and made her way out.

A couple of the other Warriors joined her, along with a handful of dance skaters and some of the older, cockier teenagers.

Sokka was just settling into the pleasant notion of watching his date kick everyone’s butt when the crowd seemed to part as though pushed, and onto the rink glided a girl dressed in black, red, and menace.

“Wha—” Sokka breathed, to no one in particular. He saw Suki look over to the latecomer, saw her eyes widen in surprise, then narrow in anger.

It was Azula.

“Hi, Zuzu,” said the girl breezily to Zuko as she took her place at the starting line. Zuko scowled.

Behind the mic, Iroh seemed not to take notice of the girl’s arrival. “Skaters on their marks,” he said.

“And three!

“Two!”

“One!”

Zuko dropped his arm, and the skaters were off.

Azula sprinted away on her toestops, barely ahead of Suki, who transitioned to crossover turns earlier and was able to make up the gap and come into the first turn barely ahead—and well past the other skaters in the race.

Now behind Suki, Azula skated low and with dangerously perfect form, hewing tight to the inside line as she matched Suki stride for stride throughout the first lap. Suki’s pace did not so much as waver going into the second lap, but on the back straightaway the other girl simply quickened the pace of her already-deep strides, and moved past Suki on the outside with apparent ease. Suki hunched over and looked for more speed, but found none.

Azula was easily a body-length ahead of Suki when they crossed the finish line.

When he saw Suki skate for the first time, Sokka could never have imagined how anyone could skate faster than her. Now he didn’t have to imagine it; he had seen it with his own eyes.

“Congratulations to our winners, and to all our skaters!” said Iroh over the sound system. “Your free sodas can be picked up at the snack bar. The next skate will be an all-skate—that’s an all-skate, here at the White Lotus Roller Palace!”

The next song started to play through the big speaker stacks, and the rink began to fill with skaters once again. Sokka looked frantically around for Suki, and caught sight of her stalking angrily toward Azula. He awkwardly hurried to catch up with Suki, though what he planned to do when he reached her, he did not know.

Azula had retired to a booth in the snack bar to confer with her friends, which as he got closer Sokka now saw included Mai. Suki reached their table just as Sokka got close enough to be within earshot, and something told him that that was close enough.

“What are you doing here?” he heard Suki demand.

“Us?” Azula replied, hand clasp innocently to her chest. “Why, I thought we were skating. Weren’t we skating, girls?” She posed the rhetorical question to the two girls that sat across from her; Mai and Ty Lee had both been regulars at IceTribe.

Suki’s only response was a cold stare.

Azula affected a weary sigh. “Well, I suppose you have a point. We don’t have much use for roller skates or derby these days—not without any decent competition.” She chuckled. “But if you simply must know, I came to take a look at my new rink.”

What?

“Oh, not a roller rink, of course. We’ll remodel the interior entirely, install refrigeration units and so on. I’ve already ordered the Zamboni, in fact. You see, that bitch Yue banned me from all the other ice rinks in the city, and I need a place to train so I can destroy her at the Olympics. The location isn’t ideal, I’ll admit, but... it will do.”

“You can’t just—” Suki started.

“I  can’t just... what, exactly? Because last I checked the property was on the market, and I have the money, and that’s that.”

“We’ll fight this,” said Suki. “You know we will.”

“I’m just fascinated to know what about a legitimate business transaction you’re proposing to fight. But you know what? No—I have a better idea. I’m going to let you lose the rink on your own terms.”

“Do tell.”

“A roller derby bout. My team against yours. If you win, I’ll go elsewhere. If I win, well, I buy the White Lotus as planned, and if you’re very lucky, maybe I’ll let you sign up for ice skating lessons.”

Suki’s jaw clenched. She hesitated for a moment, perhaps trying to find the loophole or trick in Azula’s words. Eventually she gave up, though, and her answer was decisive. “You’re on.”

“Done. We’ll meet here in a week to present teams and hold a press conference. Oh—” Azula said, apparently noticing Suki’s confusion, “—if you think I don’t have every intention of humiliating you in front of the largest audience I possibly can, you’re quite wrong. My Dangerous Ladies have beaten your pathetic Warriors before, and we’ll do it again.”

“We’ll see.”

“Yes, you certainly will.”

Suki spun 180 degrees on her skates and put Azula behind her, brushing past Sokka as she went.

“H-hey! Suki, wait!” Sokka hurried to catch up to her. “Was that what it sounded like?”

They drew up to the edge of the rink, and Suki looked out at the river of skaters, steel in her eyes. “Looks like we got that rematch.”

***

#

Azula was nothing if not true to her word.

The very next morning, Sokka was working the early shift at the Skate Pagoda when he got a phone call.

“This Hakoda’s Skate Pagoda, Sokka speaking.”

“Hey, Sokka.”

“Oh, hey, Zuko. What’s up?”

“Listen, we’re already getting paperwork and stuff from Azula about the scheduling and promotion for that crazy bout. My uncle’s going to call Suki and the other Warriors over tonight for a meeting about it. I just thought you’d want to know.

“Hell yeah I want to know. Thanks, buddy. When are they meeting?”

“Around 7 or so, I heard.”

“I’ll be there.”

“See you then,” said Zuko, whereupon Sokka heard him hang up.

***

Sokka arrived at the rink at ten past seven, muttering curses at his own tardiness as he trotted across the parking lot and up to the building. Zuko was at the door to let him in.

“Thanks,” said Sokka as he hurried inside.

“No problem. We’re in the office.”

The two headed into the rink’s back office, a dingy, mundane, fluorescent-lit affair. The not overlarge room was already quite full with Iroh, Suki, and the rest of the Kyoshi Warriors.

Iroh was in the middle of a sentence when Sokka and Zuko entered the room. “...and so I’m simply unwilling to hold a full derby bout here without at least a half-hour shakedown bout two weeks in advance. It’s unsafe and impractical. Oh, hello, boys.”

Suki looked over her shoulder, surprise evident on her face as she registered Sokka’s presence, but she soon returned to the matter at hand. “Do you think you can get Azula to agree to that, though?”

“Unless she wants me to make her life very difficult indeed, she will agree.”

“Don’t worry, Suki,” said Zuko. “My sister always acts in her own best interest. It’s the one thing you can count on from her. She won’t want to risk making things any harder for her than they have to be.”

“Wait—” started Suki. “Your what?

“That’s what I said!” shouted Sokka, throwing his hands in the air.

***

The arrangements for the bout proceeded smoothly, and soon the day of the roster presentation and press conference came.

Sokka had done his level best to be a good boyfriend; though he was not entirely sure if he was in boyfriend territory yet, he suspected he was at least approaching the border. Suki held two emergency practices with the Warriors to bring them up to snuff (“We’re not losing by 50 points again!”) and Sokka dutifully attended both, though his aching muscles told him no girl or game was worth this kind of suffering.

Azula’s figure skating career had given her significant skill with managing the media, and this skill was now turned toward the promotion of the bout with the Kyoshi Warriors. As a result, when Suki and her team arrived at the rink the afternoon of the press conference, a small crowd of easily 10 local and regional sports reporters were already on the scene.

The Warriors were in uniform sans skates and pads, and they had taken their seats at one end of a long table, the remainder of which would presumably be occupied by the Dangerous Ladies—when they arrived.

But the Dangerous Ladies were late.

Suki and the Warriors sat there awkwardly, waiting for their opponents to show, as Sokka grumbled quietly off to one side—this kind of mind game was exactly Azula’s MO, in his limited experience. But ten minutes after the press conference was scheduled to begin, a black charter bus motored into the parking lot, and a line of ten or more uniformed players made their exit from it.

Something was wrong, though. As the players, led by Azula, took their seats at the long press conference table, Sokka furrowed his brow in disbelief, and with a quick look at Suki, confirmed that she and her team were similarly stunned.

“Good afternoon, everyone. Good afternoon,” began Azula, without preamble. “Today I’d like to introduce you to the team that will be skating in the White Lotus Invitational, a bout that will decide the future of this fine facility. To provide skating fans with the absolute finest in skating talent—we want to put on a good show, after all—I’ve recruited members of the Ba Sing Se Olympic short track speed skating team. Their domination of last year’s world championships is legendary, and you might better know them by their nickname: The Dai Li.”

Flashbulbs burst at the announcement. One reporter was quick to bolt out of his seat. “So this will be a bout featuring both male and female skaters?” he asked, as though to confirm the the unprecedented implication.

Suki practically pounced on the mic in front of her. “Yeah, you can’t just—?” she started, voice shaking despite her efforts to stay cool.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Azula said, cutting her off. “Did you think this was a WFTDA bout? Because as I recall, I’m paying for the insurance, the facility, the EMTs, and the promotion, so that makes me the sanctioning body. And yes, we’ll be playing by standard flat-track roller derby rules, with the exception that the teams may recruit whomever they wish to play,” she continued. “And so, this is my team. Ladies and gentlemen, I present the Phoenix Monarchs.”

More flashes popped as Azula’s team—herself, Mai and Ty Lee, and six Olympic-class speed skaters waved to the assembled press.

“Well, we’re the Kyoshi Warriors, and we’re going to kick your ass no matter who you bring,” said Suki shakily, leaning more closely into the mic than she meant to. “And that’s all I have to say. C’mon, Warriors.” She stood out of her chair and walked away, her stunned team following quickly behind her as reporters shouted questions, Sokka scrambling to keep up.

Behind him, very distantly, Sokka heard Iroh coming up to the mic and explaining the particulars of the bout schedule and the shakedown run—logistical details that were now the last thing on his mind.

***

Shortly after the press conference, Sokka parted ways with Suki and the Warriors. Suki was in a foul temper, and Sokka decided that discretion was the better part of valor in this particular case. He parked himself at the cafe near his house, and made some phone calls.

***

11:43 PM.

“Yeah?”

“Hey, Suki. It’s Sokka.”

“Hey.”

“Listen... I know it’s late, but do you want to get some dinner? There’s a good Thai place by the University, I’m starving, and I need some drunken noodles or I may actually die.”

A reluctant chuckle. “Yeah, okay.”

***

“Thai One On? This place is seriously called Thai One On?” Suki shook her head in disbelief.

“What? It’s an awesome name. I mean, I always hope somebody’s going to open a place called ‘Thai Fighter,’ but until then, this’ll do.”

This earned Sokka another head-shake and chuckle from Suki. “Anyway,” she said. “What’s up?”

Sokka poked at his drunken noodles. “So... I’m not sure how to ask this. It’s about the bout.”

Suki frowned. “Go on.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, okay?”

“Well, I’ll have to hear it before I can take it the wrong way.”

“Yeah. Uh... so... being totally honest, how much of a chance do you really think the Warriors have against Azula’s team?”

Suki’s expression darkened. “What, you don’t think we can beat them?”

I don’t know anything about roller derby. I want to know what you think.”

“Well...” Suki began, the word escaping with a kind of careworn sigh. “Honestly? It doesn’t look good. Her roster is twice as deep, and they’re mostly professional athletes. I don’t... I don’t think we can do it.”

Sokka nodded, his lips pursed in contemplation. “So what would you say to adding some skaters to your own team?”

Suki raised an eyebrow. “Like who?”

“Well... Zuko’s really solid on skates, and my sister Katara was a figure skater for years—you saw her last night, her form’s still very good. And my friend Aang is the greatest athlete in the world.”

“I don’t know...” Suki said, unconvinced.

“And I know I’m not much good, but I’d skate for you, too. I talked to all of them earlier today, and they’re all willing to do it.”

Suki looked down at her green curry. She did not immediately answer.

“I know I haven’t known you very long. But... I really like you, Suki. And I want to help, and not just because I think you’re awesome, although I do think you are pretty awesome. I think what Azula is doing is shitty, and I want to help you stop her.”

Suki looked up, her expression resolute. “Okay.”

***

#

The new additions to the Kyoshi Warriors had but five days to learn to play roller derby, and as the date of the half-hour shakedown bout approached, Sokka overheard Suki mention more than once to the original members of her team that she was just glad they all knew how to skate well enough to not be useless.

After the first practice, Suki announced that by joining a roller derby team, they had earned the right to take derby names.

Katara (“Bloodbender”) was smooth and maneuverable, and Zuko (“The Blue Spirit”) was incredibly steady on his skates. They made a good addition to the Warriors defensive roster, and in a pinch, both had speed enough to play as jammer. Sokka (“Wang Fire”) had  been working hard on his blocking and hitting skills, which had shaped up nicely—he’d turned into an effective inside front blocker, in front of the standard back-wall blocking team of Cindy Block and Kimi Krunch. Suki (“Oneesama”) generally directed her team on the track as pivot, though she was fast enough to be a significant threat as a jammer.

Aang, of course, was brilliant in any position, and over his objections the team had unanimously voted to dub him “The Dalai Trauma.”

***

The day of the shakedown bout arrived.

Sokka found himself almost paralyzed by nervous energy, and the hours leading up to the bout went by in an anxious haze. After what felt like both an eternity and no time at all, he was at the rink and suiting up with the rest of the team.

As they rolled out to their benches, Suki dropped back and skated alongside Sokka. “You ready?” she asked.

“Nervous.”

“It’ll go away after the first jam. Stay low, skate hard.” She punched his arm affectionately.

“Shyeah,” said Sokka. If only it were so easy.

“And Sokka.”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.” Suki kissed him on the cheek.

***

The pack for the first jam formed up at the pack line, 25 feet ahead of the jammers. In the pack was Sokka, Suki, Zuko, and Cindy Block, with Mai, Ty Lee, and two Dai Li blockers opposing them. Rice Rocket was jamming against Azula.

“I want a clean bout. No illegal blocks, no foul play, and no arguing with the referees,” came Iroh’s voice over the sound system. “Now, let’s get this started.” Sokka thought he detected a note of resignation in Iroh’s voice, but it was hard to be sure—and in any case, the pack whistle blew, and they were off.

Almost immediately, the Dai Li in the rear knocked Zuko and Cindy to the inside, while Sokka and Suki found themselves trapped by Mai and Ty Lee’s effective positioning.

When the jammer whistle sounded a few seconds later, Azula sprinted ahead, moving immediately in front of Rice Rocket and diving to the inside with incredible speed. Cindy tried to position herself to intercept the opposing jammer, but was sent tumbling to the rink surface by a vicious (but legal) Dai Li hit.

“Jammer up!” shouted Zuko as he looked back and saw his sister bearing down on them. She easily swung past them (“Bye, Zuzu!”) and took a whip from the other Dai Li to close in on Sokka and Suki.

Suki went to block Azula’s outside approach, but was kept at bay by Ty Lee, while Mai plowstopped right in front of Sokka, freezing him in his tracks as Azula flew by to claim Lead Jammer position.

The Warriors defense was shut down, and Azula went on to score 14 points in the first jam.

“Damn,” muttered Suki as the Warriors regrouped after the jam. “Aang, let’s see what you can do against that defense. Katara, you’re with Zuko at rear pack. Kimi Krunch, you’re with me in the front. Let’s go.”

The next jam saw Katara time and again move Dai Li blockers out of Aang’s way, as the boy swooped through the pack with ease—but the Phoenix Monarchs had jamming talent as well. The Dai Li speed skater was nearly as fast as Aang, and had the benefit of more disciplined defense. Aang was only able to score two points before having to call the jam.

14-2, Monarchs.

Then 20-2.

Then 24-2.

24-8—Sokka paid for a desperate block with a bruise that would last for weeks.

30-8.

30-10—Katara barely managed to hold Azula back long enough for Suki, at jammer, to get around her and score two points before being forced to call the jam.

34-10

40-10

48-10.

And so on.

After half an hour of play, the buzzer sounded. Sweat dripped off Sokka as he looked up to the scoreboard, which he’d long-since stopped paying attention to.

86-14.

***

All but two of Kyoshi Warrior’s points had been scored by Aang, the only jammer capable of regularly penetrating the Monarchs’ defense.

“Thanks for the bout, little sister—we’ll see you in two weeks, okay?” called out Azula as her team packed up their gear, her voice a mocking singsong lilt.

The Kyoshi Warriors, both old and new, sat sweaty and exhausted (all but Aang, who was never exhausted) on their bench as the Golden Phoenix Monarchs packed up and left.

Katara gave Sokka a look. “You said this would be worth it.”

“Hey, easy, sis. It’s just the shakedown. Now that we’ve seen them play, we can take apart their strategy,” he said.

What strategy?” said Zuko angrily. “The strategy of being incredibly fast and strong? Or the strategy of bottling up all our blockers so we can’t do shit?”

“Well, that might be part of it, yes...” allowed Sokka. He looked over to Suki.

“I bet I can get more points next time,” offered Aang hesitantly.

“You were great, Aang. I’m sorry my brother is wasting your time with this.”

Sokka looked Suki in the eye.

She looked at him evenly. “I don’t know how we’re going to beat them.”

“We’ll find a way. We have to.”

“Yes you will!” interjected Iroh as he approached the defeated team, skating with surprising grace across the now-empty rink floor.

“That’s awfully optimistic of you, Uncle.”

“At my age, optimism is a necessity. But in times like this, we must be realistic,” said Iroh as he came to a stop in front of the assembled Warriors. “I know a nice tea room nearby. My treat. If you’ll all join me for some Pu-Arh or perhaps a nice Oolong, we can discuss your options.”

Suki pulled her skates off and stood wearily. “All right,” she said.

Iroh clasped a friendly hand over her shoulder. “Don’t worry, Oneesama,” he said. “All is not lost.”

***

TO BE CONTINUED

 

—-

 

#

WHITE TITLES on a BLACK BACKGROUND: They had been defeated once.

IROH sits at the head of a table in a dimly-lit room, perhaps a bar or coffee shop.

IROH: You cannot win against Azula and the Dai Li, not as you are. You will need help.

TITLE: Their next chance would be their last.

SOKKA: What do you mean, “help?”

SMASH CUT to a whirlwind sequence of fast-paced jam skating; three skaters in fashionably raggedy clothes jump, slide, spin, and dance with incredible energy and grace.

JET: I’m Jet, and these are my freedom fighters.

SOKKA: We need you to skate with us. For the rink. For the good of all the skaters in the city.

SMELLERBEE snickers with derision, then glances over to LONGSHOT, whose face is stony.

JET: How do I know you won’t run the first time a Dai Li comes at you with an illegal block? How do I know you got what it takes to win?

SUKI: ‘Cause I’m telling you, Jet.

TITLE: Now...

Cut to: a slow-motion shot of Jet barely dodging a vicious body check from an incoming DAI LI SKATER.

TITLE: They have to fight...

Cut to: A closeup of a helmeted SOKKA shouting “GO GO GO!” to someone offscreen, desperation in his voice over the din of the cheering audience.

TITLE: For their right...

Cut to: SUKI, wearing the jammer star, jumping the apex of a corner to get past MAI and TY LEE, leaning so deeply into her turn that during her inside step her fingertips brush the surface of the track. She pushes hard and accelerates away as the camera shifts to focus on AZULA, trapped behind the blocking teamwork of ZUKO, SOKKA and KATARA. The announcer’s voice is lost in the roar of the crowd, but we can just make out...

ANNOUNCER: UNBELIEVABLE!

Cut to black.

TITLE: To skate.

CUT TO: A closeup of Toph, wearing mirrorshades and a backwards newsboy’s cap, behind a microphone and three turntables.

TOPH: KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERFUCKERS!

 

RINKRATS will conclude

9.15.2010

 

AZULA/VOICEOVER: I’m going to take him out... permanently.




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