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February 15th, 2017
So far, this was Jinora's favorite part of the day, though that bar had been set pretty low. It had started out by bickering a bit more with Ikki over breakfast, only to be silenced again by Pema on the drive to school, after which she had to sit through incredibly tedious literature, maths, and geography. The second half of her day was slightly less boring but also more pointless, with PE first followed by music, which turned out to be mostly musical theory.
But all of that was feeling kind of irrelevant now, because she and Kai had set up a date. They'd meet up after their last class in a quiet corridor in the school, stall for twenty minutes so they could leave together without being spotted.
Of course, what this also meant was that they had twenty minutes to kill, which Jinora thought should be done by sitting on his lap and slowly and comfortably make out for that time.
However, as they got closer to when they were supposed to leave, Kai suddenly broke away. "Hey, do you mind meeting up at the park later on? I'll take you to the theater from there," he asked, a hopeful look in his eyes.
But Jinora was confused. "Later? I thought we were gonna go see a movie now. I already lied to my mom and everything." It was only a white lie, she said that she was going with Fen, so not entirely a lie.
He sighed. "I have to pick up something from home first. Shila told me to go pick up my youngest brother from school first, and I need to ditch my stuff before that. Can't do that on a bike."
Jinora suddenly felt a little guilty. They were coming up on the three-month mark of their relationship, and yet Jinora still hadn't been to Kai's place. Hell, they had been in the same class for seven years, and yet she had never seen his foster parents, Shila and Kinto. Though that was less surprising, in all fairness.
But now, he'd snuck into her place more times than she could count, but never the other way around, and Jinora was starting to get curious. It almost looked and felt like he was somehow uncomfortable with telling her this. "Kai, you know you don't have to hide that from me, right?"
-"I don't know, it's not as nice as your place."
"Do you think I care about that?" Jinora put a gentle hand on his cheek and nudged his line of sight down again. "I want to know how my boyfriend lives, and I wouldn't care if that's either a box or a mansion."
Kai chuckled. "Well, it's closer to a box." Even though he still seemed a little hesitant, he couldn't resist Jinora's puppy-dog eyes. "Alright, you can come, and then we'll go to the movie."
They were quick to make sure that they were the only ones on the school parking lot, and Jinora once again hopped on the back. She had noticed how Kai was now becoming a bit less of a show-off with it, not loudly revving the engine all the time, and when she was on the back, he also drove a bit more carefully.
It was a while, cruising through the city to what Jinora knew wasn't exactly the best neighborhood in town. It was not too far from the skatepark, but on the exact opposite side from where Jinora lived, and between her house and Kai's, the prices dropped dramatically, so to speak.
-"Well, this is me," he said, stopping in front of a rather run-down apartment block. Jinora decided it would be best not to say anything, as she really didn't want to start lying to her boyfriend as well.
They went up the stairs to the second floor, where Kai pulled out a key and opened up a door at the end of the hallway. "Welcome to my humble abode, emphasis being on the 'humble'," he remarked.
Jinora looked around, and he really wasn't kidding. The living room was small and it reeked of smoke (no wonder Kai picked up the habit), and everything just looked off and dirty. They walls and ceiling looked like they were once off-white, but now they had turned gray and brown from all the smoking that presumably went on inside.
A raspy woman's voice came from the kitchen. "Kai? Did you pick up Neron yet?"
-"No, Shila, I just came to dump my stuff, then I'm on my way."
The she came out of the kitchen and was surprised to see Jinora. In turn, Jinora was amazed just how shabby she looked. Her hair was uncared for and was turning gray already, her face wrinkly, and her teeth yellow. Kai had told Jinora that she was younger than her own mother, but Shila looked much, much older. That and the awful floral dress that should have been thrown out fifteen years ago didn't help much either. "Who's the broad?"
"Excuse me?" Jinora said, raising an eyebrow.
-"Shila, this is Jin. Are you done? Neron shouldn't be waiting any longer."
She never took her eyes off Jinora. "Fine, go your own way." This time around, Jinora detected a little bit of a slur in her voice.
Kai quickly went into his room, clearly eager to get Jinora out of there as soon as humanly possible.
-"So are you another one of Kai's skanks?" Shila asked, clearly not in the mindset to be very nice. She slumped over to a worn-out barcalounger, and the way she wasn't quite walking straight told Jinora that her earlier suspicions were probably correct: that woman was drunk.
"I like to think I'm not," she coldly answered.
-"Hmm, must be me then."
-"Yes, it is," Kai interrupted them. "Jin, let's go. Bye!" Before Shila could say anything else, they were out the door again.
"Boy, she's a real charmer, isn't she?"
Kai loudly sighed. "And you were wondering why I didn't want you at my place."
"Well, I'm not anymore, if that's what you're asking." Jinora decided it was safer to wait until they were outside again to ask the most delicate question hanging between them, where it would stay between them, rather than in the acoustic stairwell. "Kai, is Shila an alcoholic?"
He was silent for a moment. "So you figured that out."
"Wasn't exactly higher psychology."
Kai was still hesitant to say it out loud. "She is," he ultimately admitted.
"Then why is she still allowed to be a foster parent? I'm pretty sure being an alcoholic would disqualify you."
-"They're good at hiding it whenever those people come by, and there is a big shortage of foster parents in the city. They have to work with what they can get, and what they can get, is people like Shila and Kinto. They're better than nothing."
Jinora noticed something off about how he said that. "Wait, what is that about your foster dad?" Kai visibly berated himself for letting that slip. "Kai..." Jinora said, not sure where she wanted that to go. "I can't help you if you won't let me."
-"This is not something you can help. It's between me and him."
It was abundantly clear that it wasn't something he liked to talk about, but Jinora felt like it was something they had to talk about. "How badly did he abuse you?"
Kai let a long silence fall between them before turning to Jinora. "I want you to promise me that whatever you hear right now, stays between us, okay?"
"Kai, I promise. It'll never leave me." She looked him right in the eye, and he knew she meant it.
-"He beat me," Kai admitted. "Ever since 5th grade when I first came to live with them. Shila was usually too drunk to do something about it, or she just didn't care. In his defense, I was a handful, but it was more out of frustration than punishment."
"That's not an excuse, that's horrible! Why didn't you tell anyone?"
He sighed again. "Because it wouldn't make things better. Yes, Shila and Kinto are assholes, but plenty of foster parents are the same or worse. Plus, by the time I got there, they had already taken in three of my younger sisters, and if I would report them, we would also be ripped apart. That problem only got worse the more kids they took in. It's hard enough to find good shelter for just one of us, but do you really think there is any hope that all six of us can remain together?"
Jinora thought about it for a moment. "No, I suppose there isn't," she admitted with a small voice. "Is it still happening?"
-"No," Kai shook his head. "It stopped when I was 14 and big enough to hit him back if he beat me or my siblings, so it was too risky for him. It's why we don't really have any nice stuff, he keeps breaking it."
By now, they were coming up on the school. It wasn't out yet, but there were a whole bunch of moms waiting outside the gate for their children. The hushed conversation meant that Jinora and Kai could lean up against a low wall and enjoy some relative privacy in the crowd. She took his hand and gave it an affectionate squeeze. "I'm really sorry about all this. That you had to go through it, I mean."
Kai softly squeezed back in acknowledgement. "Well, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?"
"Don't think you should be applying it to this so casually, but then again, I'm no expert on this." She briefly let it fall silent. "Have you thought about what's going to happen after you're done with school?"
-"Well, I think it's best that I stay close, the community college on the other side of town. Not like I can afford much more, but still. I'll be close-ish, and next in line are the twins, who are only a year behind me. After they move out, there's a decent chance we can keep the other three together if we report them. That's the plan."
Jinora let that sink in for a moment. Sure, it wasn't a brilliant plan, and there were holes in it, but at least it was a plan. And that coming from Kai meant that this was something he really cared about.
She was sprung from her thoughts when the school bell rang and hordes of kids started coming out. A boy who Jinora thought was about six soon ran towards the couple. "Kai!" he yelled enthusiastically.
-"Hey there, buddy!" Kai said, picking him up. "How're you doing?"
-"Really good! We made this drawing, and I can't wait to show you!"
Kai chuckled. "Well, you'll have to wait a bit, because first we gotta go home. Shall we?"
"Ahem," Jinora politely cleared her throat, though she was kind of reluctant to do so, because watching Kai with the boy was adorable. "Aren't you going to introduce us?"
-"Right, where are my manners? Neron, this is Jin, my girlfriend. Jin, Neron, my little brother."
He immediately protested. "I'm not little!"
Kai chuckled. "Of course you aren't," he said, winking at Jinora, who couldn't help but chuckle at this.
The walk back to Kai's apartment was entirely like this. Neron was adorable, he reminded her a lot of Rohan a couple of years earlier. Energetic, but still manageable. She suspected this wasn't the one Kai was talking about when he said that his siblings were usually a handful. It could also just be that he was calm now, when it was just her and Kai, and there weren't any others to rile him up.
Whatever the case, it was most surprising to see just how good Kai was with him. It was obvious that not only did Kai love Neron, Neron adored Kai. She wondered if he was as good with all kids, or just with his little brother. Whichever one of those it was, she certainly hoped it was the first one in case of...
Actually, that might be a little bit premature. Still, couldn't hurt to keep this in the back of her mind for now.
But watching him like this was both warming her up and sending a chill down her spine at the same time. His affection for Neron was genuine, that much Jinora was certain of, but he also had to hide so much from him. Neron probably didn't have the first clue what had happened to Kai in the past and hopefully never would.
This brought her back to the thought of what she could do. Kai was right that she couldn't do much to help him, and that was what's bugging her. If she would tell anyone, his goal of keeping his siblings together would fail, and they'd be torn apart. If she didn't tell anyone, Shila and Kinto would win. The best thing for now though was probably just to leave it be, because Kai did say they were at sort of a stalemate, however undesirable the circumstances of that were.
-"What's going on, babe?"
Jinora was suddenly snapped out of her thoughts and hadn't really realized that they were already back at Kai's apartment building. "Oh, just thinking. Don't want to feel useless, you know?"
Kai nodded. "I do, but this isn't your fight."
-"You guys are fighting?" Neron asked.
They both laughed, but Kai put his little brother at ease. "No, don't worry. Just something we were talking about earlier."
-"Well, I want to know!"
"Another time, maybe."
Neron was still pouting, and it was adorable. But they were also at the door of the apartment itself, and Kai ushered him in. Alright, Jin and I are going to see a movie. Be nice to Shila, okay?"
"He's cute," Jinora commented once Kai had pulled the door shut behind him."
-"As are you," he replied with a sly smirk.
"Charmer," Jinora chuckled and pressed a quick peck on his lips.
Kai just saw the whole thing as a victory. "Now how about I finally take you to see that movie?"
"Take me away."
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