This wasn't the first family vacation Jinora had spent with her nose in a book. Even at the beach, just off the board walk, with the waves crashing onto the shore, the drone of everyone else around her, and the occasional chorus of screams from the amusement park rides, she had learned to ignore all of it and focus on the latest book she had downloaded onto her tablet. It was a tragic love story full of cliché and heartache; things she hadn't quite had a chance to experience in her own life yet, but she loved it all the same.
She was just beginning to feel herself transcend and completely immerse into the story, her mind's eye seeing the rolling hills; scarred, bloodied, and still burning as the heroine was galloping on her horse. Her burnt and beaten armor gave off shimmers in the sunlight, and tears streamed down her cheeks as she raced to find her star-crossed lover on the battlefield before he would inevitably die in her arms.
“How can you read that with a straight face?” came a voice that completely jolted her out of her imagined fantasy and back into the present.
A tall, tanned, and toned boy stood over her with a lopsided grin and a curious look in his eyes. Jinora's usually quick-witted and brilliant mind decided to go blank for a moment, and she simply craned her head up and looked at him over her sunglasses, blinking in a gaping stare.
“I mean, wouldn't they have fought side by side on a battlefield rather than across it?” he continued, fishing for an answer.
Finally snapping out of her stupor, Jinora replied sharply, “First of all, it's considered rude to read over someone's shoulder. And secondly, you would have to read the whole story to understand. She was an archer, he was infantry, and they have different positions on the battlefield.” As she spoke, her peripheral vision alerted her that he was wet and shirtless, and she found it difficult to keep her eyes on his face instead of letting them travel downward.
“Makes sense I guess.” He shrugged as he picked up his towel that had been laying out next to her.
He used the towel to dry off his high fade/pompadour hair before toweling the rest of himself off. Jinora tried her best not to stare, she really did. His dark green board shorts were a nice contrast to his darker skin tone. She wondered if her sunglasses were dark enough that he couldn't see her obvious appraisal of his body, but the smug grin he shot at her told her otherwise.
'Dammit,' Jinora thought to herself while she felt her cheeks heat up. She quickly lowered her gaze back to the tablet to cover her blushing face.
“So what's your name?” he asked suddenly.
“Jinora,” she answered tentatively, slowly raising her eyes back up to him. “What’s yours?”
“I’m Kai,” he said, flashing her a bright smile as he threw the towel over his shoulder. “Do you play volleyball?”
Jinora set down her tablet and looked over to where he gestured to what she assumed were his friends playing around a net constructed in the sand. She hesitated. It had been a while since she had played anything with anyone except her siblings, but the pull of the charming boy in front of her and the tingling excitement he made her feel was a temptation she couldn’t resist. And suddenly the usually very calculated and careful Jinora felt the irresistible urge to do something spontaneous.
“Sure,” Jinora answered as she slipped her tablet into her bag and pulled out her cell phone, getting up and sliding it into the back pocket of her high-waisted shorts. Her yellow, polka-dot blouse fluttered in the sea breeze as she stepped to his side.
“Awesome,” Kai beamed before pulling on a loose tank top and gesturing for her to follow him.
They weaved through the other people laying out in the sun to get to the sand volleyball courts. Jinora was hesitant to actually step onto the court, but one heartening smile from Kai gave her all the courage she needed. They set up teams, with Kai making sure Jinora was placed next to him, and it wasn’t long before they were deeply immersed in a fast-paced game.
Jinora was neither tall nor short and a bit on the petite side, and she surprised them all with the amount of agility she possessed. The look on Kai’s face certainly told her that he never would have imagined she could jump that high. While there wasn’t much power behind her serves, she was startlingly quick on her feet and had the other team panting to keep up with her. When she was in the front row she managed to block several attempts to score from the other team, and even set up many instances for Kai to deliver a powerful spike. The dynamic they created together made them an unstoppable force, and the other team simply couldn’t coordinate a counterattack and ended up losing the game.
“You’re amazing,” Kai announced, beaming at her while they both caught their breath.
Jinora smiled coyly, blushing from the praise. “You’re pretty great too,” she said, somehow unable to look away from him.
Kai’s smile deepened and he rubbed the back of his head as they both broke off into nervous laughter.
A few more games were played after that, with more and more players added to the other side each time in an attempt to gang up on Kai and Jinora. Jinora watched a few times as money was passed between Kai and his friends during breaks to make it “more interesting”, and she couldn’t help but feel a little uncomfortable. Her father was strictly adamant against gambling of any kind, but she shrugged it off; it seemed harmless.
After several raucous matches, everyone was ready to call it a day, and Kai and Jinora split off from his friends. “Come on, let's hit the boardwalk,” he suggested with a crooked grin. “We gotta spend our winnings.”
Jinora looked over to where her family was on the beach, still on the shore, and she sent a short text to both of her parents to let them know where she was going so they wouldn’t worry.
“So do we want hot dogs, pizza, tacos...?” Kai listed off as he gestured to the different store fronts.
Jinora looked at her options, trying to decide which one would have better vegetarian options. “Um, I think I'll just stick to french fries.”
“Is your stomach not feeling well?” Kai inquired.
“My stomach's fine. I'm just a vegetarian,” she explained with a shrug.
After getting their food, they walked further along the boardwalk and were eventually drawn to the bumper cars. Jinora took out her wallet to pay for herself but Kai stopped her, insisting he would pay for it. Then she picked a car and slid into it, letting out a bracing sigh as she strapped herself in.
“Something wrong?” Kai asked from the car next to her.
“Nothing,” she waved him off. “I just remembered how rough bumper cars can be.”
Kai looked a little worried. “We could go do something else if you want…”
“No, I’ll be fine. Besides, your friends look like they’re really looking forward to the chance to get revenge,” she said, nodding over to where some of the boys from earlier were getting into their own cars. “Just promise you won't hit me,” she added half-jokingly.
Kai followed her gaze to where the three imposing looking guys were leering at them with challenge in their eyes, albeit good naturedly. “Tell you what, you run offense, I'll run defense,” he proposed, turning back to face her.
The idea of working as a team with him again had Jinora’s heart leaping in her chest, and the brightest smile spread across her lips. As she smiled, Kai seemed to become transfixed by her face, his eyes softening suddenly. Their eyes didn’t break away from each other until the loud buzzer sounded, jolting them into action.
“Let’s kick their asses,” he told her with a wink before they took off.
Kai kept his word and did his best to protect her from the other cars, taking several hard hits himself. But then Jinora always got back whoever had gone after him. A few minutes later, just as the time was about to end, one dude came out of nowhere, gunning it for Kai. But he was too focused on fending off the other cars to notice that he was about to be hit and pinned to the wall. Jinora made a snap decision and circled around to T the offender’s car, getting the brunt of the forceful impact but saving Kai, which he had turned his head just in time to see the self-sacrificing move.
“Thanks for that,” Kai said gratefully as the cars stopped and they got out.
“You’ve been doing the same for me the whole time; I figured I would return the favor at least once,” Jinora remarked as she nudged his shoulder with hers, their fingers slightly brushing together.
It was so much fun. Being with Kai was so much fun. He was funny and charming, and he had an ease about him that made her feel comfortable around him. She could hardly believe that a quiet day of reading at the beach had turned into this. She was walking on air. Then she looked up as they made their way through the cars, and what she saw yanked her quickly back to earth. Her mom and her little brother were standing outside of the gate, waiting for her. Pema had an unreadable expression on her face, and Jinora didn't know if she was in trouble or not.
“Hi, Mom,” Jinora greeted as she meekly walked up to her mother. Kai regrouped with his friends only a few feet away.
“Make some new friends?” Pema inquired.
“Yeah,” Jinora answered as she turned slightly to point them out. She listed off their names for her mom, being careful not to let her voice give anything way when she said Kai’s name.
Then she waited to hear the speech she knew was bound to happen, which if her dad was there, would already be half way through giving. The one that usually went “you know better than to hang out with strangers” and “they could be dangerous”, but instead her mother simply asked a few questions.
“So are you having fun?” Pema asked, handing Jinora her quilted tote bag and light hoodie.
“Yeah, I'm having the most fun I've had all vacation,” Jinora admitted as she took her bag and slung it over her shoulder
“Do you feel comfortable and safe around all of them?” Pema further prodded.
“I wouldn't still be hanging around them if I didn't.”
“Good. Well we're heading back to the hotel. Be back before 11, you know how your father worries, and keep your phone on and at full volume just to be safe. Call if you need anything,” she said before giving her daughter a hug and some more money.
Jinora could hardly believe it. She knew her parents trusted her and she would never do anything to betray that trust, but this was still a big leap. She walked back to the group and told them she could still hang out, and everyone was pleased. Especially Kai, who slung an arm around her shoulders and lead the way to the amusement park rides. Because of their height difference, it was extremely comfortable for him to rest his arm around her shoulder, and Jinora was happy to have the closeness. Not to mention some of his body heat as the temperature began to drop, but it still wasn't quite cold enough to put her hoodie on yet.
They played some carnival type games and went on a few rides, and as the night progressed and they paid for tickets, Jinora wondered if her eyes were playing tricks on her. She could have sworn Kai’s wallet was brown earlier, but then he began using a black one, and the stitching was different. Why was he carrying around multiple wallets? But then she forgot about it as she once again became swept up in the euphoric feeling of being with Kai. They didn’t leave each other’s side once as they went to the different attractions.
On the Ferris wheel, Jinora finally broke down and put her hoodie on as it started to get windy, then she went right back to practically snuggling into Kai's side. He gave her that crooked grin he had whenever he looked at her, and it made Jinora's heart beat faster and kept her cheeks almost constantly blushed. As their compartment rose higher and all the lights and colors stretched out below them, Jinora smiled brightly at Kai, sharing the fun of the moment with him. He chuckled a little, biting his lip as he turned his eyes to the view.
“What?” she asked, feeling a little self-conscious. Did she have something in her teeth?
“I don’t know what it is about you,” he mused out loud. A few more seconds passed before he continued. “You smile like that and… it’s like my heart skips.”
Now it was his turn to blush, and Jinora chuckled as well. “I feel the same way,” she whispered, reaching across his lap to clasp his other and hand with her own.
At a quarter to 11, Kai drove Jinora back to the hotel she was staying at, thanks to a 'borrowed' motorcycle. She held on tight and even rested her head on his shoulder as she soaked up the remaining moments with her new 'friend'. She was beginning to have a new understanding and appreciation for all those love stories, even as tragic and cliché as they were.
The closer they got, the tighter she seemed to hold on, not wanting whatever this was to end just yet. Kai pulled up under the overhang and put his feet down to stabilize the bike, but otherwise didn't move as they both sat in silence for a moment. Neither one not wanted to say goodbye.
“Hey, I have an idea,” Kai murmured over his shoulder, finally breaking the stillness of the moment.
“Yeah?” she responded quietly.
“When are you leaving?” he asked.
“Tomorrow,” Jinora answered regretfully.
“Oh,” he muttered, whatever he had been planning to say dying on his tongue.
“Let's just not say goodbye,” Jinora pleaded as she moved her head forward to see his face better.
“Deal,” Kai agreed, looking back at her.
“Thank you, Kai,” Jinora breathed as she kissed him on the cheek before getting off the motorcycle. “For the best night of my life… so far,” she added with a wistful smile.
He said nothing, but watched as she turned and disappeared through the doors.