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|Another Day's End|
May 10, 2013
It was fewer than twelve hours since Ratana led the broken and wounded of her countrymen out of the opening to the badgermole tunnels to the east of Gujuhmin, and then back to base. The memory of the fight against the Fire Nation, however, was burned into the back of her mind as though it had already lingered there for several days. When the battle had not gone as well as the commanders hoped, the Earth Kingdom tanks withdrew from the mission and Ratana had taken it upon herself to usher the remaining troops away from the well-prepared enemy army. In the process, they had ravaged an entire section of the city and found their way out at last through a badgermole-dug cavern beneath the city streets. An Earth Kingdom native from the devastated neighborhood had tumbled in after them and had been given an escort back to base.
Now, Ratana was entering the infirmary to see visit one of her Terra Team comrades who had suffered a crippling injury from falling rocks of the crumbled outside wall. "How are you doing, Shun Ping?" she asked him, smirking and still in her dusty, sweaty uniform from the failed invasion.
Shun Ping lifted his eyes in brief acknowledgement before lowering his beams of vision back to the floor. "They say I'm going to be invalided out of the army, and that I'll never earthbend properly again." The crushed part of him had was not confined to his physical body.
Ratana's smile vanished instantly. "I see..."
"Perhaps you shouldn't have rescued me," Shun Ping muttered just above his breath. "I'm no good to anyone now."
"Don't talk like that, Shun Ping!" Ratana exclaimed back as she shook her head at him. "You're a strong, courageous man who suffered an injury in the service of your country. You can walk anywhere with your head held high, and anyone who does not grant you the respect you deserve is insolent."
"Thanks for trying to cheer me up, Ratana," Shun Ping replied from his stiff, lying-down position. "I have a feeling, though, that things aren't always quite that simple."
Ratana hung her head, as she knew that it would take her comrade time to grow used to his new existence. Having said all she could for now, she grasped his left hand with both of her own and returned the wooden betrothal necklace Shun Ping had shown to her earlier. She then turned and left the infirmary to go to the office of General Sung, where a few of the other Terra Team members were in the middle of presenting their official report.
"Ratana!" someone called from behind her as she approached the office. It was the man who was responsible for Shun Ping's current condition. "I'm happy to see that you and so many of our troops escaped unscathed," Colonel Quan Jing told the wincing woman before him, who found his last word grossly out of place. "But your actions out there were insubordinate!" he bellowed at her, eyes bulging. "I gave you strict orders."
Ratana was undaunted by his looming over her. "General Sung gave us all strict orders to take Gujuhmin at any cost," she composed herself coolly, but without losing her temper. "We were supposed to capture the wall and the rest of the colony intact. And with all due respect, Sir, some of what you did out there breeched Earth Kingdom army protocol."
The commanding officer's face flashed with rage at her last line, but then he settled himself down and straightened his face with subtle reluctance. "Well, that's all over, now," he told her, seemingly matter-of-fact. "We're both reasonable people, Ratana, so I think we can both agree to put this behind us."
The younger woman before him narrowed her eyes, peeved, before giving him the shortest, quickest nod of the head that could be recognized. Together, the pair of uneasy earthbenders entered the office of their mutual commander.
General Sung twiddled the ends of his long, thin mustache, looking comfortable and in-place behind his wooden desk. His green-armored uniform was similar to Quan Jing's, though not as seasoned from recent years. "Ah, welcome, Ratana and Quan Jing. Tooru and Taigang were just finishing their report of the battle's result," Sung said, indicating to the two tall Terra Team earthbenders before his desk. "Most disappointing, I must say," he added with a shake of his head.
In the corner of the room, behind Tooru and Taigang, was the colonial man from Gujuhmin, dressed in emerald-colored shirt and pants which distinguished him as an Earth Kingdom native. Having been largely forgotten since they picked him up, he had not said a word to anyone yet. Ratana noticed that he looked a bit shaken from the events of the day, which was probably why he had not bothered to thank anyone for saving his life.
At last, the general himself turned to acknowledge him. "It must've been hard, living under the oppressive arm of the Fire Nation," Sung said to the man with a cordial smile. "But you'll be pleased to find that you can now begin a fresh life and make yourself a new home in the free Earth Kingdom."
Finally, the man spoke. "Are you all mad?! I don't have a home; you people destroyed it!" he blurted out at them. "And you did the same to my neighbors!"
"Your neighbors?" Sung asked in alarm, raising one of his eyebrows. "Surely, you cannot mean the repressive colonial masters who subjugated you?"
Taigang crossed his arms. "What a bunch of nonsense. This man's head has clearly been muddled by spending too much time living under the Fire Nation."
"Yes, I've lived in a Fire Nation colony all my life," the man said in response. "But you and your government have it all wrong. A lot of the non-benders I know I'm actually not sure whether their family was originally from the Fire Nation or the Earth Kingdom. It doesn't really make a difference to us, so don't expect me to get all grateful over the color of your uniform now."
"You are correct, Taigang," Sung said with a nod of his head. "He will have to be thoroughly reeducated before he can be integrated into proper Earth Kingdom society. He's not mentally prepared for what freedom has to offer." The general and his soldiers were addressing each other and not the man they spoke of.
"It's times like this it would be nice to have a Dai Li agent among our group," Tooru joked, smirking.
"This is serious, Tooru!" snapped Taigang. "Reintegrating colonial citizens like this is no laughing matter."
"All of you are wrong!" the man bellowed, further aggravated at his explanations falling upon deaf ears. "I was free, and I was happy before. Well, I'm not going to take any more of this lying down." And with that, he turned away from the Terra Team and broke into a run down the earthen hallway.
"Stop him!" Sung yelled frantically, pointing his finger in the direction the man had fled.
"I'll stop him," volunteered Taigang. "And end him. Better off dead than like that."
"No Taigang!" declared Ratana. "I'll chase him," she told him as she bolted down the hall, leaving a scowling Taigang behind her.
Ratana knew that she had to be gentler with the man than Taigang would have been. If he didn't know what his own country was, he clearly needed help. He was simply lost and confused - not a true enemy. What she would have to do was rough but necessary. As she caught up to him, she jerked her arms forward and raised two mounds of earth up to cover his striding feet, which tripped him where he stood.
The Gujuhmin man's mouth emitted an ironic laughter with not a trace of humor as Ratana bound him. "First she 'liberates' me, then she subjugates me."
"I know this must be difficult for you," Ratana told him as she pinned the man to the ground and bent hard rock about his hands. "But it's for your own good."
The trapped man's eyes sharpened with loathing. As he was not the fighting type, these two blunt spheres of contempt were the only weapon he had to raise against the strong Terra Team earthbender. "You know nothing."
- The scene at the end with the man from the Fire Nation colony will bear some significance later on.
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