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May 12, 2015
Ratana blinked her eyes opened slowly and found that she was suspended in the air by chains constructed of metal, so she was unable to reach the stone ground below in the dark, dimly-lit room. As the earthbender's body draped like a rag by the cuffs that held her hands, the lanterns seemed to give off a shade of green in the room and around the walls that surrounded them. Across from her in this mysterious dungeon's cell was her partner Tooru, wearing a slightly-torn, turquoise tunic that must have been meant for a prisoner. It was identical to the one that Ratana was wearing.
Ratana gasped in shock, wondering who it was that had undressed her before she was brought here. She felt like a mess, and the still-unconscious Tooru appeared the same way. Without his conical hat, it was a marvel how scruffy his loose, uncombed hair had become.
"Tooru," Ratana uttered over at her partner on the wall across from her. "Tooru..." Her voice was horse and she had to clear her throat twice before speaking.
"Huh," Tooru blinked his eyes open. It was also amazing how lazy his awakening eyes could look, no matter where it was that he had slept. "Where are we?"
"In one of the Dai Li's secret prison cells, obviously," spoke Ratana. "Who knows where we really are...the Middle Ring, the Upper Ring, somewhere far away from Ba Sing Se entirely. Nobody knows where the Dai Li's headquarters is."
"Ergh!" groaned Tooru. "Just our luck. How did they catch onto us while we were in the city? I know that they must've heard us mentioning the war, but I didn't see anyone that looked suspicious, or else I would've toned myself down."
Ratana scowled as Tooru said the word "us" in the context of mentioning the war. "I did. It wasn't until after your little show in the tea shop that we bumped into actual Dai Li agents, but there was a woman with a possessed-looking smile tailing us on the streets. She was dressed like she was a Joo Dee."
Tooru's eyes widened. "Joo Dee? You mean those creepy tour guide ladies that go on about policies and rules everyone has to follow within the walls?"
"Well, there aren't any other kinds of Joo Dees that I know of, so yes, that was clearly what I was referring to."
"Maybe I should've listened to you..."
Ratana could merely nod. "By the way, did you happen to see who dressed us into these shirts?"
"No," Tooru shook his head.
"Great," Ratana pouted. "Now, how are we going to get out of here and back to the base?"
Tooru had opened his mouth to reply - possibly with an escape idea - but was swiftly silence as the door to the cell slid open and in it stood two figures. One was a Dai Li agent with his stony hands folded behind his back who appeared to be one of the ones whom they had fought on the street. The other was General Sung.
Sung crossed his arms as he looked up to Tooru and then to Ratana. "Well, did you two enjoy your trip into the city?"
"Oh hello general," said Tooru. "Well, it was pretty good overall, up until the end of course. We went to this restaurant in the Middle Ring with some great noodle-based dishes, saw part of a puppet show and the weather was really nice. Then again, it always is this time of year, isn't-"
Sung was about ready to tear his mustache out with his fists, one strand of hair at a time. "Shut up!"
The Dai Li agent by the general's side stepped into the center of the cell and flung both his arms up diagonally, toward Ratana and Tooru, respectively. Both Terra Team partners fell face-down onto the hard floor of the cold cell as the chains that bound them were detached from the wall, with the rocks that held them being released. Then, two more Dai Li agents came in, each approaching one of the two earthbenders. One-by-one, they each unlocked the four cuffs that bound Ratana and Tooru's feet and arms to the chains that had been holding them up seconds earlier.
Ratana looked up at the Dai Li agent undoing her chains. He looked like a new recruit, barely even a teenager, in fact. His face appeared not much more mature than Heidze. Ratana's intestines twitched as she prayed that he had not been the one to change her before she was imprisoned.
"Gitsu," the cold, expressionless Dai Li agent in the middle of the cell addressed the young one that had finished undoing Ratana's cuffs. "Go fetch their uniforms."
"Yes, sir," the teenaged Dai Li agent by the name of Gitsu gave a rock-gloved salute and then hurried out of the cell, off to do the prompt but simple and rudimentary task given to him.
"Let's go, you two," Sung told his two soldiers still sprawled on the floor of the cell and left the room, not waiting to give them a comfortable amount of time to keep up.
The halls of the underground prison were oval-arched, with doors similar to the ones to her and Tooru's cell lining the sides. They were uncountable in the narrow view that Ratana and Tooru had of their prison. In one of the side rooms, one of the Dai Li agents was addressing a chorus of Joo Dees in their lines. "I'm Joo Dee. Welcome to Ba Sing Se. We are so lucky to have our walls to protect us. Here, we are safe. Here, we are free." Another room appeared to have a lantern in it, which gave Ratana the chills, though she did not know why.
One of the Dai Li agents pointed Ratana and Tooru into a side chamber with stalls in it, where they found their Terra Team outfits and conical hats. As they changed back into them in separate stalls, General Sung marched into another chamber with a Dai Li agent in tow. Ratana was reminded again of the question of who had changed her on the way in, when she was unconscious.
After they were done changing, Gitsu rejoined them, a pen nestled between stony fingertips and a piece of paper clutched in his opposite hand. "Released, no reeducation required...I've never seen that box checked before."
"First time for everything," said Tooru, though his grin soon faded under Gitsu's glare.
Ratana and Tooru were led into the room where General Sung was standing in front of a circular platform with a carriage pulled by ostrich horses on it. Apart from this odd sight, there was a man with a long queue and dressed in a dark, upper-class robe with balding hair and a sleek mustache, slightly shorter than Sung's.
The robed man glanced at Ratana briefly. "She's lucky to have friends on the outside who would do this for her."
"She's been quite a help to the war effort," said Sung. "Thank you for your understanding, Grand Secretariat."
"Don't get ahead of yourself," cautioned the robed Grand Secretariat. "Remember the terms, and if broken, these two will not see the light of day again, whatever their rank and however precious they are to your precious war effort. Good day, general."
As the robed man departed the room behind Ratana and Tooru, one of the older Dai Li agents approached them with three blindfolds and six pairs of handcuffs. "For the way back." His tone of voice told that he was not one to cross. "Your hands and feet will be bound and your eyes covered."
"No," Sung said flatly. Ratana started to feel a kernel of newfound respect for Sung, but that vanished as soon as he spoke again. "Do what you will to these two miscreants, but you will not restrain me in such a fashion."
The Dai Li agent was unfazed. "You traveled this way from Grand Secretariat Long Feng's office in the Upper Ring, and you will travel back to the Outer Wall in a metal carriage bound the same way."
"Absolutely not. Once was humiliating enough for a man of my position."
"With all due respect, the location of our headquarters is a secret and must be concealed from you."
"Classified?!" spat Sung. "Young man, I am a member of the Council of Five; not only am I the commanding general on the Outer Wall's prime division, but I preside over the military of the whole nation! I will not submit myself to such treatment."
"I don't care who you are. Within here we answer only to the word of the Grand Secretariat. If you will comply with our rules, your alternative is to remain down here."
"How dare you! Show the proper respect!"
"Do you want me to go fetch Long Feng again and tell him of your objections?"
Reluctantly, Sung hung his head and the trio were loaded into the carriage, blindfolded and bound once again. Ratana and Tooru sat across from their commanding officer, and about a minute later, shaking could be felt by all of them. The blindfold covering Ratana's eyes appeared to be slightly brighter and it felt like the ground had been shifting upward. From this, she deduced that they had been underground before, and that now they were up above. The air was moist and she likewise got the feeling they were close to a body of water.
"This is outrageous," mumbled General Sung. "How embarrassing it is for a man of my rank and stature to be treated this way by those Dai Li thugs. I'll never stand for anything like this happening to me again. Never!"
"General," Ratana spoke up, eager to get a question off her mind. "Would you happen to know who it was who changed me earlier? It wasn't that agent who unlocked my bindings in the cell, was it?"
"I don't believe so," Sung shook his head, though Ratana could not see it. "Although I was not around then, I do believe that they had one of the Joo Dees change your clothes, Ratana."
"Okay," said Ratana, relieved. "It's good to know they were that decent."
"You'll be less pleased to know the rest of what Grand Secretariat Long Feng told me to make you aware of, Ratana," Sung said sternly. "If it had been two ordinary soldiers rather than two elite earthbenders on Ba Sing Se's Terra Team, then we would've let them rot in the cell. To get you and Tooru released from their clutches was quite the hassle for me, and it was almost entirely on their terms."
"Next time we're in the city, I promise we'll both behave," said Ratana.
"I'm afraid you won't get the chance," said Sung.
"What do you mean?" asked Ratana.
"You have violated their code of conduct within the walls of Ba Sing Se," Sung informed her. "The disturbances that they had to charge you with were deemed massive, and within the walls, Long Feng is the law. Within the walls of Ba Sing Se, he holds the power of the Earth King himself in his grasp. He would not tolerate this lightly. You have been banished from the city of Ba Sing Se, for life."
"What?!" asked Ratana, shocked. "General, can't you do something?"
"Unfortunately, I used every bit of favor I had to get you released at all," said Sung.
"How can I defend the Outer Wall when I'm banished from Ba Sing Se?"
"Oh no, you can still serve on the front," Sung clarified. "Let me rephrase that in the exact terms. You're banned from anywhere in the Ba Sing Se area inwards of two hundred feet from the inner side of the Outer Wall. If the Dai Li catch you one step past that point, you'll be locked up for good."
"You've got to be kidding me," said Ratana. "I'll be fighting on day and night to protect these people, and I'm not allowed into their city anymore?"
"With what happened, you can consider yourself lucky," said General Sung. "It's extra-embarrassing that this comes at the time I just promoted you. I have half a mind to demote you again, but you're above-and-beyond any of our other members right now. One more misstep, though, and you can kiss your captain title goodbye."
"Ratana's the perfect pick for captain," said Tooru, who had been silent up until now during the ride. "In fact, I can't imagine anyone else having it on the Terra Team."
"Which is why she gets a second chance," replied Sung. "Tooru, you have also violated the codes that are followed within Ba Sing Se. I have authority outside the walls, but the authorities inside the walls have spoken. For your actions, you have been expelled from the city for six months."
"Wh-what? What?!" blurted out Ratana. "How come I'm banished for the rest of my life and Tooru gets to come back after six months?"
"Ratana, the Dai Li gave their justification for this in their report," answered General Sung. "They said that you were the driving force behind the disturbances, and that Tooru was merely caught up following along with you."
"It doesn't matter how accurate it is," said Sung. "That's what they stated in their report and there's no trying to convince them otherwise now."
The rest of the ride the three went on in silence. At long last, the carriage stopped.
Soon afterwards, the carriage door opened up and a Dai Li agent undid the cuffs on the feet and hands of the three passengers and removed their blindfolds. Sure enough, they were back at the Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se, with their base right up ahead and the monorail that had taken Ratana and Tooru into the city high up above. Ironically, Tooru had initially suggested the trip into Ba Sing Se to raise the duo's spirits, but now Ratana felt her spirits had sunk even lower than when they first left on their supposed-to-be relaxing afternoon. This base felt like a prison to her now, even moreso than the cell she had just shared with Tooru. It was just unspeakably horrifying to be banned from the internal part of the very city she defended from the Fire Nation. She had never experienced anything this ridiculous before. Not that she had desired to go into the city and take a break from the front line often, but the temptation suddenly appeared with having the chance to do so in the future snatched away from her.
Night had fallen after the long, slow carriage ride. Ratana and Tooru were silent as they returned to their hideout in the barracks below deck. Never had she felt more trapped in her own living quarters before. With her spirit so low, Ratana had no earthly idea how she was supposed to raise the spirits of her fellow Terra Team members and inspire them to take back what territory was rightfully theirs in the lands outside the Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se.
"I can't believe this," Ratana sprawled out across her mattress, low on energy but with no desire to turn in just yet.
"Are you mad?" Tooru asked simply, as he sat down in his wooden chair and removed his conical hat to reveal hair as messy as it had been back in the cell of the Dai Li headquarters.
"Yeah, I'm mad," Ratana mused to her partner. "There's nothing that makes me more mad than something I'm helpless to make the better of. And I can't believe that they let you off the hook easier than me. What was up with that."
"Ratana, I would tell them the truth about how it was my fault and not yours, but it wouldn't make a tenth of a bronze piece's worth of effort," Tooru let out a deep sigh. "You even did everything you could to try to stop me from doing this, and bringing this upon you."
"I'm not trying to get you to blame yourself, Tooru," Ratana let out a sigh of her own. "I mean, it is kind of your fault, but there's no use to either of us dwelling on that now."
"I know, and I'm sorry."
"I just can't wrap my finger around it," Ratana sat up on her bunk and shook her head. "Why did they make things this way?"
"It's because of your recent promotion, Ratana. It has to be. Everyone knows how much of a weapon you are out here, defending us in Ba Sing Se, and I'll bet that many of our enemies on the Fire Nation lines know so, too. The Dai Li and Grand Secretariat Long Feng did what they did in spite of that, or perhaps even because of that. Just like we have our fight to wage day after day, they have theirs. Theirs is to keep the war that we fight outside of their walls, of their little kingdom. It must be tougher now that the war is right at the Outer Wall's doorstep. By coming down hard on you, they made a statement. A statement that no one is immune to them and what one does on the war outside does not matter in the war inside."
- Gitsu is also a character that appears in .
For the collective works of the author, go here.