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|House of Tooru|
June 16, 2013
Fuming at the revelation of the fake identity that her commanders expected her to assume, Ratana stormed out of the room and back toward her hallway. Having already accepted her mission, she had no more say in the matter. Just outside her officer's area, she found her partner.
"Hi, Ratana," Tooru greeted her in the hall. He grew sheepish after taking notice of her facial expression. "What did those general guys want with you?"
"Hey, Tooru," said Ratana, not stopping to look at him. "I'm going away for a while."
"Where to?" asked Tooru, jogging to keep up with her strides.
"It's supposed to be a secret, so you can't tell anyone," Ratana said over her shoulder in a hushed voice. "But I'm going on a mission to the Fire Nation." For a reason she did not understand herself, Ratana did not mention the dragons at this time.
Tooru, to her surprise, did not press for further detail. "Oh, sounds very high-profile," he said, grinning like a crazed Earth Rumble fan hearing about the latest upcoming match. "Don't worry, I'll keep it on the down low."
"Tooru, I'm serious!" snapped Ratana. Her partner's casual demeanor did not cease to rob her of what she had left of her own.
"Calm down," Tooru told Ratana, placing his hand on her shoulder and stopping her in her tracks. "You can trust me. I've always got your back." He looked into her eyes and curved his mouth reassuringly.
"Okay," said Ratana, nodding through a deep, cooling breath. "I leave tonight, so I'd better get ready."
"You've got the rest of the day," noted Tooru. "Why not come grab a quick bite for lunch first?"
"Well..." Ratana spoke slowly. "I guess I might have time for something simple."
"Come on, then," Tooru beckoned as he strode past her. Ratana's partner confidently trotted over to the corner opposite their hallway and snapped his foot onto the dirt floor. At the same time, the boulder several feet above their heads rotated off to the side and left a blinding gateway to the world above as sunlight shone into the underground compound.
"Umm," said Ratana, confused. "Tooru, the mess hall's that way," she added, pointing away from the new opening to their barracks.
"I was thinking we'd go someplace in town," Tooru told her, not looking back. "It's the last time you'll be around here in a while, so the mess hall seems too ordinary for the occasion."
Not expecting to be leaving base today, Ratana was now hesitant. "As long as it doesn't take too long to get there," she conceded before following her partner's lead.
"Nah," Tooru reassured, smirking. "It'll be fine." After leaving the cover of the earth, they spent several long minutes under the cover of trees before reaching the edge of the forest and arriving in Sicheng, one of the nearby Earth Kingdom towns. Although they were not under the control of the Fire Nation, the Terra Team kept the location of their hideout a secret from the surrounding locals, as a precaution. If questioned about where they were coming from, they would always say they were "passing through." Likewise, the team members were forced to limit their visits to each individual town to keep up the facade.
The walk went on longer than Ratana anticipated, and it was not long before she regretted agreeing to it. Soon Tooru had brought her about a dozen houses past the farther edge of downtown and she wondered what sort of restaurant he had chosen out here over the ones they had passed already. All of a sudden though, just as she was opening her mouth to voice this, Tooru stopped walking. For the second time, she found herself utterly perplexed by Tooru's direction. Before the two of them stood a two-decker house topped with a similar olive-colored roof.
"Is this where you go when you're not with the Terra Team?" asked Ratana, perplexed.
"I guess you could say that," said Tooru. "It's my family's place."
Just then a plump, middle-aged woman swung ajar the sliding wooden door and wrapped Ratana's Terra Team partner in a tight hug. "Tooru!" said the woman. "I'm so glad you could make it. You look a little thin? Are they feeding you in the army?" This woman spoke so fast it was almost hard for Ratana to keep up with, especially since there was a great deal of noise emitting from the house behind her.
"Just the standard rations," said Tooru. "You know how it is."
"Bah!" said the woman, releasing her son, whom was about a head taller than her. "Today, we'll get some nice home-cooked elephant boar-q-pine stew in you. You can't beat the Fire Nation on an empty stomach!" She turned to Ratana just as the latter was about to introduce herself. "You must be Ratana. Tooru's told us so many stories that it's like we already know you!"
"He has?" asked Ratana, raising an eyebrow.
"So," Tooru said aloud, rubbing the back of his head uncomfortably. "How long before supper's ready?"
"The elephant boar-q-pine's fairly tender now, so possibly within the hour," said the woman. "You should've seen us seasoning the animal this morning. It took forever."
"Are any other guests coming?" asked Ratana, knowing that an entire elephant boar-q-pine could feed a small army.
"Nope," said Tooru's mother, smiling. "Just the family and you."
Ratana's heart sank. Having no intention of staying for an entire meal, she tried thinking of how to eject without coming off as rude. "I'll just have to let you know ahead of time that can't stay too long. I have lots that I have to do."
Tooru's mother did not seem to hear her. "Ratana, why don't you settle in and make yourself at home. I'll call you two when it's done."
Now that they had entered the house and been shooed off by their portly host, Ratana rounded on Tooru to voice her objection. However, she found her line of thought interrupted as two messy-haired young boys in sleeveless shirts darted out from one of the doorways and chased each other in a circle around them, making Ratana's head spin. After Tooru put up an arm to stop them, the two boys playfully jabbed punches at the space between them. "When we grow up we're going to kick Fire Nation butt, just like you!" declared the shorter of the two new arrivals. Laughing, Tooru wrapped his arm around the boy's chest, lifted him into the air and rubbed knuckles into younger brother's hair, then released him and the lad ran off.
"Hey Tooru," came the voice of a teenaged girl approaching from the other side of the hall. "We're about to play earth soccer. Would you and your friend like to join in?"
"We'd love to, Heda," Tooru replied, beckoning for Ratana to follow.
"Of course we would," Ratana gave in, walking after him with reluctance.
Tooru's home in the country was as different as could be from the city house where Ratana grew up, where order was always maintained by her parents and the household tasks were managed by all the servants under them. Here, everything was of an accommodating sort of disorderly, much louder and messier than Roshune or Rang Xue would ever have tolerated. Furthermore, while Ratana was an only child, Tooru was the eldest of a proud nine. His sister Giana, the second child, had married young and brought Tooru's nephew with her. Next was his brother Toor Jun who had just enlisted in the army himself, followed by Heda, Tooru's sixteen-year-old sister who had invited them to play earth soccer; then came another daughter, then another son, and then Kino and Keke, two fraternal twins. Lastly came the nine year-old Tian, who was growing up alongside his five-year-old nephew that attached to the chain like yet another younger sibling.
Outside the back door was an enclosed square yard about ten yards in length on each side. Tooru's little brothers and sisters had constructed goal posts on either end out of large, straight branches they had found in the woods. The two Terra Team earthbenders stood inside the goal posts: Ratana with two of the younger boys and Tooru teaming up with Heda. Despite being rather skinny, Heda was not a bad bender, and she knew how to angle the ledges and movements of the surrounding earth to control the ball with ease. Ratana listened to the earth to keep up with her, which took most of her concentration. Although she had not wanted to come in the first place, Ratana soon got swept up in the heat and thrill of competition.
When they were huddled together, she told Tooru's brothers to zig-zag the ball in different directions in an effort to confuse Tooru and Heda. Then, just as Tooru tried to block, she submerged one of his feet into the ground from across the field and the ball soared past him. "No fair, that's a foul!" Tooru cried out over his Terra Team partner's laughter.
Soon, they were called back inside for their meal. One of Tooru's brothers who had been Ratana's teammate pulled a chair out and gestured for Ratana to take a seat. The food that their mother served was delicious, but filling. After one plateful, Ratana's stomach felt ready to burst, but no sooner was her plate clean than Tooru's mother offered her seconds. Even after having faced some of the fiercest firebenders that old Azulon could throw at her country, Ratana found herself strangely unable to say no to this woman. With her and Giana's son included, it was a dozen that sat around the wooden table. Giana's husband - Tooru's brother-in-law - also in the military, was currently serving at the farther side of the kingdom. Ratana found herself curious about where Tooru's father was, but decided against asking.
When supper was over, the party moved into the living room and played a trivia game that the matriarch of the clan pulled off one of the top shelves. This time, Heda and Ratana were on the same side, as it was boys and men against girls and women. The five categories of the day were provincial Earth Kingdom geography, sports, ancient history of the four nations, the fine arts and earthbending styles, the last of which was the only one Ratana knew any of the answers for. However, neither Heda nor Tooru's mother seemed to mind her lack of expertise. For the most part, Ratana simply took to watching. The whole afternoon had been somewhat of a foreign experience for her. In this disorderly sort of comfort all the members of the household were close to one another, but they also welcomed Ratana without question into the earth soccer, the pulling out the chair and the general atmosphere of friendliness.
Time had flown by fast and it was now the early evening. Ratana was way more behind in her packing and preparing for her mission than she had been before, but she no longer minded. After stepping into the yard to catch her breath, Ratana's Terra Team partner came out and sat beside her. It was the first time they were alone since they first arrived.
"You have a nice family, Tooru," Ratana stated thoughtfully.
"Yep," her green uniformed comrade agreed. "They can be pretty rowdy sometimes, in a homely sort of way," he added. "Say, what happened with the wall at the Gujuhmin raid? You said you saw what happened, but with everything else going on, you never told me about it."
"Ugh," said Ratana, her stomach churning over the memory. "That was really unpleasant." She proceeded to tell him about how Colonel Quan Jing collapsed the earthen constructs the Terra Team had created, how that action had caused far more casualties of their own troops than of the enemy and lastly, how Quan Jing had warned her to keep quiet about the whole affair after she had visited the now-crippled Shun Ping.
"You should've said something to the generals," Tooru told her, bewildered at the revelation of Quan Jing's appalling conduct. "I never expected anything like that from him."
"No," Ratana said firmly. "As far as I know, there were no other witnesses, so it would've been my word against his. Whose word would they have accepted?"
"It can't end like that! We're talking reckless endangerment of the men under his command and cowardice in the face of an enemy, not to mention dealing a blow to his own troops in his premature retreat."
"Have you ever tried bringing charges against a high-ranking officer?" Ratana continued as she saw her partner waver at the sobering point behind her question. "Besides, this may be for the best. This incident aside, he's a practical commander, and he's lead us right on certain occasions," she finished. "Look, can we not talk about this anymore? It's in the past now, and I need to focus on what's ahead of me."
Tooru gave a weak smile to his partner's resolve. "This is a dangerous mission you're going on; and I won't be able to watch your back along the way."
"Give me a break, Tooru," said Ratana, her eyes rolling in place and not giving Tooru's concern the time of day. "It's not like I've never been on my own before. I-"
Her next sentence was interrupted as Tooru reached over and grabbed one of her hands with both of his. "Ratana," he said as he gazed into her eyes, his head mere inches from hers. "Try to come back to us, okay?"
Ratana's cheeks burned the color of the fire their enemies wielded in battle, and her mouth shrunk back, beaten into place as though she had found herself standing before the face-stealer. "Tooru..."
Sensing the tension, Tooru diffused it by releasing her palm and breaking eye contact. "If you were gone, they'd have to get me a new partner," he said matter-of-factly, now sounding more like his usual self. "And with my luck, I'd likely be stuck with some brainless new recruit."
"Haha," laughed Ratana, somewhat relieved. "Alright, I'll try to come back."
"Good," Tooru told her, his eyes locked on his partner once more. "We should hang out again next time we're both home from the front."
Ratana, however, shook her head. "I never come home from the front. My home is the front."
- Not as much action in this one, but I felt it was good to have a little more character time when the series is on the brink of a turning point.
- The trivia game played by Tooru's family is similar to what my own does after dinner at our reunions, with my dad, brother, uncles, male cousins and myself on one team and my sister, aunts, female cousins and grandmother on the other.
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