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June 21, 2013
As Ratana made her way idly through the walkways in the Fire Nation-controlled colonial port, she instinctively eyed the foundations of the fortifications and the watch towers. With a carefully-applied dose of well-placed earthbending, she could have them crumbling down within seconds, and since nobody had their eyes raised at her, she would not be found out until the damage was done. Like the other richer colonies, this one had a knack for metalwork and such material was used to construct army vessels and artillery, so any damage done here would hurt. But, as she reminded herself, that was not why she was there. Rather, she had the seemingly simple purpose of catching a boat ride to the city of Gangkouz, a similar port settlement in the heart of enemy territory, where she would begin her mission to seek out proof that living dragons exist and therefore, that General Iroh was a liar unfit to lead his countrymen against Ba Sing Se.
To accomplish the task ahead of her meant blending in and acting natural. In other words, she would use her neutral jing and be patient, for the time to strike would come later. Much, much later. In order to board the vessel, Ratana would require two items already supplied to her: her ticket for the boat ride and the document concerning her origin, background and citizenship, or more accurately, his origin, background and citizenship. The "him" in this case meant Nookyazu, a civilian from the Fire Nation who had disappeared recently, allowing Ratana to assume his identity for her journey. All she carried with her was a simple bag which contained her tent, camping stove, changes of clothes and a map to Nongkun, the village where the dragon rumors originated from, along with enough money to cover any basic expenses she would incur.
Ratana would have to force herself to become used to the reddish clothes she wore, which included a faded, heavy, uncomfortable overcoat and a bright crimson tunic. Pretending to have a limp left leg, she supported herself with a thin, splintered walking stick, concentrating hard on making each unnatural step appear natural to passersby. Even if she could get used to all of that, Ratana would never be able to bear the black mat of filth that spread around her mouth and neck. Three inches long at all angles, the wiry fake beard, accompanied by a smooth, drooping fake mustache was making the entire area around her lip and chin itchy and sweaty. All that allowed her to bear this discomfort was the knowledge that she was counting on the disguise holding up.
However, her disguise was apparently not working as well as she hoped. "Ratana!" She heard a voice call her name, indicating that the speaker had recognized her. Of course, Ratana knew the voice well, but she had not expected to hear it today.
Standing there before her was a gruff, heavyset man in a sleeveless maroon shirt and tight trousers. Although he looked a Fire Nation man to passersby, his composure and muscle-flexes betrayed him as an earthbender. In fact, he was Ratana's former mentor. "Brawki," she greeted, surprised to find she was not the only one in disguise. "What are you doing here?"
"I heard you were leaving today on your mission and I decided to come see for myself," Brawki stated matter-of-factly. Eying what was on his former student's face, the grizzled man stroked his own chin-strap beard and raised a sly eyebrow at her. "I must say, it looks good on you."
As Ratana scowled back, the points of the mustache sagged even lower. "Well, that's an awfully big risk you took just to see me off," she snapped at him. Having not seen Brawki face-to-face in about a year, she thought he had picked a most inopportune time to reconnect. "What if someone discovers you're from the free Earth Kingdom? And how did you know about my mission?" General How and the other officers had explicitly told her that her mission was a secret, and Brawki was not high-up enough to find out about it on his own.
"Another former student of mine," said Brawki, smirking. "One I believe you're familiar with."
"Tooru needs to learn to keep his mouth shut!" Ratana blurted in further frustration.
"If only you learned everything as fast as he did," Brawki reflected, his tone now one of thoughtful disappointment and irritable recollection. "Being your earthbending instructor was...interesting, to say the least." The bulk of Ratana's earthbending training had been a strenuous challenge, for more than just herself. "So, why are you going into the Fire Nation?"
"Ugh!" Ratana uttered with a yielding sigh. "Too many people know too much about it already. Let's go sit down somewhere so we can talk quietly." Beckoning for Brawki to follow, she made her way to an area beneath a hanging roof beside a long, oak pavilion lined with billboards and stands where one could purchase refreshments. Together, they took their seats on a vacant pair of stools, a fair enough distance away from any other travelers.
Ratana was startled by a booming, projected announcement that resonated throughout the vicinity. "Yu Dao in the colonies in the Earth Kingdom! All those bound for Yu Dao, please report to dock number four!"
"Don't scratch," Brawki scolded as though still speaking to an unruly pupil. "Act like you're used to having it."
"How do so many of you men put up with this?" Ratana dug her nails deep against her pseudo-facial hair, desperately trying to reach her itchy skin beneath.
"It's worse when you're first growing it out," Brawki lectured her, narrowing both his eyes. "During the stubble-stage it itches quite a bit, but once it's got a good enough length it stops itching. Any man with a longer beard like that would not have been bothered by itchy whiskers for a long while."
"I don't need this knowledge, Brawki!" Ratana snapped, now scratching with further vigor.
"You need to stay in-character if you're going to the Fire Nation," Brawki retorted icily.
"This isn't helping!" Ratana whined, finally throwing her hands in the air and giving up. No matter how hard she scratched, the beard was just too thick and her nails were just not long or sharp enough to provide any relief. "I want to just lift this fake facial hair up and scratch under it!"
"Definitely don't do that," cautioned Brawki, his eyes ablaze with even more frustration than before. "I can see you're as stubborn as ever."
"Hu Xin City in the colonies in the Earth Kingdom! All those bound for Hu Xin City, please report to dock number five!"
"So what's this mission of yours?" Brawki questioned. He sat silent and listened curiously as Ratana briefly recounted conversation with How, Sung, Quan Jing and the other officers. "Dragons, eh?" said Brawki. "This is a mighty significant thing you're doing. I can tell."
"It's just like any other mission," Brawki's old student scoffed. "I go to where I need to go, and I get what I need to get. Nothing more."
"Anytime one goes chasing after an old piece of folklore, they will be changed by it," Brawki told Ratana, who rolled her eyes at him. Brawki was not the most down-to-earth of earthbenders. "People said the same about a mysterious cave near where I grew up."
"Whale Tail Island in the colonies in the former Air Nation territories! All those bound for Whale Tail Island, please report to dock number six!"
"Oh, really?" asked Ratana. "What was that cave like?"
"I've never been there myself," Brawki told her. "But I've often had dreams of going there. It was something very significant that was happening. The Avatar of all people was there as well, and there were many others also by my side."
"Hmmm...interesting. What happened next? How did those dreams end?"
"You know, I don't remember," said Brawki, shrugging. "I always forget them when I wake up." Indeed, that was what happened most times Ratana dreamed as well, which was part of the reason why she never bothered to decipher any form of meaning from them.
"Gangkouz, Fire Nation proper! All those bound for Gangkouz, please report to dock number seven!"
"That's you," Brawki pointed out.
"Indeed," said Ratana. As she rose to her feet, she wrapped her arms around Brawki's chest.
"You know, it's customary to bow to an old master," Brawki returned, twisting his face as he patted her backside.
"No old master of mine would want anything to do with me once my training was done and they were free of me," Ratana countered with a sly grin. "I think it's safe to say you came here today as an old friend."
"I see you're at least a little more sensible than when you were under my tutelage. Remember, most of those who go on journeys like yours tend to come back as changed individuals. And then there are the others."
"Do you mean the ones who come back more or less the same?" asked a puzzled Ratana.
"No, the ones who don't come back at all," Brawki clarified with a wave as he marched off in the opposite direction. "Take care, Ratana!"
Ratana's stomach churned as she approached the harbor. She did not think much of Brawki's parting words. At the rear of dock number seven stood two individuals: a tall, shrewd-looking man with long hair capped by a slick top-knot clutching a miniature stamp-piece and a muscular bald man with a drooping mustached not too unlike the one that hung from Ratana's upper lip, except that his was real.
"Tickets and documentation." The line in front of Ratana moved one person at a time as the long-haired man with the stamp glanced at the papers before giving them his seal of approval and moving things along. Just in front of her stood a shivering man in green, the only one dressed so in the whole line. Usually only Fire Nation citizens with proper documents could legally travel to their home country. It was possible for an Earth Kingdom native to go if they had a labor permit and a sponsor, though this was rare. Just in front of him were a young family consisting of a tall man, a boy and a girl who were scarcely more than toddlers and a slender woman cradling a sleeping baby in her folded arms. As she grew closer to the vessel she needed to board, Ratana wondered what purpose the bald man beside the ticket-checker served, as he didn't seem to be doing anything.
"Tickets and documentation," the stamp man said once again as the family strode past him and onto the ship together. Trembling, the man in lime and emerald clothing obliged and passed forth his papers. "These are not in order."
"I'm s-sorry," said the nervous man. "My sponsor must've forgot to sign them in the right place." As he said this, the ticket-checker rose his finger in the air to signal the bald man beside him, who nodded in acknowledgement. "No," said the man in green as he was being dragged across an offshoot of the dock with a tiny cabin at the end. "This is all a misunderstanding. Please, listen!"
The bald, muscular man yanked him inside the small building and shut the door. A deafening scream was heard and a burst of blazing flames could be seen through the window of the cabin. Moments later, everything fell silent and the bald, mustached man emerged alone. Ratana's stomach dropped from her body as she witnessed the ordeal. Her heart stopped beating and everything that happened around her seemed to move in ominous slow motion.
"Next," said the ticket-checker, casually turning to Ratana. "Tickets and documentation, please." It now took every ounce of concentrated energy the Terra Team earthbender had to act natural as she handed the ticket and documents she was given by the generals to the man before her. For once, her fate was entirely outside her own hands.
The ticket-checker paused for a few seconds and raised his eyebrow. He brought the page closer to his face, squinting as though staring at an exceptionally-bright piece of fire. Then, he gestured to the bald, mustached man beside him, who came over and peered at the paper in a similar manner. For several more agonizingly-long moments, the two men exchanged stares and whispers, before the ticket-checker looked up from the page and back at Ratana. "This is very hard to read properly. How do pronounce say that name of yours?"
"Nook-ee-ah-zoo," answered Ratana. The absurdity of its sound that came from her mouth fully sank in as she pronounced her cover name in public for the first time.
"Nookyazu?!" said the man. "No offense, but what was your mother thinking? That sounds more like the name of a fire ferret than a human being." The ticket-checker and the "burner" roared with laughter. "Haha! Don't worry, I'm only messing with you. Here, enjoy your voyage to the homeland, partner." And with that, he stamped Ratana's paper and she was free to walk aboard the boat that would take her to Gangkouz. The feeling of relief that swept over Ratana lasted not even a second, as she realized that where she was going, everyone would consider her an enemy and everything counted on her ability to keep up the facade she had begun. Plus, she could not earthbend in public at all.
The harder parts were yet to come.
- Brawki is an original character who also appears in .
For the collective works of the author, go here.