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August 4, 2013
Ratana's quest was not off to a good start. Shortly after arriving in Gangkouz, she found out that the village she needed to get to was spirits knew how many miles away and that the clique of Earth Kingdom infiltrators she was counting on help from had already been rooted out. Then, as if that was not bad enough, her bag had been stolen by some disingenuous miscreant she had foolishly leant her trust to. Furthermore, after all of these setbacks she had endured, Ratana was not one step closer to finding dragons than before.
Having just woken up, the Terra Team earthbender shook both her arms tightly and the diagonal earthen mounds which had formed her shelter sunk neatly back into the grass, removing all trace of her presence from the area. As she wiped the dirt off her maroonish undergarments and donned her heavy jacket, Ratana started counting the lucky blessings she could still call herself grateful for, despite everything else. Her heart was still beating and her lungs still had air in them, for none of the venomous critters the shopkeeper had told her about had slithered through her earthbent protection in the night. Apart from being alive, she was in the Fire Nation, and physically closer to her goal than when she set out from Guangcheng. The enemy had also not discovered her as they had the other Earth Kingdom spies.
Thinking of her fellow countrymen, Ratana chuckled to herself at what Tooru might say if he were here with her. She had spent many rough battles against the Fire Nation by his side, but when they spoke of them later, Tooru always had his own way of making light of them, and showing that everything was funny with hindsight. As was often the case, Ratana discovered that she had more to be grateful for than she expected, which was what made it such a reliable coping habit for her in difficult times. It was this endurance of hers that formed her kinship with her element. Years ago her mother had lectured her on the stubbornness of rock, though Rang Xue had also stressed that this was not absolute, and that allowing that stubbornness to give way occasionally was essential. Ratana hadn't found much use for the second part yet, as she always found it was her stubborn, unyielding nature that got her through anything. That was the way she had approached her bending ever since Sifu Brawki started training her. Ratana would do whatever it was she had to do, like when she ventured into the world and sought out a new beginning.
Outside the village of Gaipan lay a small Earth Kingdom Army outpost with a farmhouse. Although it included a fitting barracks and training ground, as was standard, this place functioned more like a farm that produced crops and livestock for military rationing. As they shipped supplies all across the nation, the facility had once been well-staffed with many guards and helpers. Now, with the war intensifying and the army spread thin, only a single caretaker remained. Having become disgruntled at being the only one there, he also knew that someone had to do what he was doing. Nevertheless, this man, by the name of Brawki, longed for the day when he would again be fighting the Fire Nation alongside the rest of his comrades. After dwelling here for three months and with the harvest around the corner, that day seemed as far off as ever.
Just like any other day, Brawki inspected the grounds, making sure to secure the area around the vegetables to prevent intrusion from forest animals. The rice, the chili peppers and the soy saw their ranks gradually eroded, but the cabbages in particular had been disappearing quite rapidly. Brawki recalled that the merchant that sold the army the seeds for them seemed a rather unlucky fellow, and this batch appeared to have inherited such luck. Aside from the vegetables, Brawki had a more unusual trouble on his hands. Inside the dojo next to the training ground was a shelf lined with training scrolls for basic earthbending forms. An earthbender himself, Brawki knew them all by heart, but one night when he was tidying up, he found that one of them missing. Bewildered, he had searched the base up and down in vain. The following evening, he found that the lost scroll had mysteriously returned to the shelf on its own, but that another one was gone. The process repeated itself several times and now Brawki was intent on uncovering the truth. Anyone and their mother knew about animals sneaking into farms and nibbling on crops, but what sort of wild creature was it that devoured earthbending scrolls, then spat them back out again the same spot they found them in the first place?
He was about to finally get his answer. Just as he was strolling past the dojo, he heard a frantic rustling noise, undoubtedly coming from the direction of the shelf. Wasting no time, Brawki pounced inside and confronted the intruder. "Finally caught you," he declared, assuming his fighting stance. "So, you're the one who's been stealing our scrolls?" With large arms, legs and torso, he was quite the imposing figure.
The person before him brushed the dangling strands of hair that appeared as though it had not been properly washed for weeks off to the side, revealing the face of a teenage girl. "I haven't stolen anything," she uttered in defiance. "I was borrowing. Whenever I finished practicing a move, I brought the scroll back."
"And took another," Brawki added, clenching his fists as he peered at the unintimidated figure before him. "Where do you come from?"
It was a few seconds before she gave an answer. "Nowhere in particular," she replied, now standing straight up. "I wandered for a while, but these past few weeks I've been squatting in the woods around here."
"I see," said Brawki, cracking his knuckles. "Well, put down the scroll in your hand and leave this place! Don't let me catch you in here again, or there will be severe consequences."
The girl did not put the scroll down. "I don't see what the big deal is. I always put them back when I'm done, don't I?"
"Those scrolls are Earth Kingdom Army property," he sneered at her. "They're not meant for use by any vagrant who lingers through the vicinity. This is not a public library."
"So do you want me to pay for buying or renting them, then?" the girl asked, raising both eyebrows at him. "I don't have any money now, but I can pay you back some day."
Her eyes flashing, the girl snatched two more scrolls and stuffed them into the tight pockets of her worn-out dress. Then, she kicked the concrete floor sharply and a crooked line of earth emitted from where her toe made impact, shooting to where Brawki stood and severing the balance his feet had on the floor, knocking him over. In this moment, she darted from the room and sprinted across the farm toward the line of trees that marked her border. Rising to his feet, Brawki took off after her and hastily punched a cluster of dirt from the outside ground the girl's way. She spun herself around and redirected the dusty flow around her and back toward him, almost like a waterbender would, but this counter attack was dodged with ease. With that, Brawki stomped the sole of his shoe onto the ground and thrust his arms up, erecting a rectangular, jagged pillar of stony earth below where his opponent stood. The girl was thrown up through the air several feet with such force that her body's collision with the wooden fence separating a pen of pickens from the rest of the farm shattered it upon impact.
As soon as she regained herself and looked up again, the runaway glimpsed the heavyset older earthbender leaping toward her. "Now look what you made me do!" he bellowed, narrowing his eyes at the broken fence. "You'll have to pay for that."
"You're blaming me for that?!" she exclaimed, stomping her left foot and levitating a spherical mound of rock from the earth's surface. "You have got to be kidding me!" She punched the hovering rock with her curled right hand and shot it straight at Brawki's chest.
Unwavering, Brawki held his own fist out in the flying rock's path, and the ball of earth was halted by his steadfast stance, enveloping of his hand and part of his forearm. This ball shattered into shards moments later as Brawki flexed his finger muscles once again. Digging his own toe into the soil, he proceeded to erect two tall mounds of earth which sprung up and wrapped around his adversary's wrists, leaving her unable to bend.
"Let me go!" she yelled, moving back and forth in vain, trying to escape.
"Those scrolls have helped you learn some earthbending," Brawki admitted, panting, as he strode over to her and retrieved the extra ones from her dress pockets. "But they are no substitute for a real master."
The girl stared at the floor in resignation, the dangling hairs on her head obscuring her face, but then she lifted her chin to face him once more, though Brawki still could not make out her eyes. "Will you do that for me, then?"
Brawki raised an eyebrow, astonished. "What?"
"Teach me," said the girl. "I can help out around the farm when we're not practicing to pay for my lessons."
"What makes you think I have time to teach you?"
"With me around, I can lighten your workload," she reiterated. "Apart from that, it seems like you have a little too much time on your hands at the moment," she added. "If I can crash in the barn from now on, that'd be great. I've been foraging from the woods for a while, so I don't need to be fed."
Pondering her proposal, Brawki softened his hard expression. "Very well, but I have three conditions for you. Number one, you'll fix that fence you broke. Number two, you'll have a hot meal twice a day. If you keep rummaging around in the woods, you'll come back here smelling of skunk gopher, like you do now. Number three, you'll sleep on one of the spare beds. I can't have you disturbing the livestock in the middle of the night."
"Okay," she replied with a faint trace of a laugh. "I'm Ratana, by the way."
"I'm Brawki," he introduced himself as he waved his arms about and freed Ratana from her earthen entrapment. "That's Sifu Brawki to you now. I'll show you around the farm later, but for now, let us continue with your first lesson."
"Okay, Brawki." Ratana smirked as she brushed a long, dangling hair away from her eyes. Her instincts told her this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
- Ratana's habit of counting things she's grateful for during tough times is something the author admits to doing himself on occasion.
- The line about things being funny with hindsight is similar to one spoken in Bato of the Water Tribe.
- Gaipan is the village that was flooded in Jet. At the time of this flashback, it is still controlled by the Earth Kingdom.
- "Those scrolls have helped you learn some earthbending...but they are no substitute for a real master." This is similar to what Pakku tells Aang in The Avatar State, referring to Katara, as they return to the Earth Kingdom.
- The last line of this chapter is a reference to Casablanca.
For the collective works of the author, go here.