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October 28, 2015
Ratana was indoors in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by red. It was not possible to tell for sure without knowing what the building that she was currently inside looked like, but it seemed like a luxurious suite fit for a castle or palace. There was a miniature bench - comfy, by the looks of it - and a spa and tub in the corner opposite her. She was sitting on a stool in front of a table in the side of the opposite wall. The table, or miniature desk, or whatever, was brown wood and had nothing atop its flat surface save for a handheld mirror, facing downward.
Gently, Ratana lifted one of her arms up, clothed by an ornate dressing robe fit for a queen or princess, and turned the mirror upright, looking her reflection in the place. She was indeed wearing a royal crimson robe and flame-shaped headpiece. So she was back in the Fire Nation. Apparently she was in disguise again, for she appeared to be wearing a hair dye, as several of her strands were gray in coloring. Then, there were her tired eyes and tiny lines tracing along her cheeks. Ratana felt up and touched one. Wrinkles.
"They look very realistic," Ratana said to herself, wondering whomever sent her here had managed that part of her disguise. There was no wax or other surface on her face to peel off, and her hands were slightly wrinkled as well. Her fingernails were painted dark read and were carved into a sharp shape, like miniature knives.
Getting to her feet, she stared around the room, hardly noticing that the door which had been closed moments before was now ajar. "Excuse me," a feeble-voiced man hunched over and dressed like a servant addressed her. "Forgive me milady, but it's time." As he beckoned her forward, she followed the white-robed man and marched out of the room and down the hall leading from the dressing room to a vast courtyard. It appeared similar to the one where she had seen a rally with June and Heidze long ago on her way to find evidence of the last dragon. So she really was back in the Fire Nation, and in the capital no less.
Ratana let out a faint gasp as she saw a crowd of hundreds, if not thousands, of uniformed soldiers and youths standing in the area in front of her. On top of the stage where she stood, meanwhile, there was a miniature pavilion with a pyre in the center. On top of it lay the rounded bulk of Iroh, the Dragon of the West, his body motionless. He had many more wrinkles on his face than were on Ratana's own, and his son Lu Ten stood over his body, more mature in appearance than Ratana had ever seen him but still maintaining the charm and charisma of a younger man. A Fire Sage, in his ceremonial robe, approached the pyre from behind and nodded to Lu Ten, who took a step back, after stealing one last look at his father's body before looking out at the crowd before him.
Then, the Fire Sage cleared his throat and began to address everyone who was present. "Iroh, Fire Lord of our nation for thirty-four years, you were our glorious to leader, our great general, conqueror of Ba Sing Se, conqueror of Omashu, conqueror of the Northern Water Tribe, vanquisher of the world's last remaining dragon. You were husband to Sula, now passed, father to Lu Ten, and father of a world empire. We, your humble subjects and loyal citizens of the nation you ruled, gather here to day to pay our final respects. Now, we lay you to rest."
As the Fire Sage concluded his words, two cadet Fire Sages of lesser rank approached the pyre from either side and ignited it with respective blasts of firebending. Accordingly, everyone in the uniformed crowd before them hung their heads in a brief moment of silence. Not knowing fully what compelled her to do so, Ratana let her own head hang as their did and she whispered a brief word of respect under her own breath. "Farewell, Dragon of the West..."
The primary Fire Sage then stepped forth, a head piece that had stood atop Iroh's head not long before between his two palms. As he did so, Lu Ten stood before him and kneeled down, holding his head forth. "As was your dying wish, you are succeeded by your son and heir," the Fire Sage spoke again as he placed the headpiece into Lu Ten's corresponding top knot. "Hail Fire Lord Lu Ten!"
With this, Lu Ten stood up once more and faced the crowd that had begun bowing, one row at a time. Ratana, meanwhile, felt compelled to fall to her own knees as well. "Thank you," Lu Ten said aside to the Fire Sage. "My friends," the new Fire Lord held his arms out as he addressed the crowd. "My comrades, my countrymen, I undertake this rank, station and burden with the firmest resolve, and the greatest respect of my forebears. In my reign, I will lead our troops to crush the last pockets of resistance within the Earth Kingdom's traditional boundaries, still resisting to this day after one hundred and twenty-five years of warfare. Then, and only then, will we have a united world. Then, we shall claim final victory and the vision of my father, and my father's father, and my grandfather's father will finally be realized, twelve and a half decades later!"
In a deafening roar, the crowd of uniformed men, women and children in the yard before the stage erupted in cheers. Ratana smiled herself as she clapped in the corner, not leaping or thrusting her arms about so as not to stretch her royal robe out too much. As the cheering continued, the now-Fire Lord Lu Ten trotted over to Ratana and bent down slightly to kiss her outstretched hand.
"That was brilliant, oh Fire Lord," Ratana felt her lips move, as though the words were being spoken for her and not spoken by her. Even now, in this setting, they felt hideously unnatural emerging from her mouth.
"Why thank you," Lu Ten curled his own lips into a charming, but sinister grin. "Fire Lady Ratana."
"Ahhhh!" Ratana promptly sat up in her bunk and stretched her eyes open in an instant. She traced her hands over her face and the silky green night garments that she wore to bed in the underground Terra Team compound beneath the Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se.
Promptly, she rose to her feet and rushed down her hall toward the washroom at the opposite end of it. She struck a match and lit the oil lamp, splashed some water over her face and peered into the mirror above the sink. Sure enough, she saw her reflection with all-black hair, her face smooth and her nice, dark green night clothes. She let out a deep sigh of relief at the sight, but she still shuddered under her breath.
"Ratana?" came a concerned, but sleepy voice behind her. "Is everything okay?"
"Tooru!" Ratana jumped at the sight of her earthbending partner before subsequently throwing her arms out him.
"What's going on?" he asked, startled, as Ratana sobbed onto his shoulder, dampening his night garments which were identical to her own. His hair was messy, as it always was when he was not wearing his conical hat, but moreso when he had just been sleeping moments before.
"I had a horrible, horrible dream."
"Really?" Tooru was not used to finding his partner so fragile, still leaning into his arms. "I've never known you to have nightmares. It's not like you."
"I-I know," Ratana stuttered. "Sorry for waking you, by the way."
"I'm surprised that nobody else is awake with how loud you screamed just now," Tooru rubbed her back with his strong, earthbending hand. "What was your dream about? It wasn't about firebenders, was it? Because you've never had a problem facing them in reality, let alone a dream."
"No, it wasn't that," Ratana slowly but surely recovered the air in her lungs. "W-we had already lost the Siege of Ba Sing Se, and then....I can't even repeat it. Oh, Tooru, it was so awful!"
"Relax, Ratana," said Tooru. "It's okay. We're not going to lose Ba Sing Se to the Fire Nation. It's us. Here, would you like me to walk you back to the room."
Still shaking, Ratana nodded and let Tooru loop one arm around her shoulders and escort her back to her bunk. As she sat down, Tooru climbed onto the top bunk above hers. She heard him lie back down again, but she did not feel compelled to do the same just yet, and sat on her bunk with her feet resting and her arms wrapped around her knee-caps.
"I'm going to go see General Sung tomorrow morning," said Ratana. "And I'll ask him to reassign me away from guarding the prince."
"Do you really think he'll allow for that?" Ratana's tired-sounding partner asked from above.
"He won't be happy about it," said Ratana. "But I'll make my case before him, even if he'll get angry or threaten to demote me again. The prisoner is an enemy, and we’ve probably made him too comfortable so far. It's too distracting, guarding Lu Ten, and I need to be back in the field again." Yes, distracting, that was what it was, Ratana told herself.
"Okay," Tooru whispered sleepily from his top bunk. "Do what you think you have to do, but it's getting late now. Try to get some sleep and not have any more dreams like that one you just did. You'll be thinking clearer in the morning."
"It's these distractions that are causing these dreams," Ratana continued. "Yes, that's it. It has to be. There can't be any other plausible reason for it, can there? I can't actually be developing...those kind of feelings for a mortal enemy, and a Fire Nation Prince for that matter. I mean-"
The sound of snoring from Tooru's bunk above Ratana's head indicated that her audience of one was no longer with her, and Ratana closed her mouth at once. Under ordinary circumstances, she would be offended by someone falling asleep as she was having a conversation with them, but for now, she was actually relieved. Chills spread all over her body from top to bottom, and that was enough discomfort for now without having to bear the embarrassment of what she was felt now. Her body, mind, spirit, heart and passion seemed like they were engaged in a five-way battle for domination right now, and Ratana squirmed in her bunk, feeling a pain in her stomach as though she might vomit. She recalled feeling this timid air and conflicted tension with her to some extent the night before she left Lu Ten back in Gangkouz, when she had still thought him to be called “Lu Tong”. Tonight, though, the feeling was much more intense and shook her far worse.
- The dream sequence was inspired by the episode Zuko Alone. It's an old favorite of mine, and I've been paying homage to it a lot lately.
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