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August 23, 2013
Ratana's widened eyes darted from the wrathful glare in Jiro's face, to the door to the room where his boss had just left through, and then back to the four men facing her. She had kept up her act as Nookyazu for a few days with what seemed like relative ease, but now, at long last, she was exposed.
Jiro grasped the clenched fist of his left hand with his right, and cracked his knuckles, his lips curling and his eyes twitching with bloodlust. "It looks like this man is an impostor, boys! Let's end him."
With nothing else for it, Ratana crunched her own fingers to her palm in a hurry and rose her hand to meet Jiro's fist with her own. Bringing her left arm around, she cornered his opposite arm and used the leverage to swing his body around, so that Jiro was facing away from her and struck the back of his skull with an open hand, rendering the man who dared presume himself a threat to her unconscious. Unfortunately, there was no earth in sight in the cellar, so she had to make due until she could get out. Shoving Jiro's knocked-out body into his taken-aback comrades, Ratana darted from the room and sprinted down the below-ground hallway toward the trap door she had descended from minutes earlier. As she climbed one step at a time, one of Jiro's allies seized her right foot. In a frantic fury, she shook it loose and kicked him in the face once he lost his grasp of her.
After opening the trap door and crawling out, Ratana slammed it down shut again. She was back in the storage area for the restaurant. Grabbing a nearby crate of ginseng tea, she pushed it over the hinges of the trap door as the men below tried in vain to push through, their shouting voices still audible, but muffled by the layer of wood between her and them. Ratana then set her eyes back on the crimson door to the alleyway she and Jiro had walked down earlier. She yanked with all her strength, but the Terra Team earthbender found that the door was now locked. Now her only route of escape was through the front. Hoping she could slip by unnoticed, Ratana strode cautiously out into the largely-empty restaurant. The man Jiro had pointed out as the boss was standing in the door, speaking to some figures in uniform standing out in the streets.
"Look, I'm a very busy man," Ratana heard the boss tell the city guards outside. "If you want food, you'll have to ask the host to seat you. Otherwise, you'll have to leave."
"We're not here for food, Kainu," the guard who appeared senior in rank to the rest informed him. "We have a warrant for your arrest."
"What's Gangkouz coming to?" Kainu scoffed. "Used to be, a man could enjoy his meal in peace."
"You've been implicated in smuggling operations, extortion, grand theft; the list goes on."
"Look, you're coming with us whether it's the easy way or the hard way!" the guard snapped back. He moved his head to the side in surprise as he spotted Ratana standing behind Kainu. "And harboring a fugitive; add that one to the list."
"I thought we already arrested Nookyazu," one of the other guards mumbled above his breath.
Kainu spun his head around in a rage, his eyes blazing. "I told you to stay put!"
The Gangkouz city guards shoved Nookyazu's portly employer aside and entered, with two of them restraining Kainu and four others chasing at Ratana. Ratana proceeded to yank a chair out from under one of the tables and hurl it at their heads to slow them down before running back toward the entrance to the storage room. Apparently one of them was a firebender, because she felt a hot jet of flame passing inches from her left knee-cap and tearing a hole in her pants. In a rush, Ratana rubbed the sleeve of her jacket at the rip, shaking away the embers before she retreated into the storage room. Spotting a spare wooden chair in the corner and pushed it in front of the door, buying her a tiny amount of crucial time.
"I see Nookyazu's not limping anymore," one of the guards remarked from the other side. "His leg must've healed itself."
Ratana was now sweating in the outer layer of her Fire Nation disguise. "To Koh's Realm with it all!" she yelled in a long-awaited outburst. "None of this is doing me any good now." With that, she pulled off her chestnut outer coat, leaving only the coral-red shirt that matched the pants below her waist. The curves around Ratana's rack showed through this thinner layer of clothing, which she thought much more comfortable on its own. She proceeded to undo her topknot and shake her hair, which flowed to its full length, before finally reaching to her jaw and pulling off the infernal facial hair she had come to loathe so much.
Turning about, she spotted a few crates of vegetables resting atop a shelf - a mineral-crafted shelf. "If only I'd spotted that before I'd gone out front," she muttered to herself.
It was not much to work with, but Ratana, feeling a sense of freedom at no longer pretending to be a man, wasted no time in pushing the crates off and connecting herself to her native element in the piece of furniture. She compressed the shelf into a jagged mass and shot it through the crimson door, smashing it open, and not a moment too soon, for the Gangkouz guardsmen had just managed to burst into the room.
"We've got you cornered...Nookyazu?" one of them started to proclaim before the tone of his voice sunk back.
"He's transformed into a woman," another guard said in sheer disbelief. "This doesn't make any sense."
The senior guardsman was the first to regain himself after his bafflement. "I can see the gash in your leg from when we chased you before. What were you doing dressed up like one of the most notorious members of the Huoxilong Triad?"
Ratana was obviously not going to give him the answer to that. "What's it to you? I'm not Nookyazu, as you can all see!"
One of the other guards turned to their leading officer. "What should we do, Sir?"
The man pondered this for a second. "I don't know what's going on, but I say we arrest her anyway."
"You can't be serious!" shouted Ratana.
"Get him!" the senior guardsman commanded, his men right behind him. "Or her...or it...whatever!"
The Gangkouz guards kept up as Ratana rounded the corner of the alleyway and back into the crowded Khomin Square. There was plenty of earth beneath her feet that she could use now, but she wanted to avoid using it if possible. It was feasible to make a break from a handful of idiots chasing after her who did not know what they would do with her once they caught her. On the other hand, if she exposed herself as an earthbender to them, she would have every guard in the city after her and she would undoubtedly be executed as soon as she was captured.
Confused on-lookers backed away from the flock of city guards in hot pursuit of a young woman garbed like any of their nation would be that did not appear very dangerous at first glance. Luckily for Ratana, she had always been a fast runner, and her agile instincts had always done her credit on the Terra Team. This allowed her to put a good deal of distance between her and them by the time she reached one of the smaller streets on the other side of the giant statue. Fortunately, this path was deserted and Ratana stole a moment to kick the ground and bring up a small mound of earth from the dusty ground and punched it toward the corner where the guards came around mere seconds later. She then brought her jabbing arm down to her opposite knee to make it look like she had picked up the rock and thrown it. The boulder collided with one of the men's chests and knocked him back into the one behind him
"She's stronger than she looks!" one of the guards still standing exclaimed.
"Don't just stand there," the senior guard berated his comrade. "Let's get her!"
Rounding another corner, Ratana picked waited for her pursuers to follow and elbowed the first one in his face as soon as he emerged. Before the others set sight on her, she twisted her arms about and softened the ground beneath her, so that she was buried in the earth up to her waist. She proceeded to cover her upper body with an empty crate next to her spot. This was usually something she would do to an opponent, but Ratana had long ago learned to improvise according to her surroundings. It was a risky move, as Ratana knew, having been submerged during training exercises before. Whenever she emerged again, the buried part of her body always felt limp, like when one rested with one's arm beneath one's head and the arm remained asleep even after the rest of the body awoke.
"Where'd she go?" came a voice from above about ten seconds after her maneuver.
"You go check farther down the road while I look around here," said his companion. A fading thunder of footstep noises signaled that the other guard had complied.
Several uncomfortable seconds drifted by, but through listening to the earth Ratana could tell the man had not left the area as she had hoped. With her legs buried, she had to rely on her arms again to get herself out of the ground again. Rotating her limbs again, she twisted her body back up and lifted up another chunk of concrete from the ground, which she swung at the guards face as he spun about, knocking him over instantly. He had not had time to see her earthbend before she bested him.
"Hold it right there." After hearing his fellow guard knocked out, the other one had doubled back to the scene. "You're coming with me," he added, assuming a firebending stance. It was he who had shot the flame at her from behind earlier.
Ratana's jaw dropped. Her lower body was still fuzzy and twitchy from being underground. Had she anticipated the other guard coming back so soon, she would not have come out of hiding as she did. Then, for the second time that day, a ball of fire streamed past her shoulder, it's maker being behind her. Moments later, a male firebender with a prim topknot leapt past her and toward the final guard in front of Ratana.
"Who do you think you are?!" the startled Gangkouz firebending guardsmen snapped at the new arrival, but after looking up, his face grew pale. "I-I mean...sorry, I didn't know it was you..."
"May I ask what sort of threat she poses to your city?" the new arrival questioned briskly.
"Umm...well, she's...a wanted criminal," the guard answered timidly. "Here's a list of the charges." He then pulled out a scroll from his waist pocket and pointed to a portrait Ratana recognized as Nookyazu from the corner of her eye.
"You might want to get your eyes looked at," the new firebender scoffed at the picture of the bearded ruffian. "That looks nothing like her."
"Well, you see...ummm...yes, Sir." The guard hung his head, hoisted up his unconscious comrade and retreated back toward Khomin Square. "Sorry for the misunderstanding, Miss," he added over his shoulder to Ratana.
When the guards were gone, Lu Ten turned to address the unknown woman before him. "What kind of stunt did you pull to get all those guards on your case?" he asked her, smirking.
Ratana let out a deep sigh. "It's a long story."
- "Huoxilong" means fire-breathing dragon in Chinese.
- Kainu's line "What's Gangkouz coming to...used to be, a man could enjoy his meal in peace," is a reference to a similar line spoken by Yakone in The Legend of Korra.
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