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|Strangers in a Tea Shop|
October 10, 2013
"You should try this one," the top-knotted firebender advised his companion, pointing to her menu. "It's got a nice, textured flavor to it, and the after-taste hints of cinnamon." The two strangers sat across facing each another in a tea shop two blocks away from Khomin Square, a place the woman had grown to detest. Lu Ten held the chestnut menu right above the line of the table, his vacation-like smirk glazing his lower-lip.
"You seem to know a lot about tea," his more awkward comrade remarked. Still haunted by the tainted memory of recent events and even moreso by her lack of control over them, the woman clutched both her elbows as she leaned over the table, keeping herself defensive and enclosed. It was as though she had been in her bedroom engrossed in reading a book and some mysterious and unseen force had transported her to a crowded public area. Quite simply, she did not belong.
"My dad's an expert," said Lu Ten, his mood the yang to her yin. "You might say I grew up with it."
"I see." As the time came to order their tea, the server gave them both a look, curious at what had brought these two unlikely strangers together, but he held back from asking them. "So, why did the guards back there do what you say?" asked the woman.
The previously-relaxed Lu Ten scratched the back of his head with sudden tenseness. "Ummm..."
"Was it because of your firebending?" his companion asked him, accustoming herself to her new surrounding. "Are you known here as one of the best firebenders around?"
"Yeah, that's it," Lu Ten lied, leaning back forward. "It was my firebending. I had good teachers, so you can say my training paid off," he added to this false confirmation. As he did not often get to do new things with new people, the Fire Prince would settle for any explanation that was not directly related to his position.
"Your teachers must've been excellent. That last guard was a firebender, too," the woman replied, referring to the one who had her cornered when she was unable to feel her lower body. "There were more of them on my tail before I lost them."
"Well, I took down five other firebenders in my latest training exercise, so if what Fire Lord Azulon says is true about every firebender being a match for two earthbenders, I can do the same to ten earthbenders."
"Like I said, I had good teachers," Lu Ten told her, mistakenly believing her resentment of the remark was confined to her perception of him bragging.
"Give me a break with that false modesty," she shot back, adding to the allusion. Shaking her head, she brushed aside her long hairs that had been dangling in front of her eyebrows. "You admitted that you were a good firebender, and you know you are."
Lu Ten raised an eyebrow at her presumption. "If you say so."
"Excessive pride is a fault," she explained. "But so is excess humility. Maturity means recognizing your own strong points and taking responsibility for them"
"Huh, I think one of the generals in the Earth Kingdom said something like that."
Once the server returned with their tea, clouds began lining the sky and the shining light of the sun retreated. The air around them grew cooler and the warm, steaming taste of tea in their mouths felt refreshing. And so, their unexpected meeting with each other continued. "So, why did all of those guards think you were that Nookyazu person?" asked Lu Ten.
"I don't know," the green-eyed woman responded, shuddering. "Apparently they thought we had the same hair and mistook me for a guy."
"That beard would look better on him," Lu Ten chortled. "No offense, but the way you are now suits you better. So, what's your real name?" In the midst of all the excitement, he forgot that they were not yet properly introduced.
"Rang Xue. What's yours?"
"Lu T-," he began before halting himself. "Umm..Lu Tong."
"Lu Tong, hmmm....that sounds similar to the name of one of the Fire Princes," the one who called herself Rang Xue pointed out as she took in another gulp of steamy, strong-tasting tea. The bitter foretaste seethed throughout her mouth, spreading a fuzzy feeling across her gums that reminded her all-too-much of when she had her legs underground. The aftertaste, however, was sweet, like a sugar tart.
"You could say that my parents were sort of thinking of him when they named me," Lu Ten continued.
"That's odd," said Rang Xue. "He couldn't have been more than a baby when you were born."
"They thought it would be lucky to name me after the Fire Lord's new grandson," said Lu Ten.
"That's interesting," Rang Xue smirked at her new friend. "Perhaps they believed you had a destiny and wanted you to do great things when you grew older. Of course, moms and dads always think that. Well, almost always...but only once in a while can they be right about that. If everyone in the world were extraordinary, that would defeat the purpose of it."
Lu Ten paused for a moment prior to responding. "I don't know about that. My dad always said that there are extraordinary qualities in everyone we encounter. They just don't always show on the surface. Anyhow, what are you doing in town, exactly?"
It was written all over Rang Xue's person that she did not come from Gangkouz. "I was on my way to Nongkun."
"That's far away," Lu Ten nodded, resting his elbows on the table.
"I haven't had very good directions," Rang Xue told him, raising her voice almost defensively. "I don't know the direction I'm going, either."
"Nongkun's to the west," Lu Ten told her regrettably. "Really, really far west...and a little north."
"I'd better get going soon, then," Rang Xue stated in resignation as she downed the rest of her tea in a single gulp. "It was nice meeting you, Lu Tong," she added, picking three of the few remaining bronze pieces from her pocket and placing them on the table as she rose to her feet.
"Nice meeting you too, Rang Xue," Lu Ten replied as he took out a few bronze pieces of his own. "But please, allow me. You seem like you've been in the rough lately and I feel it's the least I could do."
"Not necessary, I can take care of myself, thanks. Besides, you helped me back there with the guards, so the tea should be my treat if anything."
"Have it your way," said Lu Ten, shrugging in is seat. "Would you care for a game of Four Nations before you go?"
Rang Xue hesitated. "Fine," she conceded. "Just for a little bit." She eyed the antique set of tiles Lu Ten had yanked from his pocket. "Those are nice," she commented.
"Thanks. I got them here in Gangkouz, actually. It was the last time I was in town, which was about three or four years ago, right after I climbed the mountain to the west where they say the dragon spirits lurk."
All of a sudden, Rang Xue's tiresome eyes lit up. "The dragon spirits? Where is this mountain?"
"On the other side of town. Legends say you can hear them around sunset."
"Can you show me where this is?" Rang Xue asked, leaning over the table as Lu Ten dealt.
Lu Ten raised an eyebrow in surprise. "So you're sticking around now? What about your going to Nongkun?"
Rang Xue paused for a moment. "Nongkun can wait a little longer. This sounds like something worth staying in town an extra few hours. Can you take me there and show me?"
Not sure what to make of his companion's sudden change in tune, Lu Ten paused and blinked, forgetting that it was his turn in the Four Nations game, which neither of them were paying attention to anymore. "If you really want to see it, I can take you there tomorrow."
"Can't we go today?" Rang Xue pleaded.
Lu Ten shook his head. "It's going to rain this afternoon. I don't know about you, Rang Xue, but I prefer not to climb a mountain in the rain."
"What are you talking about?" Rang Xue scoffed. "There's not a cloud in the sky!"
"If you really want to try and find it yourself today, go ahead," Lu Ten told her, holding up his arms. "I'm not going up there unless the weather's right."
Rang Xue slumped in her chair. "I can't stay in Gangkouz for very long. I just want my visit here to be memorable."
"It seems like it's already been memorable, given where I bumped into you."
"I meant memorable in a good way!" Rang Xue snapped before she could stop herself.
"Well, if you're still in town tomorrow, Ill show you then," Lu Ten told her, casual and undaunted, still looking at his tiles. "What time would you like to meet? Should we say noon?"
"As early as possible."
"Alright. Noon it is, then."
Neither Lu Ten nor his new friend remembered who won the Four Nations game later. By the time they left, it was long gone from their minds. As they left the tea shop, countless tiny polka-dots popped one at a time onto the dusty street. This was accompanied by the dense moisture that had imposed itself upon the previously calm, warm afternoon.
"Told you so," Lu Ten stated matter-of-factly, a smug curve appearing on his lower lip.
But his companion remained unimpressed. "What, this drizzle? This isn't real rain; you can climb a mountain in this!"
It was as if the wrath of the spirits of weather had been incurred by the girl's sacrilegious words. The tiny droplets multiplied with fierce rapidness, and the sound of them colliding with the ground resembled thunder so closely that it nearly went unnoticed when actual thunder roared mere seconds later.
Dumbfounded, Rang Xue stood by as her hair, skin and clothes were showered over by the pouring rain. "Great," she added with dry irony, finishing off a joke she herself shared no humor with. "This better not go on all night. I'll have been drowned long before the sun comes up."
Lu Ten turned back to face her, his expression more serious now. "What do you mean 'all night'? Where are you staying?"
"I set up camp just outside of town."
The Prince of the Fire Nation raised an eyebrow. "Well, that's no good. Why not come to my place? You should be indoors at a time like this."
"No thanks," Rang Xue replied, taking a step back. "I think I can manage. I'll just cover up really well to stay dry."
"Cover up with what to stay dry in this?" Lu Ten inquired skeptically. "Ten elephant boarcupine skins?"
As she gradually grew wetter, Rang Xue hesitated. "Maybe I'll find a cheap hotel. I...don't want to impose on you, Lu Tong."
"You won't," Lu Ten reassured. "Just stop by until the rain clears up," he added, turning away and walking down the street toward Old Kao's apartment. "You coming, Rang Xue?" he asked over his shoulder a few seconds later.
Standing in the middle of the street, Rang Xue felt her hair grow denser and her red tunic heavier, being soaked by the unyielding downpour. "Wait up!" she shouted, running to catch up with her firebender companion.
The smell of old fish was unusually welcoming as the pair of drenched companions entered the still-vacant apartment. Rang Xue clutched both her elbows, shivering like someone in the Water Tribes garbed in Ember Island clothing. Out of the corner of her eye, she glanced Lu Ten igniting a blazing ball of flame in one of his hands and swinging his arm above his head, then proceeding to hover it down and circled his torso and his legs a few times. She would have asked him why he was doing this strange firebending dance at this random moment if she were not still so distracted by her cold. But her senses were brought back to her as Lu Ten approached her and brought the scorching piece of fire straight toward her head!
Instinctively, Rang Xue seized her now-hostile host by the wrist and twisted her arm around and his body along with it. Seconds later, she let go as Lu Tong's flame went out and he fell onto the wooden floor.
Panting, Lu Ten gawked up at his guest who had just threw him onto the floor and now had assumed her fighting stance. "Look, if you don't want to be dried off, just say so, but you look like you need it..."
The innocent girl-turned-fearsome fighter who seemed to regret accepting his invitation now raised an eyebrow quizzically. "Dried off?" Looking her opponent up and down, she now realized that Lu Tong was no longer wet, like her. "Oh, yes, if you wouldn't mind. I'm sorry," she added, loosening her arms and hanging her head in shame.
Giving her a look, Lu Ten rose back to his feet and sparked up a new fire ball in his same hand and held it inches away from Rang Xue's body before tracing it around her head, shoulders, chest and legs.
Her muscles tightened, no longer shivering due to the damp cold, but tense due to the close proximity of the bent fire to her body. "That's good enough," she declared soon afterwards, even though some parts of her body were still a little damp. "You like fly-fishing?" she asked, abruptly changing the subject.
"Huh?" After a moment of confusion, Lu Ten saw that Rang Xue was staring at the Old Kao's rod and equipment hanging on the walls. "Oh...yeah!" he said, breaking eye contact and scratching the back of his neck in discomfort. "I adore fly-fishing, love fly-fishing, just cannot get enough of it," he lied. "But, ummm...I don't want to talk about it right now."
"I...had a bad experience with it once."
"Sorry to hear that."
The strangers from the tea shop got to know each another better, one step at a time. Outside, the downpour stubbornly continued its watery assault upon the port settlement of Gangkouz, so Rang Xue would not be leaving the comfortable protection under the roof of the apartment she wrongfully assumed belonged to "Lu Tong" anytime soon.
As a matter of fact, Lu Ten's lack of familiarity in his mother's cousin's residence was almost becoming too obvious to ignore. Once he had finished starting the fire in the hearth and set atop it a pot to prepare soup with, he spent the better part of an hour rooting through the closets and the storage compartments, but couldn't find the spare guest cots anywhere. Old Kao had not bothered to make things easy for Iroh and Lu Ten's visit before his sudden bolt to Jang Hui. Giving up, Lu Ten brought a pine-and-maroon-checkered quilt over to Rang Xue, who was resting herself in one of the pair of wooden chairs by the fireplace and began making the bed.
"I changed my mind," she said as the scent of the boiling broth reached her nostrils. "I'll have some, but not too much." She had declined the earlier offer for soup, but the temptation in her stomach, along with it being already prepared, had forced her to yield. Fortunately, Lu Ten had anticipated this and had made enough for both of them. The two of them sat by the fireplace and rested their bowls in their laps as they ate, bringing with it an extra patch of hot on the top of their long legs. With the combined warmth of the flame and the fill of the soup, Rang Xue abandoned thought of leaving to find a hotel and slumped in her chair, feeling an oncoming coma.
Rising to his feet, the also-tired Lu Ten walked over to the bed at the opposite end of the room and lifted one of the corners of the covers, exposing the sheets beneath.
Spinning her head around, Lu Ten's guest saw him holding up the edge of the quilt and gesturing for her to come over. "Hah, in your dreams, pal! Look, thanks for all your help and all, but if you expected me to loosen up at that, you're in for a disappointment. I'm not that kind of girl."
To her surprise, Lu Ten did not move, save for the slight shaking of his head. "Actually, I meant for you to take the bed for yourself. I was going to go back over to the fire and sleep in the chair."
Rang Xue blinked and continued to stare, like she hadn't heard him right. "Oh. Well thanks for the offer, but I'm fine here. You take the bed."
"Okay," Lu Ten said simply. But the next moment, he returned to the side of the room with the fireplace and sat himself back in the wooden chair.
"Huh?" Rang Xue asked him, confused.
"It wouldn't feel right," he clarified. "What kind of man sleeps in a bed, when there's a woman sleeping in a chair? That's just plain dishonorable."
"Don't be stupid, Lu Tong!" she snapped back. "This is your apartment."
"Good night, Rang Xue," Lu Ten muttered aloud as he hung his head back and drifted into unconsciousness.
The woman who had introduced herself to Lu Ten as "Rang Xue" kept her eyes open, watching her host thoughtfully for several minutes. Unbeknownst to either of them, they had both kept essentials about themselves hidden. Indeed, the Prince of the Fire Nation's guest remained cautious, even if her host had appeared trustworthy so far. She planned to sleep with one eye open if possible, which she had forced herself to do on occasions past. Gradually however, her resolve to do this wavered, and she departed the physical world of the awake for several hours and succumbed herself to the world of dreams.
- The reason Ratana isn't referred to by name here is because I decided to maintain one overall point of view at a time, starting with focusing more through Lu Ten in this chapter, which I plan to go back and forth with in the chapters to come.
- "Four Nations" in this chapter refers to the game played by villagers in the Avatar: The Last Airbender video game.
For the collective works of the author, go here.