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December 9, 2013
The haze of Ratana's long, deep sleep cleared itself away, moment by moment. Her eyes had not made but two blinks when the Terra Team earthbender had forgotten what it was she had dreamed of the previous night, and in her trance it took her a few seconds to examine her surroundings as she continued to lie in the wooden chair by Lu Tong's fireplace. Abruptly, both her dreary eyes popped open at once. Of course. She was still in the homely domain of a firebender: a sworn enemy of her people. The idea of spending the night here seemed much more foolish than it had the past evening. Nevertheless, she was unbound and unharmed, with her firebending companion nowhere in sight. On the surface, part of her was relieved, but she had to remain vigilant and on-target. She had to brace herself and get back on track to finding dragons, which this dangerous firebender "enemy" could supposedly help her do. Now, however, he was not resting in his chair which he slept in the previous night, nor was he in the bed, which had remained untouched since Lu Tong made it for Ratana and she declined.
Springing to her feet, Ratana slowly traced her toes along the edges of the floor. This meant she was moving about quietly, though this was more of a force of habit than anything substantial, as the main reason she would trace her toes around so lightly would be to use seismic sense to learn more of her surroundings, but that would be foolish at a time like this when there was no earth to connect with. The floor of Lu Tong's apartment was wooden. Without the earth to listen to, Ratana took to listening to the breeze and any other faint noise.
It did not take her long to find one. "One hot-squat..."
Ratana spun about, hearing the whisper one would mumble under their breath, and searched the apartment for where that noise could be coming from.
"Two hot-squat. Three hot-squat..."
There, in the front entrance to the apartment, was Lu Tong, in white trousers with no top to accompany them. Shirtless, his bare chest was exposed, with a fair amount of sweat pouring down it.
Ratana opened her mouth to greet her host, but found a lump in her throat, like the face stealer had snatched both her mouth and voice mid-sentence. "Good morning," she managed after a few seconds.
"Oh hey Rang Xue, didn't see you there," Lu Tong greeted his guest by her false name with a grin. "Four hot-squat! I hadn't realized that you were awake yet." His feet spread apart, Lu Tong bent his knees and lowered his upper body toward the floor, his feet still planted in place like tree roots.
Ratana crossed her arms, nonchalant. "You're up early."
"Early to bed, early to rise makes one healthy, wealthy and wise," Lu Tong stated plainly. "Five hot-squat. Six hot-squat."
"You speak from experience."
"My teachers taught me right," Lu Tong said. "Six hot-squat. Do people not normally get up early and do exercises in Nongkun?"
"In Nongkun?" asked Ratana, raising an eyebrow, unsure what Lu Tong meant.
"With all that you talked about that place, I assumed that you were from there."
"No," said Ratana meagerly. "I'm a long way from home."
"Home is where the heart is," Lu Tong told her cheerfully, hoping it would become contagious for her. "If you're content where you are and what you're doing, you can hang onto that feeling anywhere."
"What's with you and the proverbs?" Ratana winced, still crossing her arms.
"My teachers taught me," Lu Tong replied. "They called proverbs the language of the ages. Like my teachers, I always have tea in the middle of a workout." With that, Lu Tong reached over for a steaming cup on the counter and downed it's contents in a single gulp, before coughing up a dark cloud of smoke. "Ginseng, always better homemade! That reminds me; my dad's going to be back around here tomorrow. Maybe you'll meet him. He's quite a character!"
"Hah!" Ratana smirked, stepping over to Lu Tong and looking her host square in the eye. "Maybe your teachers know a lot about firebending, but they didn't know everything."
Lu Tong's smile faded and he ceased hot-squatting, allowing his arms to hang limp. "Excuse me? The masters that I grew up with were some of the most renowned in the Fire Nation!"
"What a bold claim that is, Lu Tong." teased Ratana. "You may have a lot of pride in those that taught you, but I'm sure that some people, like the royal family for instance, have more able firebending instructors than the ones you grew up with."
Lu Tong appeared to have something on the tip of his tongue, but he let it go. "Enlighten me then. What did my teachers not know?"
"How to do a proper hot-squat," stated Ratana. "Your form is completely wrong."
Lu Tong raised an eyebrow. "How?"
"Your legs are too far apart," Ratana explained further. "And you're moving too fast. Speed is an indispensable quality on the battlefield, but when you're doing your exercises your goal is to maximize the amount of energy and the quality of the workout that you're able to give yourself. When you lower yourself slowly and then slow yourself down even more on the way back up, you give yourself better results by putting further strain on your muscles. Try it with me."
Reluctantly, Lu Tong placed his arms in position and lowered himself in the same motion as Ratana led him through, looking into her eyes as she looked back into his. "One hot-squat," she announced when they returned to starting position together. "Two hot-squat," she stated the same way at the second round.
"Alright, I see your point," Lu Tong conceded. "My teachers always put more emphasis on mastering the bending forms than mastering something simple like doing the perfect kind of hot-squat."
"The forms are one thing," Ratana went on. "Developing one's strength and chi in training exercises can be just as important as practicing the bending itself when the time comes."
"Huh, maybe you're right," Lu Tong nodded, twisting his eyes and face around. "You know a lot about bending for someone who's not a firebender."
"I pick up things here and there," Ratana said quickly. "So, are we almost ready to go and see these dragon spirits that you were telling me about yesterday?"
"Hold your ostrich horses, Rang Xue," Lu Tong tried to calm her down. "Don't forget that I told you noon the other day. Besides, we have to get some kind of breakfast in us first, or else we'll lose all our energy that you yourself put so much emphasis on. After all, we are climbing a mountain here."
"Fine," admitted Ratana. "I suppose a little something to eat wouldn't be too unreasonable for us to have now."
"No time for fish, so let's grab a couple pieces of fruit from the pantry," declared Lu Tong. "It's simple enough and normal enough for us to go off of for now. Then we can grab something else at the festival on the way out of town."
Ratana agreed and complied with Lu Tong's proposal. On their way to the edge of town, the pair spotted a traveling carnival, which had attractions, games and stalls where one could purchase snacks and refreshments. Since Ratana had paid for tea the previous day, Lu Tong bought two sugar tarts from a stand and stated promptly that it was his treat before he could be beaten to it a second time. Shrugging, Ratana put up no objection.
"Hmmm...I've had these before," she said, narrowing her eyes, as though something did not belong. "They're an Earth Kingdom recipe, aren't they?"
"Yes, I believe they are," concurred Lu Tong, reading the sign by the booth, which stated that they were popular in the regions surrounding both Gaoling and Munn.
"Well, what are they doing here?" Ratana asked quite standoffishly, almost snapping.
Lu Tong shrugged as though nothing was out of the ordinary. "Through the war effort, our nation has managed to spread our glory to the Water Tribes and Earth Kingdom. As we've colonized much of their area, we've passed our ways onto the natives. Once in a while, though, something from them makes its way back to us. These are quite tasty, so I wouldn't mind having them become absorbed into our traditions. Granted, I don't think we've conquered either Munn or Gaoling, so they must also be popular elsewhere as well. Perhaps Yu Dao."
Ratana could've said more on the matter, but with her sugar tart in palm, she did not feel the need. She found Lu Tong comfortable to be around, for a firebender. Perhaps it was that something about him seemed familiar, even though she had never met him before. That didn't seem so absurd. After all, she had seen portraits of Fire Lord Azulon, the Crown Prince, the other top generals and the rest of the royal family, but she had never met any of them either. Maybe Lu Tong was familiar to her in another kind of way. "So is this festival a regular event around here?" she asked politely, knowing they would not be leaving the area until they finished their sugar tarts.
"Yup," answered Lu Tong. "This is an annual festival. It was in town the last time I went up the mountain to see the dragon spirits. A lot of younger children came along, too."
"Weren't they nervous?"
"Nervous, yes, but excited at the same time!" Lu Tong added with glee. "The dragon spirits are practically legendary."
"Have you actually seen them?" Ratana questioned, attempting to mask her voice as casual. With dragons having supposedly been wiped from the face of the earth twenty years prior, it would seem to be too convenient if they were clearly visible up here. Maybe only a select few were able to find them, like Lu Tong. Hence the "spirit" part.
"Oh, of course!" Lu Tong batted his eyes slyly, so that Ratana could not tell exactly what he meant. It was as though Lu Tong and some imaginary third member of their party shared an inside joke which she was not in on.
After the two strangers from the tea shop departed the fair, they reached the outskirts of the Fire Nation city of Gangkouz, near where Ratana had slept the night before last.
"Aren't there platypus bears and venomous critters out here?" questioned Ratana, lining her foot along the barren face of the earth, trying to sense anything nearby which might not be welcome for her.
"Hah, no!" Lu Tong laughed boisterously. "Platypus bears? Those are from the Earth Kingdom! You really must not get out much. It's armadillo bears we got here in the homeland. As for the venomous critters...yeah, those are dangerous. Best steer clear of those. Oh, hang on a second!"
Ratana looked over curiously as Lu Tong dug around in the bushes, like he had lost something that he needed to find. Just as Ratana was about to ask him what he was doing, Lu Tong returned with a thin, curved horn that the Terra Team earthbender in disguise soon realized was attached to a large, bare-skinned creature with a tough, almost armor-like hide.
"What is that?!" she asked in alarm.
"That is a komodo rhino," said Lu Tong, holding the komodo rhino in place and calming it down. "He'll help us get to the top of the mountain faster."
"I'm...not sure if I want to ride one of those." Ratana recognized this creature now that it was fully exposed. Her only encounters with these were when facing legions of hostile Fire Army soldiers and their cavalry were mounted on top of them. These so-called animals were the beasts of the enemy. On top of that, this wild one did not appear to be a stable ride for two people.
"Do you want to climb the mountain all in one day or not?"
Since she had faced worse dangers, and there was no moral question on the line, the Terra Team earthbender allowed the end of her mission's goal to justify the means. "Well, if it's the fastest way to the top, then I suppose it'll work."
For a few long minutes, the pair enjoyed a long, silent ride that took them close to the rim of the mountain. "This'll be a nice day outing," Lu Tong jested. "Just you and me and Speedy!"
"Sp-Speedy?" asked Ratana quizzically, clutching the sides of the komodo rhino as firmly as a Dai Li would grasp a wall with their rock gloved-hands, bouncing up and down with every stride.
"That's his name," Lu Tong replied, pointing down to the wild komodo rhino on whose back they rode.
"Since right now."
"You can't call a komodo rhino that," Ratana, blurted out. "It doesn't even make sense!"
"I thought it sounded perfect for the occasion," stated Lu Tong. "You're in a hurry and so is he. Besides, he looks like a Speedy!"
"No," Ratana shook her head in frustration. "Just no. Speedy is the kind of name one would call a camelephant maybe, but never a komodo rhino. They're not fast enough for that name."
"Careful now," cautioned Lu Tong. "You'll hurt Speedy's feelings, and he'll fling you off his back and back rolling down this mountain faster than you can snap your fingers!"
Ratana turned her nose. "I refuse to call him Speedy."
"Fine then," said Lu Tong, rolling his eyes. "You pick a name. What comes to mind when you look at him?"
Lu Tong's mouth fell open as he looked Ratana in the eye. "'Kay then..."
"Because he has horns!" Ratana shot back. "Mmph! Nevermind, call him Speedy if you really want. I don't care..."
- The same kind of "by-name" point of view of the last chapter applies here. Since this one is more focused on Ratana's perspective, Ratana's real name is the one being used, as opposed to last chapter, which was the other way around.
- "Hold your ostrich horses" is the equivalent expression of "hold your horses" in the Avatar world.
- The sugar tarts in this chapter are the same kind as the ones featured in and . They are one of Ratana's favorite foods.
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