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January 19, 2016
"Do you like her?" asked Indigo. "You do, don't you?"
"Ratana?" Tooru said, taken aback. "She's an amazing earthbender partner, and she's fun to hang around with, even when she's not, but at those times she's still being herself. Of course I like her. She's an all-around good person, and she's all about helping others. That's cool of her. I consider it an honor and privilege to be at her side."
"You like her like her though," Indigo clarified, keeping his voice down so that the rest of the Terra Team members on the grounds would not overhear. "I can tell. You love her. Back during the brief time when you and I were partners, I could tell what the look on your face meant. You didn't just miss her. You felt the same way that I did about Hanbao. It was torture for me to be separated from him. I couldn't believe what General Sung had did to us. This is the worst thing a commander of ours has ever done."
"Then clearly you don't remember Quan Jing and his setting Ratana up for dead at her trial," remarked a fairly annoyed Tooru. "We have to focus now, Indigo. The Fire Nation is invading our capital and we can't have our heads up in the clouds at a time like this."
"You shouldn't keep running from your feelings for her," Indigo lectured Tooru. "You should tell her."
"That's what we all need," Tooru rolled his eyes at the thought. "Not that I do have feelings for her. More distraction. At a time when any of us might die tomorrow."
"If we might die tomorrow or the day after, isn't that all the more reason to let her know?" said Indigo.
"Look, it's more complicated than that, Indigo," said Tooru, raising his voice as his lack of patience was now overtaking his fear that someone would be listening to them. "She might not feel the same way about me, and I don't want to ruin what we have now. I can't remember any reason she's given for me to think she does. Even if she did, though, and we were together like that, it could be distracting for both of us. If I put her in greater danger by being honest with her, I could never forgive myself for the rest of my days."
"How? As partners, you already protect each other from danger in the field at all cost. If you were a couple, I doubt you would do anything differently. Besides, you're both on the Terra Team. Your training isn't going to just disappear."
Tooru was still not convinced. "Well...maybe it worked somehow for you and Hanbao. But it's different with Ratana. She deals with the fact that she and those around her are constantly in danger by being a selfless spirit. If she has a reason to live selfishly, that peace that keeps her strong will fall and she'll be vulnerable. I cannot do that to her."
"Perhaps that's her shield from life, and what she really needs is the right person by her side to spend her life with," suggested Indigo. "Then she will have a new peace."
"I don't know..."
"Listen," Indigo said earnestly. "I know that our relationship was unprofessional, and Hanbao's death was the most painful day in all my life. In hindsight, though, I'm glad that Hanbao and I were ourselves with each other, and for the time we spent together. Except for not protecting him at the end, I regret nothing. If he died and I never told him how I felt, I would've regretted it forever. Be brave, Tooru."
Just as Tooru was opening his mouth to respond, he caught eye of his earthbending partner walking across the grounds, but she was not on her own, either. Prince Lu Ten was beside her, bound by the wrists. It seemed that the general had denied her request for a change of assignment. "Ratana," Tooru called over to her. "I see you're looking in a much better mood today, but you don't seem to have shook that responsibility of yours."
"Yeah," Ratana rolled her eyes. "Sung wasn't around earlier and now that I've had time to think it over, I don't think a change of assignment is needed right now. I can just serve out my time for the rest of the allotment guarding Lu Ten, and I'll join you all on active duty again once I'm done." She and the Fire Nation prince had just been laughing at something together, so it seemed she was genuinely not bothered by it for now.
"Wow, didn't realize that guarding me was such a nuisance this whole time," Lu Ten let out a faint laugh, though what lay beneath it was not entirely humorous.
"Heeheh," Ratana scratched the back of her neck nervously. "It's not that. Well, it's just...well..."
"Ummm...okay then," said Tooru, catching onto the fact that he had stumbled upon a subject that it might not be wise to ask too many questions about.
"So, what's the word on the front?" Ratana asked him.
"I'd love to tell you some great war stories of the ordeals we've been through since you were suspended," Tooru told her and Lu Ten. "But, to tell you the truth, it's been pretty boring lately. The Fire Nation seems to be holding back, if anything."
"I wonder why that might be," Lu Ten batted his eyes slyly.
"Perhaps we should not say so much in front of the prisoner," Tooru narrowed his eyes in correspondence to those of the Fire Nation prince.
"Yes, quite a good idea," Ratana shot Lu Ten, her prisoner, a mock venomous look. "Speaking of which, has the Fire Nation said anything regarding the fact that General Iroh's son is still in our possession?"
"Not yet," said Tooru, looking over at Lu Ten as he answered Ratana's question. "I'm surprised myself, but it doesn't look like your daddy wants you back that bad. We've sent envoys to collect dead and wounded once in a while outside the Outer Wall, in between rounds of fighting, of course. The word is that the Fire Nation response has always been 'no comment' when we mention that we still have you as a prisoner, among others."
"Huh, that is kind of surprising," Ratana also looked over at Lu Ten. From the way that the younger Prince of the Fire Nation had always described his father when he spoke, she always thought he was more devoted a parent than this made him seem. It was only rational to believe that Iroh, commanding general of the attacking army, Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, heir to the throne of Fire Lord Azulon, and Dragon of the West, would be willing to negotiate and go to great lengths to get his son freed from his current position.
Lu Ten, on the other hand, did not seem to be surprised at all, unlike either of the Terra Team earthbending partners. "My dad knows that I'm grownup now. He might be worried, but he knows our whole nation is counting on us. He also knows that I am capable of handling myself at a time like this." His tone of voice was calm and definitive, though not nearly enough so to put Ratana and Tooru's thoughts to rest.
However, they decided to both let it go for now and spoke not another word on the subject. "By the way, I was talking to Indigo about something earlier, Ratana," Tooru told her. "Something unrelated to Prince Lu Ten, something only concerning you and me."
"What is it?" Ratana asked him, curious about what her partner had to say to her now.
"It's...ummm...nevermind," Tooru changed his tone of voice, earning a look from both Terra Team Captain Ratana and her prisoner Fire Nation Prince Lu Ten.
"Okay," Ratana stared from side to side, awkward in a much more subtle way than when she felt for Lu Ten.
"I mean never mind for now," Tooru clarified, raising his voice once again. "I'll tell you it later. I will. But not when there's company. I'll tell you what. We'll talk just the two of us maybe at the party. It'll only take a few minutes...I think. Or maybe longer. It's something important and it should be done the right way."
"Sounds good," said Ratana, exchanging a shrug and a mild smile to the side with her prisoner, Prince Lu Ten.
"Hey guys," Indigo himself cut in, grinning wide. "We're having an arm wrestling competition. Taigang has the high score right now. Any takers?"
"My, my things are becoming relaxed around here," Lu Ten chuckled in his hand restraints. "I will have to say something to the troops upon my return to my side of the field."
"You seem awfully confident that you'll be returning there eventually, prisoner-prince," Indigo scoffed at this comment.
"Got to keep an optimistic attitude, right?" Lu Ten flashed a grin.
"I already got my fair share earlier," said Tooru, whipping his stretched arm in a circular motion. "Why don't you try, Ratana? Your muscles aren't as large as Taigang's, but they're more defined. You can take him at arm wrestling."
"No thanks," Ratana shook her head at her partner. "I don't participate in that kind of goofing off."
"Ugh," Tooru stuck his tongue out at her. "Such a square."
"Indeed," said Indigo, sticking his own tongue out at the woman Captain of the Terra Team in a similar fashion. "Why don't you lighten up a little?"
"At least not while officially on duty," Ratana clarified defensively. "Off duty, I can goof off...in moderation."
"Please," said Tooru. "Goofing off 'in moderation'? Who in the world talks like that, except for you of course?"
"Pah!" said Indigo. "Well, guess Taigang will remain the undefeated champ, then. Although, I don't see why this shouldn't be right. There's not much for us to do today fighting-wise, even if we are on duty."
"Hey guys," Lu Ten shook his arms in his hand restraints. "If no one else is taking on the challenge, I will be up for arm wrestling this Taigang guy."
All three earthbenders' heads spun toward him at once, speechless. "You must think we were born yesterday," Tooru spoke up first. "We're not going to let you out of your restraints. We're not risking losing you as a prisoner with your firebending just so you can arm wrestle."
"I won't firebend," said Lu Ten. "Not here, in the middle of your camp. I'm not suicidal."
"It'll be fine," Ratana undid her prisoner's restraints as Tooru and Indigo gave objections with their faces. "I've got an eye on him. He won't do anything except arm wrestle. There is no way that he will escape on my watch."
"Thanks, Rang Xue," grinned Lu Ten. "Glad to see you back to your old reasonable self again."
"Don't say anything about that," Ratana warned in a hurry, her cheeks burning as red as her captive's armor.
"What's he talking about?" asked Tooru.
"Nothing," said Ratana, making it clear that the subject was closed.
"Alright, I am ready to do this," said Lu Ten. "Where is he?"
"He's sitting by that broken slab of rock shaped like a tree stump at the moment. He just beat Zan Xun by the looks of it." Indigo pointed over to the center of where a group of earthbenders were gathered, all in their respective Earth Kingdom army uniforms. A similar pillar was sticking out of the ground across from it, with a higher one wedged between the two to serve as a table.
Everyone tightened their firsts and began to assume their stances as the imprisoned Prince of the Fire Nation marched into the center of the circle, eying the triumphant-looking Taigang.
"What's this?" the smug earthbender of the Terra Team said as the Prince of the Fire Nation approached his spot in the circle. "Is the son of the great general Iroh going to try to take me down at arm wrestling?"
"That is the plan," said Lu Ten.
"Fetch me some more water," Taigang directed to a pair of slim regular army men – scarcely more than boys, actually. Ratana was about to ask why they were with the Terra Team today when she was interrupted by Taigang spitting out the liquid in the jug he had been given and seizing them both by the collars of their shirts. "Not tea, you imbeciles! Get me water, Ping. And Pong, go grab me my towel while you're at it. I'm sweating."
"Yes sir," Ping said out of duty, nearly dropping the lukewarm leaf-juice he had mistakenly handed out before..
"Why must you bully the new recruits so, Taigang?" Ratana questioned him with clear disapproval.
"What else does one do with new recruits?" sneered Taigang.
"Train them and send them off to battle, so that we might defend our country and our people."
"Nerd," Taigang muttered under his breath.
"What was that?"
"Nothing, Captain Ratana."
"Pong, don't you have somewhere else to be?" asked Ratana, ignoring Taigang's brash statement.
"No, I'm fine, thanks," said Pong. "I'm just a new army recruit – left my village just before the siege. I'm not an elite soldier or veteran of the Terra Team or whatever, so I make myself useful however I can."
"So go train," Ratana told him. "Or if you're not sure, just ask your commanding officer what you should be doing."
"Taigang said that he was our commander for the day," Pong told her.
"Did he now?" asked Ratana, raising an eyebrow. "Where did he get this new unheard-of authority to promote himself at will? I don't know what he told you, but just because Taigang's a seasoned earthbender doesn't mean you have to put up with his hazing of you."
"It's alright, Captain Ratana," said Ping, forcing a smile. "We're just doing our part. Pong and I even contacted a caterer in the Middle Ring for your upcoming party. We're not on the Terra Team so we're not invited ourselves, but we still like to be useful however we can."
Ratana's spirits sank, being reminded that both she and Tooru were now unable to travel to the city they defended, and found the relaxed atmosphere around camp equally frustrating at such an uncertain time. "Remember, Lu Ten," she cautioned as he took his seat. "All you are going to do right now is play one match of arm wrestling and then it's back on with your wrist restraints. With the slightest hint of firebending or any other funny business, I'm pouncing and it'll be back to the dungeon for you...or worse."
"I understand," said Lu Ten, stretching his arms as Taigang likewise pulled every one of his fingers back, cracking the edges of his knuckles.
"Go Taigang!" shouted Zan Xun, Taigang's Terra Team sparring partner. "Earth Kingdom, represent!"
And so, Lu Ten and Taigang both knelt down and rested their elbows on opposite sides of the earthen stump, commencing their arm wrestling competition. At first, they both appeared to be evenly matched, with Taigang gaining a slight upper hand in the beginning. Both men twisted their faces as they struggled, but Lu Ten eventually began moving his arm over Taigang's more swiftly, and in a gradual motion, he pinned Taigang's arm to the stump, shocking all of the Terra Team members in the area.
"Now you have to arm wrestle him, Ratana," Tooru said aside to her. "We can't let him beat us in our own camp."
"No thanks," said Ratana. "It's arm wrestling; it's not like it's going to cost us control of the Outer Wall." Seeing that it was nearly sundown, Ratana led Lu Ten over to the earthen elevator, which Ratana used to bend them to the top of the Outer Wall, one brick at a time, the crowd and the ground below them shrinking by the second.
"I won't forget the look on that guy's face for a long time to come," smirked Lu Ten.
"You, sir, are getting yourself into trouble," Ratana scolded. "If you're not at least a little careful, you'll wind up getting us both into trouble eventually."
- Did I really just use that exact same joke again? Yes, I suppose that I did. My mind does run dry and draw a blank sometimes, so occasionally I fall back on recycled material. Like when I did The Vault again back in Book 1 – Dragon, but there's always a new spin on it. For instance, that time I did do 30 new user references instead of the original 23. And the action had action in it, whereas the version was pretty much just a tour of characters walking around XD
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