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January 16, 2014
Since the beginning of time, the rising sun has brought about the start of a new day, and the initiation of a new cycle as the world turns around on its axis. To many, this regular greeting provides warmth, comfort and the chance to start over and right any wrongs that might have existed yesterday. This optimistic outlook was especially common here in the Fire Nation, where their native element's benders find their power stronger in daytime. For others, however, the searing heat on their skin and the blinding light that rips them from their slumber provides no reassurance.
As Ratana, still slumped in the same wooden chair as she had found herself in the previous day, blinked open her irises, she felt a minor sun burn forming on her forehead as the morning light shone through the windows. Bending her elbows and pushing her body upright, the Terra Team earthbender noticed her senses one at a time. While her eyelids continued to put up a fight, her mind remained feeble and indifferent, and so she had to urge it forth with every new step. In front of her, she could sniff the charred wood which was all that remained of the fire Lu Tong had made the previous night. Behind Ratana, her nose detected a foreign scent accompanied by the faint gurgle of a boiling tea kettle.
Ratana's initial plan for a clean escape was to leave a note and slip away before her all-too-kind host awoke. These hopes were quashed as she turned to the empty chair beside her own and remembered that Lu Tong, like herself, was an early riser. Gritting her teeth, the determined woman of the proud Earth Kingdom adjusted her red tunic to bring her body and its garments into a more comfortable harmony. Maybe her hair was still a little bit of a mess, but at this point that was the least of her worries.
Even though she had not yet met the eyes of the one whose company she dreaded, Ratana knew he was right there. "Morning, Lu Tong."
"Top of the morning to you, Rang Xue," Lu Tong waved in jovial acknowledgement, bringing the breakfast in front of him to a simmer and allowing for Ratana to take a seat beside the cooking fish. She complied, his pleasant demeanor putting her worries on a momentary pause. "Sleep well?"
"Not at all," thought Ratana. That would have been an understatement. Indeed, it had been one of the worst nights of sleep she had gotten in recent memory, including just a few nights prior when she had slept outside the city after getting her bag stolen. She did not remember her dreams quite simply because she did not have any. Although she subtly allowed herself to drift in and out of consciousness while tossing and turning, she never reached the deepest phase of sleep when it might have been possible for her to have dreams. "I slept alright," she lied.
"That's good to know," said Lu Tong, oblivious to the obvious subtext. "After breakfast, I was thinking we could head over to that festival that's in town and see about playing some of the parlor games they have. Just some old-fashioned fun before my father arrives and I let you in on that secret I told you of last night. What do you say?"
"I don't think so, Lu Tong," said his awkward guest.
"What do you mean?" he asked. Lu Tong flashed his handsome features to Ratana as he stared at her in alarm, his straightened, orderly top-knot complementing the still-messy morning hair on his sides in some odd manner. "Don't tell me you want to go climbing mountains again!"
Ratana felt the stone in her throat increase in size, along with the fact that she now lacked the poise that her years of training with the Terra Team had acquired for her. She realized that it was time to be blunt. "I have to get out of town soon. I've wasted enough time in this place as it is, and I really must get to Nongkun."
"Ah," Lu Tong nodded as he poured a steaming cup of morning tea and passed it over. "You need say no more. I know that each person must follow their own path, and you've been ever-so stubborn and definite about following yours since you got here. If you're sure, I'm sure that you're right."
Ratana felt a wave of relief sweep over her body, touching every cell, though the feeling was also mutilated, sending chills down the sides of her arms. She partially annoyed that Lu Tong did not put up more of a fight for her to stay in town. "Thanks for understanding."
"You're welcome, Rang Xue," he replied, smiling. "Just a quick cup of tea before you set off, perhaps?"
Ratana hesitated. In her mind, she knew it was a mistake to let herself be dragged along any more, like a sailor at sea being sucked in by the yawning, unrelenting mouth of a whirlpool. Then again, Lu Tong's homely attitude reassured her from the danger of lingering on and delaying her mission further. Of course, that reassurance was exactly where the danger was. "Well..."
"I'll tell you what. Let's go to the same tea shop we went to the other day, right after I ran into you being ambushed by the city guards."
Smirking, Ratana was now on the brink of succumbing. "Okay," she allowed her hesitation to cave away. Although Lu Tong was a firebender, one of the accursed flame-wielders who plundered her land, subjugated her people and robbed her of her mother, Lu Tong seemed separated from that world to Ratana. On the other hand, it felt like he was purposefully trying to prevent her from finding dragons and completing her mission, akin to a malevolent spirit sent by the Fire Lord himself to distract her from her goal. Of course, Ratana knew that to be absurd, as the content Lu Tong knew nothing of her mission, or who she really was. That would be all the more reason to leave, lest he found out eventually. But Ratana was much less guarded now that her departure was settled and the air was clearer between them. "I guess that tea shop was a nice little joint. Why not?"
"Here," Lu Tong said on their way out. "Take this." It was the green and red-checkered quilt that he had given to Ratana the first night that they rested by the fireplace. "You've got a long journey ahead of you on the road to Nongkun, and this will help by keeping you warm, on cold nights. I'll be more at ease, too, knowing you have it."
Paralyzed, Ratana felt her cheeks burning and her innards churning, her feet rooted to the floor. Gently, she held the blanket tightly to her stomach. "Thanks..."
As they left the apartment, Lu Tong and Ratana strolled down the street through Khomin Square, where there was a monument to a fallen Fire Lord of ages past. The northwestern corner of the square was now more crowded than the rest of it, with tons of people in a crowd preparing for the upcoming festivities.
"Rang Xue," Lu Tong began, now more serious than Ratana had heard until now. "I'm glad of the time you spent here, even if it has to end."
"Me too," Ratana nodded, her cheeks now even redder than before. She stared off to the side, as though allergic to his gaze.
"I hope we can meet again in the future," her host went on. "For that reason, while I said I'd tell you what I wanted to say later when my father came, I think I'll tell you what I wanted to say over tea before you leave. In fact, perhaps it's better that way."
As Lu Tong's words spilled out, Ratana kept idly staring at the surroundings, from the shops on the corner, to the clouds in the sky above the port town, to the very center of the square. Even an outsider could tell at first glance that the Fire Lord whose statue stood there had reigned long ago, from the poor condition it was in. A flock of teenagers stood about it. A few of them had their sleeves torn off and from the corner of her eye, Ratana could have sworn one was concealing a knife. It was as if they were trying, albeit failing, to intimidate the lone female member of the Terra Team. Indeed, they seemed the sort of bunch that overprotective mothers tell their kids to steer clear of.
Though they were not even an afterthought to her at first, a few seconds later, the incognito earthbender stopped in her tracks and spun around. After all the setbacks she had endured, Ratana now could not believe her luck! "Lu Tong, one moment," she said to her companion, holding up a finger, before proceeding to march in the direction of the children.
"Sure," said Lu Tong, realizing his big secret would have to wait a little longer.
Ratana saw between two boys wearing tunics another, more shrimpy one in a small, reddish-brown vest. He looked slightly younger than the other kids around him, but Ratana could not tell whether he was actually younger or if he was simply behind them not in years but in growth spurts.
"Hello," she greeted, standing before him.
The boy raised an eyebrow. "Ummm...hi. Do I know you?"
"No," stated Ratana. "But we met a while ago."
"Is that supposed to mean something to me?" sneered the boy. "Scram, lady! We have no business here, and I can't recall ever meeting the likes of you."
"Do you remember these?" asked Ratana, bending over and pointing at both her green eyes with her right pointer and middle fingers. "They're unique, wouldn't you say? They really made me stand out as a child."
Baffled, the confused adolescent stared at the Ratana for as though she were on cactus juice. He was unable to decipher the meaning behind her words, then after looking a bit longer and refreshing his memory, his own eyes widened. Now that he understood, the smaller boy shoved one of the larger ones to the side and darted away from the area.
"Watch it, Heidze!" yelled the bigger boy, stepping forth as though to threaten him, but the younger boy was not looking back. Ratana was now more on his mind than the other boy was. Tying the blanket Lu Tong gave to her around her waist, she followed after him.
"Rang Xue?" Lu Tong called from several feet away uncertainly. He tried to follow after Ratana and the boy, but the festival crowd had grown to dense to peer through and they soon pulled away from him.
Ratana chased after the boy through the square and into the festival. There were so many booths and people in the surrounding area that one would think it impossible to keep running in a place like this, but the boy sped around like an insect with cheetah legs and Ratana weaved in and around the other bodies in the area, using her seismic sense to see that the boy was indeed still nearby. After reaching the opposite edge of the festival and the boy attempted to outsmart her by turning another corner, Ratana took a deep breath and concentrated as she kicked the ground and a flagstone directly in front of the boy's right foot sprang up a few inches, causing him to trip.
"Ow!" the boy called in agony, now helplessly sprawled on the hard stone ground. "Where did that stone come from? I know these streets like the back of my hand and I've never tripped on anything here before."
"Never mind that," Ratana told him coolly, as she loomed over him. "Your leg looks fine. I guess it's not really broken, is it?"
"No," the boy answered irritably. "I see yours isn't either! So, Mister, I see that you're not really a mister. This explains all the women's underwear I found in the bag I nicked off you."
Smoke fumed from Ratana's nostrils, as it would from the rim of an active volcano. "So what was that story about the tourist carriage running over you about?"
"That was a ploy," stated the boy. "It's part of my gimmick when I ask strangers for money. It's for gaining sympathy and bringing in higher dough."
"So you trick people into giving you money and then you steal all the rest of their belongings?"
"The first part, almost always," he confirmed. "The second part only once in a while when somebody's gullible enough to give me the opportunity." The boy had clearly not lost his nerve, as he continued to push the buttons of his much more powerful adversary. "Now you know why I don't really have a limp limb, but what about you? What was your reason for pretending?"
"I was in disguise," Ratana said stiffly, not in the mood for going down memory lane at this time.
"I figured that out. Why, though?"
"That's none of your concern!" Ratana snapped. Then, however, she loosened her fists and let out a deep breath. "Look kid, I'm not going to hurt you. Just give me back the stuff you stole from me and I'll leave you alone." She had a right mind to turn him into the authorities at this point, but the mission assigned to her by the Council of Five was Ratana's priority above all else. Since she had to travel almost all the way across the Fire Nation to get to Nongkun, Ratana could not afford to waste another second in Gangkouz.
The boy shook his head. "Can't. I don't have it anymore."
"Did you already sell all my things and spend the money?" she asked. Ratana at the very least could not imagine him having done this for the map to the dragons as well, which had less intrinsic value in it.
"No," said the boy. "There was a lot of gold in there. I had no idea you had that much value in your bag. Something that glamorous wouldn't be in my hands for long. It's in the hands of someone bigger. The higher-ups confiscated it."
"The Huoxilong Triad," explained the boy. "They practically rule this neighborhood."
"That's impossible," Ratana shook her head. "The Huoxilong hideout was raided. Their boss was arrested. I was there."
"Are you really naive enough to believe that would've destroyed them? They have a new leader and a new hideout now. What were you doing wandering the street with that much gold anyhow?"
"That's my business and mine alone."
The boy winced in contempt, still sitting on the street corner. "Are we done?"
Ratana jerked her head, sighing. "Get out of here." She didn't feel like the boy was lying, so she let him run off again, dreading the thought of her belongings with the same gang she had fought when she met Lu Tong.
But now Lu Tong was nowhere in sight and she was alone again. At least she had accomplished what she resolved to do that morning, though the taste of the victory lay bitter on her tongue. Softening her stance, Ratana wrapped her fingers around the edges of the blanket on her waist.
- The Fire Lord whose statue stands in the center of Khomin Square is Fire Lord Khomin, who was mentioned in . He was killed during a solar eclipse many years before the one in the canon show.
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