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|Terra Team Party|
February 28, 2016
"You don't seem excited," Lu Ten told Ratana. "As their captain, aren't you happy for the success that the team had under your command?" This success he spoke of was on the same assault that resulted in his capture.
"It's not that I wasn't pleased by our gains," Ratana clarified. "I just don't see anytime in wartime as a time for celebration." The sun had disappeared, night was upon them, and they passed by the main barracks where the party was to be held on the way as Ratana escorted Lu Ten back to the prison compound.
As they passed the compound by, the new recruits Ping and Pong emerged from within the party lobby, having completed whatever tasks that Taigang had delegated to them for the day. They both shot similar suspicious glares the way of Prince Lu Ten, who was still in the restraints that he always wore outside in the Earth Kingdom Outer Wall camp.
"Hello there, Ratana," Ping said, smiling. After being elbowed in the stomach by Pong, he broke into a salute.
"Hi Ping and Pong," said Ratana. "At ease."
"Everything's all ready for you and the rest of the Terra Team in there," said Pong. "Will you be joining your comrades now?"
"Most of them are already waiting," said Ping.
"Is there anything we can do to help?" asked Pong.
"Not really. I just need to take the prisoner back down and get him in his cell, and then I can get ready."
"And then you'll get ready?" Pong repeated. "Not going in yet, even after that, then?"
"I remember this song from back home," Lu Ten chimed in, referring to the music that could be heard coming from inside the barracks. "Four Seasons, an old family favorite. It sounds like you use the tsungi horn for it in this part of the world, too."
Ratana smiled. "I like it, too. Why don't we take one more walk around the grounds while it plays?"
Ping could not believe his ears. "You shouldn't delay yourself, Captain Ratana, especially for a Fire Nation prisoner's sake. Your fellow Terra Team members are waiting for you."
"I don't believe I need your permission here," Ratana told him coolly. "Let's go walk a little longer, Lu Ten."
"Please," Pong begged. "We're just trying to be useful."
"I know," said Ping, his eyes lighting up. "Let us watch the prisoner for you! He can hear his song, you can go to your team, and everybody's happy."
"Watching Lu Ten is my responsibility," Ratana began, but then trailed off. She couldn't find more and more excuses forever. "Very well. I'll bring you three to the top level of the prison compound. Lu Ten, you should be able to hear the song fine from up there as long as it's playing. And I'll see if I can snag you some roast duck for later on."
"Nobody offered us any roast duck," Ping muttered under his breath before being elbowed in the stomach once again.
Ratana walked the trio over to the prison compound, taking the liberty to tighten Lu Ten's restraints one last time herself. She emerged from the entrance, shut the door behind herself and started toward the barracks. It seemed that Taigang was the one behind most of the organizing of the celebration that evening, which came as no surprise to Ratana. If there was any major talent that Taigang might claim for himself besides being almost as masterful an earthbender as Ratana, it was putting together a good time. Zan Xun and Indigo had both been working on the decorations as Taigang had dealt with the caterers. They even had a bartender come in from Ba Sing Se's Middle Ring. The event was taking place down in the lower hall of the barracks, and General Sung had announced ahead of time that he would not be attending, as it was clear this was only meant for the Terra Team itself. Ratana was disappointed to find that neither Hasida nor any of the other healers were around, either. She had insisted that they be invited before.
"Hey, Ratana," Indigo greeted Ratana once he saw her, beaming at his captain with utter delight. "How are you doing?"
"Very well, thank you," responded Ratana. "I see that you're in a better mood than when I saw you earlier today. Have you run into my partner Tooru since then, by any chance?"
"Yes I have."
"Oh?" Ratana raised an eyebrow. "That's good he's no longer missing. I'd begun to get the impression that he was avoiding me."
"Not exactly," said Indigo. "You'll find your partner here at the celebration, and I think all will be well. You see, he has something that he's been wanting to tell you."
"He does?" asked Ratana, surprised even moreso by this piece of news.
"Yes," confirmed Indigo. "I hope that you'll receive him with understanding."
"Tooru and I understand each other fairly well, Indigo," said Ratana. "I'm sure that you know that, Indigo. Whatever it is, I believe that I can take it."
"I am glad to hear it," said Indigo, his voice growing more and more solemn. "When I lost Hanbao, it was really hard for me. I do hope, though, that you will treasure your relationship with Tooru, always."
Ratana tensed up, as she had never spoken with Indigo on the events of that day since. "Oh, Indigo, I am so, so sorry for your loss." She wrapped her arms about Indigo's chest and patted him on the back with affection. "He was a brave, brave man, and you were lucky to have each other. I served beside him at his last moment, and not a day goes by where I do not regret being unable to protect him from harm on the field of battle. For that, I beg your forgiveness."
"There is nothing to forgive." Indigo patted Ratana in reciprocation. " Ratana, I know that you served him well. I would never doubt my commanding officer's ability to do so. It was a cruel action of General Sung that he and I were separated."
"We mustn't speak ill of the general," Ratana interrupted him, albeit reluctant. "Even if his decision on that wasn't the best, we cannot break rank, Indigo."
"Of course," Indigo conceded. "What I meant to say was that Hanbao was an eccentric individual but he did have his moments, and serving beside you, he was performing at his strongest and he wouldn't have wanted it any other way. I would have preferred to be there myself of course, but if it had to be someone else, I'm glad it was you. Admittedly, you are a much better earthbender than me, Ratana."
"Don't put yourself down," Ratana said to Indigo. "You're a great earthbender. If you were not, you wouldn't be on the Terra Team."
"I know that," Indigo said, nodding. "And I am grateful to you for reminding me, but Hanbao was truly lucky to have a partner like you to survive alongside at the end. He pushed hard against the attacking forces from the Fire Nation, and he managed to dent their lines, which you continued to do once he had gone, following his example."
Ratana blushed. "Stop it, Indigo, you are embarrassing me. Heh heh. I did have the help of Hanbao and that was all the more essential in those pivotal moments. Without his example, even I might not have had the boldness to encounter the Fire Nation like I did."
"Well, you did indeed," Indigo pointed out for her. "Hanbao inspired you, and you led us. This party Taigang organized tonight does his legacy credit."
"Yes...I guess that it does," said Ratana, now feeling much less opposed to the idea of celebration, with Indigo's perspective at her ears. "Tooru is a great partner for me to have, too. If it were not for him, I do not believe that I would be who I am today on the Terra Team."
Indigo smirked at this statement, and did not stop changing his expression there, finally flashing his captain an all-out beam. "Why do you not tell him that? Such a good soldier like Tooru certainly deserves to know how essential ypu are for him."
"Maybe I should at some point," Ratana thought out loud. "Then again, I believe that he already knows that."
"Tooru would appreciate it," Indigo stated, suddenly more serious. "Trust me."
Soon afterwards, Ratana and Indigo's side conversation was broken up as the other members of the Terra Team filed into the barracks room and began conversing. Before long the room was a row of noise and it became easier to listen to the conversation adjacent to oneself than the conversation one was actually having. The voices only became louder as members of the Terra Team downed boulder ale after boulder ale.
A few of the elite earthbenders played games of cards and Pai Sho as they drank. Elsewhere, Ratana saw that Taigang was in the mood for more arm wrestling. "Figures," she mumbled under her breath, so that no one else could hear her. "Now that Lu Ten's out of the way and all." Slowly, she approached the table where Taigang was bragging and Zan Xun way playing announcer, patiently and silently awaiting her turn with Taigang.
Meanwhile, Tooru was sitting at the bar, off from most of the group, with three empty glasses beside a fourth one, which was filled with terra brandy. Constantly twitching, he snuck a glance or two at the table where Taigang and Ratana were, before promptly turning back, downing his next drink. "Too soon," he muttered to himself.
"Got enough liquid courage yet?" The voice that had startled him from behind was that of Indigo.
Tooru sighed out loud. "I don't know about this anymore, Indigo. Perhaps it isn't such a good idea..."
"Oh come on, man, why do you say that?" Indigo asked him, sitting himself down into the seat next to Tooru. "Nothing's changed. Everything is just as we described it before. Ratana's here, we're all here, and everybody is celebrating. It's the best moment for this."
"Well...maybe I don't want to ruin what Ratana and I already have," said Tooru. "I have feelings for her, but we've built a lot as partners and as friends, so maybe it's better off that way."
"So what will you do, then?" Indigo questioned him, unconvinced. "Will you stand idly by and keep the way that you really feel about her a secret for all time?"
"Look, maybe if I bury my true feelings, they'll disappear."
"No they won't," said Indigo. "Trust me. And the longer that you wait to approach her about this, the worse it'll be for you, the harder it will be to say it, and the more of a vicious cycle that it will become. You aren't actually afraid of Ratana, are you? After all the times that she's watched your back, the last thing she'll do is attack you for something you say to her."
"I don't know if you noticed," Tooru said, beginning to stumble somewhat in his speech. "But the Fire Nation is right outside the walls of Ba Sing Se, with a practically endless legion of troops. This is not the time to be thinking of this right now. We need to stay focused, not with our heads up in the clouds, entertaining thoughts of love that will never work out."
"Why do you say it will never work out?" asked Indigo. "You guys are perfect for each other."
"We have a good friendship, but I'm not sure whether or not that would translate into the same thing." Tooru proceeded to order yet another terra brandy for himself.
"Tooru, don't you think that you've had enough?" asked Indigo. "She's not exactly going to fall into your arms if you're slurring your speech."
"Relax, Indigo," Tooru told him dismissively, taking his first sips from his fifth glass of Terra Brandy. "I'm an experienced drinker and I know how to pace myself. I have a good buzz now, so I'll just keep that up until Ratana's alone. After all, I can't very well profess myself to her while she's crowded around the arm wrestling area, can I?"
"I suppose not," Indigo admitted. "But you know, it's a complete myth that you come across as more confident, collected and cool when you've been drinking. You may seem that way to yourself at the time, but to everyone else it's pretty much just the opposite."
"Pah!" Tooru scoffed. "This game is all mental my friend, all mental. What goes on inside of my head is what counts."
Meanwhile, at the table Taigang's crowd was gathered around, Ratana was growing impatient. "Alright, Taigang, time for you and I to go toe-to-toe." He had just beaten one of the newer members of the Terra Team who had been promoted to the squad shortly before the siege.
"Take it easy there, Ratana," said Taigang. "Just wait your turn. I know that you're eager to be taught a lesson or two by me, but let some others have that honor first."
Ratana could not help but let out a laugh. "You really are just as full of yourself as ever, aren't you Taigang. Even now you believe that you can do anything, take on anyone."
"Well, I've got such a great commander I'm serving under," Taigang informed her. "That inspired great aspirations in my heart."
Ratana had already opened her mouth to voice her comeback, but then realized, to her astonishment, that Taigang had actually meant it. "Wow, well, thanks for that Taigang. Very well, take your time clearing the rest of the field, and get in as much practice as you possibly can. You'll surely need it for when I'm arm wrestling you."
"Hah, okay Ratana," Taigang barked back. "You've got yourself a match!"
"I've got five gold pieces on Taigang when the time comes," Zan Xun stated, loud enough for the entire table and even those at the adjacent ones to hear. A few of their fellow Terra Team comrades almost instantly took him up on that bet, staking their pieces on Ratana, their captain.
At that point, Indigo - who had just been watching the commotion at a distance for a few minutes - turned away from the arm wrestling mania once again and returned to the side of Tooru. To his bafflement, he found that the row of empty glasses in front of Tooru had more than doubled since he looked this way last. "Wow, Tooru...that's a lot of Terra Brandy glasses that you have there."
"Huh," Tooru lifted his burind head back up from the table, his eyes themselves now twitching and his hair severely messed up from lying against the counter. "Ohoh yeah, I guess that I've gotten a little bit carried away here tonight. Y-you should r-reall-ly try this stuff man. It's to die for!"
"I've had it, thanks," stated Indigo. "And I don't think I'm keen on it, well not as much as you anyway."
"Meh," Tooru bloated. "Well, that's enough of that, and it sure has been long enough waiting for Ratana to become available on her own. You know what, screw it! I'm going to go to her r-right nowww. It is a-as g-good a time...as ever!"
Indigo winced, putting his hand onto Tooru's shoulder. "Actually, on second thought, maybe this isn't the best time for you to tell Ratana how it is that you feel about her. You can always wait until tomorrow, or the next time when you're not...like you are now."
"What's your p-problem, guy?" Tooru questioned Indigo, significantly more aggressive now. "You said that tonight was the best time - no, not just the best time, but the only time. Now you say it's not the time. Make up your mind, you silly man." Tooru shoved Indigo aside and Indigo began to fall before catching himself on a nearby table, knocking over a chair in the process. Tooru proceeded to stumble back and forth on his way to Ratana.
"Hmm?" Ratana grunted aloud as she caught sight of her partner coming her way, one foot in front of the other in one crooked step at a time. "Hey, Tooru," she greeted weakly. "Having fun?"
"F-fun?" Tooru rose his voice sufficiently to make a nearby pair of Terra Team partners stare at him. "Ye-y-yeah, whatever. Look, Ratana, I think that you and I need to talk about something, something serious."
"Are you sure now is the best time?" asked Ratana. "I have my arm wrestling match with Taigang pretty soon. I do believe that I am next, in fact."
"It's important," Tooru responded. "Serious business."
"Fine," Ratana conceded, departing the table and leaving a disgruntled Taigang and expectant spectators behind her. She led Tooru to the corner of the room and spoke to him in a hushed voice, so the others would not hear her. "What is it?"
Tooru, on the other hand, was tired of holding his thoughts in, and likewise had no intention of lowering his voice. "R-ratana, we have been together as partners on the Terra Team for a long time."
"Yes, I know."
"From the beginning, we've always gotten along, as partners and as more," said Tooru. "We were recruits at the same time, and we've shared so many experiences. I have had your back, and always will. And I know you keep watch over my back just as much."
"Of course, Tooru."
"We've been grand partners, haven't we?"
"Yes, I do think so, Tooru. You're a great partner and friend. I like to think I am the same to you."
"Well, actually, I like to think we're a bit more than that at this point," said Tooru, now putting extra effort into keeping his voice steady and unslurred. "You and me, Ratana, we are just like pes in a pfh...."
"Huh?" Ratana batted her eyes - and indeed, her entire face - in quizzical perplexion.
"Pssss innn a pud."
"Piss in a puddle?" Ratana asked. "Is that what you are saying that we are, Tooru?"
"No!" Tooru shouted loud enough for the entire room. Ratana could no longer hear the noise of the arm wrestling, or Taigang trying to call her back over. "Wow, that really did come out wrong. Lemme start again. Peas in a pod. We are peas in a pod, Ratana. That is what you and me are." Tooru took a deep breath, stifled an unmistakable laugh and then made his expression dead serious once again in an instant.
"Umm...okay," Ratana broke eye contact awkwardly as she said this. "Perhaps it's time for you to call it a night, Tooru. You're really drunk and what you say to me now might not be for the best."
"Absolutely not," said Tooru. "Ratana, I...I love you. I've been in love with you for a long time. I know we are meant to be more than just partners on the Terra Team together, and that we share the same kind of bond that Hanbao shared with Indigo."
"I see," Ratana said, briefly breaking eye contact. "I am sorry, Tooru, but I do not feel that same way about you."
"I disagree," Tooru told her. "I believe that if you look deep inside yourself, you will see that you feel exactly the same way about me, Ratana." Not allowing himself to be fazed by Ratana's earlier rejection, Tooru twitched his mouth in and out and took another step toward his partner.
Ratana turned her head away from Tooru, squinting her eyes and twisting her nostrils. "Your breath stinks, Tooru! Look, I know I'm not a very open person normally, but I'm fairly sure that even at my deepest levels, I don't feel the same way." With that, she turned to leave and go back to Taigang at the arm wrestling table.
Tooru, however, held out an arm to block her path. "Ratana, we are meant to be together."
"Tooru, step aside!"
In a swift motion, Tooru leaned forth and pressed his lips against Ratana's own, pulling her into the kiss by the forearm. He savored every millisecond with pride and contentment. Ratana shoved him away. A tense silence reigned over the whole room which no one dared break, not even a sparrow mouse. Tooru felt the tension least, thanks to his inebriated state, but that wasn't for long.
Ratana clenched the fingers of her right hand into a tight fist and socked her partner in the mouth. Tooru went straight from being hit by her knuckles to the back of his head slamming against the floor, the rickety wooden table behind him being smashed clean into two pieces by his fall. Dazed and regaining his senses, he put his own right hand to his nose and mouth, then brought it back to find blood, having bled from Ratana's punch.
As Ratana turned around and stormed from the barracks, Tooru began to sit up, calling out in vain. "Ratana! Wait! I'm sorry!"
Once the door had slammed behind her the room fell quiet again.
Finally, Taigang broke the silence. "Smooth, Tooru. Real smooth..."
- Four Seasons is the song that Iroh sings with the crew in The Waterbending Master.
- At 3,532 words, this chapter is barely longer than Detour.
For the collective works of the author, go here.