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March 2, 2016
Fuming, Ratana carried on, her strides growing longer by the second. Her urge was simply to put as much distance and possible between her and the party that she had never really wanted. She could not see yet how she could forgive Tooru for this. The entire Terra Team had been there with them to see their captain get jump-smooched by her field partner. Perhaps she was partly to blame. After all, she had suspected the nature of Tooru's affections for her for some time now. Ratana should have put him off long ago. She had only hoped that when the time came to let him down that it would be easy and gentle. In reality, he happened to be very drunk and while it was a given that his terra brandy had taken a toll on him and had something to do with the way he had expressed himself, Ratana could not brush the incident aside simply because of that.
Ratana required a release. She had to speak with someone else about the incident. If only she could see Hasida again, as she was approachable and easy to talk to about almost anything. When she passed by the section of the base that housed the Northern Water Tribers, however, Ratana saw their quarters were dark. Naturally, they were likely asleep at this time. Instead, she made her way back the way she came before she had gone into the party, to the prison compound.
Strangely enough, she could already feel herself becoming more at ease while she approached the place where the prisoners were confined. Ratana felt like she ought to feel guilty for that. She was not able to keep her promise about bringing the duck with her, but just the thought of being with Lu Ten again seemed like there was a solution to her problems already on its way, like he would rub her face and make the incident go away right then and there. It was a ridiculous notion, Ratana knew. He would be back in his normal cell now, as she had told Ping and Pong to bring him back down as soon as the song Lu Ten liked was over. Ratana would be relieved not to have anyone else around. She had been having unspeakable thoughts about Lu Ten which she could never utter aloud, even to herself.
Her chest loosened itself as she came to the prison compound entrance she could almost feel the warmth and comfort wash over her. But as soon as she opened the door and entered, the Captain of the Terra Team froze in her tracks.
Ping and Pong were both knocked out cold and the restraints that Lu Ten had been wearing when last Ratana saw him were on the floor. The Prince of the Fire Nation was nowhere to be found.
"Urgh!" groaned Tooru. "I think that I need another terra brandy now."
"No you don't, Tooru," Indigo told him, still disappointed. "You've been officially cut off for the evening, remember?"
"Yes, I remember," said Tooru. "All too well..." He got himself a water instead.
Indigo shook his head and sighed with a faint trace of sympathy on his breath. "It might have gone a lot differently if you hadn't been so smashed already when you went to great her. She probably would have been more receptive of what you were trying to tell her if you had been more sober and more in control of your wits and senses."
Taigang rolled his eyes. "Oh come on, Indigo! You really think that Ratana would have fallen head over heals for him, even at the best of times? No offense, Tooru."
"It was definitely possible," said Indigo. "I think they would've even looked nice together. But I'm afraid that Tooru already screwed up any chance that he had with her."
"You think they would have looked nice together," Taigang echoed in jest. "Tell me the truth, Indigo, is this about Ratana and Tooru, truly? Or is this really about you and Hanbao?"
"It can't be about Hanbao, Taigang," said Indigo. "You should know that. Hanbao is dead."
"Don't dodge the question," said Taigang. "You were trying to use Ratana and Tooru to relive your good old days with Hanbao. Well, a fat lot of good it did for Tooru here. I could've told you, plain and simple, Ratana is not a chick. She is a dudette. You were doing this because Hanbao is dead."
"And now I might as well be dead to Ratana," pouted Tooru.
Indigo bent over and looked straight into Tooru's eyes, his neck and jaw right above the table where he sat. "Look, I won't lie to you Tooru. You screwed up pretty bad. But if you have any interest in making things right, you should do the right thing."
"And what's that?" asked Tooru.
Tooru pondered this suggestion for a moment, and then rose to his feet. "Fine, I guess I'll have to do what I must."
"You can wait until tomorrow," Indigo rose his voice as he spoke.
"Better not let it sit," said Tooru, brushing this off and leaving the party on his own. "You said it yourself. I know Ratana; she's not going to attack me when I approach her."
"I'm not sure that still applies now," Indigo said uneasily.
But Tooru did not seem to hear him. He still had to concentrate in order to walk in a straight line, but save for that he was in full control of his senses.
"Wow," said Taigang, watching Tooru leave and Indigo bite his lip. "You're really on a roll tonight. First you persuade him to do that ludicrous stunt with Ratana, and now you're sending him off to his doom. He really should've waited until morning. Facing Ratana for Tooru now will be more hazardous than facing half the Dragon of the West's army single-handed."
Cold air swept all over Tooru as he left the barracks.
When he sought Ratana out, he knew that she would be angry with him, and rightfully so. Regardless of the nature of their relationship, be it as training partners or as lovers, Tooru cared for Ratana. If what he wanted for both of them was not to be than he desperately wanted to hang onto what they already had. That was infinitely better to him than not being in each other's lives at all. With such a perilous war on, and in the midst of such a threatening siege, perhaps he had been wrong to be so forward at a time like this.
It was not merely that, but also how he went about it that was killing him. Tooru had kissed Ratana, without her permission or reciprocation, in the middle of the room for all to see. And now injury had been lumped with insult. It was not even certain whether or not Tooru should actually go back to their room this night, if he would be safe doing so, or if he would be better off trying to catch some shuteye on the grass and seeing if his partner was in the better mood come the morning. But Tooru felt strongly that the best thing for everyone would be to mend things and make it right now, provided Ratana still wanted to be his partner, which he thought and hoped she did. It seemed like he had sobered up sufficiently now. Should they move on and go about their daily business as though this unfortunate happening never occurred, then perhaps it would fade into memory, and maybe even eventually out of memory. Then, one day, Tooru could profess himself to Ratana again, but do it right next time, and the outcome would be different.
Whatever the case, he had to catch up with her now. Luckily, this did not take long, as he suspected that she might be in the prison compound. Sure enough, the door was ajar, and Tooru came across his earthbending partner sitting just inside the entryway.
"Ratana," Tooru gulped as he cleared his throat. "It's me again...bet you're not too thrilled to see me right now though..."
Ratana said nothing, and did not turn upwards to face him.
"I just wanted to apologize for what I said," Tooru continued. "And did. Ummm...can you hear me? Are you listening to me?"
"Not now Tooru," said Ratana, still bent over the unconscious form of a regular army guard. "Not now."
"What are you doing?" asked Tooru.
"He's gone!" Ratana declared, rising to her feet. "Lu Ten is gone."
"What?!" asked Tooru, astonished. "How did that happen? Look, I'm sorry about-"
"This has nothing to do with your stupidity at the stupid party, Tooru. This is serious business we have on our hands. I had Ping and Pong watching him and now they're both knocked out."
"How did he get away?" asked Tooru.
"He must have taken out these guards somehow when I left them alone. I know that I should've watched him myself. It was my assigned duty, but I figured that I could trust them with Lu Ten for only a little while as I went to the party. It's all my fault, Tooru."
"Don't say that, Ratana," said Tooru, taken aback and amazed by how quickly this conversation had taken a new turn. "You weren't the one watching him at the time of his escape. If anything it was their fault. What's their excuse?"
"I don't know," answered Ratana, shaking Ping once again. "I was not there when he took off, and I've been trying to get them conscious for a few minutes now. He must've roughed them up pretty hard on his way out."
Tooru grunted like a sheep. "Well, he is the Dragon of the West's son."
The pair of Terra Team members found themselves interrupted by a groan coming from below. Pong was coming to and Ping was showing some signs of life as well, shifting from side to side. He rubbed the spot where Ratana had slapped him earlier and then lifted his hand up to the bruise hat crowned his forehead. "Ungnn...wh-what...?"
Ratana leaned over and caressed Pong's neck. "You're injured, my friend. I know it's tough, but you have to tell me what happened now. Where is the prisoner? Where is Lu Ten?"
The man blinked himself into view and shook his head, shaking with every syllable. "G-gone," he uttered.
Captain Ratana of the Terra Team turned back to her partner. "It is just as I feared."
"It was right after you left us behind," said the man. "As soon as you were out of ear shot, pretty much. He went berserk and knocked us both down like training dummies. Then he pulled himself free with a single tug. I'm sorry that we failed you, Captain Ratana. If only he and I were proper fighters, like the Terra Team are."
"Worry not," Ratana reassured the man, but not herself. "It was wrong of me to entrust you with something this. It was my duty to watch Lu Ten and the blame is mine alone." Ratana turned back to Tooru. "I have to go after him," she declared.
"Ratana, it's useless," Tooru told her with pity, that he had for her now exceeding that he had for himself for a bygone incident that neither of them dwelt on now. "Lu Ten will be halfway back to his own camp right now, if not all the way back. You'll just be putting yourself in way too much danger if you wander outside the wall in the middle of the night on your own." She would end up his prisoner, if the Fire Nation allowed her to live. Ratana could not deny that Tooru had a point.
"He didn't go that way," Pong said as he got to his feet, finally regaining the bulk of his composure.
This revelation astonished Ratana. "He didn't?!"
"No," the guard confirmed. "He went the other direction, towards the Lower Ring. And he was in a pretty big hurry too. Mighty big hurry..."
"That can't be true," said Tooru, skeptical. "Not unless he had some business inside the city."
"But why..." Ratana wondered aloud. Now that she thought of it, it was Lu Ten's desires to be outside and to allegedly listen to a song that he had expressed to her which had enabled him to be so in the open in the first place. If it was true that he had gone into Ba Sing Se proper and not fled back to his own people, then it was clear that he had some task to carry out. If that was the case now, it also meant that that had been the case all along since he arrived at their base. "I can't believe this," Ratana whimpered.
"Ratana?" Tooru approached her as she averted his gaze and stared out into the darkness. "Why are you acting like this? Like you can't even look me in the eye now?"
The sting in Ratana's stomach now was worse than what happened at the party, and when she had been careless enough to allow Heidze to steal her bag, and her court martial, and her suspension all put together. "Tooru, this is bad," said Ratana, feeling a heavy weight in her throat. "This is really really bad. I allowed the enemy within our custody to play me for a fool and slip right away, and it's all my fault." It was unworthy of her to wear the Terra Team uniform right now, let alone call herself their captain. "Oh, Tooru, I have never been so utterly humiliated in all my life. I allowed this to happen."
"Missions fail all the time for all kinds of reasons," said Tooru. "How did you allow this exactly?"
"I allowed him out of the cell," explained Ratana. "I allowed him to walk about the grounds with me. Because of what he said about some stupid song, I allowed him to stay with Ping and Pong, outside his main cell." And she had allowed him into her heart. From the moment he was brought to base, she had dropped her guard. Lu Ten had tempted her into dropping it more and more and then took the opportunity when it was dropped enough. "Taigang was right. Now other benders on the Terra Team will never respect me as their captain again if they find out this blunder of mine." Lu Ten was a monster! If this had been his intentions all along, to escape and go into the city proper, then every word he could have spoken to her could have been false. Every single word. All of it. If everything he had done was a lie, than his friendliness toward her and her knowing the true him was a lie as well.
Tooru put a hand on her shoulder gently. Whatever his feelings for her, now was not the time to discuss them. Ratana needed for him to simply be her Terra Team partner and friend for now. "Hey, don't worry about what's gone wrong or what everyone else will think. If Lu Ten was able to fool you, then I'm sure it's nothing to blame yourself for. In the event that he really is that persuasive, I'm sure that any of the best of us would've fallen for him, too." For her sake, Tooru hoped that she would open herself up to him and begin to heal.
But Ratana would not allow herself to open up now, and so she remained closed off. "No," she said. "No one else would have allowed this to happen; only me." She could not open up about the reason for that to anyone, even now. Fog had clouded her mind over the separating of her enemy and the boy she met back in Gangkouz. The silver lining to this setback was that it was finally made clear to her. Lu Ten was her enemy, plain and simple. "I'm not going to go back in and announce my failure," she declared. "I'm going after him!"
"Whoa, Ratana," Tooru cautioned, taken aback. "Are you nuts? You can't do that. You heard what General Sung said."
"He told me to watch the prisoner at all costs."
Tooru's eyes narrowed. "He told both of us not to try to return to the city."
"Well, I can only do one of those now," Ratana waved this aside. "I'll be long gone by the time he finds out about this, anyhow."
"If you're caught by the Dai Li again, it's over for you." Tooru was right of course. Both of them were still exiled. "Whatever Lu Ten aims to do in Ba Sing Se, better let the authorities inside the walls handle it. Our place is on the outside of those walls."
"It's not their duty," snapped Ratana. "It's mine. Lu Ten was placed under my guard and that has not changed."
"This isn't about you," said Tooru, as angry as Ratana now, and not allowing himself to be intimidated into backing down. "I can't let you do this just for yourself and the sake of your own personal honor."
"The Dai Li can't catch him, wherever he's going," said Ratana. "Even if the Dai Li could catch him, they won't catch him. Fire Nation princes aren't their priority. Suppressing their own populace is. I'm the one who knows who Lu Ten is, and I'm the one to bring him back."
"Do you really expect to just run after him, find him and drag him back to the cell tomorrow and all to be well?"
"I must," said Ratana. "No one else can. But actually...you're right. Perhaps he's too dangerous to try to bring back alive, now that we know how manipulative he can be." That was only part of what made Lu Ten the most formidable, horrible opponent that Ratana had ever faced. "There's no other option then. I'll have to finish him off."
"Ratana, what are you saying?" asked Tooru, surprised. "Do you really think you'll be able to kill Lu Ten when you face him?"
"Why wouldn't I?" asked Ratana. "He may be a trained bender, but so am I."
"If you say so..."
Tooru's words fanned the fire within Ratana, the intensity of which mirrored the fire she had loathed all her lifelong. "Yes, I will hunt down Lu Ten and bring back his head!"
"Ratana, this is way too reckless," Tooru cautioned as she began storming off from him for the second time that night.
"I have to do this," she said. "I do not ask you to follow me, but...I need to do this. I will return when I have succeeded, or not at all."
"Ratana," said Tooru, halting his partner by grabbing her arm. "Please, don't go. Stay...for me."
The only woman on the Terra Team stared into her partner's glazing eyes with her furious orbs. "I'm sorry, Tooru. I can't." She jerked her arm away and left her partner behind in the dark, with only the semi-conscious Ping and Pong for company.
Back inside of the Fire Nation camp, General Iroh had once again called all of his top and most loyal and experienced commanders into his tent for a conference. Admiral Jeong Jeong stood at the front. Prince Lizen had been expected there as well, but Princess Jaya had sent word from Munn that her father had been taken up by "pressing business" and would be unable to attend the meeting this time.
"Admiral, your report," General Iroh nodded to Admiral Jeong Jeong.
"Thank you, sir," said Jeong Jeong. He then proceeded to address all of those in attendance. "The lakes operation is off to a successful start, for the most part, but the Earth Kingdom flagships are still putting up ample resistance."
"What is your recommendation for dealing with this issue?"
"I request a platoon of good men be transferred from Munn to end the taking of the lakes, and then additional troops from the siege force once the Outer Wall falls."
"That may be possible," said Iroh. "Once the Outer Wall does fall to us and is within our control, taking the Inner Wall will be much more easy."
"What about General How?" asked Shinu. "Even with the lakes operation going in our favor, he still causes trouble for us, overseeing his own operations from his comfortable seat in the Upper Ring. He may remain a problem for us down the road."
"Yes," Iroh said solemnly. "By now, though, my son should be well on his way to solving that problem."
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