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February 25, 2014
Even as athletic as she was, June had a difficult time keeping up with Ratana's pace as they ran through the streets. "Where are we going now?" she called out to Ratana, still a few paces ahead of her.
To top it all off, Ratana was carrying the kid who was accompanying them in both her arms. "He's badly injured and needs help," Ratana shouted back. This was the truth, as the boy had been stabbed in the side by one of the members of the Huoxilong in the brief battle that had broken out in their hideout after Ratana recovered her bag, which June was now carrying. "I have a couple cuts of my own that I need to bandage as well. If he doesn't get some rest, I fear that the worst might happen to him."
"You didn't answer my question," June countered briskly. "Where exactly are we going?"
"To the home of...someone I know," Ratana answered slowly. "He's a kind person, so I'm sure that he'll allow this poor little miscreant to rest in his apartment as long as he needs to."
June rolled her eyes in frustration. "Fine, but we'd better not be too long. I don't want to keep Nyla waiting..."
"We're nearly there," announced Ratana. And sure enough, they stopped in front of a building on that very same street where she knocked her knuckles on the wooden door in a hasty, urgent motion.
It was not long before they heard footsteps. When the door swung open, they were greeted by an older man, about half a head shorter than Ratana, wearing a straw, conical hat and garbed in a patched, smelly vest. Although his eyebrows were as thick as his extensive white mustache which drooped lower than any that Ratana had seen in her life, it was the rotten fish which stood out the most about him. "Can I help you?" he asked the strangers, his tone of voice gruff and foreboding.
"Ummm...," Ratana spoke, confused. "Hello, is Lu Tong here?"
The man was now more irritable. "What in spirits name are you talking about, woman? I don't know any Lu Tong! There's no one here by that name."
"I came here and spent a couple nights with him," Ratana said more to herself than to anyone else. "I could've sworn that this was where he lived..."
"Surely not!" barked the elder fellow. "This has been my residence going on twenty years. Shame on you people for bothering me with this nonsense so soon after I come home for peace and quiet. And after I hike all the way out to Jang Hui only to chase after what turns out to be some disgusting mutation! That's the last time I listen to the Buzai family's advice on anything. Anyway, I'd better not see the likes of you around this place again or I just might tell my distant relatives on you."
This perplexing statement left June stunned with confusion. "Huh?"
"They're royalty," the man sneered, showing every one of his colored teeth, one of which was missing. "Good day!" With that, he slammed the door so fast the hinges shook.
Ratana let out a deep sigh. "Great, now what do we do?"
June shrugged off the interaction which she found more amusing than the earthbender beside her. "I did see a public ward on the way over here. Maybe we can take this lad there."
Within minutes, June had shown Ratana the place that she spoke of and they had taken their resting companion inside. Fortunately for them, there was a bed available. While they surely stung, they were not the worst of wounds that Ratana had seen in her life in the Earth Kingdom army, so once his wounds were bandaged, all the boy needed was time to regain himself. As soon as he was settled, Ratana attended to her own wound, which amounted to a simple gash along her right arm, which took much less time to bandage up than his did.
While boy rested, June handed the bag back to Ratana and the Terra Team earthbender pulled some of the money that had been allotted for her traveling expenses in a couple of handfuls and passed it over to the tattooed girl next to her.
Slowly running the pieces through her palms and into a sack of her own, June's expression flared. "Where's the rest? This is not even two hundred gold pieces! That's a tenth of what you owe me."
"Calm yourself down," Ratana said to her, undaunted. "I said that I had a bank account and I do. You'll get the rest of your money when I return to the Earth Kingdom." Of course, everyone she knew had a bank account. Whether it had thousands of gold pieces in it was another story, but Ratana could jump that hurdle when she came to it. Improvising was something that she had recently gained a lot of experience with, and it hadn't let her down yet. She was still breathing, after all.
However, it appeared that she might require more of it for the moment. "You...you've been tricking me every step of the way!" June's eyes bulged as she rose to her feet and unsheathed her long knife. "This kid was right; you are much more trouble than you're worth. I should just kill you now and bring your head to my employer to claim my prize."
Ratana stood up in response, her wound not holding her in place for a second. "Please, that needle of yours is no match for my bending any day or night of the week! Besides, you're not nearly as tough when that creature of yours isn't around to back you up. And now that you mention it, who hired you? I want an answer to that!"
"Never you mind that," June countered. "Just worry about giving me the rest of what you owe. And don't you dare bring Nyla into this!"
Ratana shook her head in defiance. "I'm not going back to the Earth Kingdom until I do what I came to the Fire Nation to do."
"And what was that?" questioned June briskly. "I'm not letting you out of my sight until you give me what you promised."
Whatever Ratana's response might have been, it was interrupted by a moan coming from the bed behind her. "Uughhh..." It was the boy lying on the bed behind Ratana. "Where-where am I?"
By looking each other in the eye, Ratana and June wordlessly agreed to a temporary armistice as the former addressed the patient. "You're in a public ward," she explained. "It's okay; your injuries are going to heal, but you just need to rest for a couple more hours."
Blinking, the young boy stared straight up into her eyes. "I don't understand," he said after a few seconds.
"The fight we got into back at the Huoxilong hideout did not go well for you," Ratana went on. "It's possible that you could've died if we hadn't gotten you out when you did. There were a couple stab marks near your chest that were more serious than it seemed like in the heat of the moment."
"No," the boy raised his voice, sitting up. "I get that part. Why did you come back for me?"
Ratana gazed down at him quizzically. "Huh?"
"You had all your belongings back," he went on. "You were in the clear, so why didn't you just leave me behind?"
"Don't look at me," June chimed in, holding her hand out. "I was thinking that, too."
For a moment, Ratana found her mouth speechless and her face unusually sensitized. "That is not the way I like to do things."
"You're a very strange person," said the boy. "Risking your life like that," he added, pointing to the bandage on Ratana's arm. "Just for me."
"You're welcome!" Ratana snorted in frustration. "Well, you helped me get my bag back which you stole from me in the first place, so we can call ourselves even. Now, I can finally leave this wretched city behind and begin my journey across the Fire Nation to accomplish the mission I was sent here for."
"Hold up!" bellowed June. "We are definitely not even, yet! I don't have time to follow you across the Fire Nation for whatever you're after."
"What's your mission?" the boy inquired.
"I'm trying to find dragons," Ratana told him.
"Dragons are extinct!" scoffed June.
The boy now sat up in his bed and addressed them both together. "I won't pretend that I know much about dragons, but now that you've helped me out - my name's Heidze, by the way - maybe I can join with you and go looking for dragons, too. I don't really have anywhere to go around here, and the Huoxilongs will have it in for me now, so I shouldn't stick around here. What do you say?"
June looked at Heidze as though he had just declared his intention to travel to the Fancy Lady Day Spa in Ba Sing Se. "What do you think this is, kid, the circus? No!"
Realizing that Ratana was his only hope, Heidze turned to her. "I'll admit I'm pretty much useless in a fight, but I can still be an asset to you. Living off the streets, one can't survive without some kind of skill. I'm very able at finding my way through places, sneaking around and finding things. If you're traveling across the nation and finding a dragon, I'm sure I'll come in handy sometime or another."
"I don't know, kid," Ratana replied, pondering this. "You've already nearly expired in coming to the hideout with me. I don't want to make you risk your life anymore. Perhaps it was wrong of me to bring you along as deep as I did..."
"You're not making me do anything, I want to come," stated Heidze, his newfound energy making him forget his injury. "Also, as I said before, I have nowhere else to go now," he added.
"Well, it's not just that," Ratana went on. "How in the world am I supposed to trust you again?"
To her surprise, the boy grinned. "I can't be less trustworthy than her, can I?" he asked, pointing at June.
"I suppose that's true," Ratana conceded. In a weird way, June's presence was easier to tolerate with somebody else in the fold, though she would have much preferred that Lu Tong was with her now than the pair of them. However, ever since Ratana had left home, pretty much nothing had gone according to plan.
- Old Kao's mentioning of how the Buzai family advised him to chase after two-headed fish is a reference to .
- Heidze simply means "child" in Chinese.
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