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March 3, 2014
The forest was home to many animals. From the tiniest spiderfly caught in its own web, to the mighty sabretooth mooselion, to the more subtle creatures foraging for nuts and berries, the natural system in place here was truly a world of its own. It was into this world that wandered a formidable earthbender from the Terra Team, also seeking food for the night. In this foreign territory though, there were many that lurked, more dangerous than the human race gave them credit for, like the two-headed rat viper or the lurking catgator beneath the depths of the swamp water. However, the Terra Team were trained to keep their senses attuned, to be aware and never surprised. That being said, only the strongest among the elite brigade could feel the creeping of smaller, but still deadly predators, like the black widowfly. Only powerful benders with natural alertness could hear its buzz, and only those with fine-tuned seismic sense could tell when it was poised to strike from the ground.
But today, a more powerful bender was not far off, with years more experience, and his attack was unanticipated. By the time the earthbender realized, it was already too late, and the new arrival had already tripped his opponent with a line of earth and sprawled their body across the grassy ground.
Emerging from behind the tree, Brawki shook his head in smug victory. "Tut-tut, Tooru. You're still a little off, even after all this time."
"It was no fair," Tooru shook his head as he rose back to his feet. "You snuck up on me!"
"Do you expect to only ever face opponents who fight fair? Do you regard your enemies as kind enough to pay you the courtesy of revealing themselves in the open rather than striking when they have the best opportunity? Really, Tooru, that's not what the Terra Team saw in you when they accepted you into their ranks, and it would be a disservice for me not to keep you on your guard every chance that I get."
Tooru snorted as he rubbed the dirt off his shins. "So, what are you doing here, Sifu Brawki?"
"What does it look like?" the old mentor asked. "I'm checking up on you. Who are you partnering with until Ratana returns?"
"Shun Ping's old partner," answered Tooru. "He's alright, but he's no Ratana. Luckily we haven't had much to deal with lately."
"Yeah, ever since Gujuhmin, this area has been relatively calm. It's like the Fire Nation has given up acquiring more territory."
Brawki shook his head with warning. "Don't be too sure, Tooru. This is an eerie sort of calm, like the calm before the storm. It's not unlike what the airbenders sensed just before the Neverending War, and we all know what happened to them."
Tooru rolled his eyes at this. "Spirits, Brawki! Why do you always have to be so glum?"
"Ratana always knows to stay on her guard," the elder master pointed out. "I saw her in Guangcheng right before she departed."
"It's odd to think of her in the Fire Nation all by herself. I wish that I could've gone on the mission as well. I could've helped her..."
"Yes, it's unusual for them to send a member of the Terra Team on an extended solo mission, I'll admit. She's got some tough times ahead, too."
"What do you mean?" asked Tooru, surprised.
However, Brawki responded by crossing his thick arms. "Yes, I do know something you don't, but I'm not telling you."
"What?!" asked Tooru, alarmed. "Why not?"
"Tooru, Ratana's mission to the Fire Nation is secret. We can't allow word of her goals to spread, and as Ratana pointed out herself, you can't be counted on to keep your mouth shut on something this important. The fact that you told me when you weren't supposed to is proof of that."
"That's right, I told you what I knew," Tooru clucked his mouth defensively. "You should tell me what you know. This isn't fair!"
"Again with your preoccupation with fairness," scolded Brawki. "When are you going to learn that life's not like that?"
"Come on, Sifu Brawki," said Tooru, staring straight into his former teacher's irises.
"No," Brawki shook his head once more.
"No, and that is final."
"Ugh! Come on, please?"
"Absolutely not. Are you trying to get yourself hurt, boy?"
"Please, please, please..."
"Alright! Alright!" Brawki fumed at his irksome companion. "Keep your voice down, though. I do wish you'd start acting your age, but alas, I was only your teacher in earthbending. Yes, Ratana told me more about her mission as she was leaving our shores. And she has got tough times ahead...finding dragons, no less."
Brawki held his hand up irritably. "Shhh! Careful, her mission is secret, remember? Someone may be listening!"
"Quit being paranoid. Most members of the Terra Team probably wouldn't believe she's chasing dragons if they heard. That's like saying that she's chasing extinct sky bison or ancient krakens. Even if the rest of the Terra Team know she's on a secret mission, they have no idea where she went."
"What do the rest of the Terra Team think she's up to, exactly?"
"At first no one knew a thing," explained Tooru. "There were rumors. Taigang tried to get everyone to believe that she got kicked out of the Terra Team because the Council of Five blamed her for our failure to take Gujuhmin, which we all knew was ludicrous. She was the hero of that battle, if anything. By now, everyone knows she's on a mission of her own, but nobody has an idea why it's taking so long. Some are curious about what the mission was and hope she'll say more upon her return. Some are worried about her. As for Taigang, he keeps trying to convince everyone that the reason it's taking so long is that Ratana's failing her mission and that they should've sent him instead, as he would be back and victorious by now."
Brawki narrowed his eyes. "What's that guy's problem with Ratana, anyway?"
"I don't know what Taigang's deal is, but he's always held a bitter resentment for Ratana. I get so mad listening to him criticize my partner behind her back!" As Tooru curled both his hands into clenched fists, the grassy ground beneath them seemed to shake slightly. "Ratana's really going to have it with him when she returns!"
To Tooru's surprise, Brawki chuckled. "It's not Ratana we should have pity for, then. It's Taigang."
With a grunting kick to the outside floor, Ratana erected a small, earthen tent for herself, only large enough for one person, and barely so. After double-checking to make sure that there was enough empty space on the outer layer to allow her to breath, the able earthbender turned to face behind her and noticed the tattooed threat some twenty feet away. Nyla had arched his giant, hairy backside as he lay down to curl up like some oversized rodent. Meanwhile, June stretched out both her legs and leaned her relatively tiny body against his, like a stuffed animal.
Ratana was beginning to believe that she would prefer both June and Nyla if they were stuffed. The reckless bounty hunter had unsheathed her dagger and was twirling it with both hands, like a bored, spoiled child. Even the sight of her was enough to keep Ratana on constant alert. Turning back to her newly constructed sleeping quarters for herself, she erected three more earthen layers out of the ground to add extra outer strength. Then, she tensed her bicep and lifted a sharp boulder from beneath her feet and hurled it at her rock tent. To her satisfaction, it bounced off and collapsed back down, the tent minimally damaged with scarcely a crack in it.
June decided to look up at this moment. "Having fun with your bending practice?"
"Shut up," Ratana muttered, not bothering to turn around.
Heidze nearly tiptoed as he came to Ratana's side. "Umm...nice rock tent you've got there."
"Thanks. I have a normal tent that you can borrow if you want. Of course, you know that already, being how familiar you are with the contents of my bag. I felt like something a little stronger tonight."
"Gee, I wonder why that may be," June stated, curling her mouth in Ratana's direction as she brandished her dagger all the way to the sharp tip.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"What do you think it means?" June called out, taking a break from boredom and leaping away from Nyla. "You're suspicious of me."
"Of course I am! You were sent on a mission to assassinate me. Why wouldn't I be suspicious of you?" With that, Ratana stretched her legs apart and kicked the ground, and a long line of unearthed rock emerged, it's sharp point aimed at June, whose face it stopped mere inches from. "I should apprehend you and turn you into the proper authorities for the damage you caused the other day."
June's smile faded. "Well, with the way you're acting, I have a right mind to just finish the job and collect my reward from the army already. The only reason I haven't is that you're promising so much more than them. And how exactly are you going to turn me in for that when you're a fugitive yourself for earthbending in public? For a soldier, you don't seem to be thinking things through very well."
From the army. So, it was true. There was someone else who knew of Ratana's mission, but she had to wonder how the Fire Army had found out. Ratana glared at June, the both of them now wide awake. "This isn't going to work. I thought you could tag along until my mission was through and that I could pay you back when the time came, but there's no way I can focus on my mission properly with you in the area. Leave me be, and I'll find you again when I've found dragons to pay you what I owe."
"Like hell I will!"
Heidze, who had been listening quietly this whole time, now grew exasperated at the setting. "Girls, girls!" he called out as he inserted himself between them and held out his hands in both directions. "Look, maybe the best thing to do for now is to just accept that you don't trust each other. Believe it or not, it may make things easier."
"Hmph, I already accepted that," June casually answered with a deep breath. "I'm trusting Nyla to keep watch for me while I sleep, and I'll swap turns with him so he doesn't exhaust himself during the day. Ratana's just antsy because her rock barriers can only do so much for her, and she has a hard time leaving herself vulnerable in the evening."
"I see," Heidze pondered, stroking his chin. "Well, to keep things even, I can stand watch while Ratana sleeps on her end."
Ratana blinked her eyes skeptically. She doubted whether Heidze would be much use as a nighttime bodyguard if June and Nyla decided to betray her, and would much rather have had someone like Tooru present. "Fine, but if there's any sign of trouble, wake me up immediately."
"Whatever, if that makes you feel better," sighed June, waving her arm dismissively as she marched back toward her shirshu.
"I just can't wait to have you paid off and be rid of you," Ratana replied, now allowing herself to yawn and let the drowsiness sink in. "As long as your Fire Army employers don't get wind of us first."
Suddenly, June spun back around and smirked again. "The Fire Nation army didn't hire me to kill you."
Ratana was confused. "But you said earlier-"
"I said that it was the army, but it wasn't the military of the Fire Nation," explained June. "It was the military of the Earth Kingdom."
- Shun Ping is the member of the Terra Team who had to be dropped due to a crippling injury. He was last seen in Chapter 12. Since Tooru was temporarily without a partner when Ratana left and Shun Ping's partner was without one as well, they're working together for now.
- For those who did not know, Nyla is a male. I couldn't tell by looking at it, but the name sounded feminine when I first heard it.
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