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April 10, 2014
Since there were scarcely any towns or villages in between the capital and Mount Koven, Ratana and her companions had taken to hiking and roughing it up for the rest of the journey. As night fell, Ratana thought to herself that the Fire Nation never ceased to find new ways to be cruel to her. The heated climate was not always to her Northern Earth Kingdom-bred taste, and the days had seen her skin burnt, like the weather itself was yet another fire-wielding tyrant that occupied this crimson-clothed land. However, the evening came as no relief, and the only source of heat they could make use of was their campfire. Embers rose a few inches into the air before becoming extinguished from the crackling fire, providing the only version of the heat that the moon did not provide, unlike its daytime cousin. The relieving heat on their now-cold skin only made them long for the sun again, something that Ratana would undoubtedly take back the next time it rose.
"It's a pity that none of us are firebenders," said a crouching Heidze, huddling to himself, his hands each clutching the opposite elbow. "We could've built the fire quicker, but at least it's finished now."
Ratana knelt down and held her own hands close to the fire. Like when Lu Tong dried her off, she could accept being close to flames when she had to. No, not Lu Tong. Lu Ten. After finding out who the man really was, Ratana began to hate him above all firebenders, including Iroh. The one undeniably great person she had met in this nation was a falsehood, and now it was upon her to harden herself to her surroundings and perform her duty to her country by carrying out her mission before any other accursed distraction got in her way.
Taking notice of Heidze's shivering, Ratana half-crawled as she reached over to her bag, which was a fair distance away from the fire, removed the blanket she had been given in Gankouz and passed it to her teenaged companion. "Here."
"You sure?" Heidze asked as common courtesy, failing to hide his eagerness as he had already snatched the covering from her arms and started stretching it over himself.
"I'm a soldier, I have no trouble getting by without comfort," Ratana reassured him. "Besides, that's what it's for, keeping one warm on cold nights." Her face twisted into an ironic, joyless grin as she recited the words that the Fire Nation Prince had said to her when they last met. As irrational an idea as it was, Ratana's instincts informed her that all the time they had spent together was him distracting her on purpose, as simply another obstacle between her and her goal. Fortunately, she was close enough to her goal now to touch it. Once she reached Mount Koven, obtained proof of the live dragon that dwelled there and returned home, she would leave this forsaken nation behind and block all her experiences here from her memory. Granted, she would still have to deal with June and confront Quan Jing over his treachery, but she would have to jump that hurdle when she came to it. The hurdles stretched out in front of Ratana had gone beyond her count, so her only means of action was to deal with them one at a time.
Heidze soon yanked the blanket over his arms and shoulders, making himself a bare head atop a checkered cocoon that gave him warmth. "This blanket really is nicer than it looks at first glance. Where did you get it?"
Ratana's smile faded. "Oh, I got it as a present," she told him, looking away from the fire, June and Heidze, turning her attention toward the night sky. "You can go ahead and steal it if you want."
Scowling, Heidze turned back to her. "So you still remember only that and not any of what I've done since then, tagging along on your mission, standing guard for you at night, helping you find the information on the mountain," he complained. "Given how high-and-mighty you are, I guess a first-impression like that is all that matters. I wouldn't steal from you."
"And why's that?" asked Ratana. "You had no problem doing it before."
"Back then, you were just a random person," explained Heidze. "I know you now. Besides, if I have your permission, then it's not really stealing."
"And then there's this whole uniqueness about you," Heidze went on.
Ratana raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?" She lay her hands on the ground now and spread her legs out in front, pointing near, but not at, the fire.
"Caring about others, trying to help others, not just being out there for yourself," said Heidze. "It's odd, but it's really kind of cool."
"Ummm...thanks," said Ratana. She did not know what to think of Heidze finding that she had what she would call basic human decency exceptional. "I always try to remember why I fight. I've had some major roadblocks and I've had to adjust my course whenever I meet them, like teaming up with the one who's hired to kill me and the one who stole all my stuff." A few seconds later, Ratana regretted saying this, seeing that Heidze had become offended again. "I'm sorry, I've just been in a stressed mood lately. Enough about me, what about you?"
"What about me?" Heidze asked back, confused.
"I just realized I know hardly anything about you after all this time, other than that I found you on the streets of Gangkouz and you used to be in league with the Huoxilongs until you fell out."
Breaking eye contact, Heidze turned back to the fire. "That's pretty much it, actually."
"Well what were you doing before then, since..." Ratana trailed off. "Well, how old are you exactly?" By his looks, Ratana assumed that he was about thirteen or fourteen.
"About thirteen or fourteen," Heidze answered as though reading her thoughts.
"What do you mean?" asked Ratana, her eyes widening. "Don't you know how old you are?"
"I don't know my own birthday."
"I see," said Ratana. "What about your family, couldn't they have told you?"
"I don't have a family."
"I'm sorry. So, did your mother or father never tell you much, before...um, you lost them?" asked Ratana, picking her words carefully as she did not know the specifics of Heidze's past yet.
Heidze glared at her for a few moments before answering. "I never had a family," he clarified.
"You're a human being," she said. "You didn't sprout out from the ground, so you must've had family at some point."
"Maybe, but if I did, I don't remember them."
"What do you remember?"
After hesitating for a second, Heidze answered. "There were some older women I have vague images of. An orphanage, I must've been an infant at the time."
"Wow, my first memories were when I was around four," said Ratana in slight awe.
"They bathed me and fed me from a young age," Heidze continued. "Later, they taught me to read, write and do math."
"Why didn't you stay there?"
"The city orphanage closed down when they cut funding to reapportion it for fighting the war instead." It seemed he was ready to change the subject now. "Man, this blanket really is warm. It's like Ember Island warm."
"You mentioned Ember Island back at the rally, I recall," Ratana stated, recognizing his signal.
"Hm? Oh yeah," he confirmed. "Since Gangkouz is a port city, we get a lot of travelers in and out. Many of them talk about their vacations on Ember Island. I'd like to go there someday, but I don't know I'll have the chance. Anyhow, who was it who gave you this blanket, Ratana?"
"It was...a friend," she answered hesitantly. "At least I thought he was."
"Why did you say I could steal it if I wanted?"
"It's kind of complicated..."
"Tell me," he pried. "I told you stuff."
"Fine," conceded Ratana. "I met him in Gangkouz not long after I ran into you for the first time. For a while, he seemed like a really great person: strong, humorous, kind, enjoyable to be around."
"Back at the capital, I found out who he really was," said Ratana. "I saw him at the rally, and then I saw him go on stage, Prince Lu Ten, son of Crown Prince Iroh and grandson of Fire Lord Azulon. His forebears are the ones who are responsible for waging endless war against my people."
"I don't get it," said Heidze, blinking. "That's his family, not him. He's still the same person, isn't he?"
"No, it's more complicated than that," said Ratana briskly. "It's his war, too, so I may have to fight him at some point, especially if they attack Ba Sing Se."
"Makes your mission make all the more sense I guess," said Heidze, matter-of-fact. "I'm just saying, most mortal foes try to kill each other, not give each other presents."
"It would be the former we're destined for," Ratana muttered icily. "Our entire nations have trained me and him to kill each other."
"You're not doing a good job, are you?" June interrupted again. "Seeing as Quan Jing sent an assassin after you, you can't be that essential to the Earth Kingdom war effort."
"Shut up, June," said Ratana. "Not the time."
"You always say that to me," said June. "There is no time for me as far as you're concerned, is there?"
"Now you're getting the hint," Ratana brushed her words aside. "And here you and Nyla are, trying to hinder my mission, when you're from the Earth Kingdom. It's like you've forgotten I'm fighting for your freedom, too."
"Excuse me?" Immediately, June rose to her feat. "Excuse me?! Nyla and I have been wandering around just as easily here in the Fire Nation as we could in the free Earth Kingdom, so shove it!" Words that had long been behind June's mouth were finally unleashed, and they spat out as sharp as the dagger she carried. "That really pisses me off, you putting yourself on a pedestal and proclaiming yourself our savior."
"The people of the Earth Kingdom are your people," Ratana spat back. "If the Fire Nation conquers Ba Sing Se, if they conquer where you're from-"
"I'm from nowhere in particular," June cut her off. "Nyla and I are always on the go. Wherever I have a job, wherever I have a contract, that's where I go. My father was a bounty hunter too, taught me the trade. He got Nyla as compensation from a client who couldn't pay full price. Like him, I've hunted both those in the Earth Kingdom and those in the Fire Nation. Neither of us have hunted in the Water Tribes. His own father had been a soldier in the Earth Kingdom army. My grandfather was a big believer in all that patriotic garbage, and ended up wasting his life on it. Disgusted, my father left his former life behind and became the man I knew growing up."
"I understand," Ratana said coolly. "So the Fire Nation continue their relentless assault on your nation and the Water Tribes and it doesn't matter to you at all."
"Don't delude yourself, Ratana. The Fire Nation may have began the war, but not every Earth Kingdom soldier is a noble spirit."
She thought of Taigang back home, and of the story she had heard in the Fire Nation Capital. "Maybe not all of them are, but I never forget why we fight or who the true enemy is."
"Meh, it's just one nation sending its men to do battle with another nation and its men," says June, nonchalant. "I'm no academic, but I know history is full of conflicts, but the world we live in goes on either way. Ultimately the war makes no difference to me."
"Me neither," said Heidze, reminding them that he was still there. "Whether or not my nation rules the other nations, each hundreds of miles from where I live doesn't make a copper piece's worth of difference in my life."
Calmed down somewhat, June nodded and turned back to Ratana. "I don't waste my time praying that the Avatar will return and restore so-called balance by overthrowing what has for all intents and purposes, always been the natural order of things."
"I don't lay my hopes on the Avatar, either!" Ratana snapped. "Maybe some find hope and comfort in legends about the Avatar, or think the rest of the world isn't worth their time, but I know that the only way to make a difference is to take action every day, and that is why I do what I do, whatever it is you might think of it."
"I don't really know anything about the Avatar," remarked Heidze. "I only really know the basics of what it's supposed to be."
At this point, Ratana realized that June and Heidze had more in common with each other than she had with either of them. With no great national loyalty, they behaved as though the war made no difference. She knew better though, that the war did make a difference. It made all the difference, even for people like them, whether they realized or not. "I'm getting tired," she said. Irritated that her companions on her mission did not understand the importance of it, she forced herself to sleep, one heavy wink at a time.
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