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May 5, 2014
The gentle breeze filled the afternoon air with a cheery mood that stood in sharp contrast to that of the lone earthbender on the docks for the ferries that rode along the coast and in between the isles that surrounded the greater Fire Nation landmass. Having taken the chance she had at her mission for granted, it felt great to have that chance back. Not allowing herself to become deluded, Ratana reminded herself that urgency had never been higher for her.
"I can't believe that our ride to Nongkun isn't coming," Ratana dreaded, staring helplessly at the wooden board that listed departure times. Ever since she set foot in the Fire Nation, something was always getting in the way.
"It's only for one day," June sharply reminded her. "By this time tomorrow, we'll be on our way to that rural village so you can wrap up your investigating."
"We should reach Nongkun before too long," Heidze commented as he stroke the fur on Nyla's side, having grown closer to the animal than Ratana had on their travels. "We're actually making pretty good time."
"That's good news," Ratana replied, not quite making eye contact. "Since we have no other choice but to wait twenty-four hours, why don't we take a little mini-vacation for the day? In fact, some leisure and relaxation can be fine in moderation. It clears the mind." Although she herself was definitely stressed over the events of the past several days, she said this for all of them. Despite the fact that it wasn't their mission, Ratana could not deny that Heidze and June had been helpful to her quest.
"Nyla and I always make our own kind of fun on the go," June brushed this suggestion aside. "I see no reason to delay ourselves further than we are already. Where did you want to go anyway? We've seen much of the Fire Nation on the way so far..."
"I was thinking Ember Island," said Ratana.
"Ember Island?" questioned June, quizzical. "Why would we go there?"
Ratana did not have to think long, for the justification was clear as crystal. "Heidze's birthday."
Heidze raised a dark eyebrow. "But it's not my birthday."
"You said you didn't know what day it was," Ratana countered. "It could be any day of the year, so it may as well be today. This is perfect! We'll take the day off to celebrate your birthday, and this will be your present. You said that you always wanted to go there, correct?"
June stared at Ratana with sheer disbelief. "This seriously is the craziest idea I've seen you have since meeting you, and that's saying a lot!"
"She's right," Heidze scratched the back if his neck. "I don't need a birthday, much less a present. You shouldn't have to do this..."
"It'll be fun!" Ratana grinned. Even though her enthusiasm was the only of such to be found in the group, the determination in her voice meant the matter was settled for now.
The quartet rode the ferry over to the shores of Ember Island, a luscious beach full of people on vacation, soaking the seawater and the rays of the sun into their pores alike. It had been the mid-morning when they arrived, and they took a walk up and down the long beach after testing the waters. Close to noon, they walked back in their swimsuits and set up some chairs they rented under the palm trees. As Ratana and Heidze went for a swin, June got herself a smoothy at one of the local stands after walking on the beach some more. Finding a kuai ball, Ratana and Heidze went toward a court to hit the ball back and forth between each other. When they stepped onto the court to try out the local sport, however, a heavyset man in his late teens or early twenties stomped up and told them to buzz off, saying he had the court reserved. Shrugging it off, Heidze led a scowling Ratana to the side where they casually bumped the ball back and forth. Heidze was the one scowling when Ratana submerged his foot into the sand, as she had done with Tooru months ago during an earth soccer match. Noticing Heidze's expression, Ratana grinned uneasily and promised not to do it again.
"Do you guys want to go for another swim?" asked Ratana, trying to perk her companion up.
"Not really," said Heidze.
"Okay, what do you want to do?" inquired Ratana, concerned at Heidze's lack of excitement, but at a loss for how to approach it.
"Nothing, I dunno." The mousy fourteen year-old grabbed both his knees and looked into the sand.
"It looks like he's interested in something else," June laughed.
Suddenly, Heidze's cheeks both burned bright. "Shut up!"
As June pointed, Ratana followed her finger into the distance. There, with long, dirty brown hair stretching down to her waistline, was a girl of about fourteen years of age, in a dark red bathing suit, standing on the beach and sinking her toes into the sand.
Suddenly, Ratana turned back to Heidze. "Heidze, have you got a crush?" she asked. When the youthful boy neglected to answer, she continued. "Why don't you go talk to her?"
"No, I don't know what to say," said Heidze, breaking eye contact. "We've never met. This is stupid..."
"Just be yourself and see if you have something in common," suggested Ratana.
"I guess I could try that," Heidze resigned himself, the words becoming heavier and taking longer to form in his mouth than on a normal day.
"This ought to be good," said June.
Ratana glared. "Ignore her, Heidze. Just do it, it'll only be harder if you wait longer."
Taking a deep breath, Heidze put one foot in front of the other and made his way over to where the girl that he had in sight was standing. "Hi," he greeted after arriving in front of her.
"What do you want?" the girl asked, twirling one of her long hairs and glancing momentarily in the newcomer's direction.
"Ummm..." Heidze trailed off, uncertain where to begin. "My name's Heidze. What's yours?"
"Tora, but what's it to you?"
"I was just noticing...how much sand you got on this island. What's up with that?" Heidze chuckled nervously, trying to force a bit of humor. It was seconds before he realized how pathetic his attempt at a joke truly was.
Wincing, the girl began to walk away. She had put a full ten feet of distance between them before Heidze came running up beside her once again.
"I notice you have a lot of kuai ball courts, too!" he added in a hurry. "Do you play?"
"Yeah, you could say that."
"Awesome," Heidze regained some of his confidence. "You should come play with us. I know this cool move where-"
"Sorry, but that's child's play in my league," the girl stopped him. "In case you didn't know already, my brother and I are the defending champions in the local double's tournament here. It's once a year and the prize pot is forty gold pieces. We're playing later today."
"Is that so?" asked Heidze, wondering what he would make up next. "That's funny, because...my sister...and I are competing in that very same tournament."
"You? Don't make me laugh..."
"It's true," Heidze said defensively. "I'll be right back!" Heidze ran back to where June and Ratana sat at breakneck speed, kicking up dozens of puffs of sand with each footstep as he strode.
"Well that was quick," remarked June.
"How'd it go?" asked Ratana.
"Quick, I need one of you to be my sister so we can play kuai ball!"
Equally perplexed, June and Ratana both raised their eyebrows in unison. "Ummm...excuse me?" said June.
"She and her brother are playing kuai ball, so that means that we have to play kuai ball," said Heidze. "There's a local doubles tournament. You said to find something to have in common with her and I did!"
"I meant something you actually have in common," said Ratana, exasperation seeping into her voice. "Not to just improvise something like this at random."
"Don't you do that all the time?" asked Heidze.
"That's beside the point," said Ratana, now failing to hide her frustration. "Anyway, I don't think we can afford to spend that much time on Ember Island before moving on."
"Ugh! What about you, June?"
"Sorry, but I'm not interested."
"There's prize money," said Heidze pleadingly.
"Then it's up Ratana's alley," said June. "She can play by your side and split the dough with me. She still owes me."
Leaping onto the kuai ball court in front of them, the same boy who had interrupted Ratana and Heidze's attempted kuai matchup earlier emerged back onto the scene. "Are you ready to rock! We will dominate this tournament! Yeah!!" WIth that, he drew his arm back and slugged a kuai ball off to the other end of the court and a trio of girls in their teens screamed beside him, jumping up and down. Moments later, his little sister came to his side and began practicing with him. "Not that we needed it, but we've trained all over Ember Island lately, which is pretty easy when your family owns half of it."
"See?" said Heidze, flashing all his teeth out at once. "While I get with the girl, you can get with the guy."
"No thanks," Ratana said of the arrogant rich boy that Heidze gestured to.
"Come on," Heidze added slyly. "Tell me with a straight face that you're not at all attracted to that guy. Not even a little bit?"
"I'm not at all attracted to that guy," Ratana told Heidze with a straight face. "Not even a little bit."
"Whatever," said Heidze. "Just be my wing woman."
"How is beating them in the tournament going to make her want to date you?"
"Like I said, we have something in common this way."
"This is not a good idea," Ratana sighed deeply. "But...I'll go along with it for now!"
"Yay!" exclaimed Heidze. "Thanks, Sis," he added with a wink. "You won't regret this."
"There's no need to overdo it," Ratana rolled her eyes. This did not fit into her plan of maintaining discretion during her mission in the Fire Nation.
Once they had signed up for the tournament, Ratana and Heidze's first match was against two guys, each a couple years older and a few inches taller than Heidze. Ratana tried to focus on the game, but Heidze stared at the court farther to the right of them, where the girl in question was playing.
"Act cool, Heidze," said Ratana. "It won't help if you're staring at her every second of this. That's just being creepy."
"Like you're an expert at picking up girls?" asked Heidze, nonchalant, as a ball soared towards his head.
After winning their first matchup and Heidze put an ice packet on his forehead, Heidze re-approached the girl that he was speaking with earlier. "So, looks like you won your first match, too."
"Yeah," she replied, unimpressed. "My brother and I have been playing at the local sports club since we were young. Our father's an important high-ranking general."
"Ah, that's kind of cool," said Heidze slyly. "My dad, though, is a secret operative for Fire Nation special intelligence. I get to accompany him on missions sometimes when he requires backup.
"No he's not," sneered Tora. "Both your parents are peasants."
"Says who?" asked Heidze.
"Says your sister!" she added as she pointed to Ratana. "She said that your mother and father work side-by-side in the rice patch."
Fuming, Heidze stormed back over to where Ratana stood. "You're cramping our style, Ratana!" says Heidze. "Why did you say that our phony parents were farmers?"
"Because there are some large plantations just off the beach," Ratana answered simply. "Farm hands are common around here, so it was an easy enough answer."
"I told Tora that our dad's a secret agent," said Heidze. "You better stick to that story now."
"No, this lie is already complicated enough."
"Just do it!" whined Heidze. "Fine, do whatever you want, but I'm telling them he's a secret agent."
"We have to keep our story straight or you can count me out of this. And besides, it defeats purpose of your dad being a secret agent if you go around telling everyone you meet."
"Hmph! Maybe he didn't tell you his secrets," scowled Heidze. "He only told me because I'm the favorite!"
Meanwhile, Tora and her brother Hotaka were finishing up their latest match against two girls this time. Hotaka tapped the ball to his sister and she proceeded to spike it down with a backsided kick from her foot. The ball flew through the air and hit the opposing girl smack in the face. As she clutched her cheeks, bleeding, the referee announced the end of the match.
Ducking under the net, Tora darted over to the girl and seized her by the neck of her swimsuit, then tripped her and shoved her face into the sand. "Taste that?" she taunted. "Can you taste that? That is the taste of loser!"
Ratana put her fingers up to her mouth. "Heidze, are you sure that you want to go out with this girl?" the earthbender gasped. "She's awful!"
"What are you talking about?" Heidze scoffed as the other girls partner tried to relieve her from Tora's grasp and Hotaka had punched her before she reached them. The referee was now attempting to break the sand-induced kuai ball skirmish up. "She's gorgeous."
"No, no, no," Ratana shook her head. "Heidze, you can't just go off of looks. You have to take their personality into account."
Heidze shrugged. "I don't know. I've never been attracted to a personality before. What kind of personality should I look for? Yours? June's? Cause I can't say I'm really attracted to either of those."
"The thing is..." Ratana halted her oncoming lecture as something struck her off guard. "What's wrong with my personality?"
"Oh, ummm...nothing." Scratching the back of his neck, Heidze was suddenly now more awkward, like he had been earlier in the day. "Well, like, I just meant..."
"No, tell me!" Ratana snapped, shoving him. "What's wrong with my personality!?
"Really, it was just an off-handed comment," said Heidze, backing away. "I didn't mean anything by it."
"Am I interrupting?" came the only voice that would tensen the situation even more. June was licking a pink ice-cream ball atop a waffle-like cone. "You guys are up for your next match, by the way."
"Great, I'll go stretch," said Heidze, darting off in a hurry to the next court, where a crowd garbed in various shades of red were gathered, cheering. It seemed that they had made it to the finals, and that Tora and Hotaka would be their opponents.
"You look like a mess," June baited Ratana, continuing to slurp her frozen dessert.
"I can't believe how shallow and immature Heidze is acting today," said the Terra Team earthbender.
"You mean a fourteen year-old boy is acting with less maturity than someone your age or mine?" June mocked with cacophonic laughter. "Really, you don't say..."
"I just thought this whole visit to Ember Island would go smoother," Ratana vented.
"Ratana, when has anything you've planned ever gone smoothly?"
As she approached the court, Heidze came up to her and whispered in her ear. "Listen, do you think you can do that earthbending trick you pulled on me earlier today on the guy? That way, we'll win the match and it'll be up to me to escort Tora home."
"No," said Ratana, firm and bewildered. "That's cheating. We're not cheating, Heidze."
"It's not cheating," Heidze retorted. "They said there was no firebending allowed when some guy nearly burned the net down earlier, but they never said anything about earthbending."
"I'm pretty sure that they don't want you earthbending either. Besides, I'm not exposing myself in the middle of the Fire Nation for some worthless reason like this."
"They wouldn't notice. And you did it before."
"That was different," she said. "That was just you and me together. This is a big tournament."
Heidze shook his head and grimaced as he took his position. "You're the worst big sister ever."
"You're a terrible little brother," said Ratana. "I never wanted to play in this stupid tournament to begin with." She couldn't believe that the day began with her wanting to do something nice for him.
Hotaka served first, and Ratana kicked the ball straight at Tora's end of the court. Tora struck it back over and the ball landed in the corner, but since the net had moved when she moved her leg, Ratana had not bothered to jump for it.
"Point for Tora and Hotaka," announced the referee.
"What?" asked Ratana, astonished. "She touched a net. That was a foul."
"No it wasn't," said the ref. As he walked away, Ratana eyed him suspiciously.
Despite their lack of experience, Ratana and Heidze kept up for the first few points of the game, and appeared to be evenly matched with Tora and Hotaka.
"Ratana, did you just see what I saw?" asked Heidze, his eyes wide.
"That guy just gave money to the referee," he told her, pointing at Hotaka.
"Are you sure?"
"Positive," said Heidze. "He slipped it by as they were shaking hands."
Eying him skeptically, Ratana grabbed the kuai ball and approached the back of the court, for it was her serve. "If you say so."
Hotaka was about to deflect her serve, but found his foot caught in the sand and he tripped before he could reach it. "What the hell?"
Six points later, Heidze served the ball to Tora for the deciding point. Tora kicked it back toward him, but he managed a lucky shot by hitting it back in her direction. As she tried to bounce it back once again, she found her foot stuck in the sand.
"The winners!" the referee announced, pointing at Ratana and Heidze. Several people in the crowd were cheering, including all of Hotaka and Tora's previous opponents. "Here you are, I'm sure your family will be proud. Granted, you guys look nothing alike. If it weren't for the way you two were acting all day, I'd have no idea you were related."
"We get that a lot," Heidze brushed it off, taking the trophy and setting his eyes on Tora. "So, that was a fun bit of exercise. You want to run grab a smoothy? We just got forty gold pieces, so it's on me."
"No!" Tora shrieked. "You and your sister cheated! I don't know how, but you cheated. Get away from me."
Ratana approached Heidze from behind, who was hanging his head. "Eventually you will find someone else. In the end, crushes at your age hardly ever work out in the long-run."
"She's right for once," said June. "It's about as common as a long-lost Avatar or a surviving southern waterbender."
"That was a disaster," said Heidze. "At least it was a fun disaster. I take it back, you're not a bad fake big sister. Although, I never had a real one to compare you to."
"Fair enough," said Ratana. "You weren't so bad a phony brother either. Heidze, did you really see Hotaka paying the referee?"
Heidze gritted his teeth guiltily. "He might as well have. They were really buddy-buddy. You saw them. You must've gotten the same impression if you took to submerging their feet with earthbending after all."
"I suppose so," Ratana admitted. "I'm not sure that was good of me to do that. Two wrongs don't make a right."
"They just did," corrected June.
"This was surely one of our most memorable days," said Heidze.
"I'll give you that," agreed Ratana.
"I wonder what we'll all think of this experience looking back," Heidze wondered aloud. "A lot of crazy things have happened. And to add to it all, someone paid five hundred gold pieces to have you dead. Or was it six hundred?"
"Heidze, quit exaggerating."
"Speaking of which, how much of the prize money are you going to fork over?" asked June. "You've got a ways to go before the debt is covered."
"You're right that a lot has happened to us," Ratana sighed over to Heidze. "It feels like I've been on this one journey forever."
It had indeed been a long time since Ratana had left the Terra Team compound on the orders of How, Sung and Quan Jing. However, she was much closer to her destination than ever. As the string of lies regarding the bounty on her head had unwittingly found itself back to the truth, things were about to come together for her, even if she herself did not realize it yet.
- At 3,506 words this is the longest chapter so far of DSV, and it will most likely remain such. I would've split it into parts, but it didn't seem right for a chapter like this, which isn't that related to the main plot.
- The tournament in this episode was loosely based on an episode of The Famous Jett Jackson that I remember from when I was younger. RIP, Lee Thompson Young.
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