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June 5, 2014
"Are you sure you want to eat downstairs, Ratana?" Rang Xue asked as she set the silver goblets down beside the valuable antigue plates on her dinner table. Having been in her family for four generations, they were so valuable that she would not allow anyone else to touch them. "The drawing room is a nice setup, and the fireplace is close by to keep you nice and toasty."
"That's alright, Mom," Ratana called to her as she fetched the candlesticks, her dark green dress bouncing up and down as she hustled back over to the the elegantly crafted table that her mother had had set for two. "I'll have my dinner in the basement with the servants. I like them. They're a lively bunch."
"Not exactly proper, but do as you wish," Rang Xue half-scolded as she flicked a pair of spark rocks to set a gentle flame atop each candle. "Let's keep that between us, though. Your father wouldn't approve."
"I doubt he'll have his mind on that tonight," Ratana giggled. "Well, that's about done it. Everything's set for your anniversary dinner tonight."
"Indeed it is," Rang Xue said thoughtfully. She walked slowly around the table as she surveyed the layout, her light green dress being long enough to cover a portion of the ground behind her back, in contrast to Ratana's dark green one, which was shorter and more friendly to moving quickly. "Can't believe that it's already been fifteen years since I married him. We had a patch of fire lillies at the reception. He knew I had a guilty attachment to the foreign flowers, so he had some brought in."
"I bet that drove people crazy."
"Your father was such a charmer," said Rang Xue, smiling. "He would do anything to see me happy."
Just then, Roshune threw open the wooden door behind them so hard that the glasses on the table shook and Ratana had to reach out and grab one to keep it from falling over. Had it not been for her reflexes, it would have lay broken on the floor.
"You're home late," Rang Xue said, worried. Although she would not presume herself to be nosy, the tone in her voice familiar to her family implied that she was asking for an explanation.
"Barbarians ransacked the old temple," answered Roshune.
"That's terrible," said Rang Xue. "Was anything damaged?"
"It's safe now, the guardsmen and I made sure of it," he told her briskly. He hadn't even acknowledged Ratana's presence since entering. Normally he would wait until she was out of the room to discuss business such as this, but he seemed preoccupied with nothing but himself for now. "However, they desecrated and tried to rob the ancestor's tombs while they were there. Luckily, we had run them off before they could steal anything of value."
"At least your home safe now," Rang Xue said as she placed her hand tenderly on Roshune's black armored shoulder.
"I can't stay long, Rang Xue," Roshune jerked himself away. "The law says that they must be punished severely for their crimes. I'm going to change into a breastplate, as my current one got damaged in the struggle. The barbarians fled into the woods, but I'm going to pursue them all night until every last one of them is brought to justice."
"Does it really matter if their attack is already stopped and nothing was stolen?" Rang Xue asked, her voice shaking. "Stay here and relax. You've earned it..."
"I have to fulfill my obligations as a Dorunian Warrior," declared Roshune, drawing his sword and seizing a new breastplate from his armor cupboard. "I have to go."
"Roshune," Rang Xue halted him, her eyes and mouth both shaking at once. "Our anniversary..."
The tall, bearded man who had been about to walk out the door, stood still and turned around. For a couple short seconds, he stared into his wife's saddened orbs with his own. "I'm sorry."
From her father closing the door behind him in the same fashion as when he had entered, Ratana's eyes moved to the candlelit table, still set for two. In the seat closest to the wall sat Rang Xue, her arms laid out over the plate with her head on top. As she sat opposite the vacant counterpart at the other side of the table, Rang Xue's sobs dampened the sleeves of her silk dress.
"Oh, Mom..." Solemnly, the twelve year-old girl walked over to her mother and wrapped her strong earthbending arms around Rang Xue's upper body. A scene of comfort for the distraught like this was a common sight for a parent and child at troubled moments, though one would typically find it the other way around to what it was today.
Still not lifting her head up, Rang Xue brought her right hand up to Ratana's and wrapped her fingers around the counterpart digits of her daughter. "Don't worry, Ratana," she continued to cry, her voice steadily regaining some of its strength. "Your father will be okay in the morning."
Immediately releasing her grip on Rang Xue, Ratana backed away from her in sheer disbelief. "You're crying for him?"
"Of course," Rang Xue persisted, bringing her head about and making eye contact with her daughter, her own balls of vision remaining glasslike. "Your father has always struggled so. It's his fixation that makes me worry about him sometimes. In recent times it's grown worse and worse."
"It's a disease that infects the most admirable of people. Such selfless spirits are always out to help others, and their chosen path guides them toward their destiny. Their proclaimed duty becomes their focus, an asset to them for a long while, but eventually they become fixated on it, like nothing else exists. People around them that should matter no longer do. Then their obsession with that duty becomes more important than what it was that made them chase after it to begin with. It becomes their whole self, not a means to a greater good. When you're older, you'll understand."
Night had fallen on the Sun Warriors' community and the stars hovered brightly above the window. Ratana continued to dangle by her arms, still bound to the stake, her feet sprawled across the ground they were fastened to, her legs numb. It had been a while since she had eaten a meal or had a proper rest. She attempted to take a nap in her awkward position, her eyes shut and her brain concentrating on not concentrating enough to drift off, but her attempts to slip into unconsciousness were all in vain. Not only was she a prisoner, but she couldn't get to sleep and replenish her energy for tomorrow, always another day.
The Terra Team earthbender was jolted to her senses when a familiar face emerged though the entrance to the cell. "Heidze," she greeted him in a weak voice, the edges of her lips rising ever-so slightly. "Are you sure that you should be here at this hour? If any of the Sun Warrior's are up, they're bound to notice."
"It's a risk that I had to take," said Heidze. "Anyhow, it won't matter for much longer. I think it's time we get out of here."
"What do you mean?" Ratana questioned him. "I still have my mission to complete."
"I've been thinking," Heidze said, lifting up a small, broken piece of a spear point that he was presumably going to use to pick her lock. He brandished it, but did not begin using it right away. "These dragons are part of the balance of the world. Chief Shang told me so. They may someday bring firebending back to its true meaning, and through that play a role in bringing the world back to it's proper place."
"What do you mean? I didn't come to kill the dragons. I came to prove that they're still alive."
"The rage-filled firebenders of today are the children of those that fought dragons for glory," Heidze explained. "If the dragons are discovered to be around, others will come to finish what Iroh didn't. They're some of the original benders, and they'll be gone forever if Ran and Shaw are vanquished. Such a fragile and essential key to the world's balance can't be worth exposing like that for the sake of one mission."
Ratana broke eye contact with him and stared at the bricks on the side of her cell for several long moments. "Yeah, you're right," she concurred. "It can't be."
"I'm glad you see it that way," said Heidze, grinning. At last, he began picking the locks on the bolts of the chains one at a time, before finally unfastening the chains from Ratana's body.
Ratana shook the loosened chains off and rose to her feat, stretching herself up for the first time in what felt like forever.
"Come on, Ratana," Heidze said as he turned back to exit the cell. "Let's get out of here. We can-"
The mossy-haired boy found himself cut off as two huge slabs of rock rose from the ground and locked themselves around each one of his wrists, holding him in place and making him slip. Everything happened fast after that. An elbow sunk into his chest, his head slammed against yet another slab of earth that had been erected from behind him and the chains were being carried by the very same person he had freed from them moments earlier.
"R-Ratana..." Heidze stuttered, paralyzed in a state of shock as strong as the physical trap which held him. "Why?"
"After all this time and coming all this way, the last thing I'm going to do is just pack up and go home," the earthbending woman said from in front of him, narrowing her eyes.
"You lied to me. You tricked me!"
"I had to," she said coolly. "You may not have helped me out otherwise."
"Of course I would have!"
"I thought you would have, too," Ratana replied, unfazed, as she tightened the chains around Heidze's ankles and tied them to the edge of her earth cylinders to form an extra constraint. "I couldn't be sure, though. You're a liability now and I have to finish what I came here to do."
"I see," said Heidze, having now been had been had by her as she had been had by him when they first met. "You're a soldier and you follow orders to the end."
"It's not just about that," Ratana told him, temper rising. "There are others who will be counting on me stopping the attack on Ba Sing Se by revealing the Crown Prince's secret to the world. My Terra Team comrades, countless civilians in Ba Sing Se and the many diverse people's of the Earth Kingdom." She no longer had the luxury of living for herself like her days with Lu Ten in Gangkouz. It was time to fulfill her duty. "You don't understand. The war makes no difference to you."
"Men would come to kill Ran and Shaw if they knew they were here!" shouted Heidze.
"Be quiet," Ratana commanded as she shoved a rock nearly the size of Heidze's mouth between his teeth and wrapped the chains around his jaw, holding it further in place. "I know how important my mission is to my country, and I won't turn away from it for some vague notion of balance for the world, whatever that means." Having already turned away, Ratana faced him one last time before departing the room. Her eyes, sharp like daggers, peered into those of Heidze before her, which shook back and forth, a faint trace of wetness in them. Sweat filled his brow and his face cringed. The earthbender could just imagine the sound his mouth would make if not for the earthen gag. This was an expression Ratana was familiar with looking at, the expression of fear. "If you somehow get freed, don't come after me. Here is what's happening now. I am climbing that mountain. I am shedding those scales off the dragon's torso. I am using them to stop the Siege of Ba Sing Se, which will become the legendary battle that never was. It would've been the largest since the Fall of the Airbenders. I will not permit anything to stop me now, and I will kill anyone who tries to stand in my way, no matter who they are."
Terrified, Heidze moaned as Ratana's hand fastened around his neck threateningly. The strength of the grip was capable of crushing the bones beneath his jaw in a second. Her eyes of fury continued to petrify him for a few more seconds as Ratana held her grip in place. Moments later, she released him and left the prisoner's cell, setting off in the direction of Ran and Shaw's mountain on her own.
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