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June 16, 2014
"This is beyond unfair! He should be the one getting court-martialed, not you." His breath pulsating with outrage, Tooru peered through the metal bars of Ratana's cell at his Terra Team partner. The entire construct was composed of wood and metal, so there was nothing bendable by any human being within reach. On the way to her cell, Tooru had been searched for any trace of dirt or rock. He resented being padded down by his comrades, who should also be Ratana's comrades, in his eyes. This area of the prisoner section of the compound was one which was used least often. It was meant to hold earthbenders, and the Terra Team had not locked up one of their own in years.
"I know," Ratana concurred with regret. Having been stripped of her uniform, she wore a dusty old tunic while she crouched on the floor. "It was foolish of me to fight Quan Jing so openly right away without the proper argument or proof to back it up, but it seemed appropriate to apprehend him myself. Now, I'm being charged with that hasty judgement, and Sung thinks I was at fault for the losses at Gujuhmin. They've got me for disobeying his retreat order."
"Others are beginning to believe Quan Jing's lie about Gujuhmin as well," said Tooru, saddened. "It's sick how short people's memories can be sometimes. The entire Terra Team was at Gujuhmin. They were there. Without your rallying our broken force back together, we would've been captured or annihilated. Sure, we lost the battle, but it would've been much worse had you not been there."
"I was just doing my duty like any other day. It is true that I didn't follow orders, though."
"As you should've," Tooru tightened his fists as he narrowed his eyes. "Quan Jing gave a lousy order."
"Careful, Tooru," Ratana cautioned him. "Remember, you're in the army, so you can't talk about given orders like that; not unless you want to end up in a cell next to mine."
"We just need to prove to everyone what really happened at Gujuhmin," Tooru curled the fingers of one hand over the fist of the other. "Or refresh their memories, or whatever. Then they'll see the hole in Colonel Quan Jing's case, and find out what the truth really is. The only question is how we're going to do that."
"If it's a matter of proving what really happened that day, that's simple," replied Ratana. "There would be a formal record from the day of the raid, and it would include all the information from witnesses and from the reports we submitted together."
"That could work," said Tooru, sounding even more solemn. "Assuming that Quan Jing hasn't tampered with it, that is."
"I doubt it."
Tooru smiled weakly, then hung his head. "You can't be found guilty when you're not. There's no way that can be allowed to happen."
"Quan Jing is very influential, unfortunately."
"If they do sentence you, then I'm not sticking around here anymore," said Tooru, shaking his head furiously. "I won't get another partner, I can't. I'll quit the Terra Team. If they won't let me resign, I'll break ranks, desert and go into hiding. There's no way I could stay on after that."
"No," Ratana stood up straight and grabbed two of the bars in front of where Tooru stood. "Promise me you won't do that. Life goes on even if I'm not around. Even if they execute me for assault and disobedience. The Fire Nation will be mounting an attack on Ba Sing Se soon, and that is a reality. They'll need all the earthbenders they can have in order to protect them. You can help, and I'll not have you abandon them because of me."
"If you say so..." Tooru trailed off, dejected, but knowing she was right. "It wouldn't be the same, though. I guess that the Ba Sing Se attack would be large. It may take over a year to fend them off, some say."
"We fought together at Alsan for over a hundred days and held out in a siege at Quailung for around two hundred. A year would be a little more than we're used to."
"And we'll fight side-by-side at Ba Sing Se, as well!" declared Tooru, looking at Ratana over his shoulder while heading out the door to the prison area of the headquarters. "I'm going to get you out of here and back where you belong, Ratana. You have my word."
Not long after Tooru left the prison area and came back outside, to taste the same air he hoped Ratana would taste soon as well, a short boy, scruffy in appearance, emerged from the adjacent trees. He marched forth to greet the elder earthbending soldier.
"Hi," said the boy, treading slowly on the foreign soil, as though hidden snakes or thorny plants were abundant on the ground. "I'm Heidze. Are you Tooru, Ratana's partner?"
"Indeed I am," confirmed Tooru, eying the boy with curiosity. "You were traveling with her in the Fire Nation, I understand?"
"Yeah, that's right. I came back across the water to the Earth Kingdom with her, too. It seemed like a good idea to stick with her a little while longer. She's got herself into quite a pickle now, hasn't she?"
"Not for the first time," Tooru added in agreement. "Hopefully it won't be the last, if she gets to go out and make more mistakes after this."
"Heh, she said you had a sense of humor," smirked Heidze. "Even at the most serious of times."
"Sometimes it's the best way to cope with what's going on around oneself."
"I take it Ratana means a lot to you?"
"She means the world to me," Tooru confided in the Fire Nation boy he had known for less than a minute. "I'd do anything for her, but everything seems difficult now. The only lead we have to her side of the story is in a document from a battle we fought a while ago, and I'm not sure how much use that'll be. Ratana thinks it's best to get our hands on it, but I'm skeptical of that."
"I see," said Heidze. "I think I have a lead that'll be more promising than that."
"What?" asked Tooru.
"It's not a what," Heidze corrected him. "It's a who."
"Can you take me to them?"
It was growing dark by the time that Heidze and Tooru arrived in front of a seedy-looking two-floor tavern that supposedly held someone within that could clear Ratana's name. Sure enough, a giant shirshu was laying down outside the window of the establishment. That of course meant that it's owner was inside.
"Are you sure this is the right place?" Tooru looked the building up and down.
"Nyla's here," Heidze indicated at the shirshu that was crouching several feet away. "That has to mean that his owner is indoors. She must be hanging here tonight."
"I can see that Ratana kept some interesting company while she was venturing around in enemy territory," remarked Tooru.
They walked indoors to find a rowdy crowd throwing mugs back and forth and gathering around an area connected to a pair of broken bar stools. It did appear that there was a brawl or crude wrestling match going on before them. Various onlookers were cheering and placing bets at the same time.
With Tooru close behind him, Heidze approached the back of a familiar figure, her long dark hair, outfit and tattoos giving her away on the spot. "June?"
The bounty hunter briefly turned her head over her shoulder just enough to notice the boy scarcely taller than some of the higher tables in the establishment. "Heidze, what are you doing here?"
"I need to talk to you about Ratana."
"Get out of here, kid, before you get yourself hurt."
"We heard that you know something about Ratana's situation," Tooru pressed, stepping forward.
"Who are you and what do you mean?"
"I'm her earthbending partner on the Terra Team," he responded. "She's been arrested and scheduled for a court martial."
"Is she ever not getting into trouble?" June shook her head in the air.
"Watch it," the green-garbed earthbending soldier warned to June. Even though he had not met either of them before, he was already less willing to share comments about his partner with June than he had been with Heidze.
"She confronted her commander," Heidze informed June. "She'll be executed if she's found guilty."
June trotted away from the outside of the ring and sat down at a nearby table, Tooru and Heidze following closely behind. "Didn't put much forethought into that, did she? That's going to be hard to weasel her way out of, even for her."
"You can help her though," Heidze pressed on. "She said that you were the one who told her Quan Jing hired you to come after her in the first place. If you told the court martial that you got hired by Quan Jing here, that'll show she's telling the truth!"
"Are you nuts?" June let out a burp which unveiled the strong smell of her breath, which caused Heidze and Tooru's nostrils to twitch slightly. "Even if I could discuss contracts in public, Quan Jing didn't come hire me himself. He sent a middle man to negotiate for him, probably so the contract won't be traceable. It's clear he planned ahead."
"You knew it was him though," Tooru butted in. "If you tell them what the middle man told you and showed you when he came here..."
"It won't make a difference," June broke eye contact and faced the tabletop. "This Quan Jing is one of their top men, so they won't admit he's guilty unless they have undeniable proof, and this is far too shady of a stretch. Besides, the Earth Kingdom generals wouldn't give much weight to the word of...someone like me. Now, if you'll excuse me-"
As she began heading back toward the fighting ring Heidze banged his fist down in front of June on the table, causing her to look him straight in the eye, glaring as though ready to start a fight of her own. "What's the matter with you? Ratana is your friend! Don't you care what happens to her?"
"Ratana is not my friend," June shoved Heidze aside, altering her course to go to the bar and order another drink instead of the ring. "She's a target who happened to buy her way out of a contract."
"I know that's how you met," Heidze said to her. "I just thought that after she saved your life and all-"
"My life never would've been in danger if I hadn't gotten dragged into that stupid mission of hers!" June snapped back.
"She saved your life?" Tooru's eyes widened in disbelief of what he was hearing. "You have to help her. Have you no honor at all?"
Furiously, June pressed her pointer finger at the center of Tooru's chest. "I'm not the honor type, so don't preach to me on whatever perversion you call honor. Just like her, all of you honor types are nothing more than a bunch of holier-than-thou hypocrites. You just claim whatever form of morality happens to suit you on a given day."
Heidze blinked three times before speaking again. "Still, after what you've been through together and what she did for you...," he trailed off. "Never mind," he narrowed his eyes, as though after traveling with her for so long he was only truly seeing June for the first time, and he didn't like what he saw. "I guess that's it. We'll do this without your help."
As soon as they left the tavern, Tooru turned back to Heidze. "Well, that didn't work out. It looks like we'll have to follow Ratana's idea about the document from the raid after all. We just need to make sure it's legit."
"Where is this document?" asked Heidze.
"It's buried in the archives somewhere," Tooru told him. "It'll be hard to get to, though. That area's heavily guarded and no one gets in without permission."
"Will we have permission?"
"Not without a reason that convinces them," said Tooru. "If there's anything of value to us in that document, chances are that Quan Jing's blocked off access to it."
"Hmmm," Heidze stroked his chin. "Let me get this straight. So basically you're telling me that this involves breaking into somewhere and stealing something. Is that right?"
Heidze grinned. "I think I can figure something out for that."
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