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|Return to the Outer Wall|
March 12, 2015
Zan Xun and Hanbao both being gone, all that Taigang and Ratana had now was each other, and the reluctant partners knew they had little time to catch their breath. With the lopsided victory for the firebenders they encountered and the uncertain peril that lingered over their present situation, the day was still finding more and more ways to make itself worse for the lone female earthbender on the Terra Team of Ba Sing Se. At a time like this, Ratana counted the things she could call herself lucky for, and the single item she found was the abundance of smoke that hovered above them, granting the pair a moment of stealth to find their way away from the firebenders.
"We have to find our way back across to our side," Taigang voiced aloud after taking a few moments to regain himself. "We have to join our remaining comrades on our side of the battlefield."
"Yeah, no shit King Bumi," Ratana barked at him. "There's no way that us two earthbenders are going to make a difference out here on our own. With no targets we can damage, it's time we did what the rest of the attacking force did, and retreat."
"We should have done that much earlier," said Taigang. "If only it weren't for you and your partner trying to push farther than we could realistically go."
"Please don't speak ill of the fallen," Ratana retorted. "Hanbao was an honorable man, and a good soldier. I wish that I had watched his back better."
"It's nice to hear you say that about him," Taigang replied with a definite note of sarcasm. "He clearly didn't consider you as much if he wanted his partner to meet a certain, futile death with him."
"He was misguided," Ratana admitted. "But I don't believe that he intended it to be futile. We did get really close to their main camp, and several tanks were stopped nearby. If our circumstances there were different and we were more prepared, we could've done a lot of damage."
"Now we're here and I have no idea where Zan Xun is," Taigang exclaimed, throwing both hands in the air. "Just my luck..."
"Taigang, pull yourself together," Ratana told him sternly. "We're in this together and with the Fire Nation being as great a foe as they are, you should not be acting nasty to others on your own side. Remember that we are in fact, on the same side. Whatever your problem with me may be, you need to grow up. Seriously, you're acting like a child right now." Her sentiments, though, did echo his, as Ratana regarded Taigang as one of the few she considered less reliable to serve beside than Hanbao.
Taigang winced as his face turned red, apparently offended that Ratana was not more interested in his grudge against her than she was. "Go on, then, take charge. Act like a leader. Show off, like you always do!"
"I don't know what your deal is or what idea that you're getting, but I never feel the need to show off," said Ratana. "I've seen you show off pretty frequently, but that's not what the Terra Team is about. The Terra Team is a team, Taigang. We're supposed to work together."
"Don't you act all high-and-mighty to me, Ratana," roared Taigang, now completely unconcerned as to whether the Fire Nation would hear them arguing. "You stuck-up, holier-than-thou, self-righteous bitch. I hate you! Don't lie and say you're better than me. You're not."
At that moment, Ratana remembered something Sifu Brawki had told her long ago. It was that those who sought attention but did not receive it always falsely regarded the ones that receive it but do not seek it as another one of their own. "It's not about who's the best person or the best earthbender, Taigang," she told him. "It's not about any of our egos, at the end of the day. It's about this fight we undertake together, and we have to work together now. Let's focus on finding our way back to our encampment at the Outer Wall like it's the only goal for us in the world."
"Ugh, fine," Taigang conceded in disgust. "The sooner this is over with, the better."
"Let's head this way," Ratana suggested, pointing ahead. "The landscape is clear and there's little-to-no sign of the Fire Nation if we take this way." And so, for several minutes, the reluctant pair marched side-by-side in cold silence. For once, keeping their eye out for the Fire Army put their minds at relative ease.
"So, are you trying to tell me that you don't take any pride in being the most capable earthbender in the Terra Team?" Taigang asked after the pair had been walking for a little while longer. "None whatsoever?"
"Of course not," Ratana replied calmly, but firmly. "It's not supposed to be what we focus our mission on. Yes, my earthbending is my passion and I can take pride in it from time to time, just as a farmer or a fisherman can take pride in what they do. It's nothing more than that, though. I'm not arrogant."
"You know what the Terra Team is supposed to be," said Taigang. "Just like Shun Ping. He always did things by the book, with no exception. But you're not like him. You're as far as can be from by the book in your actions, no matter how many times you talk like you're by the book."
"I believe in the principle of what we stand for," Ratana said as the breeze blew the long strands of her hair so that they danced in the wind. "I believe in the Earth Kingdom, too. And the Terra Team serves the Earth Kingdom."
"But you're a realist, at least," said Taigang. "You're not blind. Every member of our squad has been their own person, with their own ambition. And it's been that way for a while, so don't pin the blame on me. This is the way it has been for a while, and I'm far from the only Terra Team member to have an 'ego' on the job, as you phrase it. My father was the best earthbender on the Terra Team, and I planned on being the best once I joined. That's why I worked on my earthbending so hard during my teenage years. I trained around the clock for it."
"Your father was the 'best' of his generation, so therefore you're going to be the 'best' of yours," Ratana mused, annoyed but not fully angry. "That sounds pretentious, even for you, Taigang."
"I had an obligation to live up to," Taigang said defensively. "It was my duty to follow in my father's footsteps. He made sure of it by forcing me to give up my pipa music. That was my favorite thing to do up until then."
"Really?" Ratana asked, raising an eyebrow. "That's interesting. It sounds like you and I went on opposite paths, Taigang."
"What do you mean, Ratana?"
"When I was sixteen, my father wanted me to follow in his footsteps, being that he had no sons to succeed him and my mother had just died. You see, he was the last of the Dorunian Warriors up until his own demise. He tried to get me to train under him, but I would have preferred to go to the local earthbending academy. I refused to follow in his footsteps for his sake, and in the end I had to run away and make a new life elsewhere."
Taigang blinked his eyes twice in astonishment. "How did you make the choice that you did?"
"I knew where my destiny lay," Ratana said flatly. "I didn't see it as a choice."
"I didn't see it as a choice, either," replied Taigang. "I couldn't just run away at that age. What would I have done, become a traveling pipa player? Please. Well, the Outer Wall is right up ahead. It looks like we're almost there." With no more smoke to cloud their view, the Terra Team earthbenders set their sights on their mighty fortification.
"Looks like it," agreed Ratana. "We won't have to keep an eye out for Fire Nation battalions much longer. See what we can do when we work together? Ah, let's go this way. It leads straight back to our encampment." Apart from a couple small, rounded hills, it was a flat path.
"No," Taigang shook his head. "Let's go in this direction."
"But that's more narrow," commented Ratana. "There's a tiny cliff there, and it's a little longer."
"There were more Fire Nation troops heading in the direction you were pointing, though. Remember when we were back at the tree?"
"Ah, that's right," Ratana mildly slapped her own forehead. "We came so far, I forgot where we were relative to when we were near the Fire Nation lines. Good thinking, Taigang." Ratana flashed a brief smile before easing herself alongst the ridge.
Taigang stared at the unsuspecting Ratana as he followed her from behind. Her footing was so fragile on the ridge, and if a small rock knocked her off balance, she would tumble into the gorge and probably break her neck in the process. No one else was around, either. Like Hanbao and the rest of their fallen, the Fire Nation would be implicated, but this was not to be. With a heavy heart, the earthbending man sighed and marched with her back to their Outer Wall barracks.
After being released from his final class of the day, Heidze dodged the sight of the adults and other students as he returned to his room to collect his belongings. He had decided that he had had enough by this point. The classes weren't that hard, and perhaps he really was smarter than he thought when he studied. Part of him knew he should consider himself grateful to be here. But at the end of the day, this school just didn't suit him. Sure, Ratana had inspired him to try to better himself, but here everything felt as artificial and one-sided to him as when he had been on the streets of Gangkouz. Now, Heidze merely wanted to find somewhere genuine. What he had now, even if he was way better off than the life he knew, and his tricks and shortcuts made such a life easier, was empty. Heidze was longing for somewhere far off. It was high time that he saw Chang Lei again.
"How long has it been?" asked a worried Indigo. The battlefield below had grown quiet some time before. Even after the rumble had died down, still not all who had gone on the advance were accounted for.
"A while," said Tooru, Indigo's partner, looking across the landscape beyond the Outer Wall. "A couple of hours, I think."
"I do hope they return soon," said Indigo.
"I hope so, too," Tooru agreed solemnly. The unspoken question, of course, was who would be returning and who would not.
Within a few moments of their dialogue on the matter, the two earthbending partners on the Terra Team received an answer to the questions of their mind. From the opposite side of the Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se, Ratana and Taigang marched back into the encampment, triumphant in having survived, but defeated in the setback that had taken place, the struggle they had been forced to endure together, and the comrades who were now lost to them.
"Ratana!" yelled Tooru, rushing over to greet her down below. "I...ummm...it's good to see you back here in one piece," he finished, trailing off in a slightly awkward fashion.
"It's fantastic to see you too again, Tooru," she nodded.
"Where is Zan Xun?" Taigang questioned Tooru briskly. "Did he make it back yet?"
"Yes," Tooru nodded curtly, with resolution but without any subsequent hint of friendliness. "He was badly injured, though. So he's in the infirmary for the time being."
"And what of Hanbao?" Indigo asked Ratana with urgency.
Ratana hung her head. As she had had no time to search for the perfect words with everything else going on, she would have to get it out now as best she could. "Indigo, I'm sorry. He-"
"Your boyfriend's dead," Taigang obliged for her. Ratana glared at him as he said this.
"No," Indigo pouted, tears forming in his eyes. "It can't be. How did this happen? He was too reckless, wasn't he? My precious burger did act like a meathead quite often..."
"Precious burger?" Tooru snorted aside to Ratana, in a hushed up voice, but still loud enough to be heard by all who were present. "Is he serious?"
Ratana shot Tooru a look, and thus became more feeling sorry for Indigo, after witnessing both Taigang's and Tooru's tactlessness. "He was brave. I was honored to have served by his side today."
"If only I had been there," said Indigo. "I know him well. I might have stopped him and saved him."
"I'm sorry," said Ratana.
"It's not your fault."
Just then, General Sung arrived on the scene. He surveyed all the troops present, though did not make eye contact with Indigo, rounding instead on the new arrivals. "I see you two made it here unscathed as well. It's good to have you back, Ratana and Taigang. So Hanbao fell? Well, I'll change the partnerships back to before for you two, Ratana and Tooru. You're partners on the Terra Team again as of now." Sung seemed to inflate his chest as he spoke. "Indigo, it looks like you'll need a new partner. Shun Ping's old partner also fell today, so we'll stick you with one of the new recruits for now."
Most of them were speechless at this time, thinking of all that transpired this day. "Understood, Sir," acknowledged Ratana. It was not long before she and the rest of her comrades, with the exception of Indigo, were back at ease. Regardless of any ground they had lost that day, they were back at the Outer Wall, which no foe to Ba Sing Se, Fire Nation or not, had ever penetrated.
- "Precious burger" is a reference to the fact that Hanbao means hamburger in Chinese.
- The incident referenced from Taigang's childhood was shown in Songs of the Past and Ratana's incident was shown in Leaving Home.
- General Sung decided to reassign Ratana and Tooru to one another since in his eyes there was no longer the "issue" of having to keep Hanbao and Indigo apart.
- Lu Ten does not appear in this chapter, but I definitely haven't forgotten about him.
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