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|Unusual Bonds: Part 4|
February 10, 2018
"Well Ratana, it appears that you were correct about being underground," said Lu Ten.
"Indeed," replied Ratana. "I don't recall exactly how deep underground it was, but hopefully we should be reaching the top shortly."
Lu Ten was presently just above Ratana as the pair climbed the ladder that they had come across together. The earthbender and the firebender found that spirits had put a blessing upon them that day, as they had not come across any Dai Li agents since the one in their cell, and if Captain Ratana was correct about their being underground, this ladder would presumably lead them to the surface, and to freedom.
But like most things of its nature, it was all too convenient to last much longer.
"Hey, have you seen Gitsu anywhere?" one of the Dai Li agents in the base – who happened to be lingering close by the ladder – asked to one of his fellow agents. "I don't think that I've seen him around all day."
"No," said another agent. "I thought that I had, but now that you mention it, I don't think that I have seen him around all day, either. Last I heard he was going to feed some of the prisoners. Once he was done with his rounds, I assumed that he'd be patrolling."
"Well I just spoke to Long Feng," said the first one. "He hasn't reported for that duty today."
"You're kidding," said the second one, sounding astonished by the news. "That doesn't seem like him. Do you think we ought to put in a report?"
"I don't think so. Gitsu's young and new to the Dai Li, but he doesn't seem the type. Something's not right here."
Before either Ratana or Lu Ten could comment on what they had just heard, a faint spec of light formed from nothing in the pure darkness that spread out above them. Then, that spec grew into a miniature ball of light, and finally to a circle that contained a blue sky with a couple white clouds inside.
An opening. A way out. A path to freedom.
"Ratana, I think that you were right," Lu Ten said, looking at the new hope which had appeared a mere ten feet further up what had formerly been the ladder to nowhere. "I think we are underground."
"Correct," she replied. "Question is though, how did that get there?" There was only one way that opening could've been made that she could think of.
Lu Ten seemed to read her thoughts. "Let's move quickly before it closes again." With renewed determination, the second in line to become Fire Lord one day grabbed the next bar up with one sweaty palm and the next with the next.
Ratana did the same. Neither of them even gave a fraction of a thought anymore to how far they had climbed until now. When Lu Ten finally reached the top – Ratana right below him – a Dai Li agent approached and began to put his foot onto the highest bar up, before realizing that Lu Ten's sweaty palm was already there. Immediately, he reached down and slammed his rock gloved-wrist into the side of the ladder way. However, the opening had not even closed a full inch before Ratana punched her own fist into the cavern wall and the rocks at the top crumbled into dust and rained down around her to the bottom. Now the agent who had just arrived could see there were two of them and that Lu Ten had an earthbender with him. He reached toward Lu Ten's neck. Sizing him up, Ratana guessed that he was determined to stop them but reluctant to damage the structure of his hideout, so wouldn't mess with the entrance again until he took Ratana herself out.
As the agent began to grab him by the throat Lu Ten seized the stone-covered fingers touching his neck and exhaled a deep breath. The Dai Li man howled in pain even louder than the back alley thug had that Ratana had run into the other day. The rock glove turned reddish, cracked into shards and the hot rocks fell down the ladder way. A couple of them glazed the strands of her hair as they passed her.
"Be careful with your fire up there, Lu Ten," Ratana yelled at the top of her lungs to ensure she would be heard. "You almost burned me just now." But then she paused, wondering if that was precisely what Lu Ten was trying to do. He was her enemy, after all, and they were almost out. So he didn't actually need any help from her at this point.
"Don't worry, Ratana," Lu Ten replied after he punched a small spark of fire which caught his panicking opponent's robe on fire. "That's the last thing that I would ever want to do." He grabbed the other end of the agent's clothing and punched him in the face as soon as he could reach his head. "Look out – move to the right."
Ratana did as Lu Ten told her. The dazed Dai Li agent started screaming a couple seconds after falling by her left side. She doubted he would survive the fall all the way to the bottom.
Meanwhile, Lu Ten and Ratana completed their climb and emerged into a flat mound of land hovering unnaturally surrounded by water, like a rock sandbar.
Sunlight burned onto Ratana's skin for the first time in forever. "It's a lake," she said. "Lake Laogai."
As they approached the edge of the island's frozen cliff with the cave wall still hanging above them, Iroh and his new companion encountered three more members of the Arctic Resistance. Fire and water flowed around the scene left and right. Since it was about dusk, Iroh knew that he could not draw directly from the sun much longer. Soon, the waterbenders would have their own advantage.
It had long been futile for either Iroh or Pakku to attempt to tread carefully, as by now the entire island would have to be alerted to their escape, unless they had been sleeping like a rock.
"You're not bad," said a female waterbender dressed in black, whose was voice Iroh recognized from back on his own ship. "Maybe a few more years and you'll actually be able to hit something."
"Is it wise to antagonize them so, Tyfa?" asked one of the teenage boys whom Pakku was fending off with tentacle arms emerging on top of his real ones, like a blue plasma octopus shape. "They seem strong."
"Well duh," Tyfa said with a roll of her eyes. "One's an officer and the other is a Fire Prince. Obviously they're going to be tough opponents to beat any day of the week." She smirked as she relaxed back into her normal fighting stance. "But we will in the end."
"I'm afraid that you were wrong about us," said Iroh, studying his opponents with every new move he made. It was just like a game of Pai Sho, only lethal. "We're not letting you hold us as prisoners any longer."
"We?" Tyfa said, raising an eyebrow. "So you two mortal enemies are fighting together now. How peculiar. How horrible could our lot possibly be to provoke such cooperation, I wonder?"
"At the end of the day, a man does what he needs to," Iroh said as he caught his breath. He protected himself with a fiery shield held in place by his outstretched arms, which blocked multiple strands of water whips from coming his way.
"Such old-fashioned wisdom," said Tyfa. "I'm beginning to wonder how such ancient and obsolete proverbs have lasted so long in a world that longs to move on."
Iroh's two eyes narrowed sharply. "A world that is all too quickly losing touch with its roots." He continued to take notice as one motion of Tyfa's flowed into the next, and then she stopped and paused, waiting for him to make the next move. The prince would need to choose his next move carefully, but he knew she would be prepared for almost anything.
Suddenly the air around them grew quieter. "I've taken care of the rest of them, Iroh of the Fire Nation," Pakku called out. "It's just you and that girl now."
"Woman," Tyfa corrected, still looking at Iroh. "I'm seventeen."
Exhaling, Iroh stretched his chi to its fullest extent and split apart a shard of energy within his very being. His every organ vibrated with intensity as he pointed his fingers forth and shot a bolt of lightning out of his pointed fingers.
Apparently, though, Tyfa was not impressed. "Hah, I've heard of this move firebenders can sometimes do. Never seen it performed before, of course, but I can dodge it."
But Iroh did not aim straight for her, but for a puddle of water beneath her feet which Pakku had just melted without Tyfa noticing it. As Iroh electrocuted the pool, Tyfa fell flat on her face.
"You see, in a war we all do as we're told," said Iroh. "Once we got caught in it. At night we tell ourselves we stand for something. You used to stand for something once, too. I can see it in your eyes."
Pakku stepped forth. "But if we forget where we come from, we can pay the ultimate price," he said, just as the lightning hit Tyfa's heart and she collapsed onto the ground.
Iroh let out a deep sigh. "Pakku, it's not only the Arctic Resistance I'm talking about," he said. "All of us who fight risk losing ourselves if we're not careful."
"War changes us all, and we must do our duty, ugly or not," said Pakku. "Not a bad bit of bending," he added. "I'll admit it."
"Thank you," said Iroh, bowing. "You also did good, Pakku. I can see you are a master of your art. Well, it seems we are free now."
"It would seem so," said Pakku, who appeared to be sizing up his enemy that his time had run its course with. "I'll be honorable and not try to bring you in on my path back to our shores. After that-"
"We're back where we started," Iroh finished for him. It was as it must be. Pakku was of the Northern Water Tribe and he was of the Fire Nation. "Here, take this with you. It's a good luck charm." It was the Pai Sho piece with a white lotus symbol on it.
Pakku's eyes widened when he saw the tile. "Who gave you this?" he asked.
"A friend," said Iroh.
Apparently the agent who tried to enter the hideout just as Lu Ten and Ratana were leaving had not perished. Ratana figured he must have managed to stop himself from hitting the floor by grasping onto the wall with his one remaining rock glove somewhere in between the top and the bottom, halting his descent. Then he came back up – with help.
Four Dai Li agents pursued the two on the sandy shores of Lake Laogai. Lu Ten and Ratana each made the best use of their own bending they could muster to stop their chasers in their tracks. Ratana could clearly see that any rumors of Lu Ten's firebending experience were not exaggerated, and he was at least as mastered at the art of manipulating fire as she was at manipulating earth.
But they were not used to working together as a team.
The Dai Li agents were, being trained to be more coordinated.
Shards of rock gloves, sharp as knives, flew past Ratana's head, her life spared by mere inches of misguided aim. Lu Ten attempted to halt their advance by erecting a wall of fire. Unfortunately, he did not have the time to be thorough and the Dai Li agents simply ran around it.
Noticing that they were passing underneath an arching piece of cliff, Ratana got an idea. "Lu Ten, stand by me," she said.
"What?" asked Lu Ten, baffled. "What about those agents?"
"Just trust me."
"Okay, I trust you."
Ratana dug her toes into the dirty ground. A flat, circular chunk of earth dislodged itself and floated above the heads of Lu Ten and Ratana like an awkward umbrella. Once it was hovering steady, she pushed her arms up and in the direction of the cliff, which crumbled into a storm of boulders no bigger than earth soccer balls. It would be impossible for her to control so many projectiles at once, but luckily the rocks tumbled down on their own. Neverthekess, Ratana focused herself in making as many cracks in the cliff as possible, calling upon her inner Oma to channel her chi. A few stones bounced off the rock umbrella while the rest of the stones buried the four Dai Li agents alive before they could utter a sound.
No sooner had the rocky avalanche run its course than Ratana swept the umbrella aside. At long last she and Lu Ten could catch their breath. "Not bad," Lu Ten said.
"Not bad yourself," said Ratana. "Not bad at all." In need of a rest, she sat on the newly-formed pile of rocks and spread her legs out.
"We're a great team," said Lu Ten, sitting beside her. "Aren't we?"
"Yeah," said Ratana. The light continued to burn the exposed skin on her legs and forearms, but contrary to the very nature of fire, did not hurt. As they both allowed the impending exhaustion that had built up for hours finally sink in, Ratana slowed her own breaths and the turning of the world itself. For the present, she and Lu Ten were the only ones in it, safe to provide comfort to one another. She lifted her eyes to take a forbidden peak into Lu Ten's, whom she saw did the same. All thoughts were displaced by raw, unmonitored heartbeats. She saw Lu Ten move his head, and the gravity in their chests pulled them both. Ratana tilted her own head as their lips came together and wrapped her arms around his broad shoulders.
It was a picture that would be imbedded in the fabric of her soul for all time.
- Well, it's finally happened. Do you guys think I made them wait long enough to bring their feelings to the surface and become a couple? Nearly five years, 104 chapters and 230,021 words. I'm glad to have them past that hurdle, so I can focus on what, imo, are the fun parts, still ahead.
- Tyfa paraphrases a line of Ratana's from Stone Walls, Wooden Doors, an earlier DSV chapter, similar to how I often paraphrase directly from the canon sometimes. It's a quirk I've developed.
For the collective works of the author, go here.