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|No Turning Back|
July 13, 2019
Ratana stood in the midday sun and leaned into Lu Ten's strong, tight embrace for what felt like all eternity. On the horizon, the skimpering lining of the Outer Wall had just become visible to them. Lu Ten's camp and Ratana's home were both not that far away anymore.
"Let's just stand here together, just for a little while longer," Ratana mumbled without opening her eyes, though even she could not believe what she was saying. Back at the Outer Wall were dozens of companions who were counting on her, and she was their captain. That meant that she had an oath and an obligation toward them which she could not ignore.
"I know," said Lu Ten. "Ratana, I knew how I felt about you from the moment we first met in Gangkouz. When I found out who you really were, it drove me mad."
"Finding out who you were was no cakewalk for me, either," Ratana said, smirking, her eyes remaining shut. "Lu Tong became Prince Lu Ten." She had also known as Lu Ten had from an early point, though it took a while for her to admit it even to herself, let alone him. Earth was a stable, stubborn element.
"Yet here we are, outside the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se," Lu Ten remarked. "Pretty much right across the world, on the field of battle between our nations."
"I know, right," said Ratana, a tear lurking down her face. Moments later, she finally opened her eyes and looked back up into Lu Ten's eyes. "Crazy."
"Crazy is right," said Lu Ten. "It's almost as if we're…"
"…the two craziest people in the world," Ratana finished for him. She let go and took a step back. "Maybe you were right about before. There's absolutely no way that this can work. It really is crazy."
"I did say that," Lu Ten said.
"Right," said Ratana. "You're smarter than this. I'm smarter than this. We're both too smart for this."
"Perhaps," Lu Ten admitted. "But you know what else I think?"
"What?" asked Ratana.
"I think that between the both of us, we're smart enough to make it work somehow."
Ratana reembraced her lover and kissed him passionately once again. "I want to believe that," she said, trying to convince herself to be more resolved about it. "I think that I can believe it."
"So can I."
"So, what happens now?" asked Ratana.
After releasing her for the second time, Lu Ten got more serious. "We must go back," he said. "We both have people who are counting on us to protect them."
"No," Ratana said frantically. "It's too soon. Don't go. Let's just...stay here a while longer."
"Be strong for me, Ratana," he told her. "I'll be back soon enough. I promise. We'll meet again."
Ratana nodded as Lu Ten marched off toward the Outer Wall and in the direction of his camp, which lay on the other side. She let him go. If Lu Ten had tricked her into falling for him and was now abusing the trust she had finally given into, Ratana would never be able to bear that. But she trusted him. For better or for worse, she trusted him now. For months upon months she had dreamed of being with Lu Ten, and now that the dream had materialized. Ratana dared to believe that it had come true.
Even if it meant getting hurt later.
Once Lu Ten had disappeared from sight, Ratana started the long walk back to the Outer Wall, with her thoughts alone for company. Her mission to recapture Lu Ten had officially ended in failure, and she had to go face the consequences. Now that she thought of it, she did not know exactly how long she and Lu Ten had been under Lake Laogai, though her absence would certainly be noted by now. In the distance, she glimpsed her prince using jet propulsion to fly himself in the air toward the wall. So he had not been entirely truthful with Taigang about that.
As she was crossing into the encampment, she came across Indigo. "Captain Ratana," he greeted. "Thank the spirits you're alright. General Sung says you have to go and see him now. He wanted to meet with you as soon as you were back in camp." Since Indigo broke eye contact as he finished telling her this, Ratana could already tell it would not be good.
Ratana rode the elevator up the inside of the Outer Wall to the very top where General Sung's quarters were. The last time that she had been here had not been a pleasant experience, and this time was not shaping out to be much different.
"Where have you been?" Sung asked, fuming, when Ratana arrived. He did not even bother to greet her first.
"I'm sorry, sir," she said. "Prince Lu Ten escaped under my watch and I had to track him down."
"Tooru told me about that," said Sung. "Well, you spent a while chasing after your lost prince, Ratana, disobeying my orders in the process."
"I know." She hung her head.
"I did not authorize this impromptu hunt into the city," said Sung. "If the Dai Li had caught you a second time, there would've been nothing I could do. Well, what do you have to show for it?"
"Nothing," she replied solemnly. "He escaped."
"Tut-tut," Sung said, stroking the thin points of his stringy mustache. "Ratana, I am most disappointed at your performance, to say nothing of your recklessness."
"Sorry," Ratana said. It was all she could manage for the moment.
"I am relieving you of your duties as captain," said Sung. "As of now, I am officially demoting you back to your former position as a member of the Terra Team, not as an officer."
"Oh," she said. "Yeah, I understand." Sung had been frustrated with her for a while, but at last he made this official, which by now was far from her mind.
This was clearly not the reaction Sung had been expecting from her regarding this. "Well…that's that," he added. "Ratana, you seem like you're not of the right state of mind right now. I don't know that you can perform your duties as is expected of you."
"No," Ratana shook her head. "No, I'm fine sir." She wasn't, of course, but she wouldn't allow him to find that out.
"Why don't you take some time off before returning to your post?" the general suggested. "A few days should do it, I think. Snap yourself out of whatever's going on and get your head out of the clouds."
"Okay," she said, nodding. "Can I go now?"
General Sung was now even more put off by her behavior. "Yes, you may."
Following the meeting with General Sung, Ratana wasted no time in returning to her place in the barracks, where she slipped into her uniform once again. It felt like forever since she was last here, even though she knew in her head that it had not been all that long actually. Everything seemed different, and she was here in a different reality. The very uniform she wore did not feel like she belonged in it. How could a protector of the Earth Kingdom also be in love with their national enemy? When she was with Lu Ten, she felt like she could truly finally give into how she felt, find personal joy that she had deprived herself of since she left home. With a war going on, it never seemed right to drown in any indulgence, love included.
It was what she felt in her gut, though. Now that she had acknowledged it, she could not simply turn away from it. Of course, her mother's gut hadn't helped her much the day she was attacked from the Fire Nation. For all the talk Ratana had listened to growing up about how Munn was the most secure place in the world that would never be taken over, none of it had turned out to be true.
Just like last time she was given unexpected time off, Ratana was visited by Tooru. "Hi," he said, sheepishly. "I heard you were back."
"Yeah," said Ratana, still sitting on her bed, thinking.
"How are you doing, partner?"
"Terrible. Everything that I've dedicated my whole life to seems uncertain now. I don't even know if I really have a purpose anymore. In fact, I feel like a fraud just for being here. I'm in love with Lu Ten of the Fire Nation, our sworn enemy, and now I feel like that makes me an enemy, too. Can one feel something like that and still be loyal to their own people? Who am I, Tooru? Give me an honest answer." That was what Ratana felt the urge to say in response to her partner's inquiry.
"Fine, I guess." That was what she actually said.
"I see," said Tooru. He sounded as though he knew more about what was going on than he said out loud, and that did not offer Ratana any further comfort. "Did you find your prince?"
"No," said Ratana. "I failed to recapture Lu Ten."
"Did he defeat you in battle?" asked Tooru.
"So you never caught up to him."
"I did, actually."
"Then what happened, Ratana?" asked Tooru.
"I can't talk about it right now, Tooru," said Ratana. "I have to go."
"Why?" he asked. "Are you so eager to get away now? That doesn't sound like you."
"Look, I don't want to go into it anymore," said Ratana. "It's complicated."
"As soon as I'm back I'll be ready to fight the Fire Nation by your side again," said Ratana. "Now stop getting on my case."
"Good," said Tooru. "You'll have to be." He left their room and went back outside before Ratana had a chance to answer.
Great, Ratana thought to herself. Now she had fallen out with her partner as well. Tooru was always the one person on the Terra Team that she could talk to about anything, no matter what. Her secret about Lu Ten was something she could never tell anyone about, for it would mean death for them both. Since she was still processing it all herself, Ratana decided that she did not want to talk to anyone else yet if it could be avoided. She left the encampment as quick as she could, got on an ostrich horse and rode until she got to the nearest town still controlled by the Earth Kingdom. While Ba Sing Se was not being sieged, she and the team used to look out for the settlements around it, most of which were now Fire Nation colonies. If they had not been before, Iroh had conquered them on his way over. Up the coast North was Munn, her former hometown. She desired to avoid that place at all costs, even now, and so Ratana turned west.
Once she was in town, she rested on a park benchand pondered what was happening. The risk was great, but if she and Lu Ten could truly work things out, then it would all be worth it. She felt like falling into Lu Ten's arms all over again now. "Ratana."
Even the way he said her name rung in her ears. "Ratana, Ratana…" She could hear it now, inside her head.
"Ratana? What are you doing here?"
That was not inside her head, and it was not Lu Ten's voice.
"Oh," she said. "Hi June. Long time no see."
- "Long time no see" - five years, twenty-one days to be exact (our time), but hey who's counting?
- Ratana's thought about Taigang is a reference to the events of .
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