|More from Minnichi||Romance/Angst/Action||PG-13||N/A||TBA|
|Chapter 11 - Agent Greets Royalty (SHiE)|
Summary of the Last Chapter
Riya takes a trip to the Upper Ring in order to buy medicine for her neighbor's dying son, utilizing the city pass that Yuhan had given her. She discovers many things she doesn't like about the city's aristocrats - and sees firsthand what the Dai Li is best known for.
Note: This chapter takes place at exactly the same time as the last.
"Toph Beifong, daughter of Poppy and Lao Beifong... Age: 12. City of Origin: Gaoling. Earthbending Style: Unknown. Earthbending Master: Unknown. Handicaps: Blindness. Probable Keys to Combat: Senses opponents and their movements based on vibrations in the ground. Feet are the hypothesized crucial factor during battle. Likely Weaknesses: Uneven or nonexistent terrains...air-based...atackles...feet...injurrruhh...ugh..."
The thin parchment fluttered down over Yuhan's aching eyes as they slowly dimmed into unconsciousness. No longer was he lying on his dull mattress, deep beneath Lake Laogai. He was counting thousands of stars illuminating the night sky, feeling the feathery bed of grass beneath his back and the cool breeze rustling his hair...and the warmth of Riya by his side. She was nestled in his arm, sighing contently as she rested her head against him.
"They're so beautiful," Riya said breathlessly, gazing into the endless array of lights scattered throughout the sky.
Tonight, he wasn't the stuttering idiot who could never say anything right around her. "Those little dots? They can't even compare to what I'm seeing now." Yuhan's voice was clear and smooth as he looked down at her, smiling warmly.
Her hazel eyes softened as they met his, and he could see the reflection of the stunning sky shining within them. "Yuhan!" she laughed playfully, her cheeks growing pink. "Don't make me blush!"
"You're already blushing," he replied, smirking. He pulled Riya even closer to him, using the arm already wrapped around her shoulder. Reaching over with his other arm, Yuhan gently brushed a stray lock of brown hair away from her face, his hand trailing down the side of her smooth cheek. She slowly closed her eyes as his fingers slid beneath her chin, tilting her face upwards towards his own. As his eyelids grew heavy, he could feel the warmth of her soft lips before they even touched his, and they leaned closer and closer...
BANG! "Yuhan! Are you dead? Answer already! What are you doing?"
The tired agent's hand slapped over the parchment covering his face as he was wrenched back into reality. The paper crumpled beneath his fingers as he grumpily sat up and threw it aside. And I was actually having a nice dream, for once! Yuhan almost slipped when he angrily jumped down from his mattress, picking his hat off the floor and pulling it onto his head crookedly. He finally trudged over to his door, which was still shaking from the loud banging on the other side.
Tyru finally stopped hitting the door when it flew open, slamming noisily against the wall. He took quick note of Yuhan's lopsided hat, as well as his sluggish eyes. "Bloody realm of Koh! Were you sleeping?"
Yuhan rubbed at one of his eyes wearily, an ominous shadow looming over his face. "Well...not at first." He ignored the scowl he received in reply. "But hey, I had to stay back and convert Jet's two sidekicks while you were all chasing the Avatar. And since you took so long, I started studying those notes we were assigned over that blind earthbender girl." He suddenly noticed the growing puddle of water surrounding Tyru's feet. "...I'm guessing the chase didn't go well?"
"No kidding!" Tyru snapped, sending another flurry of droplets to the floor as he crossed his arms. "That stupid flying bull thing flung us all into the lake! And now Long Feng has a giant bite mark on his leg!"
"Oh. I'm sorry to hear that." Yuhan clumsily straightened up his hat. "So...why exactly did you come here again?" His baggy eyes longed to rest again, and the sweet memory of the dream still lingered as he spoke.
Tyru sighed so loudly that it sounded more like an irritated groan. "Just how long does it take you to get back to your senses after you wake up? Obviously, we couldn't catch the Avatar. Obviously, that means the Avatar is now running loose with his precious flying cow. So obviously, the Avatar's probably headed to the Royal Palace as we speak, and OBVIOUSLY, our entire headquarters is about to be exposed to the Earth King!" The ground beneath the two agents began to crackle slightly as Tyru finished his raging explanation.
Yuhan glanced indifferently at the ground and then back at Tyru, who was still glaring daggers at him. "Why didn't you just tell me that Long Feng wants us to hide the evidence?" he asked casually.
The fuming agent paused for a moment, frowning. "Well...!" His voice quickly rose in volume again. "I thought you might need a clearer explanation, considering how you look half-dead at the moment!"
Yuhan sighed. He supposed Tyru was still bitter about losing to the Avatar and being thrown into Lake Laogai by a giant 'cow.' "Alright, if you say so." He shrugged slightly. "Anyway, what exactly are we supposed to do right now?"
"A lot of things," Tyru muttered. "Long Feng predicts that this facility will no longer be safe for us to operate undercover, so we have to seal off...everything..."
"Everything? What do you mean?"
"Since the Avatar's probably going to try blabbing everything to the Earth King – that includes the Conspiracy Resistance and conversions – we have to get rid of anything that could validate his claims. Long Feng's orders are to seal off every conversion chamber and prison cell in headquarters. And then we have to destroy the entrance. It's the most we can do in case the Earth King's guards try to find their way down here." The soaking agent shook out one of his sleeves, causing some slimy bits of algae to splatter onto Yuhan.
"If we seal off the prison cells, wouldn't the prisoners...die?" Yuhan tried his best to contain his irritation as he began picking off the algae from his robe. In addition, he had to make sure that Tyru couldn't sense his concern for the prisoners. If he found out that Yuhan had been purposely failing Mina and Liu's conversions each month...well, it was better if he never found out.
"Of course they would!" Tyru replied crossly. "That's why Long Feng's making us relocate them. All of them! Honestly they'd be better off dead right now, but he figures we'd get into serious trouble if their bodies were discovered."
"I see. Then where are we supposed to move them?"
"That's what I'm here to tell you, obviously! We have to move fast. There's no guarantee that the Palace defenses can hold off the Avatar, and investigators could come down here any minute. You'd better be alert for this. Let's go!"
Yuhan sighed again as Tyru strode away. He grudgingly left his room behind, following his fellow agent down the green-lit hallway. He wanted to go back to sleep...
One side of the Dai Li headquarters was in chaos – silent chaos. Not a word was spoken. Only the sound of rapid footsteps and the steady rumbling of chambers being demolished echoed throughout the dark facility. In the silence, the dark shapes of agents could be seen flitting in and out of the rooms, gliding quickly across the floor and dragging with them crates of conversion chamber lanterns.
The other side of headquarters was filled with commotion and rang with the sound of utter madness. Almost all of the prisoners fought stubbornly against their captors as they were dragged in chains from their cells, despite the agents' numerous attempts to beat them back down. Several were carried away unconscious. It was at this scene that Yuhan and Tyru finally arrived.
Tyru immediately dashed away towards the unopened cells while Yuhan strained to see through the crowd, his eyes sharp. He began pushing his way through the mess of agents and prisoners, focusing only on finding two particular individuals. The agent was almost hit several times by the fired gloves of his fellow members as the prisoners continued to rebel.
He found the couple trailing several feet behind the crowd, being led by a single and timid agent. They were making no attempts to fight back, however. Yuhan felt the guilt dropping like a pile of bricks upon his chest as he drew closer. Riya's adoptive mother was barely conscious, stumbling across the ground as her husband struggled to support her arm around his shoulder. Fortunately, the agent leading them was a new recruit who hadn't quite developed the cold, efficiently cruel personality of a true Dai Li agent yet. In fact, Yuhan recognized him. "Tao!" he shouted, running over to the little group. "Do you need any help?"
Tao looked relieved to see the older agent. During his training days, he'd actually been ordered to observe Yuhan to improve his Earthbending, and the two had gotten to know each other comfortably. "Yeah. I'm kind of stuck," he replied sheepishly, looking anxiously at his prisoners. "I don't want to force them to go any faster, but I'm going to get in trouble if I don't get them to their new cells soon!" He fearfully took note of the Dai Li agents eyeing him threateningly from the crowd ahead.
Though he knew that he had to protect Mina and Liu, Yuhan was terrified of being anywhere near them. The combined guilt and pressure was overwhelming now that he was this close. But I have no other choice. Yuhan's hat was pulled unusually low as he faced Tao, and his voice came out odd. "Here...you help him." He motioned towards Liu, making sure not to meet his gaze. "And I'll take the woman. If we carry them, no one gets punished for being slow, and we can move onto other prisoners in no time. Come on!"
Tao nodded quickly and proceeded to hoist Riya's adoptive father over his shoulder. Though Liu was too weak protest, he still eyed the agents spitefully as they pulled Mina away from him. He watched suspiciously as Yuhan slid her bony frame carefully over his shoulder, not yet recognizing him.
The two agents both leaned forward on one foot in a distinct and synchronized motion. They immediately sailed across the smooth stone floor, with the damp air whizzing across the dull faces of their prisoners. A few moments later they found themselves near the front of the crowd, following the massive line into the tunnel leading to the new headquarters. The temporary facility was an old, abandoned tomb deep beneath one of Lake Laogai's surrounding mountains, and several agents had already customized its chambers to hold captives.
So far, so good. They're safe...and I'm safe...Yuhan's anxiety began to lessen as he and Tao continued their steady journey through the dark tunnel. He made sure never to glance towards the small body resting upon his shoulder, though she seemed too ill to even notice. Perhaps he could do something about that illness...he was returning to the city tonight, after all. Yuhan began to ponder ways to sneak medicine into headquarters as the entrance of the newly constructed prisoner cells slowly became visible in the distance.
The two agents were only a few paces away from the new cells when Yuhan suddenly felt Mina's scrawny fingers clench down on his wrist. Her fingernails dug so painfully that he thought he felt his skin tear apart. "Where did you get this?" Her voice was astonishingly strong. Strong, and absolutely terrifying. The hostility in her tone immediately caught Liu's attention, who jerked his head up to look.
"W-what?" Yuhan slowly met her gaze, feeling like a small and frightened child as her jade green eyes glared furiously into his own.
"This!" She grabbed again, suddenly pulling hard on a thick band of leather strips around his wrist, almost cutting off his circulation. The gleam of the three shining disks woven between them filled her eyes with an indescribable horror. Liu seemed to fall lifeless against Tao's shoulder as soon as he recognized it too.
Yuhan was unable to answer, and he tried instead to place the woman on the ground, pulling her away from him.
"Whom did you take this from? What have you done to her? You will answer me RIGHT THIS MOMENT!" Mina's piercing voice cracked as she clenched both the bracelet and the agent's wrist even tighter. Unable to support herself on the ground however, she almost dragged him down with her.
Tao immediately rushed over to help, setting Liu down against the wall. The prisoner simply slumped to the ground with his head lolling to the side, his eyes staring vacantly in disbelief. Both of the agents struggled to loosen Mina's grip around Riya's bracelet before finally wrenching her away from it. She began to wail and kick wildly as Yuhan slowly backed away and while Tao dragged her forcefully towards Liu, locking her hands between his rock gloves.
"S-silence yourself, peasant!" Tao huffed as he continued to encase more stone restraints around the struggling woman's limbs, pinning her to the ground. He turned alarmingly to Yuhan. "What's wrong with her, and why's she going mad over your bracelet?" he yelled over Mina's screaming.
Yuhan only continued to back further away, his head feeling faint. He wanted so badly to tell Mina that the bracelet wasn't taken. It was given – but the fact that he was facing her like this, preparing to lock her into a new and diseased prison cell for eternity... It was just wrong, all wrong. He had to get out of here.
His wish was miraculously granted for once. As he continued, dumbfounded, to watch Riya's only parents lean against each other on the wall and sob wretchedly, a young messenger suddenly rushed into the scene. Yuhan and Tao were surprised to see him unroll a large and colorful scroll, wielding the seal of the Earth King. Letters from the Palace were rarely delivered to Dai Li agents, much less during chaotic times like this.
The messenger glanced for a moment at the weeping couple on the ground before clearing his throat loudly. "Are one of you agents named Yuhan Tsen?"
The tired, green-eyed agent sighed. "Yeah...that's me..." He glumly observed Riya's foster parents engraving that name into their minds with all the hate they could muster.
"The Earth King has acknowledged the potential threat approaching his palace and requests Long Feng's reinforcements. Your leader has summoned five Dai Li agents as backup, and you are among them."
"Wait..." Yuhan tried his hardest to ignore Riya's parents as he spoke. "You mean there aren't any agents at the palace?"
"Unfortunately, they all returned here hoping to intercept the Avatar before he and his friends escaped with the bison, seeing as you, well..." There was an uncomfortable pause. "Agent Tsen, please hurry," the messenger quickly continued, anxious to finish collecting the other chosen agents. "You are to leave at once. A carriage is waiting at the exit tunnel." The messenger briskly rolled the scroll back up, tucking it into his belt and running off to seek the other chosen agents.
Tao stared at Yuhan with admiration. "Wow, backup for King Kuei... I guess you'd better go then. I can take care of the prisoners from here. Thanks!" He began to head over to Riya's family, who were glaring at Yuhan with red eyes, taking in every detail of his face.
"Yeah...anytime..." Yuhan slowly turned away from the prisoners, his head hanging low as he began to drag himself back towards the headquarters exit.
One last voice shot through the air before Yuhan disappeared from sight. "You'll pay for what you did to her." It was Mina, pointing after him with murderous intent.
'You'll pay for what you did'...Why am I not surprised that it sounds so familiar? The tired agent almost laughed bitterly as he began climbing up the ladder that led to the city above the lake.
There was one other agent already sitting in the carriage when Yuhan emerged from Lake Laogai. He looked well into his 50s, and his braided hair was a dull grey. He simply sat with his arms crossed, his head bent low. The man shifted slightly at the noise of Yuhan's footsteps, lifting his face just enough to see beneath the brim of his hat. His sharp green eyes squinted a little. "Ah, a youngster..."
Yuhan climbed awkwardly into the carriage, plopping himself onto the cushioned seat across from the older agent. What was he supposed to reply to something like that? "Hi...my name's Yuhan."
"Guiren." The older agent gave the slightest nod in reply, but suddenly stopped. "Hold up...you wouldn't happen to be the brainwashing kid, would you?" He examined Yuhan closely now, his eyes filled with a new curiosity.
"I don't know what you mean by that," Yuhan replied stiffly. "Every agent in this organization brainwashes...sir." He made sure to keep a courteous tone in case this agent happened to originate from the Upper Ring. Still, he found it difficult not to be annoyed at his ever-growing reputation. Who wanted to be known for destroying people's minds?
"Well, I can see that the rumors of your modesty are also true," Guiren chuckled, his head dropping back down, "which is a rare thing to find in your generation these days. You could teach those pompous kids a thing or two. Like that patrol partner of yours."
"Oh. Yeah, I guess I could." There was no reply. "So...what do you do down at headquarters?"
Guiren remained so still that Yuhan began to wonder if he'd fallen asleep. The reply seemed to originate from thin air. "Eh, I take care of all the disloyal agents. You know, throwing them out of the city and chaining up their families and such. Making sure they can't run. Tedious job, really. You'd think they'd have enough sense not to cross Long Feng these days."
"Yeah. Tell me about it..." The younger agent unconsciously shifted further away in his seat.
The third chosen agent suddenly hopped into the carriage. He was another 'youngster' by the name of Quan, with jet-black hair and narrow brown eyes. The lanky boy slumped down next to Yuhan, casually resting his feet onto the seats across from them. Guiren frowned and scooted away from the stone boots. Yuhan could already tell that the two weren't going to get along.
Quan, too, had important responsibilities at headquarters. He was the chief trainer of Joo Dees – and apparently had a 'dazzling smile' that they all modeled their grin after. He knew Ba Sing Se inside and out, and he would travel through the city with each new group of Joo Dees for weeks until they did too. Quan shaped their personalities into the perfect, ever-smiling tour guides that Lower Ring citizens had come to loathe. As for hollowing out their minds and renaming them all to Joo Dee...That step was taken care of by people like Yuhan. He himself usually didn't work with the tour guides, however, being assigned instead to convert the most stubborn and difficult rebels.
Since Quan was so heavily involved in public communications, Guiren considered him nothing more than an "insignificant poster boy" for the organization. He didn't hesitate to voice his opinion, either. The two agents were bickering and threatening each other in no time.
Yuhan was left sitting off to the side, sighing as he gazed into the cloudy sky through the window. What was Riya doing now? Missing her foster parents. He groaned and threw his head back against his seat. Quan and Guiren assumed that he'd been irritated by their arguing, but they continued anyway.
He had to confront the foster parents ordeal. After what happened earlier, Yuhan knew that he couldn't avoid it much longer. Alright, what to do about Mina and Liu? I can go buy some medicine tonight, and then I could...his thoughts trailed away into nothing. There really was nothing he could do for them. He was basically just keeping them alive in prison. Riya could never have them back. And even if they returned, they'd have been converted anyway (and have no memory of her). If they were somehow freed without being converted, that would require disloyalty. And as much as it tortured him to see Riya grieving, Yuhan could never bring himself to be disloyal. He was a true Dai Li agent.
...Or was he? He'd deliberately failed Mina and Liu's conversions each month. A truly committed agent wouldn't have hesitated to erase their minds. Yuhan's hand slid over his face. How had it come to this? He couldn't be a good Dai Li agent because of Riya, and he couldn't be a good lover because of the Dai Li. He could only continue to let the two imperfections grow and collide with one another. He was never strong enough to make the choice.
Then I guess now's the time to start. Yuhan began to do what he absolutely dreaded: determining whether Riya or the Dai Li had greater value to him. The two had grown to become such defining factors of his life that it felt like he'd lose a part of his soul if one ever triumphed over the other. Just as he began to force the comparison, however, the remaining chosen agents found their way to the carriage. They clambered noisily into the seats, forcing Yuhan to cut off his thoughts as he made room for them. Quan and Guiren's argument was interrupted as well, and they glowered silently at each other while the two new agents introduced themselves.
Peng, an 'old-timer' like Guiren, was the custody specialist of the Dai Li; he continually improved the designs of their handcuffs, inventing new and lighter varieties of chains to hide within their sleeves. He was also responsible for designing prisoner restraints and tools for interrogation. His wrinkled grey eyes looked weary from scrutinizing endless worksheets and revisions.
Jinhai, on the other hand, was the interrogator of prisoners. Aside from using physical means, this 'youngster' had an expertise for tormenting rebels through the conversion chamber. Unlike Yuhan however, he didn't alter his victims' memories; during interrogation, memories became their agony. This agent could force them to relive their darkest hours, and it was too often related to the Fire Nation. Most rebels broke down after having to witness their loved ones being burned alive all over again. Jinhai's eyes had grown cold and emotionless from constantly watching such scenes, and they were so dark that they appeared more black than green. Even the black of his hair seemed to resemble the darkness of a bottomless well.
As it turned out, this group summarized all the ways that the Dai Li could possibly eliminate a threat. There was an escape thwarter, a custody specialist, an interrogator, and finally, a brain manipulator who could guarantee cooperation. The only person missing was a hitman in case the threat simply needed to begone - but well, seeing as Hiroshu cracked a rib, Yuhan's best guess was that Quan was the random replacement. Still, everyone here made up an impressive team to protect the Earth King. Long Feng had chosen wisely, and their number had to be kept small to avoid drawing suspicion from the city. Now that they were all finally together, the carriage shot forward, carrying them full speed towards the Royal Palace.
...Hopefully the army of guards at the Royal courtyard could hold off the Avatar's group until they arrived.
The lengthy trip to the Palace was relatively silent. Quan and Guiren occasionally exchanged snide remarks, but none of the agents really cared to converse. Peng had begun to scribble something onto a sketchpad while Jinhai dozed off. Yuhan would have fallen asleep as well, had he not been pondering Riya's foster parents again.
The tired agent pulled back his right sleeve a little. His bracelet was still twisted up from being yanked at earlier, and the leather cords were all tangled about. He slowly straightened them back out, his fingers trailing along the polished disks. His expression softened as he traced along the symbolic emerald on the left. "The one on the left is supposed to be the nation of the bracelet's giver – my nation. And when you give it away, you weave in the stone on the right representing the nation of a person who's really special to you." Her tender voice was still fresh in his memory. He could even remember exactly how she looked like as she spoke those words. The rich brown color of her hair was slightly blackened where he'd stroked it with his sooty fingers. Her cheeks had been glowing bright pink, her eyes sparkling. Her entire face was lit up with eagerness in anticipation of his reaction. She'd been radiating with such happiness, innocence, and...love. Yes, love.
That only made things worse. How could he possibly betray Riya like this, after seeing those eyes? Whenever she looked at him, the warmth of her smile seemed to breathe new life into his sleep-deprived body. It would strengthen him for days after he left, even within the cold and dark chambers of headquarters. One meaningless conversation with Riya made him smile more than he had during all eight years in the Dai Li. Around her, Yuhan didn't feel so much like...a clone. That was the word for it. Dai Li agents were trained by Long Feng to look, earthbend, and even talk alike in public. It ensured their effectiveness as a team as well as a professional image, but they lost their individuality in the process. In Riya's eyes, though, Yuhan was nothing like the other agents. He was fascinating. He was irreplaceable. He was the world. One look at those hazel eyes told him all of these things. And though he was terrible at expressing it...he felt the same for her.
As for the Dai Li? Well, the organization paid him more than the highest government officials in the Upper Ring. His family was even treated like royalty. He was well respected and praised by his fellow agents as well as Long Feng. He'd made a lifelong friend. Aside from his sleep deprivation, life in the organization treated Yuhan pretty well. He also owed his leader for lifting his parents from poverty and ensuring their safety in the Upper Ring. Most importantly, though, his duties were essential to the city's well being. Ba Sing Se would probably lead a foolish and suicidal attack on the Fire Nation without all those conversions – and everyone would suffer. He had a solemn obligation to the city. Yuhan couldn't possibly allow his feelings for Riya to interfere...could he?
It seemed like brainstorming had done more bad than good. Yuhan still couldn't choose, and if anything his sleep-deprived head was starting to ache. He grumpily crossed his arms, finally allowing his eyes to rest. Forget it! He decided just to continue making Riya as happy as possible...without being disloyal to the Dai Li. Nothing bad had come out of it so far, anyway. The most important thing for him now was to cherish his time with Riya tonight. It was going to be a new moon, if he recalled correctly. The stars would be shining brightly. Maybe his dream from earlier didn't have to be a dream. There were plenty of lush hills around the agrarian zone of the city. He could take her to one of them, and...
"We're arrived!" The carriage driver yelled from outside.
Yuhan's eyes snapped open as the carriage rumbled to a stop. The other agents began shifting about and peering out the windows. They all seemed taken aback by what they saw. Confused, Yuhan strained his neck to look. His jaw dropped.
The Palace courtyard was unrecognizable. The ground beneath the marble was uprooted everywhere in all kinds of forms. It looked like an army of Earthbenders had trampled through the place.
The agents had arrived too late.
"Those kids! Palace - invasion! Destroyed! Ruined! Stairs flattened, all our troops... gone! And the A-avatar! Overthrowing us! Long Feng said so himself! Failed to defend..."
A Royal Guard had come running to the agents atop an ostrich horse upon their arrival. Yuhan was the only one patient enough to listen to his babbling. He nodded warily as he pieced together the bits of information flying at him. "I'm still trying to understand what you're saying. Calm down! So basically, the Avatar and three kids wrecked this whole place...and all of your guards were taken out?" Was the Avatar really that powerful?"
"Yes, that's what I've been saying!" the Guard replied, as if he'd made himself obvious.
"No it wasn't!" Yuhan never imagined meeting someone more inarticulate than himself. "All I heard was 'Ruin! Avatar! Palace! Kids!'" The other agents, particularly Guiren, began to eye him impatiently. "You know what, forget it... We're late already, and Long Feng's probably getting angry. Round up the remainder of your troops. Make sure no one else enters the Palace."
The agents were all relieved to see the Guard finally leave, and they quickly approached the steps of the Palace – or what was left of the steps. Someone had earthbent them flat. Yuhan had a nasty feeling that Toph Beifong was somehow related to this. If they were going to have to deal with her at the throne...they were pretty much doomed.
The high-pitched scream of a woman suddenly echoed throughout the courtyard when the agents had climbed halfway up the steps. It was accompanied by agitated shouting. "STOP HER! She's gone crazy! You're the ones who control her – do something!"
Yuhan and the other agents glanced at each other for a moment before sliding themselves back towards the ground. Guiren was the first to identify the screaming. "Why are we being stopped for a Joo Dee?" he muttered. "That driver should know the cue to shut her up."
"I think he might've tried that already..." Yuhan pointed out as the figure in yellow continued to run further and further. He looked around at the other agents, who were all standing indifferently as they observed the scene. You've got to be kidding me. They were all waiting for someone to make the first move. Sighing, he pinpointed the exact location of his target. He shot his arm forward, trying to focus on the patch of earth beneath Joo Dee. It worked, and the ground immediately loosened apart until her feet broke through the surface. Yuhan quickly clenched his fist again, hardening the earth before she sank in completely.
Joo Dee's carriage driver looked at the agents nervously as they approached the struggling woman. He knew that Dai Li agents hated being interrupted. The vile expression on Guiren's face only strengthened the fact. "Did it occur to you that we're running late?" he asked, examining one of his gloves dangerously.
"LET ME GO!" Joo Dee cut in. Yuhan glanced down at her face as she tried to pull herself free. There was a horrible lurch in his stomach, and he felt a little sick. This was a Joo Dee from long ago, who'd once declared to Hiroshu that she had no illnesses... Today, she was ghastly pale with disease, and her short brown hair was tangled about the lopsided ornament atop her head. He could already tell that her conversion had completely worn off as soon as he met her defiant black eyes. If anything, her sickness probably induced it. Yuhan couldn't help but feel a slight twinge of pity. It was a shame...this woman would have been beautiful if she weren't so ill.
Guiren had been interrupted yet again. If looks could kill... "This is a waste of our time," he scowled, looking ready to bury the woman into the ground. "Joo Dee, the Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai."
"That's not my name! It's Suyin!"
So that was her name.
In light of her blatant ignorance of the command, Yuhan would have said to Guiren "I told you so" if the older agent hadn't looked so homicidal.
"Dear Spirits, she's so loud..." Jinhai sighed, rubbing his temple. "The whole city's going to hear her at this rate. Someone needs to redo her conversion before she goes blabber mouthing."
All of the agents cringed a little at Jinhai's blatant words. The whole city was going to hear him at this rate. Conversions were not to be mentioned in public areas – especially not the Palace. Then again, the whole courtyard was pretty much abandoned because of the Avatar's violent invasion. But still...Yuhan began to glance around to make sure no one was in sight.
His attention was diverted when Quan spoke up. "But we have no time to take her to headquarters! Maybe if someone volunteers..."
"Whoever doesn't show up is going to be killed by Long Feng!" interrupted Peng. Sadly, he was correct. They were all going to get punished already for being tardy, and to be absent was a death wish. Peng suddenly seemed to remember something, turning sharply to Yuhan. "Hey, you're good at dealing with these issues, aren't you? Do something about her!"
All of the agents turned towards Yuhan, as if he could magically fix everything. For a brief moment, he tried to think of any other solution to the problem, but he found nothing. He dully looked around at his fellow agents, who were still watching him expectantly. Brilliant. This day was becoming a pain. Yuhan suddenly agreed with Guiren; Quan was completely useless, being the trainer of Joo Dees without even knowing how to control them. He cursed under his breath, stepping forward towards the woman in the ground.
Yuhan knelt down before her. Suyin stared back, her eyes filled with terror. The nagging guilt pulled even harder on his chest. This was exactly why he hated working with Joo Dees. He looked away from her pitiful face, glaring at Quan. "Do you have anything shiny?" Might as well get it over with...
Quan raised an eyebrow while the other agents looked at each other in confusion. "Wait, what?" he asked stupidly.
"Do you have anything that shines?" Yuhan repeated irritably. "Come on! We don't have any time, like you said." They were never going to get out of here at this rate.
The Joo Dee trainer fumbled with his pockets for a moment as Yuhan waited impatiently. He finally pulled out a gold tael bar and clumsily handed it over. The blinding glare of the currency immediately hit Yuhan's eyes, causing him to blink a few times. This would definitely work.
All of the other agents watched curiously as the "brainwashing kid" carefully examined the gold bar. He turned it over again and again until the glare shot directly into Suyin's eyes. Yuhan watched her cringe and try to look away. Judging from how tightly her pupils were constricted, the glare of the gold bar almost matched the brightness of a conversion chamber lantern. He could safely assume that this procedure would go smoothly.
Holding the bar firmly in place, Yuhan stretched one of his index fingers slightly towards the ground below, tracing it through the air. A cut began to form within the earth, following the motion of his finger until a rough circle had been sliced into the stone. With a gentle flick, the small disk freed itself from the ground, floating up beneath the gold piece.
Here comes the best part, Yuhan thought glumly, pressing the currency into the slab of earth. He began to guide the disk in a smooth, circular motion across Suyin's eyes. The horrifying realization dawned over her face at once. "No, please...I w-want to go home..."
Her tortured voice scorched the very center his chest. Today really was a pain. Yuhan stared hard into the poor woman's eyes, unblinking. Remember your duty. Remember why you have to do this. "Listen to me..." The sound of his voice disrupted Suyin's concentration, and her eyes became glued to the floating gold piece. "Suyin does not exist. Joo Dee is your name. Joo Dee is what others shall address you as. Joo Dee is forever your title. Now, say it with me." Remember your duty.
The transformation had begun. He could hear her breathing relax. He could feel her mind slipping away. His calming, silky-smooth voice invited her to let go of her troubles and confusion, to trust him because he sounded so sure of himself while she was lost. Listening to him would bring her peace. "Suyin...does not exist..." the young woman agreed softly.
Remember your duty.
"Joo Dee...is my name..."
Remember your duty...
It was over before long. Joo Dee enthusiastically headed back towards her carriage, grinning widely. The gold bar lay still on the ground. Yuhan stared down at it. He could hear the other agents murmuring amongst themselves. He didn't care to listen.
"Wow, so the rumors about you are true..." The sharp sound of Guiren's whistle caused Yuhan to look up a little. "Makeshift conversion chambers! Who knew? You're really quite something, Yuhan."
Imagine that. "Whatever..." The tired agent kept his face low, his eyes flashing dangerously. He was going to rip Guiren's throat out if he heard another word about his reputation. "Problem solved. Off we go."
Yuhan marched back towards the Palace steps, and the other agents hurriedly followed. He really hated working with Joo Dees...
The enemies were still fighting inside the Palace. The agents could feel the violent rumbling from the distance as they glided swiftly through the hallways. Yuhan tried to his best to remember the way. Each hallway looked almost identical, lined with magnificent doors and huge pillars. He began to feel a little dazed from all the gold and green zipping past his eyes.
They came to an abrupt stop at a large clearing between the passageways. The area was surrounded by a mass of towering pillars that stretched all the way to the roof – pillars that weren't supposed to be there.
All of the agents snapped their heads up in the direction of the voice. Yuhan took one look at the ceiling and felt the color drain from his face. "Holy Spirits..."
Pinned to the ceiling by each and every pillar was a Royal Guard. Their arms and legs were dangling out from the sides. Yuhan wondered for a moment why they hadn't tried to Earthbend their way down, but he quickly realized the severity of their injuries. They'd all been half-crushed.
"Help..." the Guard wheezed again. "Help...the Earth King...Go..."
"Was the Avatar responsible for this?" Guiren demanded.
"Yes..." the Guard replied weakly. The agents could barely hear him from where they were. "But you must leave. Take the back passage...or they'll reach the throne first. Go...now!" His devotion was truly admirable.
Yuhan and the other agents slid forward on their stone shoes once more. He took a last, painful glance over his shoulder as the suffering Royal Guards disappeared from sight. Hopefully someone could come help them soon...
They reached what appeared to be a dead end. Peng stepped forward, facing the wall. He thrust his arm forward, pressing his palm against a special brick hidden behind a lantern. The brick immediately sank into the wall, which rumbled loudly and collapsed straight into the ground. After all of the agents had stepped through the secret entrance, Peng pressed a second brick from within the passage, and the wall shot back up.
The group darted as quickly as possible through the narrow tunnel. It was almost pitch-black, aside from a couple of glowing green crystals growing from occasional spots in the ground. The rumbling in the distance grew louder and louder. They were getting close – and so were their enemies.
"Can we make it?" Quan panted, who was beginning to lose his breath.
"We have to!" Yuhan heaved back. "The Avatar can't be allowed to contact the Earth King! Our entire organization is on the line!"
"Indeed it is!" The sudden and intimidating voice sent a chill down all of their spines. "WHERE have you fools been?"
Long Feng was standing at the end of the tunnel. It was so dark that Yuhan barely saw him in time, and his feet skidded against the ground to a screeching halt. Stumbling to regain his balance, he met the wrathful gaze of his leader. "S-sir!" he gasped. "We're very sorry! We -"
A deafening bang from outside the exit shook the entire tunnel before he could finish apologizing. Several bits of rock fell down from the ceiling, bouncing off of his hat.
For the first time in his life, Yuhan could sense a note of panic in his leader's voice. "They've broken down the Grand Entrance!" cried Long Feng. "Don't just stand there – go! Move!"
The agents hastily formed a line behind Long Feng as he turned around and slammed open the entrance to the throne room. The brilliant light immediately flooded Yuhan's eyes, blinding him for a moment. He rubbed at one of them while sprinting after Long Feng towards the center of all Earth Kingdom authority.
Before he knew it, Yuhan found himself standing in front of the throne with his fellow agents, facing away from the Earth King. They were all positioned into identical battle stances, rigidly holding their palms forward and ready to fire their gloves. They had actually managed to beat the Avatar to King Kuei...well, sort of.Their enemies were standing several feet in front of them, firmly holding their own battle stances. Yuhan suddenly realized that one of them was pointing a long staff right at his face. Oh...he was standing directly across from the Avatar, wasn't he?
"We need to talk to you," demanded the child. His voice had an intensity and determination that didn't seem to reflect his young age at all. At the very least, Yuhan had to give him credit for being oddly mature.
"They're here to overthrow you!" Long Feng countered from behind. Yuhan could see the shadow of his leader's arm on the ground as he motioned towards the children.
"No, we're here to help! We're on your side!" shouted the Water Tribe boy. He held a weird machete...thing, and had an even weirder hairdo. It was completely shaven except for at the very top of his head, where it was tied back in a stubby brown ponytail.
"You have to trust us!" added the girl standing next to Ponytail Guy. She looked strangely similar to him, and they shared the same mocha-colored skin. Her eyes were also the same brilliant blue, though softer, and two loops of brown hair framed her face while the rest formed a long braid down her back. Flowing from a pouch at the side her waist was a long stream of water, which seemed to mimic the position of her arm.
Though he'd seen them all already, the children still seemed a little unfamiliar to Yuhan, now that he could look at them closely. Furthest from him, barefoot with pale, almost colorless eyes was...Toph Beifong. Brilliant. So she was here. Standing across from her was Quan, who was almost shaking in his boots at the sight of the boulder hovering threateningly before her arms.
The Earth King himself finally spoke up. Yuhan heard him rise from his throne. "You invade my palace, lay waste to all my guards, break down my fancy door...and you expect me to trust you?"
Yuhan resisted the urge to slap his forehead. Leave it to King Kuei to complain about his door. The agent really had nothing against the young ruler, but it was during these moments that he was glad Long Feng ran the city. The Earth King always paid attention to the most random and insignificant things...only the Spirits knew what would happen if he took control of Ba Sing Se.
"He has a good point," piped in the blind Earthbender. Yuhan silently prayed that she wouldn't do anything with that boulder.
"If you are on my side," King Kuei continued angrily, "then drop your weapons and stand down."
There was a heavy moment of silence as the group of children looked hesitatingly at one another. To everyone's relief, they finally withdrew their arms.
"See?" the Avatar said cheerfully, lifting his hands. "We're friends, your Earthiness! Heheh..."
What in the world...? Where did all the intensity and ferocity from earlier go? The sleep-deprived agent stared confusedly at the young Avatar. The boy had a pure laugh and a gentleness in his big, grey eyes that strangely reminded him of Riya's.
Long Feng immediately seized the opportunity to strike, raising his arm. The agents recognized the cue at once and threw their palms forward. The stone gloves soared across the room, grabbing onto the wrists of the enemies and locking them together.
"Detain the assailants!" commanded the Head of the Dai Li. Yuhan and the other agents leaned onto their rock shoes for the hundredth time that day, sailing across the floor towards the children. They came to a perfect stop in a straight row behind the group. Yuhan ended up behind the Avatar. The boy's head barely reached his shoulder. It was hard to believe that such a small child was the master of all four elements.
"But we dropped our weapons!" the Water Tribe boy yelled indignantly. "We're your allies!"
"Make sure the Avatar and his friends never see daylight again," Long Feng said dismissively, ignoring the complaint.
"The Avatar? You're the Avatar?" The Earth King pointed surprisingly at Ponytail Guy.
"Uh, no. Him." The Water Tribe boy looked over at the child in front of Yuhan.
"Over here!" The Avatar smiled and lifted his hands again. Wait, lifted his hands? Spirits, he'd undone the rock gloves without Yuhan even noticing. The agent quickly moved the pieces back into place around the child's wrists. Well, he could be sure now that this one was definitely the Avatar.
"What does it matter, your Highness?" Long Feng retorted. "They're enemies of the state."
"Perhaps you're right..." King Kuei sighed, looking down. So the situation wasn't as bad as Yuhan predicted. It seemed like Long Feng had things under control now.
The Earth King's pet bear, which had been sleeping next to the throne this whole time, suddenly stood up and walked directly towards Yuhan, who dully observed its appearance. Only someone with too much time on their hands could dress up their pets in bright yellow tunics and fancy hats. Well, that's King Kuei for you. The bear plopped down next to the Avatar, giving a small grumble of affection. The child laughed as the large creature licked his face. Yuhan continued to stand awkwardly behind the two.
"Though Bosco seems to like him!" King Kuei added brightly. "I'll hear what he has to say."
You can't be serious... After everything Yuhan had gone through today, all of his suffering was about to go to waste because of a fat, stupid bear? Long Feng seemed to be thinking the same thing, judging from his murderous expression.
The young Avatar stepped forward before the Earth King. "Well, sir," he began, "there's a war going on right now. For the past one hundred years, in fact. The Dai Li's kept it secret from you..."
Oh, they were doomed. Yuhan already knew. Considering the King's stupidity, the Avatar's influence, Long Feng's bison bite mark, and Bosco...they were so, so doomed.
The five agents glumly made their way back down the flattened steps of the courtyard. So they weren't completely doomed...but they were pretty close to it. King Kuei hadn't really believed the story about the war conspiracy, which was good. However, he was out investigating in the city with the Avatar and his friends – without Long Feng. Who knew what kind of evidence they could dig up? At the very least, though, the old Dai Li headquarters had been sealed up. The agents could only hope that the Earth King would trust his advisor in the end.
Long Feng had left the agents to themselves, angrily ordering them to meet him at the new headquarters to devise a plan. The carriage that had driven them here was already waiting at the end of the courtyard.
Yuhan let out a disappointed sigh. He had been looking forward to returning to the city tonight - returning to Riya. And now he was stuck spending the rest of the day with the Dai Li, trying to deal with an incompetent Earth King. Today was truly a pain.
The sleep-deprived agent looked bewilderedly at the carriage. Sitting inside was... "Hiroshu? What in the name of all Spirits are you doing here?"
"Glad to see you too, kid!" Hiroshu replied cheerily, scooting over to make room for the agents. They all looked confusedly between the two friends. "Well, you know how my rib's slightly fractured right?"
"Yeah, and...?" Yuhan eyed his partner suspiciously.
"Uh, I might've done a little bit of Earthbending a while ago, which kind of made the rib actually break, and...well, the doctors came and said it'd puncture my lung and kill me if I tried to walk back to headquarters. So I get to catch a ride with you now!" He smiled sheepishly.
Yuhan slapped a hand over his own face, peering at Hiroshu through the gaps between his fingers. "Just how did you manage to break your rib in two? Did another blind girl decide to kick it or something?"
Hiroshu ignored the snide comment, his face puzzled. "You mean you didn't run into her?" he asked incredulously.
"Run into who?"
"Riya! Your girlfriend! You didn't see her?" Hiroshu was evidently shocked.
Yuhan felt his heart skip a beat. "She was here? When? WHERE?"
The other agents continued to watch the two awkwardly as they climbed into the carriage. Guiren shook his head a little. "Youngsters..."
Riya's childhood sweetheart remained standing outside the carriage, looking anxiously about the courtyard as if he'd actually see her there. "H-how didn't I know about this?" he asked no one in particular.
"Beats me!" Hiroshu shrugged. "I thought you'd come across her on your way to the Palace. I didn't send her that far from the courtyard... Oh, and she had this crazy showdown with some of your stalkers! I think she was winning, too..."
Yuhan wheeled around. "What was she doing here at the Palace?" He suddenly paused. "Wait, my stalkers?" he yelled. "You let her near those creatures?" He pulled infuriatingly at the hairs beneath his hat as his friend burst into a fit of laughter. Oh, those prissy makeup-clowns were really in for it now if they'd dared to insult his girl...
"Spirits, you need to take it easy!" Hiroshu gasped, his rib hurting again from all the laughter. "You've got work to do, and you can always say hi to her later – and kill your stalkers. Now stop standing there like an idiot and get in!"
The tired agent took one last glance around the ruined courtyard, dropping his shoulders. His anger slowly subsided into worry. If Riya had really been so close to the Palace, then where was she now? Why hadn't she come back? He began to wonder if Hiroshu was just messing with him.
Something bright and yellow in the distance suddenly caught Yuhan's eye. He began to walk towards it without thinking.
"Hey, where are you going?" Hiroshu called after him.
Yuhan ignored his partner, walking almost halfway across the courtyard until he reached a wilted chrysanthemum lying across the cracked marble. He stooped down, picking the pale yellow flower gently from the ground. Attached to its stem was a long, polished wood hairpin. The pieces of his rock glove slid back from his hand, hovering about his wrist as he felt one of the familiar petals between his fingers. "She was here..." he whispered softly.
But what was her pin doing in such a random place? Yuhan's eyebrows furrowed. He ignored the irritated groans from the agents waiting in the distance, looking around once more. His eyes suddenly locked onto a distorted patch of earth, less than twenty feet away. He recognized that patch...Its discoloration had been caused by his own Earthbending. The Earthbending he'd performed to trap Joo Dee into the ground.
Yuhan slowly looked down at the flower in his hand, then back at the patch. "Oh, no." All of the feeling left his body. Both of his gloves crumbled away, dropping to the ground in little pieces. The hairpin also slipped between his fingers, carrying the chrysanthemum with it. Yuhan pressed his eyes shut as the painful realization twisted his face.
His head felt strangely empty, and he could barely breathe because of the crushing pain in his chest. All of the surrounding noises seemed to hollow out, reduced to a distant ring in his ears.
Hiroshu suddenly came up behind him, clapping a hand onto his shoulder. Yuhan must've stood there for an eternity, considering how much time it had to have taken his patrol partner to crawl into a small ostrich horse's tied wheelbarrow, pick up a wooden plank among the courtyard debris, and use the plank to poke the animal towards the right direction. "What's the big deal?" Hiroshu was panting heavily from the effort and extremely irritated. "Wake up!"
Yuhan glared back, his eyes flashing with a sudden intensity. "Hiroshu. Tell the others not to wait for me. I'm taking the train to the Lower Ring."
"'Tell them?' They're already gone, pal! Told me it was your own problem if you wanted to stick around, and I missed my ride just to come get - wait -" It finally hit Hiroshu. "The TRAIN?" He waved a hand in front of Yuhan's face as if to wake him up. "Whaddyou mean, 'the train?!'"
"I mean that you're being annoying, and I'm taking the train. Now move." Yuhan hardly seemed aware of anything else in the world other than his need to get out of here, and he shuffled dismissively around Hiroshu's wheelbarrel.
His patrol partner wouldn't have it. Hiroshu extended his wooden plank and swung it down in front of Yuhan to stop him from walking further. "Have you lost it? Stop - listen to me!" he roared. "Remember the rules? Agent plus train equals Long Feng's wrath. Yuhan plus train equals death! You have orders to return to headquarters! Does any of that –"
"Hiroshu!" Yuhan furiously hit the plank out of the way. "I'm going to the Lower Ring." He lifted a hand to silence Hiroshu's outburst of protests. "I know the rules, okay?! Just -" He blocked another swing. "Shut up - SHUT UP!"
The sharp words frightened the ostrich horse, which took a step backwards that rolled Hiroshu and the wheelbarrow along as well. He stared back, his normally carefree expression replaced with horrified concern. "But...Yuhan...Long Feng -"
"Go ahead, tell Long Feng – I don't care! Tell anyone you want, just get off my case and shut it!" Yuhan snapped, causing Hiroshu's eyes to widen twice their size.
And with that, the disobedient agent sprinted away from the courtyard as fast as his legs could carry him.
He'd made his choice.
Chapter 11...almost at Chapter 14...close yet so far...argh.
I look forward to the day the author comments won't just talk about catching up on posting.
- Minnichi created the little scene at the beginning of the chapter to point out that Yuhan can only dream of being smooth. Literally. xD
- The Gaang's lines are taken directly from The Earth King
- Yuhan technically exists if you imagine that that's the bottom of his face in the screenshot xD It's fun giving random characters a story! ...And that kind of makes him canon, right? Right? T_T
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