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|Chapter 12 - Salty Rivers (SHiE)|
Summary of the Last Chapter Edit
Yuhan runs into all kinds of trouble after the infiltration at headquarters. Riya's stepparents think he killed her, and he's summoned to the Palace to help prevent any communication between the Avatar and the Earth King. He quickly reconverts a Joo Dee right before entering the Palace, but finds evidence of Riya's earlier presence at the scene. He realizes that she's seen everything.
Chapter 12 Edit
Laughter and rumbling stirred the humble Lower Ring residents awake. The sun had barely risen, but the children were already at it again. They played in a dusty clearing behind the walls of an old apartment complex, and the earth beneath them shot around their feet like waves. Carried along the wave was a makeshift soccer ball, worn and marred by countless repair stitches.
After a few poorly coordinated moves, the soccer ball sailed away from the dirty field, disappearing from sight. The children argued amongst themselves, blaming and criticizing each other's Earthbending. They continued to quarrel even after one of the boys finally volunteered to go fetch the missing ball.
The squabbling died out in the distance as the little boy darted away from the soccer field. Like most seven-year-olds in the Lower Ring, he was full of energy and almost bone thin. His hair was reduced to a small layer of fuzz, since his mother had grown tired of washing dirt out of it all the time. It appeared more brown than black, since so much dust had already collected atop his head. In fact, his entire body seemed to be the same dull brown; the dirt had settled everywhere, from his battered clothes to his skin.
He found the soccer ball in the hands of another child. The boy could only tell that she was a she because of her robe dress; the giant mess of brown hair covering almost half her face nearly caused him to think otherwise. She sat on the ground against one of the apartment walls, the dirty sphere resting at her feet. Her tiny hands were fiddling with a distorted chunk of wood and a small knife.
"Hi!" As he spoke, the boy's one striking feature shone brightly through all the brown covering his body: a pair of smiling green eyes, dark but not quite dark enough to hide the boldness of their color.
The little girl looked up from her wood chunk. "Hey!" She smiled back, picking up the ball and holding it out to him. "You're looking for this, right?"
"Yeah! Thanks," the boy replied cheerily, snatching up the ball under an arm. He wondered why he'd never seen this girl before; his neighborhood was small, and it was almost impossible for any child not to know each other. She simply looked back down after handing the ball over, picking up her chunk of wood again. He watched curiously as she continued to chip away at it. "Hey...is that a badgermole?" he asked, the realization hitting him. Though its wooden legs were slightly uneven, there was no mistaking the creature.
For some reason, the girl seemed completely startled by his sudden statement. She jerked her head back up and stared through her mass of hair, as if he wasn't supposed to be there. "Oh...U-um, yes it is! I made it," she stammered.
"You made it? That's so cool!" The fuzzy-haired boy leaned over to take a closer look at her work, his eyes filled with interest. With every word he spoke, the girl only seemed more disturbed and bewildered.
"Yeah, I guess it is," Afro Girl replied uncertainly. After a moment of hesitation, she added quietly, "A-aren't you going to return to your earth soccer game?" Her tone was sad, yet distantly hopeful at the same time. Hopeful of what, the boy had no idea.
"Well, yeah. In a little bit," he responded, confused. A new suspicion suddenly struck him. "Am I annoying you?" His mother had often warned him about bothering other children, other all.
She rapidly shook her head, her massive hair bobbing about. "No!" she quickly replied. "I mean, I don't know. It's just..." She fidgeted with the little badgermole. "No one usually...talks to me..."
"Huh?" The fuzzy-haired boy began to find her very random and confusing. "Everyone talks to each other here!" he stated simply. "If you come play earth soccer with us, all the neighborhood kids are there, and –"
"I can't play," she replied flatly. In response to his quizzical expression, she added, "I'm not like everyone else." Laying down her wooden figure, she sighed and drew her knees to her chest.
"You're not? I can't tell." The boy scratched his head.
"I'm not like you," the little girl mumbled again. "You see this?" She picked up a small pebble, hanging it loosely between her thumb and index finger. "When I play with rocks..." The pebble hit the ground again with a small plop. "They all fall back down. They don't move like when you touch them. So I can't play. And no one talks to me." Her voice wavered a little at the last sentence.
The boy couldn't think of anything else to say. Somewhere in the midst of the silence, however, he suddenly noticed that there was something gleaming on her cheeks in little streaks. "Wait – are you crying?" he exclaimed, taken aback.
Afro Girl immediately swiped at her face. "N-no..." she muttered.
"You sure?" The little boy slid down next to her on the wall, setting the ball aside. "Because Mommy says I shouldn't leave anyone who cries by themself. She says it's a mean and bad thing to do. And it looks like you're crying, so I think I'm supposed to not leave you by yourself because it's supposed to be bad, but I'm not sure because you said you're not crying so I don't really know what I'm supposed to do..."
As he babbled on, the little girl stared through her tangled hair, watching him almost disbelievingly. Whatever shone in her hazel eyes at that moment was completely hidden to him.
"...and Mommy says it's even worse if the person who's crying is crying because of you," continued the fuzzy-haired boy. "I mean, not you, but me. And I still think you're crying, and I don't know why, and so that might mean it's because of me. So...um, am I making you cry?" he asked with all the childish innocence in the world.
Afro Girl kept staring blankly at him, trying to understand the string of words he'd just spat out. Before she could answer, however, a second dusty boy came running towards them. He was a bit skinnier than her new acquaintance and had a lighter shade of green eyes, but the dirt made the two look almost identical.
"What are you doing?" demanded the new boy. "None of us can play without the ball, and we've been waiting for you! Come on!"
The fuzzy-haired boy quickly nodded and stood back up, picking the ball from the ground. He turned to say bye to Afro Girl, who remained sitting quietly against the wall. It suddenly occurred to him, however, that the streaks running down her cheeks seemed to glisten more than ever. He looked back down at the ball in his hands for a moment, sighing. "You can take this back. I'm not playing." As he spoke, he threw the dirty sphere over to his soccer playmate, who caught it and eyed him questioningly. The second boy didn't think on it for long, though, and he was running off in no time.
The little girl went completely still as her new acquaintance sat back down with her. He shrugged at her silence, casually floating some pebbles into the air and circling them around his fingers for amusement. According to his reasoning, he'd be disobeying his mother if he left this girl alone with her tears. He would rather be kicked in the face by one of the soccer boys than be caught disobeying his mother. Besides, the girl had some pretty neat woodbending skills that he was curious to learn. And she was nice – weird, but nice. It wasn't a hard decision for him to stay behind.
"So," the boy with emerald eyes finally asked again, "...Am I making you cry?" It bothered him that the streams still hadn't left her face.
Surprisingly, she smiled. Though the massive hair covering her eyes made it look bizarre, it was the brightest smile he'd seen from her so far. "No...no, you're not," she replied, her tone strangely different from before.
"Well, that's good. Because I don't want to. Now how'd you make that badgermole? Maybe you can teach me how to Woodbend, and I can teach you how to Earthbend..."
The air in the train was uncomfortable. It didn't take long for Yuhan to realize that most of the passengers either feared or hated him as soon as they recognized his uniform. Though there were a number of new refugees riding into the Lower Ring as well, the other passengers quietly warned them to steer clear of him. He sat isolated in a corner of the seats, and they all looked away from him as soon as he met their eyes.
"Isn't that an agent of the Dai Li?"
"Thought they were too high and mighty for the train."
"Shhh, he'll hear you if you keep talking like that. The last thing we need is another brainwashing goon after us."
He could hear all of their whispers. Sighing, he lowered his head to conceal his eyes and folded his hands within his sleeves. The slight ache he felt from the disapproving voices, however, was nothing compared to the ripping pain pulsing throughout his body whenever his thoughts drifted back to Riya. He wanted to see her so badly, yet part of him was terrified of doing so. Another part of him wanted to explain to her the perfectly moral reasons for her foster parents' imprisonment, and yet another part wanted to hold her tightly in his arms, to beg for her forgiveness.
It seemed like all those parts of his mind were at war with each other. One thing was for sure, though. No force in the world – not the Dai Li, not Long Feng, not any potential punishment – could make Yuhan regret coming to the Lower Ring tonight. Riya was alone, suffering, and...most likely crying. He wasn't sure why, but the moment he imagined her tear-filled face, he became absolutely driven to return to her at once. He'd even surprised himself when he blew off Hiroshu and disregarded all the strict rules of his organization. It was a strange and automatic reflex...but it felt right.
"We are now approaching the 4th division of our wonderful city's Lower Ring," announced a Joo Dee.
Somewhere beneath Yuhan's sleeves, one of his fingers found Riya's bracelet. Now that his hands were no longer covered in stone, he could feel it in its entirety. Grasping the leather cords tightly, he inhaled slowly. He no longer knew what to do, only that he had to be there with her. A slight pang wrung his heart when it occurred to him that she might no longer return the wish.
It was truly a beautiful night. Yuhan looked up into the moonless sky, which was illuminated by more stars than he'd ever seen in his life. They shined so brightly that the humble neighborhood approaching in the distance was in plain view, even at so late an hour. The agent sighed and finally tore his eyes away from the stunning sky. Such beauty...such a shame...
Some of her neighbors were still walking about outside, finishing their errands for the night. They greeted him kindly, though hesitantly. All of them seemed to glance nervously in the direction of her house as he passed them. They knew, and they were waiting. A few of them gave him encouraging smiles, which he could only return half-heartedly.
Finally, Yuhan found himself facing her door. He looked sadly at the small black soot stain that she'd never washed from it. Were those panda lilies still sitting on her windowsill? Shaking his head, he found the courage to speak at last. "Riya?"
He was sure that his voice had come out too timidly to produce any sound, but there was a sudden loud shuffling from inside the house as soon as her name escaped his lips. Then more silence. Yuhan cleared his throat, trying his hardest to keep a steady tone. "Riya," he repeated louder, "I need..."
His voice trailed away when the door quietly slid open. The first things he saw were her eyes - which cut straight through him. Their hazel color clashed horribly with the surrounding crimson, and they could only look at him through half-closed lids because of the immense swelling everywhere. Then her tangled hair came into view, hanging crazily about her shoulders, which were covered loosely in a tear-soaked nightgown. Finally her lips met his gaze, turned permanently down as she spoke. "Wh-What..." It seemed as if she'd forgotten how to talk. "What...are you doing h-here?"
"Riya..." Yuhan reached a hand towards her face, the horror evident in his eyes. She sharply turned from him, however, pacing away towards her bedroom. He closed the door behind him and followed her with heavy footsteps, watching the back of her head. "Well, I... I told you I'd come back tonight," he said at last, quite uselessly.
"Oh. T-that's right," Riya replied dismissively, still looking away from him as she came to a stop in front of a row of wooden plaques on the floor. Her head lowered a bit as she stared down at them.
Yuhan took a deep breath as he came up beside her. He read the familiar names carved into the wood, then closed his eyes for a long moment. "Riya..." For some reason, he seemed to start all of his sentences with her name tonight. "I'm so sorry that you had to see me like...well you know. How I was out there. Upper Ring." He was more inarticulate than ever, and it was so hard to focus when Riya finally looked at him, a single tear escaping her swollen eye. "And, well," he continued desperately, "I should probably explain, well I mean, if you let me -"
Riya suddenly gave a bitter laugh, cutting him off. She picked up one of the wooden plaques, scanning it through her half-closed eyelids. "Yuhan," she began, his name so broken on her lips that it hurt him to hear it, "Do you know why my favorite color is jade?"
The question seemed random, yet horribly related at the same time. Yuhan could only stammer back, "N-no. I don't. Why?"
The name carved into the plaque in her hands was that of her stepmother. "I never had a favorite color when I was younger," she explained, her red eyes glowing mysteriously. "I never cared to pay attention to them, and it didn't seem to matter after I lost my birth parents. But..." Riya looked at him again, her eyes boring into his soul. "I changed my mind when I met my foster parents." Yuhan swallowed as she continued to stare at him, unblinking. "You see, Mina has the most beautiful eye color I can ever remember," she continued, her voice beginning to shake. "When I saw them, they were so vibrant, yet a soft gentle green, too. So then I decided that my favorite color is jade. No one else has a color like hers in their eyes...d-don't you think so, Yuhan?" Her nails clenched down hard on the plaque.
The shock and undisguised shame twisted his face all at once, giving him away. Riya understood immediately, and a new wave of grief overcame her as her adoptive mother's plaque clattered to the floor. She threw her hands over her face, the tears leaking out between her fingers while Yuhan watched in dismay.
All at once, he was clinging desperately to her shoulders as she continued to cover her face, the sobs shaking her small frame. "R-Riya! Stop it, please..." he begged, his eyes failing to meet hers. Oh Spirits, what had he done to her? The sight of her breaking apart in front of him was too horrible to be real. "Just - let me explain for a minute! Let me...help you - Riya, please!" He had no idea what he was saying.
"You've seen her before!" Riya suddenly cried, tearing her hands away from her face. "You've seen both of them! How did they look?" She made a fist and began to bang on his chest violently with every sentence. "Were her eyes still vibrant with life?" She hit him again. "Or were you too busy killing them to pay attention?" she screeched.
"W-wait, what?" Puzzled, Yuhan was suddenly unaware of the constant berating on his chest. "I didn't –"
"Don't even try!" Riya cut him off, wrenching herself free from his grasp. "Is that all there is to the Dai Li? Lies and killing? Well, you've become quite the agent!" She stormed into the kitchen and threw herself into one of its chairs as Yuhan frantically followed. "Oh, and you wanna know something else?" she spat. He only looked at her fearfully in reply. "When the plague hit my parents, I caught the disease too." Her voice was shrill. "I always assumed that the Dai Li saved me, because it was an agent who gave me medicine and took me to the refugee arrival station. Imagine that!" Yuhan cringed. "But today, I sorted out my memories and realized that my true savior was a woman from the Lower Ring. She threatened the agent with a rebellion so that he'd get punished by his leader if he let me die. He was going to let me die! It's all so clear now!" With the last sentence, she finally broke down, her head sinking into her arms on the table. "Stupid...I'm so stupid..." she choked through her sobs.
In the silence, the Yuhan slowly made his way back to her side, his head hanging. He placed a gentle, if not hesitant hand upon Riya's shoulder, trying his hardest to think of anything in the world to say.
She didn't allow him to. "I'm not going to wait around for another one of your lies!" snapped Riya, facing him again as the tears ran freely down her face. "If you have any drop of soul left in you, you'll tell me why you did what you did! Tell me all about the Dai Li's laws about killing people and wiping away their minds. I'd love to hear it!" Her hands were trembling as they hit his away.
Yuhan stared down at his feet as Riya stood up again and marched over to the window. She gazed aimlessly at the stars outside, though they seemed to calm her down a tiny bit. Every tear that dripped from her chin seemed to fall like a lead weight upon his chest, and the helplessness of the situation was unbearable. He eventually joined her at the windowsill, pacing his way to her very cautiously without making a sound. The two miraculously faced each other somewhat calmly for the first time that night.
Riya seemed taken aback when she met his eyes that were filled with shame, but she quickly ignored whatever grief she saw within them. "Well?" she demanded.
The guilty agent began his speech. "I...my organization moderates the activities related to the war with the Fire Nation."
Riya slowly nodded. "So there's actually a war going on outside," she said quietly.
"Yes, there is." The news dropped like a dead weight that drained the life from the room. "And our job is to make sure that Ba Sing Se remains at peace, away from the violence and destruction outside. Many of the citizens, however, want to get involved in the war, and they don't realize how bad it would be for the city," Yuhan continued, taking a deep breath. "Most of those citizens are refugees from outside the walls, and they want revenge on the Fire Nation for destroying their homes. The refugees all come here because they lost something important in the war...refugees like your foster parents. We try to make sure that they don't spread their violent ideas to the natives here."
Riya's swollen eyes widened a little, a little teary as she recalled her lost family. "S-so...so that's why they never told me."
"They never told you about the war," the agent went on, "because they came here to start a new life. That's what all refugees come here to do. But..." He looked away from her. "Every once in a while, there're refugees who can't accept to live a peaceful life in Ba Sing Se. They want to bring the war into the city, and they try to get everyone around them into it. We – we can't let them do that, because the rest of the citizens would suffer if they did. They would throw off the entire point of safety within the walls, potentially lose our city to the enemy, and well...we sometimes have to...take measures to...make sure they accept..." Yuhan's voice died out. He knew that he'd already lost Riya at this point.
The grieving girl began to breathe hard once again, appalled at how casually he could explain these policies. "So you're telling me that...that it's okay to go around brainwashing people and killing them to maintain the 'internal peace' of Ba Sing Se? Is that why my foster parents aren't around anymore?" she asked, her voice low.
Yuhan lowered his eyes. "...Yes."
Riya squeezed her red eyes shut, running a hand through her messy hair. "I don't...how can you...you really believe all that?" She opened her eyes again, staring at him as if he were some bizarre animal.
The agent lowered his head even more, his hat covering his eyes. The hidden awareness deep inside of him threatened to break free at that moment, but the rules and reasoning of the Dai Li had been drilled into his head too long, too strictly, too permanently... "Yes." His reply was simple and firm.
There was a long and painful moment of silence as Riya struggled to compose herself. When she finally spoke again, her gaze was blank as if she had no energy left in her body. "Yuhan...would you still obey the Dai Li...if your parents were the ones threatening the 'balance' of the city?"
Yuhan jerked his head up. "Riya...I..." She was standing so close to him now, her tear-streaked face pleading, searching his eyes any sign that this part of him wasn't true. He couldn't bear to see her like this. It was painful, too painful - yet, the nagging voice of his duties suddenly crawled within his chest even as he faced her pure, heartbroken eyes. The programmed laws were being questioned, and they spoke before he could even think about it. "As an agent of the Dai Li," he began simply, the words unnatural and automatic, "I have a sworn obligation to my duties. I can't let any personal attachments –"
He never got to finish the sentence, for Riya slapped him across the face as hard as she could. Yuhan almost staggered backwards after the first and unexpected blow. "You – you disgust me!" she screamed, landing another blow. "You're a heartless (slap!), deceitful (slap!), horrible (slap!), pathetic creature!"
Yuhan caught her wrist at the last slap, his cheek throbbing red. "You...have to understand -" he began despairingly, but she raised her free hand and landed a blow on the other side of his face. He found himself grabbing onto both her wrists as he pleaded for her to listen. She gave a final, agonized cry and tore herself away, no longer bearing to even look at him.
The agent's hand slid over his face as Riya broke down once more and staggered across the floor. What had he just said to her? Did he really believe it? Yes...and no. What was he supposed to tell her? He couldn't even get his own feelings straight. Hitting his forehead for a moment with the bottom of his palm, Yuhan tried to sputter out some more disoriented words - just to say something, anything to her. "I-I'm...sorry, Riya. I'm really sorry." What had he done to her? And what had he just done to make it even worse? What kind of twisted person was he at all? "Riya, I don't know what I...I'm not sure..." His head was in such a mess.
"I've heard enough from you," she replied coldly, keeping her back turned to him. "When did - when did he become like this? The Dai Li did all that to him...?" It was apparent that she no longer cared if he was listening or not. In fact, it seemed as if she'd resorted to talking to her plaques instead, the spirits of her lost family...as if they were still a more reliable source of truth and comfort than he was, even in death. "Changed so much - when did this happen? I don't...u-under..." Her words became drowned in her tears. She didn't notice how Yuhan suddenly paused behind her, his expression pained and confused. Raising her voice, she finally declared, "You can leave now."
The icy words stung more than ever. "But...you're..." His voice was barely a whisper as he watched the endless salty rivers flood her swollen eyes.
"Yuhan...please leave..." she choked, motioning aimlessly towards the door.
Of all the people in the world, Hiroshu was waiting outside, poking his head out from inside a proper handicap-carriage this time with a pillow supporting his back. He looked uncharacteristically sympathetic, and his expression seemed to soften even more when he met Yuhan's desolate eyes.
"Well, I went through a load of trouble to cover for you," said Hiroshu, smiling slightly. "Came up with a whole story about your mom visiting the Lower Ring only to get hit with a peasant's carriage! ...Well actually, we just used the one I'm in right now to stage the accident, and I was apologizing over her body - anyway, she insisted that she had to be able to see you again if she was going to die," he chuckled softly. "She picked up the act pretty well. She's still a few blocks from here actually, laying in agony beside a local medic. Some agents came by to check, and she told them you were out getting things to make a brace for her. Managed to do it all with a broken rib! Where's my thanks?" He sighed when Yuhan gave no response. "I know Long Feng still won't be happy, but at the most he'll just let you get off with a warning. Besides, he's got a lot more to worry about right now. Oh – he's been arrested, did you know that?"
None of the rambling did anything to ease Yuhan's gloomy spirits. He knew that his patrol partner had done more than he could ever ask for, but the thanks seemed to die before it reached his lips. His own family had gone out their way to make sure he wouldn't be punished by Long Feng...yet, all he could think about was Riya. Betrayed, miserable Riya.
Hiroshu understood, of course, and he gave up trying to distract his partner. Unfortunately, a broken sob from inside the house filled the air before he could say any comforting words. The noise seemed to shatter whatever was left of Yuhan's spirits, and his eyes went hollow.
"Come on, buddy..." Hiroshu extended a hand to help Yuhan into the carriage. "We've got to get out of here." He had to give a few yanks on the arm that responded before Yuhan finally agreed to climb inside.
And so the two Dai Li agents disappeared silently into the night, leaving Riya to cry alone in her little house.
- Taken directly from one of Minnichi's canon discussions on fanfiction.net (because she has a feeling people will question this here as well):
"Bending isn't something you'd find everywhere in the Earth Kingdom, so Riya being outcasted because of her inability to Earthbend might seem a little strange. However, the canon storyline doesn't really explain well how Dai Li agents are chosen, so I imagined the kind of environment that a potential agent would arise from. The way I see it, Ba Sing Se itself is its own small country with very diverse communities, kind of like NY in our day. I thought it was natural that some communities might contain more Earthbenders than others, and in this case, Riya was unlucky enough to be born into a neighborhood packed with Earthbending children. The neighborhood is a tiny section of the Lower Ring, so Earthbenders are still overall uncommon in Ba Sing Se, but I figured that it's from areas like these that the Dai Li are likely to find more members."
- Minnichi believes she thinks a little too much.
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