|More from Minnichi||Romance/Angst/Action||PG-13||N/A||TBA|
|Chapter 13 - Unanswerable Questions (SHiE)|
Summary of the Last Chapter
After ditching his orders to return to headquarters, Yuhan rushes back to the Lower Ring right away. He's horrified to see that Riya's been taking the new information about the Dai Li very badly, and she becomes even more furious with him when he explains the motives behind his brainwashing. They end on awful terms.
The sun slowly reddened as it began to settle in the horizon, its fading rays casting a warm light upon everything it touched. The vibrant greens and yellows of the Impenetrable City's agrarian fields were dulled to brown and beige.
Riya observed this gradual change in color as she leaned quietly against the trunk of an ancient elm tree, resting upon a hill in the outskirts of the city. Her eyes had lost their usual shine, and they stared blankly at the scene as dully as the colors of the fields. Her hands loosely clasped a small block of scrap wood and a whittling knife, though they remained still in her lap.
That's it – I hate woodbending! Ya know what? Here, watch this.
…That's a rock.
I know it is! Just watch.
Wow…! You even got the claws right…
A small, bittersweet smile made its way across her face. It felt like she hadn't changed her detached, vacant expression in ages, and the upward curve of her lips almost felt painful.
Can you do that thing you did with the rock back then? Like how you just held it up and magically turned it into an armadillo lion?
Oh. Well…I don't really feel like earthbending right now. Sorry.
I've...never heard you say that before.
A tear silently made its way down the side of her cheek, dropping onto the little piece of wood in her hands. Ironically, the young woman let out a short laugh, which came out so quietly that it sounded more like a small sigh.
Hey now, don't look at me like that! Let's see…alright. Uh, watch this.
But that's your –
It's just a bunch of flat pebbles. Just 'cause they cover my hand doesn't make them anything special. Anyway... Ta-da! Just for you.
Riya exhaled slowly. Leaning her head back against the trunk, she shut her aching eyes to rest. The whittling knife slipped from her fingers as her hand fell to her side, brushing against the grass.
She missed him.
The problem was that she missed him, not the vile, psychopathic creature wearing a Dai Li uniform. The latter differed so much that there might as well have been two Yuhans living in one body. But...that meant that she still missed one of them. How it could exist alongside such evil, she had no idea.
Her heart stubbornly latched onto the memories of him from their innocent childhood years, trying to convince her that there surely had to be a mistake. Her mind, however, kept her painfully aware of the impossible reality. The conflict of the two only led to her overall deterioration, and she felt drained even as she rested upon this hill.
Riya's hand suddenly brushed over a powdery substance coating some of the grass below. Her eyes widened, then went horribly damp. She rubbed the powder between her fingers, biting her lip to keep any tears from escaping. Someone else had come here earlier to mourn a loved one. It was the same pile of ashes that gathered on her incense altar every night. Riya sighed and stood up to find another hill.
The young woman shifted her gaze to the foot of the hill. A small child was running energetically towards her. He was followed by a taller, calmer figure that stood behind. Riya couldn't help but smile when she recognized them. "Shen…you've gotten so healthy."
"I always am!" replied Shen, digging his feet and thrusting his little arms at the ground. A pillar of earth shot up beneath him, launching him through the air. He landed swiftly by Riya's side, though slightly off-balance. "Daddy says you're sad. Are you sad? Where's Hannie? Are you mad at him? Why are you mad?"
Riya chuckled softly at the strange tendency for children to catch on to his nickname, but she couldn't find the words to reply.
Mr. Huang reached the top of the hill a moment later, placing his hand on the little earthbender's shoulder. "Shen, why don't you go play over there?" He gave a courteous nod as he met Riya's gaze, but his eyes were dark with concern.
Shen looked like he still had many questions to ask, but he could sense the urgency in his father's voice. His bright eyes flickered between the two adults for a few seconds, but he shrugged and ran back down the hill, kicking aside a boulder in his way.
Riya watched the back of Shen's curly brown hair. "Yuhan was a lot like him…" she murmured. Her eyes were watery again.
Mr. Huang looked over with a sad smile, hesitating a few seconds before speaking. "Riya, we all knew that you'd have to learn the truth one day. Knowledge is strength." His aged brown eyes grew softer. "But...we never wanted you to be so unhappy."
Riya avoided his gaze as she bit her lip. "I'm not…unhappy. I'm still adjusting, that's all..."
The middle-aged man looked back towards Shen in the distance, watching him fondly. "It's always best to adjust," he agreed. She continued to stare away. "However, there are certain things that perhaps...we've judged too harshly."
Riya gazed warily at him, her eyes hollow and tired. "I know enough to judge those monsters for what they are - what Yuhan is. And...I want nothing to do with him."
Mr. Huang was keeping his eyes on Shen. "Are you sure, Riya?" he asked softly. "Not everything that has to do with him turns out badly."
The discouraged girl quickly turned her head back away. "This is really something," she laughed bluntly. "All of you, who told me for years to avoid the Dai Li at all costs, are defending an agent now?"
"Our opinion of the Dai Li remains the same," her neighbor replied firmly, his his face hardening. "But we also know them well enough to spot anything unusual." Riya's eyes were downcast. "Yuhan…is far from the usual. It took us some time to acknowledge it, but he really is."
Her bleak expression showed no signs of change, and she remained silent.
Mr. Huang sighed. "I know it's difficult…considering everything that's happened in your family." Riya shifted a little. "Since you're already going to be staying out here for a while, though…would you still care to listen?"
Hiroshu had naturally sought out and banded with the most outspoken, lively agents during his time in the Dai Li. It was really only his friendship with his patrol partner that was unusual. "I can't even find him half the time!" he groaned, as six fellow members sat around him in an abandoned room of headquarters. Since they'd recently switched facilities, no formal lounge was constructed yet, and free agents often hung around these random areas instead.
"I don't get it," said Agent Jian Sung, who happened to be a happily married man with a family. One could tell from the peace of content in his eyes and his love of home. "Don't we all go through these kinds of breakups at some point? I mean two out of three girls are going to freak out over the whole conversion thing…"
"Well, you know him. The kid's a complicated nerd that only knows how to brainwash, not deal with girlfriends." Hiroshu gave an exasperated sigh as he leaned back against his makeshift stone chair. "Ever since he became an agent, he's been nothing but 'There is no such thing as a social life. There is no sleep within my world.'" Hiroshu's finger was circling in front of his face like a glowing conversion lantern. 'Here, who needs the sun anyway? Here - wait stop talking to me, I'm busy, bye.'" His flat tone and dull expression were a remarkably accurate imitation.
"Maybe he should've stayed that way, then," commented another agent. "He seemed better off than he is now..."
"Yeah, or why won't he just go out and meet another girl? He's already gotten a taste of romance and has a good shot in the Upper Ring."
Hiroshu dropped his head as the other agents threw in their various suggestions, sighing again. "I doubt he'd want to give his Upper Ring stalkers a chance. This girl is his childhood sweetheart, by the way."
All of the other agents seemed to groan in unison, and some threw their stone-clad hands over their faces.
"Dear Spirits, this just keeps getting harder!" exclaimed Jian. "Can't there be another childhood sweetheart, by any chance, that you could hunt down for him?"
"'Sweetheart' isn't supposed to be plural, you know…" Hiroshu muttered. "Besides, I don't think he actually paid attention to girls when he was that little. Too obsessed with soccer." He scratched his chin for a moment. "Although – I think he did mention one earthbender girl that he played soccer with a lot, and he did admit to thinking she was 'interesting'…"
The other agents glued their eyes on him in eager anticipation.
"…But then again, she shot a brick at his foot and broke it after losing to him."
The rest of the agents groaned again.
"And that pissed him off enough to blast mud into her face, which he made sure was filled with lots of slimy bugs," Hiroshu continued. He was answered with even more various noises of grievance. "The incident forced him to rest his broken foot for months, and he spent all that time making trinkets and playing Pai Sho with his sweetheart." As he finished, he joined the others this time and exhaled glumly.
Another agent decided to speak up. He was rather pale like Yuhan, but lacked the permanent shadows beneath his young and fresh brown eyes. "So wait…maybe if that earthbending girl didn't go dropping a brick on his foot, they might've had a chance? Wouldn't two headstrong earthbenders understand each other better?" The other agents began to nod and share various comments with one another.
…Except for Hiroshu. "Well, he met his future girlfriend of his own accord, you see," he stated, his expression gloomy. "By the time the brick was fired, he'd already been hanging around her for a good while. Apparently he used to have things like dreams and ambition, and she'd sit there listening to him rant about it." None of the agents could think of anything to answer at this point. "And to top it off, it doesn't help that she's damn pretty for a Lower Ring peasant - with all due respect to Yuhan, since I know he's also from there. But still."
Jian stood up. "Well, that's just swell!" he said grumpily. There was no answer. "Anyway, my wife wants me to be in time for dinner today, and I haven't seen her all week. I'd love to discuss this further tomorrow but…it's hopeless, isn't it?"
Hiroshu was the only one who didn't jump from the sight of two deathlike green eyes, which hardly stood out against the massive pools of black sagging beneath them. "It's good to see you, buddy!" he remarked cheerily. "Thought you died in one of those conversion chambers for a moment."
Yuhan's gloom was infectious, and the room somehow felt darker and creepier than before with his ominous shadow blocking most of the light shining in through the door. The other agents shifted uncomfortably, as if they'd just remembered that their new headquarters was in the middle of an old tomb.
"H-hey there, Yuhan!" Jian tried his best to smile amiably. The dismal eyes turned in his direction. "We've been missing you these days!" More silence. "Well, uh... You should come hang more often…" Still no answer. "And…also get more sleep…maybe…?"
"The sleeping issue's always been lost cause, Jian," Hiroshu chimed in. "Believe me, I've tried." He shrugged casually as he rose to his feet. "You should probably meet up with your family now."
The Peace Orator hardly acknowledged Jian's departure, only glancing a bit to the side to observe him slipping quietly out of the door. "We all have many issues to attend to with Long Feng's current situation…" Yuhan finally began, the shadow beneath his hat engulfing his eyes. The other agents watched him timidly. "You shouldn't have time to lounge around discussing my problems. Do you all want to be punished for slacking off after Long Feng gets out of prison?"
There was a moment of nervous silence. Everyone was a little startled, however, when Hiroshu spoke up boldly. "Oh, cut the fancy talk, pal." His eyes were narrowed. Yuhan's ominous green ones narrowed back. "You really shouldn't be worrying about how we do our jobs, considering you've been taking forever to finish your conversions."
The other agents cringed and seemed to shrink beneath Yuhan's shadow, whose face bore a very chilling gaze. "You could all join in to get it done faster, but I'm still waiting to hear any volunteers," he scowled.
Hiroshu turned plainly towards his group, who all looked ready to run. "You guys can go hang somewhere else if he's being too grouchy for you."
The patrol partners stayed behind as the others gladly shuffled out the door. The Peace Orator's eyes were downcast, slipping back beneath the brim of his hat as he stared towards the ground. "Yuhan..." Hiroshu sighed. "You're a complete wreck. This needs to stop."
Yuhan automatically turned sharply to leave, but something grabbed onto his collar and yanked him backwards. He staggered for a moment before rooting his feet, glaring back at Hiroshu with murderous, yet broken eyes.
"I know I'm not the better earthbender, for whatever reason..." Hiroshu gritted his teeth as he clenched his palm, struggling to keep the stone glove locked onto the back of Yuhan's collar. "But I dare you to try killing me if you aren't going to hear me out."
Both Riya and her middle-aged neighbor sat quietly beneath the lone elm tree this time. Shen was still wrecking havoc among various rocks in the distance, with his everlasting energy.
"I'm sure you realize that we wouldn't be watching him play right now if it weren't for Yuhan…" Mr. Huang remarked softly. His eyes followed every little movement of the young child, shining with loving pride.
The girl's somber eyes flickered for a moment. "I know. But he didn't give me the pass for that purpose." Her expression grew irate as she leaned forward, wrapping her arms around her knees, which were covered with one of her dull, patched up skirts; she'd avoided wearing anything from him these days. Her lengthy trips to the agrarian fields also served the same purpose, since her own house even caused her grief.
"What makes you say something like that, Riya?" asked her neighbor, looking sadly over.
"It…it was just another way to distract me from my dead parents. He wanted me to think everything was perfect so he could continue torturing and killing people in the background without worrying about anything. And it worked." She stated the last sentence very plainly, without a single hint of expression. Her fingers, however, clenched her knees a little tighter.
"Riya – I know that the pain you feel is indescribable, but you have to listen to me," Mr. Huang retorted sharply. The girl didn't respond. "Your parents are part of the reason I've come here, in fact."
At that, her eyes finally peered at him with curiosity, but they were still filled with doubt. "He and his lot killed them. Is there anything else I should know?"
"The truth is just the opposite, actually."
Riya was aghast. She sat up abruptly, her expression wild. "No – no, you're all just feeling sorry for me now!" she snapped. Aware of Shen's presence in the distance, however, she composed herself with some difficulty. "You've always complained about how they use murder as a solution to failed conversions," she continued stiffly. "Even if you were lying, where have Liu and Mina been hiding out for the past five years? I'd like to visit them, if you don't mind," she finished bitterly, eyeing the remnants of ash on the grass below them.
Mr. Huang gave a long sigh before speaking. "I really have to apologize to you for all of that. We never knew what happened to those who were taken without being converted. Like your parents…we never saw them again. So we naturally concluded that they'd been killed." His eyes narrowed. "However…recent events have suggested that those people may actually be sustained in some kind of prison underground."
The young woman scoffed a little. "That sounds like an awfully nice excuse to make Yuhan look better. Why didn't anyone hear about these 'prisons' before?" she remarked sarcastically. Before her neighbor could answer, however, she suddenly wrapped her arms around her knees again, dropping her face into them. "I'm sorry, Mr. Huang. I sound awful…" she sighed. Clearing her throat, she lifted her face again to address him. "I-I know you're worried about me, but I can deal with the facts. You don't have to say such things to make me feel better…"
"I wouldn't prefer to be dishonest with you either, Riya." Mr. Huang smiled sympathetically, reaching over to place a hand on her shoulder. "This is all pretty new to the Resistance, actually. The Dai Li have been more careless recently…seems like something's going on with their leader." He leaned forward on an elbow, wrinkling his eyebrows.
Riya's own brows furrowed as well. She'd always imagined the Cultural Minister to be some shadowy, intimating, untouchable man, based on Yuhan's descriptions. Though the young agent rarely mentioned him, his brief comments always held a strange, underlying fear. "Something happened to Sir Long Feng…?" she wondered out loud. "Wouldn't it have to be drastic to affect the Dai Li?"
"That's what we're trying to figure out," replied her neighbor, frowning. "They've always been so good at hiding everything from the city, and it's almost impossible to know what's really going on…" Riya's expression darkened. "But," Mr. Huang continued, his tone slightly uplifting, "I believe we're discussing your parents at the moment." The girl immediately turned sharply in the other direction. "What's important here is that we've heard certain…rumors about 'failed rebels' and 'war-crazy prisoners.'" Riya was still unconvinced. "I wouldn't rely on rumor alone, but they came from the mouths of our very own agents, you see." He smiled a little when the young woman finally turned towards him again, though suspiciously. "Like I said, they've been careless."
"…But how do you know if the prisoners they mention include my stepparents?" Riya retorted miserably. "Also, how's there any guarantee that they even keep their prisoners alive? It could be a temporary custody, a-and if they fail conversions a certain number of times, then…then…" She bit down on her lip again, her eyes dampening.
"Indeed, five years is a long time," Mr. Huang continued sorrowfully, his shoulders dropping. "However, what you need to know more than anything else tonight, is that even if your parents have left this world…Yuhan was not the cause. I'm sure of it." His tone remained firm as he stared into Riya's glaring eyes.
"He's seen them." Her hands balled tight into fists, crumpling the fabric of her skirt within them. The quiet, ominous nature of her rage only made it more frightening. "He was probably one of the last things they saw, since they're dead – and even you think they're dead, anyway." Her voice was low and carefully composed, but somehow very hostile at the same time. "Also, what other reason would he have for interacting with them? He 'specializes' in brainwashing, yet they're not here with us." She ignored Mr. Huang's attempts to protest. "If he failed, it's only logical in his book to…to dispose of them!"
Her neighbor quietly watched as she failed to keep in the tears this time. Riya angrily tore her face away from him, almost scraping the salty water off her cheeks with a sleeve. Taking his chance to speak, Mr. Huang cleared his throat. "I won't deny that he's caused you more pain than you've ever deserved," he said, motioning at Shen to stay away (the boy had noticed her visible display of grief). "You've gone through too much for someone your age already…" he added softly. Riya sniffled a little, still facing the other way. "But you're a strong girl, Riya. We all know that at the end of the day, you'll pull through just like always – which is why I have no reason to lie to you." The young woman was silent. "With that in mind, Riya, please believe me."
The middle-aged man sighed again, but he supposed it was better than her earlier retaliation. "Anyhow, you've said so yourself that Yuhan seems to have an expertise for those…conversions. That's certainly unfortunate." He leaned back against the aged tree trunk, exhaling. "On the other hand, though…we haven't heard anything about a reputation for taking lives, have we?"
Her back still turned, Riya quietly shook her head in response, though it was too subtle to be considered movement at all.
"I suppose it's better to discuss his positive aspects – which, whether you take my word for it or not, he definitely has." Mr. Huang took in a deep breath. "Riya…he truly does care for you. All of us can see it, and so should you. He can't have harmed your parents…He doesn't have the heart to." His tone was definite, but knowing Riya, he still braced himself.
"Really, now?" she replied coldly, her voice shaking. "Oh, so everyone can see that he cares so much about me, using the money they paid him to brainwash people in order to buy me a house, new clothes, an all-exclusive pass around Ba –"
"A pass that defies all logic of the Dai Li," her neighbor cut in sharply. "Tell me, why would he do something like that? He can make you as happy as he wants with fancy accessories and flowers, but why would he allow a Lower Ring peasant access to the Earth King, to whom she could spill all his secrets?"
Riya appeared somewhat dumbfounded, but she refused to back down. "Well – he didn't need to worry about any of that, because I was clueless anyway!"
"But why would he even risk it?" Her neighbor retorted.
"Because…because…!" The young woman's face twisted with frustration as she angrily crossed her arms over her knees again. "I-I don't know! He –"
"He forgot about the risk, Riya." Mr. Huang smiled, despite everything. "He forgot because he was only considering your convenience, and your chance to see more than the dirty Lower Ring."
Riya was silent, but only for a few moments. "Yet, he didn't consider my feelings about my dead stepparents because of the Dai Li – them, not me. Or anyone else in this cursed city, for that matter." Her tone was bitter again.
"That's exactly my point."
The girl turned to face her neighbor for the first time since shedding tears earlier. "Whatever you mean by that, I'm sure it can't be good…"
Her eyes were so narrow that Mr. Huang could only make out two hazel slits. "I meant you no harm, Riya. We're dealing with two conflicting factors here. Yuhan, as a devoted agent, strictly upholds the secrecy of his organization without question. And yet, he's given someone from the worst possible environment for the Dai Li a free ride to the Royal Palace. He should've been aware that your pass could cause trouble for his entire organization, but he somehow overlooked it because he only remembered to think of you. How do these two things fit together?"
The troubled girl's expression slowly grew puzzled as she failed to reply.
"The boy is confused, Riya. That's why." Mr. Huang gazed hard at her, a new intensity in his eyes. "There are times when he can carry out the will of Sir Long Feng more perfectly than any other agent, and times when he inexplicably forgets the most fundamental rules of his organization. It reflects his inner conflict. His mind is either occupied by his devotion to the Dai Li…or his devotion to you."
Riya opened her mouth to protest, but the words seemed to choke up in her throat. Somewhere inside her, a nagging voice forced its way through her brain. He's still there. "W-well…that's still not good enough," she muttered. "Wouldn't it be better if he had no devotion to the Dai Li?"
"Therefore you have to help him, Riya."
Her eyes widened as she gazed back at Mr. Huang, his face stern. "You don't have to lose Yuhan like everyone else who was close to you," he stated firmly. "Only you can rid him of the curse of his organization. Nothing else stands between the happiness you two could share. He could be a great man." The young woman stared down at the ground, her eyes troubled. "Do this for him, Riya…and for yourself," her neighbor finished assuredly.
Riya gave a dejected sigh. Several seconds passed as she tugged aimlessly at the ash-stained grass below. "…How?" she finally whispered, very weakly.
"You've already started the change. Can't you see it?" Mr. Huang smiled warmly as she looked up at him. "The way he greets Lower Ring citizens that any other agent would scoff at, the way he reaches out beyond the isolated bubble of his organization, the way he's made a place for himself in the heart of our Dai Li-hating community…he's no agent when you're around."
The young woman sat silently, her hazel eyes beginning to glow in deep thought. "No…He isn't."
"Lemme tell you something, buddy. Ever heard the tale of Old Sweepy?"
"Well, obviously you've forgotten!"
Yuhan had grudgingly agreed to stay behind for a little while, solely out of his respect for their friendship – but it still seemed like he could change his mind any minute. "Old Sweepy used to have a name," Hiroshu began cheerily. "Though I can't remember what it was…which brings me to my next point. A stellar agent, the guy was! He had everything us Dai Li underlings could wish for - his own mansion in the Upper Ring, a beautiful wife, the awesome title of Long Feng's right-hand man, a poodle –"
"What's your point?"
Hiroshu ignored the interruption as if Yuhan were just an irritable child. "Well, all of those things were taken from Old Sweepy in a matter of seconds, just like that!" he continued. "Didn't matter how important he was to Long Feng after he bombed one of his most important assignments. And you know where that landed him?"
"Long Feng kicked him down to the Lower Ring, where he spends the rest of his days sweeping dirty stables and spying on dirt-poor rebels," muttered Yuhan, giving an exasperated roll of his eyes. "Everyone knows about him, Hiroshu. I even had to give him instructions to mislead the Avatar about the whole bison issue. Why do you feel the need to bring it up?"
Both of them looked up when a sneering Tyru suddenly entered the room. "Because you'll end up just like him at this rate," he replied bluntly, a nasty smirk beginning to form on his face. "You'd best get your act together, Yuhan, if you don't want to become a dirty janitor too. Having trouble with conversions lately?"
Hiroshu looked like he wanted to bang his forehead against the brick wall. "Since we're apparently talking about acts now, you're doing a bad job at playing Long Feng. It lacks too much, I don't know, actual authority and competence to be preaching anyone." He cautiously watched his patrol partner out of the corner of his eye, who'd grown dangerously silent. "Besides, Yuhan still hasn't messed up any of his conversions, you know."
Tyru only seemed more amused, his cold grey eyes taunting. "For how much longer?" The sleep-deprived agent slowly peered up at him from beneath his hat. "Look, I'm not trying to start anything here, but I'm just saying…you'd better start enjoying your last days in that uniform if –"
"If what?" A few cracks began to branch across the ground from beneath Yuhan's sole. His patrol partner scooted away. "If I start taking as long to convert people as everyone else? If I become dull and insignificant among our members? If I fail to do squat for the Dai Li and then complain about getting no attention? If I become you?" he snarled.
Hiroshu glanced back and forth between the two agents as they glared viciously at one another. "Hey now," he chimed in. "Let's not get petty about -"
"You can talk as impressively as you'd like, Yuhan," snapped Tyru (Hiroshu sighed in the background). "But by the time Long Feng gets out of prison, you'll be -"
"I'll be asked to take over yet another conversion that everyone was apparently too incompetent to handle. You call that impressive? Picking up after you?" Yuhan looked ready to strangle someone. "If anything, I wish Long Feng would let me convert Dai Li agents -" (Hiroshu backed further away from him) "- just to turn you useful for a change."
Tyru pressed his lips shut, fists clenched.
"Who knows? Maybe it can be arranged," Yuhan went on, his eyes gleaming with an unusual display of mockery. "Why shouldn't Long Feng expect better from you? Should I remind him about all your failed conversions? The amount of times your patrol partner had to save your ass?" Hiroshu accidentally snickered in the background. Said patrol partner was Agent Jinhai Xe, the renowned interrogator who usually preferred Tyru out of the way.
Tyru seemed unable to make a reply, but he narrowed his eyes at Hiroshu. "Well, forgive me for offending the almighty Yuhan," he scoffed. "But we'll see how much longer he can stay Long Feng's favorite agent. Have fun dealing with him." He turned on his heel and paced briskly out of the door.
Hiroshu chuckled as Tyru's footsteps disappeared down the hall. "Poor Jinhai. I actually knew his original patrol partner, you know - the one who got taken down by rebels. Tyru's got to be the lamest replacement ev-"
"I'm out of time, Hiroshu. Catch you later," Yuhan interrupted dully, standing up. His eyes had dimmed as soon as Tyru left the room, looking as though the life was going to burn out of them any moment now.
"No you're not." Hiroshu smiled grimly. "I saw this coming. Tao's already agreed to take over your next conversion."
Yuhan sighed loudly, plopping back down onto his makeshift chair. "You do realize that Tao's a new recruit, right?"
"You know that's not the problem."
The sleep-deprived agent seemed to sink lower into his chair, his shoulders drooping. "There's no need to talk about her. She's made her opinion of everything clear enough." His sullen words barely held any volume.
"It's not going to end there, Yuhan." Hiroshu furrowed his brows. "Tyru's a self-absorbed idiot, but others are going to start getting on your case if this escalates - like me! Since when have I lectured anyone about their own drama?"
"You're letting that girl get to your head," Hiroshu went on. "You're putting yourself in danger, along with your parents. I don't even want to discuss what happened to Old Sweepy's family, on that note."
"I'll be fine," Yuhan replied dismissively, rolling his eyes.
"You'll need to be fine a little faster, then." Hiroshu crossed his arms. "If I could say so myself, it looks like she's affecting your judgment. It won't be long before you're accused of disloyalty. Do you want to get banished from the city and have your parents branded over a bad breakup?" He shook his head at the lack of response. "You're a Peace Orator, Yuhan. You've seen every kind of crazy, hateful, anti-Dai Li peasant there is out there and still manage to jumble up their brains. Why should this one affect you? Do you owe her something?"
His dejected patrol partner seemed to stay in the same still position for years before finally replying. "Well...it'd be nice if her parents weren't an issue," he mumbled.
"Really?" Hiroshu looked ready to face-palm. "She hates your guts, and you're worried about meeting her parents?"
Yuhan's hat was pulled low over his eyes. "Actually...they're here at headquarters."
"Wait, what?" Hiroshu threw up his hands. "Why would she hate the Dai Li if her own parents are working here? Why would she even be poor -"
"They're not working for us. They're refugees," Yuhan retorted miserably. He could tell his patrol partner wasn't following. "She's an orphan, Hiroshu. These war refugees took her in after her birth parents died from the plague. Liu and Mina of the Lower Ring, ever heard of them?"
Hiroshu paused for a moment, then slapped a hand over his face when it registered. "Are you kidding me? Them? Mother of Faces, this relationship was doomed to fail..."
"No kidding." There was a long, uncomfortable moment of silence.
"Okay, well - you've got some real crappy luck, I admit. Sorry, man." Hiroshu sat up in his chair, exhaling. "But that still doesn't make it okay to start slacking with your duties." Yuhan shuffled slightly, the hat still covering his face. "You know as well as I do that no one gets special treatment. Maybe it's just easier for you because you wouldn't get killed by your targets for hesitating."
Yuhan warily gazed over at Hiroshu, who had an ominous shadow looming over his face. "I know."
"Then tell me, what'll you do if she becomes a conspiracy nutcase?"
The Peace Orator crossed his arms, his eyes darkening. "I know my duty," he replied curtly.
Hiroshu didn't seem convinced. "Do you?" he asked slowly.
Yuhan glared back. "Good to know my own patrol partner doubts me. Anyway, I'm going to check on Tao to make sure he knows what he's doing." He stood up and immediately headed for the door. Hiroshu didn't try to stop him. "Thanks for your concern. I'll see you around."
"No problem," Hiroshu called after him. "Just be careful, buddy. Seriously."
Riya stood with Mr. Huang among a crowd of their fellow neighbors in an obscure tavern basement. Her eyes held a new and fierce determination.
Sorry Yuhan, but I can't wait around for you to change your mind.
"Only the highest political leaders in the Upper Ring know for sure," said a volunteer spokesman, continuing his speech. He stood in front of the other rebels. "But Long Feng being arrested may mean that Avatar Aang has successfully exposed him to King Kuei." Riya watched him curiously. "If that's so, and we're thinking optimistically…that would mean that His Highness has agreed to help end the war," he added. The members of the Conspiracy Resistance all murmured excitedly amongst themselves. "While that would be the best case scenario, it'd only be natural that the Earth Kingdom authority's been too busy attending to military plans to update the city just yet," the spokesman finished, letting out a long breath.
Mr. Huang offered to step forward. "With all this in mind, the new problem appears to be that the Dai Li is converting anyone who tries to talk of Sir Long Feng's arrest," he announced. "Our best guess is that they're maintaining his grip over the city. The longer they keep it up, the longer their system runs in the background…and the longer their prisoners suffer." Riya looked down. "His Highness must be notified of Long Feng's activities as soon as possible," her neighbor continued, keeping an eye on her as he spoke. "The entire city will not only be informed of his removal, but of the war as well. If we can accomplish this, Sir Long Feng will finally lose all support from Ba Sing Se, and King Kuei will seize his rightful authority over the Dai Li. And finally…all of Ba Sing Se will play a part in ending the war."
There were no cheers from the rebels. Only solemn smiles marked their faces. It was a battle they had struggled with for generations, and one that they could still easily lose. The Dai Li's combination of lethal Earthbending and mind-crippling abilities had scarred them all, and they were always hesitant to place their hopes too high. With Avatar Aang's recent assistance, however, they all appeared a little more optimistic than usual.
Mr. Huang stepped back into the crowd, giving Riya a little pat on the shoulder. "You're sure about this?" he asked her softly.
The young woman swallowed hard, nodding briskly before she slowly made her way in front of everyone. The Resistance eyed her with a mixture of sympathy and curiosity. It appeared that they still weren't completely used to Riya being perfectly calm about the whole war conspiracy and brainwashing problem in the city. "A-as you all know, I have access to anywhere in the city," she began nervously. "It won't be easy, but with Avatar Aang and his friends here, I believe we can get through to His Highness." Her voice began to grow in both volume and determination. "My stepparents may not be alive anymore…" The crowd grew quiet. "But I don't want that happening to anyone else who was taken." Mr. Huang watched sadly. "I…I have to thank Yuhan for giving me this opportunity," she continued boldly, causing everyone (who'd been aware of recent events) to cringe a little, "but he's not in any position to help us now. I've learned an awful lot about the Dai Li, and I understand that expecting anything more from him will put him in even more danger than us. It's a risky decision for him, and one that we can't afford to rely on. Wherever his loyalties lie…I have to act now."
No one in the crowd wanted the poor girl to bear all the pressure on her own shoulders, but they had no choice; it was her name on the pass, and hers alone. "Riya…" began an elderly woman. "There are agents everywhere in the city. They'll know who told."
"But as long as she stays out of their sight, she'll be fine," chimed in another woman, whose face bore a scar that clearly displayed her defiance of the dark organization. "She'll just have to be careful, that's all." She sighed. "Still, I wouldn't want to put you in so much danger, Riya. Also…what if the pass doesn't work anymore?"
"There's a low chance of running into the same agents that accepted my pass last time," Riya replied. "Besides, if there's anything I know about the Dai Li, it's that they'll never break their rules." She was silent for a moment. "Yuhan's authority forces them to comply with the pass's benefits. They won't disobey." A grave smile stretched across her face. "And…I have enough faith to believe Yuhan didn't give them any special instructions not to accept it."
Many of the humble Lower Ring residents, including Mr. Huang, looked ready to protest because of the terrible risks, but they could see that the girl had clearly made her decision. They all knew her well enough to know that there was no changing it.
"In that case…" Mr. Huang finally spoke up again. "If you manage to come into contact with Avatar Aang, Katara and Sokka of the Water Tribe, Toph Beifong, or King Kuei himself…things may finally change for our city." The anxiety that swept the room was smoldering as Riya nodded solemnly.
"We wish you the best of luck, Riya…Be careful."
Yuhan never went to check on Tao at all. He was far above the old tomb by now, watching the gloomy night sky aimlessly. The grass beneath his back was course and itchy, and the glow of the moon was a little too bright for his liking, but he didn't really care. One of the perks of Long Feng being in prison was that he'd never catch his agents laying around the agrarians fields without permission.
The weary Peace Orator gladly made use of his small freedom tonight, unable to fall asleep no matter how much his half-dead eyes needed it. His thoughts were wispy, hazy clouds that faded in and out, just like the ones obscuring several of the stars above. He preferred not to think much, anyway. Thinking was tiring. Thinking was bad. Thinking wouldn't get him anywhere in the organization. Especially if the thoughts were about -
There was a quiet shuffle of footsteps that caught Yuhan's attention immediately, and he quickly sat up. It was a very faint vibration in the ground from this distance, but just enough for him to feel it beneath his back. He immediately began to conjure up excuses about what he was doing out here, half-expecting the intruder to be some paranoid agent…but the footsteps were too gentle for that, too light and delicate. Someone much, much worse.
Yuhan felt his head dropping involuntarily, his hat hanging so low that the bright green tassels cascaded over the front. His whole body grew numb.
He could sense her coming to an abrupt stop as soon as she came close enough to recognize him, too. "…Yuhan?" Her soft, wavering voice had a slight note of disbelief.
The painful silence stretched on and on, so still that Yuhan could hear the slightest breeze flowing through her hair. "Hi...Riya..." he mumbled at last. He couldn't stop staring at the ground, despite lifting his head to face her.
She stood there for quite some time before slowly picking up her pace again. The grass rustled softly as she took a seat a few feet away from him at the top of the hill. "Do you…come here often?" she asked faintly. He could tell she wasn't looking at him, either.
"Well…no. Not really. You…?"
"Recently. A lot."
The two continued to sit like that, close yet too far. The small patch of grass between them marked a strange, impenetrable barrier. Yuhan finally forced himself to move, turning his head very stiffly against his will to glance over at her. Riya seemed to sense the notion, and her eyes moved slowly in his direction as well.
Both of them seemed to have planned something to say, but it disappeared without a trace as soon as their eyes failed to recognize each other. Yuhan's had all but lost their color, sunken into the black rings of fatigue surrounding them. Someone could've mistaken him for a corpse tonight. Riya's eyes had lost their shine, holding a dull, weary gaze upon him, and grief had drained her thin and frail body.
They'd broken each other.
Yuhan's lifeless eyes slowly shut as he turned his face away. "Riya...I don't mean to cause you more trouble by staying here. I should go."
"No, it's okay…" Riya scooted a little closer, though the grass barrier remained strong. Yuhan went still. "You know, I…I actually understand why you do what you do."
Yuhan looked over with a raised brow. "I thought you already understood," he answered slowly. "You know...from the other day. And it's not something you believe in."
"There's more than that," Riya began quietly. "I mean…you're right. I can't...stand by you as you trap everyone here within the walls and secrets of this city."
Yuhan's shoulders sagged.
"But, Yuhan... I can't blame you, either." Riya gazed sadly at his dejected face. "You've been chosen to do this before we ever met. That's...a very long time." Yuhan nodded silently. "They didn't tell you until later," Riya continued softly, "but they've always looked after you, always led you to follow this path. They were making sure you would become what you are...and they created your destiny. A-am I right?"
The Peace Orator thought about it for a moment. "I - well - if you put it that way... Yeah, kind of." Indeed, the Dai Li had made a point to keep tabs on him as soon as they noticed his potential, revealing nothing until he was thirteen and ready to answer their call. Apparently it began when he was four. Yuhan remembered snickering at Hiroshu's peeved face when they revealed that the latter's candidacy was marked at age seven, a solid three year-lag behind his own. Yes, he used to be amused by trivial things like that...
"Anyway, I shouldn't have been so shocked about your beliefs," Riya sighed. "They've influenced you for so long, and since we were close back then…it affected me, too. I was with you every time they presented you the image of a peace worth fighting for, a dream to join the elite protectors..." She miraculously managed to laugh a little. "I thought so highly of them. I saw the same hope for the future that you did, every time they put on that show. Because we were always around each other." Her throat became tight as she watched the brim of his hat sink down over his eyes.
Yuhan somberly examined his bracelet. He didn't deserve it, and he was waiting for her to take it back, but...she had to ask. She had to say it. He couldn't do it by himself. "Heh...we really were around each other a lot, huh?"
Riya nodded soundlessly as she folded her arms over her knees. "So anyway…I suppose I'll have to mention it sooner or later, but…" She took in a deep, shaky breath. "Did my foster parents... D-did Mina and Liu go peacefully?"
Yuhan's face twisted in pain for a brief moment. Watching him, so did Riya's. "Your parents…" he began with great difficulty. "They, well…really don't like me…"
The young woman had to take a few moments to realize what the statement had implied. "They 'don't' like you? As in they currently…don't like you?" Riya asked incredulously.
"Um…yeah?" The realization finally hit him as well. "Wait…you still think they're dead?" One look at her bewildered face told him the answer. "…Oh."
Riya took several long breaths in order to keep herself calm. "Well. That's something I'll have to get used to…" She exhaled sharply. "They…um…didn't mention me by any chance…did they?"
"Actually…they kind of did." Yuhan seemed to squirm from the terrible awkwardness of the situation. "I can see that they care a lot about you…and that they hate me. Also a lot."
He feared a sudden explosion from her any time now, but it never came. A new light seemed to fill her eyes, but they grew so sad at the same time. "I should apologize, then…" Riya started slowly. "I was still having some trouble believing that you didn't, you know…"
The words escaped his mouth before he even realized what he was saying. "There's no need to. What I'm doing these days isn't much better…"
It was only because Riya knew how to read his eyes too well that she didn't immediately conclude he was lying. Though it was unfortunately in his nature to be an excellent liar, there was no denying these rare moments in which she could see all the pain and undisguised emotion flashing across those dark green irises. It was unnoticeable to anyone besides her. "Yuhan...?" she almost gasped.
His mind is either occupied by his devotion to the Dai Li…or his devotion to you.
The emerald eyes clouded over again. The young agent suddenly frowned, as if he didn't know exactly where his statement had even come from. "Oh – I mean...nothing. I forgot what I was even thinking about. Sorry. I'm tired," he quickly responded. What was he thinking? …Nono, thinking was bad. He was too tired.
Riya's face dropped immediately. "I-it's alright," she replied softly. "Well…it's getting late. I should go. Thanks for letting me know…about my stepparents." She swiftly stood up, dusting off her skirt and turning her back.
Yuhan looked over at her again, a sudden pang shooting through his chest. Despite everything, it was still painful to watch her leave. A horrible realization suddenly froze up his lungs with dread. Rising to his feet, he involuntarily called out. "Riya."
"Don't try anything…please. You should know what could happen." He forced his way towards her, breaking the grass barrier at last. She went completely still. "Don't put yourself in that situation…I don't want – just…please…"
The desolate, almost desperate way in which the last word carried itself through the air caused her to face him one last time. "But you won't give me back my stepparents…will you?" she asked finally, her eyes downcast.
The grief-stricken agent stood before her, his eyes tortured by the agony of the war within him. He couldn't let her go…but…but… "I – I can't, Riya."
Just looking into his anguished face as he spoke the excruciating words made her want to burst into tears. "I know you can't, Yuhan…" she whispered feebly, shakily lifting a hand to cup the side of his face. His eyes squeezed shut, as if the feel of her gentle fingers burned his skin. "You have too much at stake. You need to take care of your family, and yourself. But I…I've got nothing to lose. I have to try." The stone plates covering his fingers automatically shifted out of the way as she lowered her hand, grasping his tightly. His sunken eyes opened to take in every detail of her sullen, yet still beautiful face. "I'll see you again, Yuhan. Don't look at me like that." She smiled through her glossy hazel eyes.
She released his hand quickly, pacing down the hill before he could see any tears.
"Riya…" he called softly, knowing that she was too far to hear him by now. He turned around sharply, his arms dropping at his sides. As he clenched his fists, the ground seemed to follow his motions, rumbling dangerously.
ZOMG, only one more chapter to post!!! The original release date is finally getting close to the current date xD
- Though she was on fanfiction.net during the original publication, Minnichi referenced Avatar Wiki's article about Old Sweepy ^^
- She also felt depressed after writing that last scene...especially considering the next chapter. Whoops, said too much!
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