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|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 they 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 sat 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? 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 in the Dai Li uniform. He was still there. As distorted and as unrecognizable as he became during the last seven years...he was still there.
Her heart stubbornly latched onto those last remains of him, which had given her such happiness. Her mind, however, kept herself painfully aware of the impossibility of the situation now. The conflict of the two only led to her overall deterioration, and she felt weary even resting upon the quiet hill this evening.
Riya's hand suddenly brushed against a powdery substance hidden in the grass. Her dull hazel eyes widened, then strained to hold back a flood of tears. She slowly felt the powder between her fingers, having long recognized it before she turned her head down to look.
It was ash – ashes that contained a unique texture produced only by the burning of incense sticks. Someone else had come here to mourn for their loved ones. Her momentary peace having been disrupted, the girl sighed and stood up to find another hill.
She lifted her head to observe a small figure running energetically at her from the distance. It was followed by a taller, calmer figure that stood behind. Riya couldn't help but smile. "Shen...you've gotten so healthy."
"I always am!" replied the little Earthbender, digging his feet and throwing his bony arms towards the ground. A pillar shot out beneath his legs, launching him through the air. He landed swiftly by Riya's side, though slightly off-balance. "Daddy says you're sad. Are you sad? And where's Hannie? Are you mad at him?"
Riya chuckled softly at the strange tendency for children to use his nickname, but she couldn't find the words to reply.
"Shen, why don't you go play over there?" cut in Mr. Huang's deep voice. The man gave a courteous nod as he met Riya's gaze, but his eyes were narrowed with concern.
Though the child still had many questions to ask, he could sense the urgency in his father's voice. His bright green eyes flickered between the two adults for a brief moment, but he quickly shrugged and ran down the hill, kicking aside a few boulders in his way.
Riya watched the back of Shen's curly brown hair. "He was a lot like him..." she couldn't help commenting, her eyes growing even more somber.
Mr. Huang looked over at her with a sad smile, hesitating a few seconds before speaking. "Riya, we all knew that you'd have to learn the truth one day," he began. His aged brown eyes grew softer. "...But we never wanted you to be so unhappy."
The young woman bit down on her lip for a moment. "I'm not...unhappy. I'm still adjusting, that's all..."
The middle-aged man observed her carefully as she avoided his gaze and stared after little Shen in the distance. "It's always best to adjust," he agreed. She continued to stare away. "However, there are many things you've yet to learn before making any final judgments...Would you care to listen?"
Riya looked back at him, her eyes tired and disoriented. "What good would it do me to learn all the details of what they do? I know enough to make a pretty good judgment of who they are – who he is..."
"Who he is, Riya, may not have changed." Mr. Huang looked hard into her eyes, which gazed back a little wider.
The discouraged girl quickly turned her head back away. "This is really something," she laughed bluntly. "All of you, who told me to avoid them at all costs, are defending one of them now?"
"Our opinion of the Dai Li remains the same," her neighbor replied firmly, his expression darkening, "but we also know them well enough to spot anything unusual among their members." Riya's eyes were downcast. "Yuhan...is far from the usual," he finished softly.
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 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, though," piped in one of the other agents, who happened to be a happily married man with a family - his relaxed green eyes and tanned skin were an obvious enough indication. "Don't we all go through these kinds of breakups at some point? I mean 2 out of 3 girls are going to freak out over the whole conversion thing..."
"Well, you know him. The kid's complicated." Hiroshu gave an exasperated sigh as he leaned back against his makeshift stone chair. "Ever since he joined, he's been all 'Must worship Long Feng's every order. Farewell life.'" His dulled tone was remarkably accurate in his imitation, as he circled a finger in front of his face to indicate a conversion chamber lantern.
"Then why didn't he just stay that way? I mean he would've been better off than he is now..."
"Yeah, or why won't he just go out and meet another girl who's not crazy?"
Hiroshu dropped his head as the other agents threw in their various suggestions, sighing again. "The whole thing's really troublesome...She's his childhood sweetheart."
All of the other agents seemed to groan in unison, and some threw their stony hands over their faces.
"Dear Spirits, how's anyone supposed to fix something like that?" remarked the happily married agent. "Or – wait, did he have another childhood sweetheart by any chance that you could find?"
"'Sweetheart' isn't supposed to be plural, Jian..." Hiroshu muttered. "Besides, I'm pretty sure he didn't like any girls when he was that little, knowing him." He scratched his chin for a moment. "Well – he did mention a girl Earthbender 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 after she kept losing to him, she got mad and threw a brick on his foot."
His fellow members all groaned again.
"And that got him pissed enough to splatter a shower of mud on her," Hiroshu continued grimly. He was answered with even more various noises of grievance. "The kid's always had a temper, I'll say. Thennn he had to rest his broken foot for months, which were all spent playing Pai Sho and learning random hobbies with his nice, nonviolent 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? I mean it seems like they'd both get along, with their crazy tempers." The other agents began to nod and share various comments with one another.
...Except for Hiroshu. "Well, he kind of went and met the nonbender on his own, you see," he stated, his expression gloomy. "He'd already picked her, for whatever reason. By the time the his foot was broken, he'd already been hanging around her for a few years." None of the agents could think of anything to answer at this point. "And in all honesty, guys...it really doesn't help that I haven't seen very many better-looking girls. Not to mention I can't even tell in the Upper Ring with all the makeup!"
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 at the sight of duller-than-usual green eyes, which hardly stood out against the massive pools of black beneath them. "Good to see you, buddy!" he remarked cheerily. "Thought you died in one of those conversion chambers for a moment."
His partner's gloom seemed infectious, and the room suddenly felt darker and creepier than before. 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, Yuhan!" Jian tried to smile amiably. The dismal eyes turned to glance at him. "We've been missing you these days! 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 cut in, smirking a little as he stood. "You should go meet your family now."
The gloomy agent hardly acknowledged Jian's departure, glancing again 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..." he finally started very slowly, his brows furrowing slightly. The other agents watched fearfully. "You shouldn't have time to lounge around discussing my problems. Do you all want to be punished after he gets out of prison?"
There was an eerie moment of silence. The agents turned sharply towards Hiroshu, however, when he spoke up boldly. "Oh, cut the fancy talk, pal." His eyes were narrowed. The ominous green eyes narrowed back in response. "You really shouldn't be worrying about how we do our jobs, seeing as you've been taking forever to finish your conversions."
All of the other agents flinched except for Yuhan, who 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 to his fellow agents, who all seemed ready to leave. "You guys can go hang somewhere else if he's being too grouchy for you."
The two partners stayed behind as the others gladly shuffled out the door. The dark green eyes were overshadowed as they stared vaguely at the dusty floor. "Yuhan..." Hiroshu began, with a rare formal usage of his friend's name. "You're seriously a wreck."
In the blink of an eye, the younger agent was wrenched backwards as soon as he turned sharply to leave. He twisted his head back around, his eyes murderous yet broken all at once.
"I know I'm not the better Earthbender..." Hiroshu gritted his teeth as he clenched his palm, struggling to keep the stone glove locked onto the back of his friend's collar. "But you can go ahead and kill me this time if you don't want to hear me out."
Both Riya and her middle-aged neighbor sat quietly beneath the lone elm tree this time. Shen was still wreaking 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. "...Is it even possible?" 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's partner tried his best not to be fazed by the dagger-like eyes glaring back at him. The sleep-deprived agent had grudgingly agreed to stay behind in the abandoned room for a little while, solely out of his respect for their friendship – but it still seemed like he could change his mind any minute. Hiroshu had to choose his words carefully. "Old Sweepy used to have a name, though I can't remember...which only brings me to my next point. A superb agent, the guy was! He had everything, too – his own palace in the Upper Ring, a beautiful wife, the awesome title of Long Feng's right-hand man, a –"
"What's your point?"
Hiroshu's brow twitched a little as he struggled to keep his cool. Yuhan was so troublesome in his bad moods... "(Ahem) Well, all of those things were taken from him in a matter of seconds, just like that!" he continued. "Didn't matter how important he was to Long Feng when he bombed one of his most important assignments. Do you remember 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 peasant rebels..." Yuhan mumbled very reluctantly, giving into his partner's insistence for a response. "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?"
He suddenly eyed the door when a third figure came striding in. "Because you'll end up just like him at this rate," Tyru remarked 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. "That...was uncalled for..." he muttered. "Besides, he's still better than you at conversions." He cautiously watched his partner out of the corner of his eye, who'd grown dangerously silent.
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 ground from beneath Yuhan's sole. His 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.
Yuhan's eyes had cracked open to reveal flaring green, which seemed to pierce Tyru to the core. Surprisingly enough, the callous agent chuckled. "You can talk as impressively as you'd like for now, but –"
"But Long Feng would still take my word over yours any day." The Peace Orator looked ready to strangle someone. "If I were you, I'd avoid marching around and preaching others like a stuck-up idiot. I've always tried to be fair with you, Tyru, but I don't know...I'm starting to think that janitor uniform would look pretty good on you." Tyru pressed his lips shut, forming a scowl. "Perhaps I should tell Long Feng Sir how useless you were for the past three years, and how I had to cover for your crappy conversions?"
Yuhan's eyes gleamed with something that very few agents had ever seen: mockery. Tyru seemed to realize the danger of his position, and he took the chance to back out. "Humph. Well, sorry to upset you, almighty Yuhan, but I suppose we'll see how Long Feng feels about his favorite agent once he gets out of prison." He turned on his heel and paced briskly out of the door.
Hiroshu groaned as Tyru's footsteps disappeared down the hall, his only chance to get through to his friend having been sabotaged. "Uh..." he began hesitatingly. "I'm just gonna say that –"
"I'm out time, Hiroshu. I'll catch you later," Yuhan interrupted dully, standing up. His eyes had dimmed as soon as the other agent 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, so Tao's already agreed to take over your next conversion."
Yuhan sighed loudly, dropping back down upon his makeshift seat. "You do realize that Tao's a new recruit, right?"
"I know you know that's not the point, buddy."
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.
"I'm afraid it doesn't end there, Yuhan..." The older agent narrowed his brows, unable to read his partner's expression. "Tyru's a stupid idiot, but he actually has a point."
"You're letting her get to your head. You're putting yourself in danger...and your family, too. I don't even want to discuss what happened to Old Sweepy's family, on that note," Hiroshu continued severely.
"I'll be fine," the gloomy agent replied dismissively, rolling his eyes.
"But you'd better be fine a little faster, just saying..." Hiroshu retorted. "If I could say so myself, it looks like she's affecting your judgment. It won't be long before people start accusing you of being disloyal. The last thing you need is to be banished from the city and have your parents branded all because of a bad breakup." He took his partner's silence as a chance to continue. "Anyhow...what is it about her that you can't get over? I know that the whole girlfriend thing might've been exciting and new to you and all...but you're the last person I'd expect not to meet the Dai Li's standards. What's going on?" Hiroshu was well aware of Riya's panda lilies and what they meant, but it was common knowledge that all members of the Dai Li placed their highest priorities in the organization. Yuhan certainly was no exception, was he?
The dejected agent seemed to stay in the same still position for years before finally replying. "...Her parents." His voice cracked.
"What parents?" Hiroshu raised an eyebrow.
"Parents that she thought were dead...they're unconverted rebels, here at headquarters. Those parents." Yuhan's hat was pulled low over his eyes.
"Waitwaitwait...that doesn't make any sense." Hiroshu hands waved around randomly in his confusion. "She's born and raised in Ba Sing Se, just like you! Her parents can't be refugees –"
"Yeah, her dead parents aren't refugees," the tired agent cut in miserably. "That's what makes it even better. One of our old agents decided to drop her off at the train station after her family was killed by disease, and a pair of refugees were the only ones who wanted to take her in. They ended up joining the Resistance...and ended up here." As he finished, he threw his head back against the wall, his hat flopping down over his face.
Hiroshu was speechless for a few seconds. "Oh. Wow...that sucks." There really wasn't anything else to say at the moment.
"No kidding." There was an uncomfortable moment of silence.
"Well – I had no idea you were dealing with something like that," the older agent started again. He sat up in his chair, exhaling. "But...this is going to sound kind of harsh, sorry...you've gotta do what you've gotta do, Yuhan." His partner shuffled slightly, the hat still covering his face. "You know...this actually means that she could end up joining the Resistance."
Yuhan slowly pushed the brim of his hat away from his eyes, eyeing Hiroshu warily. "I know."
His partner watched him carefully. "Then...what will you do if it happens?"
The gloomy agent's shadowy face grew ominous again. "I know my duty, Hiroshu." His tone showed no signs of hesitation.
Hiroshu seemed to sense something else. "Do you?" he asked slowly.
Yuhan glared back with the same dark expression. "Good to know my own 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 replied to the space his friend had occupied only a split second ago. "Be careful, buddy..."
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.
At the very least, 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 young Peace Orator gladly made use of this small freedom tonight, unable to fall asleep despite his terrible condition. His thoughts floated around like the hazy clouds obscuring some the stars above. He preferred not to think, anyway. Thinking was tiring. Thinking was bad. Thinking wouldn't get him anywhere in the organization. Especially when thinking was related to –
The sudden sound of footsteps caught Yuhan's attention immediately, and he quickly sat up. It was more of a very faint vibration in the ground from the distance, but he'd felt it nonetheless as he was lying down. He immediately began to conjure up excuses about what he was doing out here, half-expecting the intruder to be some paranoid agent...but something inside him told him that it was someone much, much worse.
Yuhan recognized the shadowy figure long before it had even gone halfway up the hill he sat upon, just from its familiar movements. He 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 felt the figure pause abruptly when it came close enough to recognize him too. "...Yuhan?" Her voice sounded almost disbelieving.
The painful silence stretched on and on, but it eventually became too much for him to bear. "Hey...Riya..." he mumbled at last. He couldn't stop staring at the ground, even when he tried to lift his head to look at her.
She stood there for quite some time before slowly picking up her pace. The grass rustled softly as she took a seat a few feet away from him at the top of the hill. "Do...do you...come here often?" she decided to ask, rather faintly.
"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 seemed to mark some kind of impenetrable barrier. Yuhan finally forced himself to move, turning his head very stiffly against his will to glance down at her. Riya sensed the notion, returning it as well.
Both of them seemed to have planned something to say, but it became lost immediately when they looked into each other's unrecognizable faces. His eyes had practically lost their color and were only staying open by a miracle, and someone could've easily mistaken him for a ghost tonight. Her eyes had long lost their shine, and grief had taken its toll over her thin and frail body.
They had broken each other.
Yuhan's lifeless eyes slowly shut for a moment as he turned his face away. "I don't want to cause you anymore trouble by staying here. I guess I should go."
"No, it's okay..." Riya scooted a little closer, though the grass barrier remained strong. The agent didn't move a muscle. "You know...I...I really do understand why you do what you do."
Yuhan gazed back at her, his expression showing very faint signs of confusion. "I thought you already understood," he replied slowly. "You know...from that other time. And...you don't agree."
"There's more than that," Riya responded quietly. "I mean...you're right...I don't agree. But I can't blame you..." She fiddled with the folds of her sleeve as she struggled to grow accustomed to addressing his dejected face. "You've been chosen to do this ever since – ever since before you met me." The agent's eyes widened a little. "They didn't tell you until later, but they've always looked after you, always led you to follow this path. A-am I right?"
Yuhan nodded silently after a few moments. Well...anything was possible these days. He decided not to think too much about how she came across that information. Indeed, the Dai Li had planned his entry as soon as his Earthbending talent was noticeable...which was pretty early.
"Anyway, I shouldn't have been so shocked about your beliefs..." Riya continued. "They've influenced you for so long, and since we were close back then...they influenced me too." She miraculously managed to laugh slightly. "It's a no wonder I thought so highly of them. They had to create a perfect image for you...and I was with you most of the time."
The tired agent focused his gaze on her a little more, his eyes softening. "Yeah...I guess so, 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 stepparents...go peacefully?"
Yuhan's face twisted in pain for a brief moment. Watching him, so did Riya's. "Your stepparents..." he began with great difficulty. "They...er...don't like me..."
The young woman had to take a few moments to realize what his statement had just implied. "They 'don't' like you? As in they currently...don't like you?" she 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 to her. "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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