|More from Minnichi||Romance/Angst/Action||PG-13||Very Positive|
|Chapter 15 - City of Twists and Lies (SHiE)|
July 23, 2012, Avatar Wiki and ff.net
Summary of the Last Chapter
There are dire consequences for breaking the rules of the Dai Li, one of which being the execution of a purposely un-brainwashed rebel. Long Feng, having caught onto Yuhan's feelings for Riya, orders him to convert her into a Joo Dee. Faced with the alternative of her execution, the agent is forced to comply.
"There is no war in Ba Sing Se."
"THERE IS NO WAR IN BA SING SE." The drones of a hundred voices echoed through the damp air of the dreary chamber.
"There is no war within the walls." A single voice cut through the silence a few seconds before the rest. Several years of experience had crafted it into a smooth, frighteningly convincing tone.
"THERE IS NO WAR WITHIN THE WALLS." One hundred pairs of eyes stared after a small, orb-like lantern that hummed along its circular rail, which emitted a blinding light.
"Here, we are safe."
"HERE, WE ARE SAFE."
Like the voice, a single pair of emerald eyes stood out separately from the rest, illuminated for a split second every time the brilliant glow of the lantern whizzed passed them. They were shadowed with years of exhaustion, and they longed to rest at last, to close forever. "Here, we are...free."
"HERE, WE ARE FREE."
They were the only eyes in the room that contained no faith in the words.
"Dunno what the hype was all about, these aren't that good," Hiroshu muttered, his speech distorted by the fat dumpling he was chewing on. His partner was leaning indifferently on an elbow across from him and only shrugged slightly in response.
The two agents were still in the dark confines of the Dai Li headquarters, but a few of Hiroshu's friends had offered some lunch from their visit to Upper Ring. They'd found him peering into the entrance of a conversion chamber, as if trying to persuade whoever was inside to get out. All of them seemed to scuttle away immediately after realizing that it was Yuhan. He was still as respected an agent as before, but something about his last Joo Dee conversion had changed him. It was hard for the others to put in words, but in general...everyone feared being around him these days.
Some speculated that the famed converter of rebels had gone insane. Hiroshu's friends, upon closer look, had realized that Yuhan was staring straight at the candle within the glowing lantern until the flame drowned inside the wax and flickered away – which only worsened the theory as they quietly left the scene. Only Hiroshu had stayed behind, picking up the boxes of food from the floor and dragging himself into the chamber to join his partner.
Hardly any words passed between the two as they sat quietly upon the cold floor. Yuhan examined one of the dumplings in his box oddly, seeming to stab it at constantly with a chopstick.
"I honestly don't know why you like to stay in here now," sighed Hiroshu. His sage green eyes dully scanned the curved, rusty rail circling above them.
He received another shrug in reply.
"It just reminds everyone how boring the Dai Li is. Makes you forget that there's a world outside," the older agent continued glumly, having gotten too used to the dead-statue responses. Though he hadn't reacted much to recent events, even he noticed how his attitude towards the organization was turning strangely cynical these days...and it annoyed him. He glanced over at his hardly existent partner again to remind himself why it needed to stop.
After all, that was what always happened to miserable Dai Li agents. They were bound to their duties, no matter what else went on in life. Yuhan had been reduced to what seemed like a hollow shell, responding only to commands from Long Feng like a lifeless puppet - though Hiroshu imagined that if its strings were visible, they'd have been barbed chains. There were only "strings" or "barbed chains," however, if the agents wanted them to be there. Duties were duties, but any member was allowed to enjoy life as he pleased if he followed them. It was practically an agreement: "Don't hurt your duties, and your duties won't hurt you."
Yuhan's duties were still taking their revenge on him. He was trapped.
Only Hiroshu could really see this, however, since any other agent would've laughed and said that Yuhan had it easy. Long Feng was quite pleased with his compliance and even more pleased that he'd resumed his conversions as flawlessly as usual. A 'valuable asset to the organization,' Yuhan was. A 'leader of peace.'
A messed-up, broken-hearted kid, Hiroshu added to himself. How long would his partner torture himself over this? His duties had gotten their revenge all right, but the kid was really giving them more credit than he needed to. If he hadn't met Riya in the first place...
That only reminded Hiroshu once more whose fault this really was. If only, if only...how many things could those two words apply to? If only he hadn't desired a stupid cup of exotic tea. If only he'd stopped his stupid partner from following the stupid girl. If only he hadn't taken them to the stupid Outer Wall. If only he hadn't delivered those stupid flowers all the time. If only he hadn't fired his stupid glove at her...
Hiroshu shook his head (though Yuhan hardly took any notice of it). It would do no good to dwell on the past now. He would end up like the lifeless minion of Long Feng across from him if he kept it up for too long. He'd killed a good number of people before. A girl losing her mind was nothing to be worked up over.
...But it was just that she was a girl. She was not a war-crazy, vengeful old man. She was not an Earthbending rebel, intent on killing Long Feng. She was just a girl who wanted her parents back, and a girl who'd made Yuhan smile a lot. Hiroshu knew that Dai Li agents weren't supposed to think about the former lives of Joo Dees, but it was pretty darn hard not to do it with his partner lugging around like a zombie all the time. Yuhan's duties were even affecting him, stupidly enough. And most annoyingly...it bothered him.
"A city of lies..."
Hiroshu looked back up with a jolt, having realized that Yuhan actually spoke. "Pardon me?" he asked, straightening his back.
"The City of Twists and Lies..." continued his partner, his low voice faintly bitter. "That's all Ba Sing Se is."
"...Good to know." The older agent managed a slight, exasperated sigh. Yuhan was always spewing out overly depressing statements in the most random times nowadays. "Don't forget that it's a city at peace," Hiroshu added, making sure to put much emphasis on the last word. It felt almost as if he was reassuring himself, too.
Yuhan glanced up at the curved rail. "Peace built on a pile of lies," he murmured. "What good is that?" His expression had taken on the strange, blank, emotionless...well, nothingness that the others had recently grown wary of.
"You're starting to sound like a bloody traitor again," Hiroshu replied irritably. "Look – I know that things haven't been easy, but you've got to stop it with this dumb attitude. Want to lose your parents too?"
The ground crackled slightly beneath them.
"Alright, I'm sorry," Hiroshu added immediately, though his voice was still stern. "But we all knew what we were getting into. You should still be proud of what you're doing." Something in Yuhan's eyes flickered strangely for the briefest moment. "It's not a natural peace, but it's there, isn't it?" the older agent continued. "Look at the rest of the world! Can they say they live decent lives with the Fire Nation burning down everything around them? There's a reason they all come here in a mad rush. Isn't that worth something?"
Judging from his vacant face, Yuhan didn't seem to pick up anything from the words at all. Hiroshu wanted to go on, but it seemed like the kid was still debating whether or not to reply, so he chose to wait for a little while in the heavy silence. "...They didn't know what they were getting into," Yuhan finally retorted miserably, gazing down strangely towards the floor.
Hiroshu immediately recognized the change slowly breaking over Yuhan's expression. The emerald irises were beginning to waver unsteadily as the hot liquid gathered beneath them. Alarmed, Hiroshu quickly threw in his response before the kid could finish recalling another bitter memory of Riya. "No one has a real solution when it comes to peace, Yuhan. We're doing the best we can, and that's really – well, you tell me, then." He motioned towards his partner with the pair of chopsticks in his fingers. "Do you know a better way?"
A blink later, and the emerald eyes were back to normal (completely hollow and grossly sleep-deprived). Yuhan half-sighed as he spoke, eyeing some of the stone plates covering his palm. "Sorry...I know this just gets nowhere. Real peace is probably a lost cause. It's just – the way we try to make it...something just isn't..."
"You think too much," Hiroshu quickly piped in. "All we've got to do is look at the obvious. No one's found a perfect way, but just look at Ba Sing Se!" He motioned past their heads as if pointing to the big city above. "Almost no violence. And no war. What else could people ask for in a peaceful life?"
Hiroshu's shoulders dropped. "Yuhan...not everyone can be free in a peaceful city. I'm really sorry about what happened with you..." His partner seemed to jerk slightly just from the mention of it. "But just assume I'm not talking about that case right now," Hiroshu threw in swiftly. "Complete freedom is exactly what causes any kind of peace to be impossible, and – come on, hasn't Long Feng gone over this with us a thousand times?"
It occurred to the older agent a little too late that he'd accidentally triggered an awful memory. There was something odd gleaming in Yuhan's eyes – a deep, poisonous, and downright frightening kind of blackness. Hiroshu decided to stop it from getting any worse while he could. "Anyway..." he started again (rather loudly), "We'll both feel a lot better outside of this stupid chamber. You don't even have anything to do right now!" The venomous eyes remained the same. "Come on...let's go up to the Upper Ring – or do something," Hiroshu added even louder. He stood up and gave his friend a kick to the knee. "See if you can still call the city lame after taking a look around."
Yuhan's glare clearly indicated that he hadn't appreciated the impact of his partner's sharp, stony shoe at all, but Hiroshu was just relieved that he'd let go of that freaky expression from earlier.
"Huh. When did this get here?" Hiroshu gazed curiously at the scene.
"G-good afternoon, sir..." spoke a timid voice from behind. Yuhan turned around to see that an awfully thin peasant was greeting Hiroshu. "I hope that you approve of the new facilities of the Ba Sing Se Zoo," continued the middle-aged man. He wore an old, olive-colored cleaning uniform, and a long broom was still clutched in his trembling fingers as he spoke. "I-I apologize that the usual formalities of requesting permission and necessary paperwork from the Dai Li were not followed, but the construction – it was, u-um, on rather short notice..."
Hiroshu appeared somewhat puzzled, but he lifted his face a bit more to take a glimpse around the rest of the zoo, the brim of his hat rising out of the way. He squinted his eyes as the bright rays of sunlight illuminated his tan face.
"A-again, I apologize! Please forgive my carelessness," beseeched the zookeeper, having feared that Hiroshu's expression indicated a threat. "But I assure you, these facilities are very beneficial to Ba Sing Se, and to the Dai Li. I-income has been rising rapidly since its construction, and it's a pleasant environment that promotes peace for citizens. You won't have any reason to reconsider its operation, o-or..."
Yuhan could tell that Hiroshu was already fond of the new facilities, actually. The zookeeper certainly had nothing to worry about. "Very creative setup you have," the older agent stated casually, giving an approving nod towards the other stony fences in the distance. "Who initiated its construction?"
"A-avatar Aang, sir."
Both of the agents glanced sharply at one another, causing the peasant to cringe. Yuhan felt the rules forming the words on his mouth automatically, that foreign involvement in any of Ba Sing Se's affairs had to be monitored closely by the Dai Li at all times, that the zoo's construction was a severe breach of policy...but they strangely fell hollow before they could even form in his throat. Our female culprit is a highly dangerous rebel, and she's proven herself capable of upsetting the system of our entire organization. Such an individual cannot be left unchecked, do you understand? Those had been rules as well. Yuhan suddenly lost any desire to speak at all.
Hiroshu seemed to sense this as he quietly looked over at his partner for a moment, and resolved to address the zookeeper himself. "Well...he's done a fine job," he announced finally.
The zookeeper's eyes widened with disbelief, and he nodded back rapidly. "Y-yes! He certainly has, sir..." he replied rather faintly. However, it struck the younger agent that the peasant's expression, even while fearful, was glowing with profound joy. A deep kind of gratitude...towards the young Avatar, Yuhan realized.
"Just make sure to notify the Dai Li of any unusual plans in the future," Hiroshu concluded dismissively. "Enjoy your facilities."
None of the words really registered in Yuhan's head from that point on. He didn't even notice when he and his partner left the scene, or when they passed through the gates of the Inner Wall. That grateful expression...why did it bother him so much? The thought remained faintly in his mind throughout the journey into the city.
Yuhan still hadn't registered their surroundings even when they began to approach the Middle Ring to stop by one of Hiroshu's favorite snack shops – but that was how things always were these days. Life for him now was nothing but movement. 'Go here, convert him, deliver this, go there, stop here, eat, sleep...'
It wasn't truly a life anymore - it was better. Real life held much more than movement...and it hurt much more as well. He could never stop his torturous memories from resurfacing periodically (those dark conversations with Hiroshu certainly didn't help), but focusing on movement alone made it somewhat easier. What else could he do? There were still worse things to lose if he ever fell beneath the Dai Li's standards again – and Long Feng had made sure to point out in the handbook that even suicide would result in the same consequences for those left behind.
A crowd of laughing children rushing past the two agents sparked Yuhan's consciousness again for a moment, due to their volume.
"Have you seen it...new zoo...armadillo lion...so cool..."
They were all buzzing about the new facilities in the agrarian zone. Once again, the strange, glowing face of the zookeeper appeared in his mind's eye. Before Yuhan could ponder why it affected him so much, however...
"Hey, those are my cabbages! Watch where you're going! Rotten kids..."
Hiroshu joined his partner in gazing dully at a grey-bearded peasant in a dirty green turban and faded tunic a few feet away from them, who was shaking a fist at the children as they rustled past his huge cart of round green vegetables.
"Pah, Ba Sing Se Zoo...what's so good about it anyway? One of its rabaroos ate my cabbages, too...rotten things! No appreciation at all...worse than Omashu..." The turbaned merchant continued muttering incessantly to himself as he picked back up some misplaced cabbages from the ground.
...Yeah, it was definitely a better idea to avoid paying attention to real life, Yuhan concluded. He and Hiroshu nodded a little at each other, seeming to share a mutual agreement to leave the deranged man and his cabbages.
If only they'd left sooner.
"Fire Nation doesn't even do as much damage...a whole war and no cabbages ruined by Firebenders...Earth Kingdom treats me worse...I swear..."
Their backs were still turned as the patrol partners immediately paused. Hiroshu sighed loudly, gazing over at Yuhan. "Looks like that's our cue..."
Yuhan had no idea what was coming out of his mouth. It all spilled out without warning. "No, it's fine. He won't mention it again. Waste of time. Let's go."
"...and Firebenders don't throw feasts for kids who completely destroy a year's supply of cabbages...what's wrong with the world..."
Hiroshu's expression was turning terribly skeptical. "Seriously, Yuhan? He's babbling nonstop about the Fire Nation!" He cringed as the complaints in the distance grew even louder. "Want me to shut him up, then?"
Whatever caused Yuhan to refuse before only grew stronger, and he felt it boiling inside him. His words spun out of control. "No! There's no reason to drag him into headquarters, he's just a stupid peasant! Long Feng's in prison, the Earth King wants to start an army, and we've all got much better things to worry about!" As he continued yelling, Hiroshu stared back with his mouth slightly open, his face sporting a bizarre mix of expressions. "Stop getting so excited over a tiny, meaningless thing!"
Yuhan suddenly regained his senses, and he paused for a moment to register the fact that his arms had somehow risen into the air, lifted a nearby boulder from the ground, and were still hovering it above Hiroshu's head – whose face had gone a little pale. "I...uh..." Yuhan stuttered a bunch of unrecognizable word fragments as he hastily tossed the rock aside. It landed a little too close to the cart of cabbages behind him, causing the merchant to jump back and give a loud yelp of horror.
"Okay...we should go..." Hiroshu finally stated, quite slowly. He made sure to keep his distance from Yuhan as they gradually made their way out of the scene, with the cabbage merchant staring bewilderedly at them from behind.
"I'm just going to assume that you lost too much sleep this week..." Hiroshu commented for the first time in nearly an hour. He stalked a few feet behind Yuhan as if he were a psychotic murderer. "They say it gets to your head if you don't rest for more than two days or something. And then you start seeing things...anyway, I'll just leave it at that."
Yuhan made no reply. They'd reached the Upper Ring at last, but he had already removed himself completely from the sight of all the marvelous, shimmering orange tiles coating the rooftops around them. He'd reverted to focusing on movement as soon as he could, considering what happened earlier.
"...Okay, you know what?" Hiroshu suddenly piped up again. "I won't leave it at that. Are you crazy?" he shouted. "Sleep deprivation or not, how're we supposed to get anything done if you randomly make attempts to kill me every time?" He suddenly paused. "Wait – this wouldn't happen to be the first time you ran into a rebel outside ever since...you know..."
Yuhan picked up his pace and walked even further ahead without responding. Indeed, he'd hardly been outside headquarters ever since a certain conversion. Thinking about it now was the last thing he wanted to do.
His partner understood. "Alright then..." He went silent, but only for a moment. "Still, you can't carry yourself around like that!" he continued irritably. "This would get you killed by Long Feng for sure. I can't believe we actually left that guy back there! Seriously, the sooner you let go of what happened, the better. If it keeps turning you insane at this rate, we'll both be dead by tomorrow. What if that guy was an Earthbender, huh? What if a crazy rebel was attacking us? Would you still end up throwing a freaking boulder at –"
It must've been a curse, because a raging Earthbender from the Resistance decided to ambush them right at that moment.
Yuhan had barely registered the sight of the rebel dropping down from the tiled roof of the shop they were passing, and he looked just in time to realize that a sea of massive pillars was shooting out in wave-like ripples from the spot of impact where the man's fists struck the ground.
Hiroshu, who was farther back, gave a yell of surprise as he jumped out of the way, kicking himself off the ground and latching onto the wall of the shop with his gloves and boots. Yuhan had been too close to dodge the pillars, stumbling as one of them sprang up beneath his feet, but he managed to regain his balance by rooting the bottom of his rock soles to the earth below. His body followed the sharp force of the pillar towards the sky for a moment before he released his feet and flipped backwards towards the ground again.
The rebel took no notice when Yuhan landed, his murderous grey eyes having locked onto Hiroshu instead. His large, muscular arms stood out even beneath the long, black sleeves of his dirty tunic as he threw them forward. The jagged, blade-like shard of rock he'd already procured from the ground soared towards Yuhan's partner, who quickly kicked himself back off the wall right before it stabbed a gaping hole straight through the plaster.
Hiroshu landed swiftly on the ground next to Yuhan, though he began to clutch at his upper abdomen in pain. "Stupid, useless half-healed rib!" he scowled. "They said it shouldn't be a problem by now!" In the middle of his complaint, however, he flung an arm forward, his fingers rigidly outstretched. All of the individual pieces of his glove separated from one another as they shot away from his fingers and whizzed towards the rebel like bullets.
His attack was immediately met with a thick barrier of earth that sprung from the ground before the rebel, and the sharp glove pieces became wedged inside of it. The heavy wall shot forward at the agents a split second later, just as quickly as the bullets. Aware of Hiroshu's injury, Yuhan leapt ahead of his partner at once. Balling his fists, he clapped his forearms together and thrust them forward. The huge, rectangular wall cracked almost perfectly in half upon impact, and he quickly separated his arms to shove the two pieces apart as they crashed through the air, causing them to fly off to his sides. He twisted his head back towards Hiroshu. "Earthbending's not going to get us anywhere at this rate!" he quickly shouted. "We have to chain him down!"
"Got it!" Hiroshu yelled back, narrowly dodging another knife-like piece of stone that their attacker had just hurled. "Try to pin him down for now so I can get a better aim! You do the Earthbending – I can't do squat with this rib!"
Yuhan nodded as he ducked to avoid another pointed shard of stone, which actually sliced off some of the green tassels from his hat as it flew past him. As the rebel was still preparing his next chunk of earth, the agent widened his stance and dug his feet into the ground, twisting his fists apart in slightly opposite directions. The ground beneath the attacker followed his movements and loosened into thick mud.
Hiroshu took the chance to strike, seeing that the rebel had been caught off-guard by the sudden sinking of his feet, and two metallic chains shot out from his sleeves as he whipped them out. Yuhan solidified the earth again to further destabilize the attacker. The cuffs landed precisely and locked themselves around the rebel's wrists.
Before Hiroshu could get a chance to tighten the pull of the chains, however, the rebel grabbed them first with his own hands and gave a hard yank. The agent, being the lighter and less bulky figure of the two, suddenly sailed through the air in surprise, the chains still attached to his arms. He managed to turn himself upright before hitting the ground and almost managed to make solid contact with the earth using his stone shoes, but his rib must've given away as he twisted his body, for he suddenly cringed and ended up falling on his face instead. Another yank on the chains from the rebel only further dragged him forward and prevented him from being able to stand.
Alarmed, Yuhan immediately began to charge towards his partner to help. Meanwhile, the rebel pulled his feet out from the earth below as he gazed down triumphantly – or rather, maliciously at Hiroshu. A dark, twisted smile was stretching wide across his face, and the coarse strands of long grey hair that had slipped from his topknot only seemed to make it worse as they hung down over his eyes. "Disgraceful scum of the Earth Kingdom," he scoffed, appearing to enjoy the sight of an elite Dai Li agent sprawled helplessly across the ground.
Yuhan suddenly slowed down his pace involuntarily. The man's vile expression was so familiar...
"This is for Suyin." With that, the ground around the chained rebel and agent began to shake violently.
Hiroshu's eyes widened with horror as he looked up. "Uh...Yuhan? A little help here...?" The rebel had ground one of his feet onto both the chains right at Hiroshu's wrists, preventing any chance of escape. The ground continued to rumble as a gigantic boulder began to rise slowly into the air, and the agent beneath seemed to shrink in its shadow.
Despite all this, the air had grown hollow and silent around Yuhan, and he couldn't move.
"YUHAN! A LITTLE HELP?" screamed Hiroshu at the top of his lungs, while the rebel seemed to put effort into positioning the boulder just right – meaning about five feet above Hiroshu's head.
By the time Yuhan finally reacted, the boulder had barely begun to drop. Horrified and frantic all at once, the agent came to with a jolt and slammed his feet into the ground, punching forward with both arms in a desperate attempt to intercept the attack.
With miraculous timing, a single shard of rock extended from the ground in front of Hiroshu's face just as the boulder came crashing down. Its sharp point shot upwards and cracked straight through the massive stone, and the fragments crashed down its thick sides away from the body beneath. One of the pieces, however, roughly the size of a large brick, struck its target.
If it weren't for the protection of his hat, Hiroshu probably would've suffered a lifelong concussion. "OW! BLOODY REALM OF – ARGH!"
Yuhan stood there stunned for a moment as his partner continued yelling all sorts of curse words in his agony, but he tried to force composure upon himself as he rushed forward towards the scene. His head was still faint, still numb from the realization that he was battling a man who'd lost someone dear...a man who'd lost her forever from existence...
Taking no chance to hesitate, the rebel redirected one of the fragments of the boulder as it was still falling through the air. Yuhan was trying too hard to focus whatever he could on helping Hiroshu – and he noticed it a little too late.
"AGH!" The distracted agent had twisted his head to the side to try avoiding the impact, but the rock still struck the side of his temple excruciatingly hard. Yuhan staggered backwards as one of his hands lifted clumsily towards the throbbing center of pain.
Hiroshu's wrists had been freed the moment the rebel shifted his stance to attack his partner. The older agent immediately jumped to his feet and rooted them firmly onto the ground, even raising some more earth to solidify around them for extra support. He tenderly rubbed at his own throbbing head for a moment, but he quickly took advantage of the rebel's diverted attention and gave the chains a sharp pull.
Having been unprepared, the rebel fell backwards as his body was dragged across the ground by the wrists. He began thrashing about in an attempt to get back up, but the agent prevented it using his same tactics from earlier.
Yuhan gazed deliriously in their direction, the world still slightly spinning from the pain in his temple. He knew that this would be the only chance to end it for good, however, and concentrated his vision the best he could while throwing his arms forward, his wide sleeves slashing through the air. The two metal chains within them followed, and the cuffs latched themselves securely around the rebel's ankles before locking into place.
Both of the agents pulled at the same time, and the man was no longer able to move any of his limbs. Hiroshu finally made a fist as his arm shook from retaining the tension of the chain attached to it, and his remaining glove shot out. It struck the rebel's neck with a sickening impact, and the man's body fell limp.
Hiroshu was the first to detach the chains from his own arms as he stepped forward with angry strides. The rebel was still conscious, half-choking and moaning in pain occasionally. The agent stared down at him with narrowed eyes for a few seconds before giving his face a hard kick, and the man was out cold.
Yuhan quietly stood back in the distance, half-heartedly detaching his own chains from his arms. He didn't really know what to say to his partner, and his head still spun weirdly.
"...Who in Koh's Realm is Suyin?" Hiroshu demanded as he approached him slowly, rubbing at his own head again. There was no reply.
And for the first time ever, Hiroshu gave a sheepish-looking Yuhan a murderous glare.
The afternoon began to give way to the evening, and the sun was glowing deep orange in preparation for its setting.
"...and I probably have to get a new uniform while I'm at it!"
Yuhan listened quietly to his partner's enraged lecture as they sat temporarily on the tiled edge of a fancy fountain outside a restaurant. He could only continue muttering, "Sorry..."
Though one of them was yelling constantly, both agents leaned over on their elbows to try easing the throbbing pain in their heads. Hiroshu looked down at his uniform with disgust, counting the endless permanent stains that it had gathered from being dragged across the ground during the battle. "I don't even feel happy to be alive yet!" he went on, glowering over at his partner. "That was ridiculous!"
Hiroshu groaned loudly for the hundredth time that conversation. "I think I'm just going to head to the doctor now. My head's killing me, and my rib's just making everything more annoying. And then I'll have to go to the seamstress – anyhow, you see what I mean? Stop being insane! You know why that guy attacked us out of all the agents? Because you were being weird, and we looked like easy targets walking all separately like that! I was actually going to die! You probably would've too, at that rate..."
His voice suddenly trailed off as his expression slowly dropped and gradually began twisting into horror. He seemed to freeze into place as he stared.
"Hello, Agent Tsen! Agent Leung! It is an honor and pleasure to see you here." Her hair was cropped unnaturally straight at her shoulders, wound perfectly at the top of her head around a thin and elegant green hairpiece. Some of the auburn strands brushed the sides of her pale cheeks as she bowed deeply.
Whatever expression distorted Hiroshu's face was nothing compared to Yuhan's. His emerald eyes looked as if they saw something else, yet stared blankly in the face of the true image burning through them. They remained wide open in some kind of mix between life and death.
Her wide, horrifying grin refused to falter. "Whatever is the matter, gentlemen? You do not look well. Agent Leung, you deserve a far better quality uniform than your current attire. Shall I notify the seamstress for you?" Throughout her whole speech, her hazel eyes hadn't blinked even once.
Though it took him several seconds, Hiroshu was the only one who could force himself to speak. "I...no I don't...you – what're you doing here?" he asked weakly. His partner remained as still as a corpse beside him.
"It is my duty to ensure that the cultural standards of the Dai Li be upheld, sir. Your uniform, Agent Leung, is not up to standard, and I believe you would very much enjoy a more professional appearance. With all due respect, please allow me to contact the seamstress for a replacement. It will be most convenient for you!"
Hiroshu found himself suddenly shaking his head very rapidly. "No – no, I'm fine," he stammered. "J-Joo Dee, please attend to other matters. Thank you for your concern."
She immediately bowed at the command and proceeded to walk quietly out of sight, the long skirt of her yellow dress rippling slightly in the breeze.
The older agent could only bear to glance for a moment back over at his partner before having to turn his face sharply away again. Everything he'd just been yelling about earlier suddenly felt so insignificant...so meaningless. "I...I'm going to head out now. Doctor maybe," he finally managed to say in the silence. "Y-you should get out of here, too."
Not another word passed between the two agents as Hiroshu quickly stood up and paced away from the scene.
It burned. All of the pain he'd tried so hard to dull by focusing on movement...it burned, all over again. It was even worse this time, now accompanied by a horrifying image that would never stop haunting his already throbbing head.
Yuhan staggered erratically throughout the paved streets of the Upper Ring, with no idea where he was going or why. Everything he'd refused to think about, everything he'd left behind in real life was now dragging him back headfirst into it – and it felt awful. But he couldn't stop the thoughts from flooding over, from reliving the joy and pain of a distant love, from bringing forth all the bitter, hateful urges to watch Long Feng suffer a horrible death...
He stumbled forward half-consciously through the door of what seemed like a large, exquisite restaurant and finally collapsed into a seat of the farthest, most isolated table he could find. You can't go anywhere with this. You have no choice. Calm down. Move on...the thoughts did little to comfort him, especially with his head still aching persistently from the earlier injury.
Of all the memories to resurface next, the glowing, grateful face of the zookeeper ended up occupying his mind. Yuhan warily decided to try figuring out what it was that made it so strangely significant. Any thoughts that were unrelated to her were better, anyway. He looked back on the memory of the Ba Sing Se Zoo, recalling his discovery that Avatar Aang had built it, and how the zookeeper's profound expression had appeared for that fleeting moment he was mentally thanking the child with all his heart...
That must've been it. It bothered Yuhan to see such a grateful expression...because he'd never received one like that himself. Nor did the rest of the Dai Li. And they were taught to believe that that was how people were feeling about their contributions to the city. That had to be it. It bothered him because, as a Dai Li agent...he'd never known what a truly thankful person looked like until he saw the face of the zookeeper.
It bothered him most because of the sacrifices the Dai Li were forced to make for their contributions.
Peace required sacrifice, they'd always said. People would fight it, people would hate it, but the sacrifice would always mean something to someone out there in the city, even if the agents didn't know it. Take a look around, the authorities would always tell the new recruits. Ba Sing Se was the last utopia on earth. The peace they created was worth every sacrifice...and the glorious conclusion was that even the sacrifices they would never recover from would mean something to someone. The citizens were happy and at peace. It was the ultimate contribution for the greater good.
Worst of all, Yuhan knew that the harsh principles of sacrifice applied to the loss of loved ones as well. The knife that had long been wedged in the center of his chest gave another twist as soon as his thoughts drifted back to Riya. Oh Spirits, how he loved her...It was already bad enough that he could care less for the greater good if he'd had the choice to avoid the conversion, but the very idea that there was just nothing in the sacrifice at all, not even a thankful person out there...it was just appalling. It made everything even worse. He finally knew why the glowing face was so important.
A city of lies...
Yuhan rested his face limply upon his stony palms over the polished table. The darkness that swept over his vision only allowed her beautiful face to appear again, her hazel eyes softly reminding him of something that didn't exist. He felt the thin, hot trickle of salty water slowly beginning to leak past the sides of his hands, but he was too weak to fight it today.
"It's certainly been a while, hasn't it..." spoke a soothing, elderly voice from above. "Does something trouble you, young man?"
The agent slowly lifted his face up, smearing some of the tears across his cheek as he attempted to wipe them, somewhat uselessly, on the nonabsorbent and stony surface of his hand. He cleared his throat a little as he composed himself enough to stop their flow, though his eyes ended up widening in surprise. "...M-Mushi?"
"My apologies for disturbing you," said the heavy old brewer, smiling sympathetically as his golden eyes twinkled, "but it has always been my belief that even the worst of moods can be eased with a nice, hot cup of tea. Would you like some?"
Yuhan gazed back blankly. "You...work here...?" was all he could ask. With the strange recent events regarding the obsessive cabbage merchant and attack from the rebel, with all the principles of the Dai Li suddenly mocking him, and with a Lower Ring tea brewer inexplicably appearing in one of the wealthiest shops in the Upper Ring, complete with a new and expensive green and gold server's uniform...it felt like everything in the city was falling out of place.
"Why, it is none other than my very own tea shop, the Jasmine Dragon!" Mushi replied brightly, beaming with pride. "One of my lifelong dreams come true. But here, why don't you give this a try? I humbly invite you." He'd already brought an embellished tray over and was setting down a steaming pot of tea and two porcelain cups as he spoke. "For a tired soul like yours, I believe green tea will do much good – with extra ginseng. Free of charge!"
"I...oh...Th-thank you, I guess..." a still bewildered Yuhan managed to reply, though his statement was originally supposed to be a congratulations to the old brewer.
Mushi nodded in acknowledgment, smiling again as he proceeded to fill the cups to the brim with the hot brew. Though he'd always been a jolly man, there was something different about his attitude today, as if his happiness had grown even deeper since the last time they'd met. It wasn't just because of the shiny new uniform he bore, or his tidied-up, plaited silver hair...
"Uncle! The shop's closing in six minutes!" called a young, chipper voice.
"I know, just give us a few moments! I'll come help you clean," replied the old brewer, beaming with joy as he addressed his nephew...the scarred, not angry boy. Yuhan blinked a couple of more times as he stared. Everything was seriously falling out of place. A city of twists...?
Mushi cleared his throat as he turned back to address the agent, who was still watching Li's cheerful figure stride away in the distance. He slowly took a seat across the small table, scooping up one of the porcelain cups into his aged hands. "Tea tastes the best when it is steaming – it truly warms the soul. You should drink yours before it turns cold and disgusting," he chuckled merrily, taking a deep sip from his cup.
Yuhan sighed a little, finally picking up his own cup with a hand and lifting it to his mouth. Though the steaming hot liquid almost burned his lips, the tea was one of the most flavorful things he'd tasted in a while. He found himself drinking it a little more willingly, and even his constantly aching head seemed to feel somewhat bearable.
Sitting across from him, the elderly brewer quietly gazed over, his golden eyes glistening mysteriously. "You have no obligation to answer," he began slowly. "But I cannot help my curiosity. If you could so kindly pardon me for asking...where is your lovely lady friend today? She always appreciates a nice cup of tea, as I remember – and a good song!"
The agent's fingers involuntarily gripped down on his cup, and it cracked. His eyes immediately fled beneath the protection of his hat. He wanted to apologize for his sudden reaction, to say something – but his head only jerked a bit as it shook back and forth.
"Ah, so she is the reason..." Mushi's voice seemed to indicate confirmation more than it did surprise as he smiled sadly. "I apologize for causing you unnecessary pain." He reached over and gently pried the leaking cup of tea from the agent's trembling fingers. Reaching inside his pocket, he pulled out a new one immediately and filled it to the brim like before. "Here, why don't you have some more tea?" he asked softly, setting it down before Yuhan. He still addressed him despite being unable to see half his face. "Forgive me again for being so insensitive."
Yuhan glumly pushed the cup a little closer to himself before picking it up slowly between his thumb and index finger. "No...I'm sorry..." he found the strength to reply at last, though feebly. "My fault, anyway – for..." With that, he downed the entire cup of tea in one swipe. The scalding of his throat was a very good distraction to prevent the tears threatening to form again, after all.
"There is no need to apologize, my young friend," Mushi assured him warmly. "An aching soul simply needs time to heal – and more tea. May I?"
Yuhan nodded bleakly and hardly took notice of his cup being refilled yet again.
"So...she will not be returning?" the old brewer asked gently. He continued sipping at his own cup, sorrowfully observing the agent.
"No. She...she can't," replied the Peace Orator, with another scalding glug from his cup.
"A shame indeed...a delightful young woman, she always was," Mushi remarked quietly. "Your attempts to mend the relationship have proved unsuccessful, I assume?"
"I-I can't do that either..." Yuhan could faintly see the brewer's puzzled expression from the corner of his eye. "It wouldn't make sense to explain it...but I can't," he finished heavily. It was a miracle that he was even able to speak about the matter for this long, but maybe it was just the way his head still throbbed persistently, making it harder to think clearly in general...or maybe it was something about the elderly man's calm, understanding face that made it easier, even if only by a little.
"Impossible to even attempt? That's strange," the old brewer responded, stroking his beard. "The fascinating world of romance has endless possibilities! It is unusual for me to hear such a statement."
"Well – that's just how it is this time. I can't," replied the agent, rather curtly. He sighed a second later. "Sorry...it's just that the situation is kind of...hopeless." He could feel Mushi's eyes suddenly boring into his soul, even while his own were still hidden. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to lift his face upwards and stare straight into the golden irises, which were already indicating their disagreement. "Look – I'm trapped, alright?" His voice cracked slightly. "Everything I do...everything...it's just causing trouble somewhere, for someone. Just moving – just living is adding something bad to the world...but I can't stop. I'm stuck. Trapped. So for her – I can't..." Yuhan felt shameful and lowly for being unable to control himself as he lifted a sleeve to swipe away a few escaped tears. If only the rest of the Dai Li could see him now. What a professional, honorable agent he was indeed, melting down in front of some old geezer...
"Young man, I know that I may never understand the deeper reasons for your troubles," Mushi began gently. "However, I have never been one too fond of the word 'hopeless.'" The agent slowly looked up at him, his damp expression stubbornly begging to differ. "No matter how severe the circumstances are..." continued the brewer, "I am a strong believer that simply attempting – simply trying – is never an impossibility." He only smiled as Yuhan's face twisted defiantly. "It is hard, I know. It is difficult, so difficult that we sometimes cannot bear the terrible pain..." His golden eyes grew strangely distant and glowed with the faint signs of a past despair, of something once hopeless. "Sometimes failure is so easy – and perhaps failure will happen indeed," he continued severely, looking back at the agent again. "But to try alone is something worth a lifetime. You must not deny yourself this last, pure chance. It is always there, whether you see it or not, and you must find it."
Yuhan couldn't find the words to answer, his broken eyes simply gazing warily towards the strange, profound old brewer.
Mushi suddenly raised his thick arms high in the air, stretching them widely as he gave a loud yawn. "I am getting much too old to be staying up this late!" he chuckled, bringing his arms back down slowly. "It would be most refreshing for me to enjoy a long, relaxing sleep right about now – perhaps after one more cup of tea." He smiled again, though somewhat sadly, when the agent didn't answer. "I must apologize for making such commentary about your affairs," he continued humbly. "It was not in my position to do so."
The Peace Orator found himself disagreeing before he knew it. "No...I appreciate the kindness you showed me today, really. Thank you. Actually – sorry I'm not much of a conversation livener...that probably wasn't the greatest thing for you to hear..." He was still a little embarrassed at himself from earlier.
"Oh, not at all!" Mushi replied, his deep voice rumbling with laughter. "It only brings me great joy that a once fascinating stranger has become a fascinating companion."
And for the briefest moment, both brewer and agent shared warm, friendly smiles.
"Anyway, I must help my nephew finish cleaning this shop. I'm afraid he's done most of the work by now!" the elderly man finished cheerily. "I'm sure you have your own obligations to attend to as well."
"Yeah...I do." The young Orator's thoughts drifted towards the endless duties waiting for him back at headquarters, but somehow that unbearable shadow of despair that seemed to cling to them earlier felt lifted. He couldn't explain why, since everything was still just as impossible as before...but it felt a lot better. He decided just to enjoy it while he could.
Yuhan thoughtfully examined the package of thin, herbal scented packets clutched in his stony fingers as he stalked through the night, the moon glistening off the expensive roof tiles of the buildings he passed. Mushi had given him quite a generous supply of green tea, apparently "to help win the battle against sleep deprivation."
He knew he was still headed back to the equivalent of Koh's Realm, where he would be forced to relive what he'd done to the love of his life over and over again. He knew more minds would be lost tonight. He just had a sudden, inexplicable drive to do something. Anything. If only he could figure out just what it was...as usual, though, every possibility his mind came up with led to nothing. The Dai Li had crafted their system too perfectly.
...But still. Still.
Perhaps he would never find a way – he probably never would – but as long as the "still" drive remained (he decided to name it that since he had trouble understanding its nature)...he would just have to keep going. No matter how stupid it was, after all, it sure beat focusing only on movement any day.
A frantic messenger suddenly rushed into the scene, his sweat causing the light combination of the whites, greens, and yellows of his uniform to discolor as the soaked fabric stuck to his skin. Yuhan could barely react before the boy spoke up quickly. "An urgent message from Sir Long Feng to all agents! S-state you name, please," he announced hastily, whipping out a list of all the members in the Dai Li to cross out on.
"Oh...Agent Yuhan Tsen," the Peace Orator replied, puzzled. "What's the matter?"
Bowing before he spoke, the boy cleared his throat and stood up stiffly, straightening his square-shaped glasses a little. "Your fellow agents obtained evidence of and took into custody a dangerous imposter disguised as a Kyoshi Warrior, along with two companions."
"What? Who –"
"Princess Azula of the Fire Nation, sir."
"...WHAT?" The Impenetrable City had let one of the worst possible individuals on earth just slip through its walls? What was the world coming to?
"Please listen, sir. Your leader strictly commands his agents not to act on the matter until further orders. He is currently making a compromise with the princess that may lead to Ba Sing Se's advantage."
Yuhan could only stare back, dumbfounded. Did he just hear that correctly? Long Feng. Leader of the peacekeepers. Making a compromise with Fire Nation royalty. The symbol of the very thing they were trying to keep out of the city.
It somehow didn't fit together.
"He assures you that Princess Azula will prove beneficial to the organization and that she is completely willing to cooperate."
"...Right. Go on."
"She has already revealed useful information to the Dai Li, which your leader wishes to disclose to you as well. The whereabouts of two more imposters are now known."
"There are...more of them?" Yuhan asked faintly.
"Yes, sir," quickly replied the messenger. "Two highly dangerous members of the Fire Nation royalty, residing in the Upper Ring: General Iroh and Prince Zuko, wanted captive for treason against their country."
Dear Spirits...there were really that many imposters hanging out in the city, who just happened to be some of the most powerful Firebenders on earth? The agent inhaled a deep, somewhat raggedy breath to try taking it all in. "So – where in the Upper Ring...exactly...are they?" He'd been in this area of the city all day, and he couldn't picture the thought of passing by a pair of men from the Fire Nation Royal Family hidden somewhere among the citizens. The idea of the Fire Nation residing in the city at all was a little hard to grasp.
"They currently follow the aliases of 'Mushi' and 'Li,' and they disguise themselves as tea brewers in a shop called the Jasmine Dragon."
Yuhan felt his face lose color.
"Please await further instructions from your leader. That is all," finished the messenger with another bow. Yuhan gazed blankly after the boy as he ran off into the distance with his list.
Mushi...? The warm, compassionate old man and the infamous, Outer Wall-demolishing Fire Nation general were downright impossible to connect together.
At that very moment, the young Peace Orator decided once and for all that Ba Sing Se was truly nothing more than the City of Twists and Lies.
I probably worked on this chapter for total of like 10-12 hours. Whoo! ...Okay actually, considering all the draft scenes I trashed, more like...17-18 hours. Yeahhh. I knew that this fanon's lacking the action, though, so I tried really hard to make a decent fight scene! I need to start practicing on them more anyway, since there're a lot of them that will start to come in the later chapters ;)
Please tell me how I did with the fighting! I know I tend to be critical of that in FRS reviews, so it'd make things a little hypocritical if I can't even write it myself >_>
- For those of you who didn't pick it up, "the faint signs of a past despair, of something once hopeless" refers to Lu Ten ;_;
- Zomg Azula's in town. Sound familiar?
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