|More from Minnichi||Romance/Angst/Action||PG-13||Very Positive|
|Chapter 16 - Foolproof (SHiE)|
September 7, 2012, Avatar Wiki and ff.net
Summary of the Last Chapter
Yuhan's been a little less than existent ever since losing Riya to the Joo Dees, and it causes a load of problems for him and Hiroshu. Unfortunately, it only grows worse when he's greeted by his unrecognizable former love. Mushi, owner of the Jasmine Dragon, spots him grieving at his shop and offers a cup of tea along with some wisdom. Yuhan feels strangely uplifted by his words - only to be approached by a messenger afterwards who reveals that the brewer is actually General Iroh of the Fire Nation.
As the days dragged on, Princess Azula became a common sight within headquarters. The Dai Li agents finally stopped jumping from shock whenever she casually strode past them – though they still shifted uncomfortably from the strange fear that her presence always evoked.
"...Yeah, still not used to it." Hiroshu involuntarily swallowed a gulp as the princess threw an uninterested glance in his direction before pacing elsewhere, her sharp golden eyes flickering away into the shadows. "I get that we're supposed to be giving her group a temporary hideout until she finishes plotting with Long Feng," he continued, "but why does it always seem like she's...watching us?"
"She probably is," Yuhan murmured, his narrowed eyes gazing after the retreating figure. "She's good at getting into people's heads..."
Ha...so are you. Hiroshu was aware that his partner had been assigned as a backup to Long Feng's plan; in other words, he was the one who would convert the princess at the slightest hint of her betrayal. It was the most critical task he would ever have to carry out. That was probably why Yuhan currently looked like he was trying to understand those five seconds in which she'd just passed them. He needed time to think, to analyze, to predict...
But even so, there was something about Azula that Hiroshu sensed was difficult even for the famed converter of rebels. He'd never seen his partner pay this much attention in preparation for anyone. It was as if each of the princess's appearances still wasn't enough for Yuhan to make a good guess – which only made her more mysterious and frightening, considering his conversion track record.
"Hopefully it doesn't get any worse when she actually starts talking to us," sighed the Orator. Despite his words, it seemed like he was actually hoping she would talk soon - just for him to get a better idea of her character.
Hiroshu couldn't help but chuckle as he listened. Yuhan in his brainwashing analysis-mode was always amusing - intriguing, but still amusing. Gone was the socially awkward dummy whenever the phases started. And like always, it was a strange comparison to the perceptive, formidable agent that now stood beside him. Hiroshu was beginning to miss the awkwardness, though. It seemed to have disappeared permanently this time, ever since a certain conversion... The nagging feeling began to take hold of his chest once more, but Hiroshu quickly brushed it aside. For whatever reason, the kid was taking it a lot better now. No need to dwell on those days again. "Don't think about it," he decided to tell his partner, who still looked uneasy. "Once she talks, she'll probably never stop. Might as well enjoy the silence – but at any rate, it's good to see you back on track."
No reply. He should've seen it coming.
"...Anyway, seems like you're really looking forward to converting her!" added Hiroshu with a forced laugh. "Don't assume she'll actually betray us, though. Loosen up a little – it's not like you'll fail, anyway. Why the perfectionist attitude?" The paranoia was written all over the kid's face.
Hiroshu was taken aback when his partner's expression suddenly dampened. Yuhan gazed over at him, a bitter smile slowly stretching across his pale face. "I'm not allowed to fail, remember?"
...Oh. His parents.
Hiroshu cringed at the thought of Long Feng forcing Yuhan to stand before his own mother and father in the chamber. That his partner had to face this kind of pressure for every critical task was unthinkable. Being assigned as a backup, he realized, was more of a threat than it was an honor. "...You won't fail," Hiroshu finally declared. For the first time, he was filled with overwhelming pity instead of admiration as he addressed Long Feng's best Peace Orator. "It's never happened before, and it's not going to happen now. Don't doubt yourself," he finished firmly. And don't make me doubt you, either...
Another moment of silence. "...Thanks." Yuhan suddenly stalked away, the black folds of his uniform rustling quietly about his feet as he disappeared down the green-lit hall of the tomb. It was another one of his sudden needs to disappear into the shadows, as if he could just vanish from the world within seconds – something he'd done a lot after converting Riya.
Watching his gloomy partner, Hiroshu couldn't help questioning the system of their organization for the briefest second.
Why are the most talented agents the most miserable?
Yuhan sat silently atop a massive wooden beam, which stretched across the high ceiling of the Royal Palace's war room. Like many other agents, he'd been instructed to observe the Council of Five whenever he could. Both Azula and Long Feng demanded to be updated on Kuei's military plans – Azula for obvious reasons, and Long Feng for his usual need to know everything that went on.
Having given up on trying to figure out the Fire Nation princess, the young Orator had resorted to his eavesdropping duties – though he could care less what went on below. As he leaned back against the dull, connecting wall, he might've napped right at that instant. But his eyes were forced open out of fear of being discovered (and being punished by Long Feng). Still, it was nice break. He'd just needed some time outside of headquarters – and there was no possibility of running into her up here.
"General Fong's base will serve as the launching point for the attack. In exactly two months, the army and navy will invade the Fire Nation on the Day of Black Sun."
Yuhan dully peered down at General How's tiny figure in the distance. He could make out the shape of the man's regal green cape as well as the black, neatly trimmed beard that stood out against his light skin. His large, ornate headpiece glinted brightly as he addressed Katara of the Water Tribe, who stood across from him. The young general accompanied the rest of the Council of Five around a massive table bearing a world map, their expressions as solemn and focused as Katara's.
How gave a sharp wave of his hand, causing a trio of flat, green rectangles of stone to glide across the map. Each of the pieces was carved with an Earth Kingdom emblem at its head. As the symbolic army came to a halt at the red boundaries of the Fire Nation, however, Katara's winged lemur suddenly swooped down upon the table. In a flash of white and brown, the impact caused all of the stone pieces to scatter. The creature's large ears were drawn back as it pounced, and its huge green eyes gazed curiously about. "Or we could send Momo in to do some damage!" laughed Katara. She paused when the five generals glared back in her direction. "...Sorry."
Her bright blue eyes always seemed optimistic, always cheerful even in the midst of an intense war meeting – in other words, nothing like Yuhan's. He almost scoffed at the irony. The enemy always seemed happier.
...Unless they weren't really the enemy?
With another sharp wave of his hand, General How repositioned the army pieces upright, and the lemur leapt back in fright. "All we need is the Earth King's seal in order to execute the plan," he finished. Placing the scroll in front of himself, he thrust an arm forward, causing the rock beneath the elegant parchment to separate from the rest of the table and sail towards Katara.
"I'll get these scrolls to him right away," she replied, taking the information into her hands. "Thank you."
Yuhan watched as she quickly left the room with the lemur perched on her shoulder, her long brown braid whipping out of sight. Sighing, he leaned back against the wall once more. Things were just messed up these days. The Avatar was supposed to be an enemy because he was against the Dai Li...who were now also an enemy. The agent was stuck in the midst of two problems: a group of children who would lead Ba Sing Se to certain death, and a twisted organization that preached about peace while the whole city hated them. He couldn't decide which was worse.
There was only Riya...and her lack of existence.
At least that part was clear. No matter how confusing things became, someone had to help her. That much he knew. That much was right. And...that much was impossible.
But to try alone is never an impossibility.
Yuhan wanted to slap himself in the face as he continued to sit up there on the ceiling. Mushi's cursed optimism – or Iroh's – made it impossible to let go of Riya's situation. Fire Nation general or not, the old man's words still clung stubbornly to his mind...not to mention he still had to remind himself that Mu – Iroh was even a Fire Nation general. Yuhan supposed that being influenced by the geezer felt better than doing nothing, but it didn't help that he still wasn't any closer to a solution.
He envied those brilliant blue eyes from earlier – the hopeful ones. The ones that somehow believed that everything was going to work out perfectly in the end. It seemed like more and more people were beginning to feel the same all over the world for some reason. Ba Sing Se's entire army was willing to go to war because of the influence of one child... Were they right? And who was wrong?
...No. That wasn't the true choice.
Riya – Joo Dee – was the only choice there was. Yuhan swallowed back another lump in his throat as the truth reestablished itself inside of his aching, hollow chest. Yes, she was the only choice that mattered. Joo Dee had no chance of being helped in the Dai Li. She was the very definition of their system. And though her recovery was already as likely as the dead returning to life, it was downright impossible as long as the organization thrived. But perhaps on the other hand...at least...
A second agent was motioning at the Orator from atop another beam across the ceiling, though his hazy face was hardly distinguishable from the distance. Upon meeting Yuhan's gaze, he pointed towards the ground with a finger.
Having entered the room was the same messenger boy who'd informed the organization of Princess Azula's presence in the city. He was taking another roll of parchment from the two generals. As he folded an arm behind himself to bow, however, his hand gave a very sharp and subtle signal towards the agents above: a rigid index and middle finger, pointing straight towards the door behind him. Yuhan recognized the cue at once; everyone had been ordered to return to headquarters.
"It seems like they've finally finished plotting," Hiroshu remarked as the two partners shuffled along the dark hallways of headquarters with the rest of their organization.
Somewhere beyond the sea of pointed green hats, Yuhan could make out Azula's regal figure standing boldly at the front of the large clearing they were headed towards. Behind her were her two companion imposters, bearing golden headpieces and face paint in their armored green Kyoshi Warrior uniforms. Before they knew it, the patrol partners drew close enough to begin making out the details of Azula's pale face, her threatening golden eyes...
Yuhan froze. Her cold voice seemed to cut straight through the air, even in the midst of the constant shuffling all about him. Had she just addressed...him? He turned slowly towards the young princess, while Hiroshu hurriedly rushed past them to join the other agents.
Dull emerald eyes met sharp golden ones. Both showed no hint of emotion as they faced one another, though the latter's gaze seemed to pierce through everything it touched. "You look tired." Azula's simple remark matched her expression, detached yet faintly amused. Her two sharp bangs hung down the sides of her smooth cheeks, stopping a few inches past her chin. The rest of the silky black strands were drawn high into a tight bun atop her head, having been secured by a thin green Earth Kingdom-themed ornament. Her entire outfit seemed like a sleek variation of the Dai Li uniform, from the shortened sleeves to the shining emblem glinting from her chest. Everything about her just seemed so precise, without a single hair out of place.
Yuhan made no reply as he gazed back at the princess, his stony expression unchanged. Her words held a motive, and it was best to avoid getting caught in them.
Azula only observed the ghastly shadows beneath his eyes with even more interest. Her pretense of curiosity was flawless – Yuhan wasn't even sure if it was a pretense at all, but he took no risks. "Having trouble with the demands of work, I assume?" she continued candidly. The other agents all fell silent as they watched.
"Yes, Princess Azula." Though his tone was steady, Yuhan grew more uncomfortable by the second. It seemed like the longer he stood before her, the worse it became. Was it a crime in her book to be tired? What was she trying to do?
"Tell me – are there more like you?" asked the princess, her sharp eyes gazing about the room. Every face that met hers turned away involuntarily.
Her gaze finally met his once more, and her penetrating eyes demanded his answer. Don't lie, they warned. There was a heavy moment of silence. "...Yes, Princess." No answer seemed like the right one to Yuhan – even if he'd spoken the truth to her. He wanted to run and join the other agents more than anything else. He didn't like being in Azula's presence at all. It was so...ominous.
She scoffed a little. "Funny. I'd imagined Ba Sing Se's most elite group of Earthbenders to be in much better condition. Half of you look ready to drop dead." Once again, all eyes turned away as she scanned the room. "Does your leader look like you?" she asked, though her subtle smirk indicated that she already knew the answer.
Azula folded her hands behind her back with a long sigh. "Well, I just felt the need to ask. You're free to go." As a relieved Yuhan strode away and took his place among the rows of agents, she added, "Perhaps my customs are not the same as yours, but I was under the impression that the elite would be just a little more...pampered." All of the agents didn't move a muscle as they listened. "You see, the upper class of the Fire Nation is treated like royalty – with respect to the Fire Lord, of course. Even my most cowardly generals are showered with praise and spoiled every time they return home."
Yuhan stared back in disbelief. It had been a direct insult to the Dai Li's entire system. Could she be...suggesting...?
"And our leaders certainly don't leave any dirty work for the soldiers." Azula threw a disapproving glance about the room to emphasize whom she was referring to. "Both royalty and servants fight as one," she continued, her powerful voice echoing deep into the minds of the agents. It was hard to question her words; the fact that the Fire Nation princess was risking her own life in Ba Sing Se was proof enough. "Oh – and that's how we keep winning," she added with a smile. No one was able to make any response. "Like I said, though...I suppose things just work differently over here," she concluded dismissively with a shrug.
All of the eyes in the room seemed mesmerized by her words. Yuhan glanced slightly to his sides. Hiroshu's expression was no different. They were all recalling Long Feng's endless commands, his cold threats, and his continual exceptions to himself for all his harsh policies...
"Your time is limited, and we'll have to work together for any hope of survival," Azula went on, her voice engulfing the room in its authority. "Therefore a coup has been planned for you to regain control of your city."
Many of the agents flinched at such a notion. A coup against Ba Sing Se's entire military, and against Avatar Aang's thousand supporters? Was that her idea of survival?
"This is not the time for doubt," declared the princess, as if addressing all of their consciences. "I'm sure you're all aware of your approaching downfall. The Earth King and the Council of Five do not trust the Dai Li. They imprisoned your leader, Long Feng. Soon they will turn on all of you – and eliminate you. Seizing power today is a matter of life and death." Her words seemed to remind the organization of their bleak situation, and their fear of such elimination quickly overcame all else.
On the contrary, Yuhan's eyes were beginning to grow sharper, their dullness suddenly fading away. There was a pattern that he was beginning to sense in her speech. It was also in the way she carried herself about, and the way she held a chillingly natural authority over them all...
Azula finally revealed the details of the grand scheme. "This coup must be swift and decisive. The Earth King and each of the five generals must be taken out simultaneously." Without a single pause, she declared, "Long Feng has placed you in my command while we overthrow the government."
Yuhan swallowed. Her statement had sunken in so effortlessly. Indeed, there was a pattern...and he was beginning to dread what it was.
The Fire Nation princess began to pace slowly along the front row of agents, who grew petrified enough not to breathe. Yuhan was thankful not to be anywhere near her sight. "If I sense any disloyalty, any hesitation, any weakness at all..." Azula came to a stop in front of poor Tao, who stood out because of the recent scar marking his face – a usual result of unmet expectations. "...I will snuff it out." Her searing eyes glared right into his as she finished, and it was a miracle that he didn't topple over as soon as she turned away. "That is all."
No one needed to be told twice. The dark organization filed their way out of the room as quickly as possible without losing their synchronization. Some naturally began to scatter from their rows as they rearranged into a single file line at the door, however, and Yuhan took the chance to seek out his patrol partner. That pattern was bothering him – he needed to tell someone. Anyone.
Hiroshu's expression seemed oddly passive even while he nodded a little in greeting. As they finally made it through the door, leaving the vast room behind them, a few faint traces of conversation could be heard in the distance.
"Nice speech...also scary in a good way..."
"Thought you were going to make that one guy pee his pants..."
"Still a few loose ends...and my brother and Uncle..."
Overhearing the Fire Nation natives, Yuhan raised a brow at his partner, who silently mouthed "Yikes!" in return. When they'd finally gone far enough to scatter from the rest of the organization, Hiroshu let out a long sigh of relief. "Spirits, I've never felt so much pressure in my life!" he exclaimed. "The princess sure knows how to run her business. Even now she's still plotting ahead. Must be a Fire Nation thing."
Observing Hiroshu only made Yuhan suspect his dreadful conclusion even more. He slowly made his reply. "At least she's effective..." Each syllable was chosen carefully. "For as long as she cooperates, that is."
His partner seemed taken aback, as if he'd forgotten that she was supposed to be their subject.
"At least I have an idea of what she wants to do now," continued the Peace Orator, his stomach sinking with every one of Hiroshu's reactions. "She's confident – too confident. And she has good reason to be. That plan..."
Yuhan suddenly paused because of a horrible jolt from inside his chest, even while Hiroshu was listening intently. He was supposed to reflect on how Azula had made herself much more appealing than Long Feng, and that she'd proven her superiority as a leader by conjuring up such a flawless plan while the latter had landed himself in prison. He was also supposed to explain that, because of those things, the Dai Li would naturally follow her after being led to success – and that she was expecting it.
That was exactly the problem. The plan was flawless.
There was no one in the city that could foresee the downfall of the government, not even the Avatar. They would seize the throne. They would be victorious. They, the Dai Li, would be victorious. And they would thrive.
Joo Dee would thrive.
Yuhan finally realized where his choice would lead him. The Dai Li could not succeed. It didn't matter where the solution was. They had to lose – and Riya had to live.
Hiroshu was naturally puzzled when his partner sprinted off in a mad rush.
His hands trembling, Yuhan frantically dug about the shelves of the nearest workroom in headquarters for a working ink set and parchment. He quickly straightened out the paper and took a last glance around to make sure no one was in sight. But at any rate, it would've appeared to any other agent that he was simply writing a letter home. No one hung around the workrooms that often, either.
All of the adrenaline and hurried planning pulsed through his veins. An agent conversing with the enemy without permission would be suspected immediately. But there was certainly nothing wrong with carrying a letter within his sleeve. No one had questioned those hundred other times he'd casually stuffed a scroll into his pocket, having been ordered by Long Feng himself. And no one would be surprised to see him eavesdropping in the war room, with the letter precariously close to the Council of Five.
Yuhan took a deep breath as he defied all his natural instincts to stay within the policies of the Dai Li. Azula's plan was foolproof – but only under the assumption that no agent was going to disagree. And she was right; they didn't have any reason to stray. No matter who led them, this plan was going to raise them to glory and secure their power over the city.
But only he had Riya.
It all sounded so easy in his head, even though he was painfully aware that Joo Dee would probably stay just the way she was in the end. Yuhan knew what his own talents in the conversion chamber could do. But this was the only possible – no, a solution was impossible. This was the only way to try. He hadn't changed the identities of hundreds of rebels in the name of peace just to hand Ba Sing Se over to the Fire Nation. He hadn't erased the one he loved from the world just for it to end like this. No, the Spirits themselves would have to stop him from trying –
The flash of metal caused Yuhan to whip his head around at once. Before the shock could even register in his body, however, he was met with a petrifying image.
Delicate hands. Smooth skin. Auburn hair. Hazel eyes. Wide, hollow hazel eyes. With the gleam of the polished dagger being the only light reflecting inside them. The noise had come from the moment she'd unsheathed the blade – and there it was, pressed firmly against her own neck as her face remained completely indifferent.
Yuhan never felt himself charge from the desk when her hand began to pull against the handle. He was unaware of the moment in which his body collided forcefully against hers, or when his stone-covered fingers wrenched their way beneath the blade before it could press any further. He only knew the instant in which he finally freed the dagger from her digging fingers and when it flew far, far away from her.
He was going to die right then and there. Blood – her blood – was still staining the tips of his glove. The world was falling apart around them. Unable to hold solid ground, Yuhan grasped helplessly at her shoulders with his wilted arms. He couldn't bring himself to even look...
His eyes widened. Had the Spirits shown mercy? She still stood. Her body hadn't fallen beneath the weight of his arms. There was life holding it up. Slowly, Yuhan lifted his face to meet hers. A thin trickle of red still stood out against her neck...from a cut. A shallow wound. Yes, those hollow, unrecognizable eyes were still peering curiously at him as if nothing happened – but they were alive.
Yuhan felt the relief shaking his body as he dropped his head once again, even if it was a heartbroken, unshared relief. He finally gathered whatever was left of his strength to speak. "Riya -" He bit down hard on his lip as the hot tears threatened to sear through his eyes. "Joo Dee," he choked. "What...are you...doing?"
She only gazed back with the same blank expression, her hazel eyes blinking quietly.
It was a deliberate silence. "Who ordered you?" the agent began to demand, his voice cracking. "Why did you try to...?" He couldn't finish the sentence. The bitter relief slowly began growing into livid rage when he only received the same response. His hands tightened their grip around her small shoulders. "Why were you ordered to do this? I'm – I'm giving you a command!" His dampened eyes did nothing to change her vacant expression as she remained silent.
Breathing heavily, Yuhan felt his chest tearing apart as he forced each word to escape its grasp. "Joo...Dee. The Earth King has...invited you to Lake Laogai."
A moment of silence. "I am honored to accept his invitation." Her mouth stretched wide into a grin, though he'd already turned his eyes away before he could see.
"On what orders did you act just now?" His hands shook just as much as his voice.
Joo Dee smiled even wider. "Agent Tsen is to remain loyal to the Dai Li until Earth King Kuei descends from the throne. I am honored to be chosen to reinforce his loyalty."
All of the color drained from Yuhan's face. "So...you've been ordered to...watch me?"
"Yes, sir." The grin was straining her cheekbones, pulling apart all the muscles in her face.
"And you'll – you'll take your own life...if I act outside of orders...is that it?" His eyes grew hollow when she nodded cheerfully in response. He had to force himself to keep speaking. "Let me guess...I have no authority to change that order."
She laughed. "Sir Long Feng's word is supreme," she declared, more enthusiastically than ever.
Of course it was. That was one of the first rules he'd been required to implant into every rebel he converted. However, a sudden realization hit him. "Are you supposed to report this to him?"
"I was attempting to, sir."
Yuhan gritted his teeth as the pang stabbed through his body. Long Feng had meant for her dead body to be the report. Now that he thought about it, that report would have gone through if the agent had acted a split second late. The nerve of that man... Despite everything, however, Yuhan forced himself to think as clearly as possible. Curse it all – he'd been the one to convert her, hadn't he? If Long Feng wanted to play this game... "Well Joo Dee, there's no need for you to report anything now," declared the agent, though he still stumbled over her name.
She didn't believe him.
He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. "...The Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai."
"...I am honored to accept his invitation."
Yuhan forced himself to take one last, long gaze into her hazel eyes. "I, Agent Yuhan Tsen, am completely and undeniably loyal to the Dai Li. I have never acted against orders and never will."
Her pupils grew wide as they glazed over. "I understand."
"Good. Please...go tend to your wound. Make sure your scarf always conceals it." He thought about it for a moment. "And you didn't speak with me today. Dismissed." Indeed, only Agent Yuhan Tsen could make anyone believe whatever he pleased. And his heart bled.
The folds of her pale yellow dress finally faded away into the endless green of headquarters as she left. Yuhan watched with his broken eyes as he quietly reflected on how similar she still looked from the back.
He could not remove the order, since he'd permanently instilled the rules himself. He'd only been able to prevent the report from being sent...at least this time. The overwhelming helplessness of his situation seemed to swallow the entire workroom as he stood there in the silence. Just like Long Feng had ordered, Yuhan could not do a single thing to prevent the coup until the Earth King fell from his throne. She would be watching.
And until Ba Sing Se fell...Azula's plan was foolproof.
Had to cram in time to make this update! Sorry it took this long :P
Dangit the university library is going to kick me out in 20 minutes so I can't say much more xD
- Minnichi writes more of her fanon at school than she does at home.
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