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|More from Minnichi||Romance/Angst/Action||PG-13||Very Positive|
|Chapter 18 - Those Left Behind (SHiE)|
January 13, 2013, Avatar Wiki and Fanfiction.net
Summary of the Last Chapter
Yuhan is assigned to a team of agents that that follow Azula to the Upper Ring to capture Prince Zuko and General Iroh. He and Tao team up to search for Iroh - and end up being attacked by him instead. During battle, Yuhan realizes that Iroh shares his feelings about the Dai Li, and he allows the general to capture Tao in hopes that information about the coup will be leaked.
The clouds seemed to freeze in their places across the pale blue sky. Not a single bird whistled its usual song. Everyone clung tightly to their positions, as if for their lives. The silence was deafening.
Then, the footsteps started. They were slow and steady in their pace, casual yet formal. Unaware.
A single glance between the eyes peering beneath the pointed green hats set off the whole team at once. Two emerald figures dropped simultaneously from the opposite sides of massive, parallel pillars. Landing soundlessly and whipping their arms forward, they looked like dark, unpleasant shadows staining the magnificent, green-gold image of the Royal Palace's entrance.
In the center of the elegant frame created by the embellished pillars, General How cried out. The tension of the chains bound to his wrists had already immobilized his arms past any hope of earthbending, and he fell to his knees when the captors on either side of him pulled down sharply on his restraints. The creases in his light-skinned face were contorted in shock, confusion, and then rage when he looked to his left and recognized the dark uniform of his attackers. "What's going on here?" he demanded, clearly showing off the distrust he'd always held towards the organization. His tone was really more of a scowl of confirmation.
Hiroshu had leapt down from another decorated pillar, and he was already standing before How by the time the general whipped his head back forward. Somewhere high upon the colorful beams highlighting the shape of the Palace ceiling, a pale, sleep-deprived face rolled its emerald eyes.
Of course he would volunteer to do this part.
"You're under house arrest," announced Hiroshu, with such deliberate formality that it hardly sounded like the idiot he was. The dark brim of his hat seemed to cover his eyes perfectly as he addressed an enraged General How.
Well, there was no need for backup then. Yuhan and the rest of Team Five smoothly slid down from their respective pillars, landing upon the ground in unison around Hiroshu and their new prisoner. They'd been positioned there in case How managed to chuck a few rocks before the chains bound him, of if his captors happened to aim poorly for any reason... But he'd been taken down painfully easy.
Yuhan silently watched his fellow agents further bound the general within their dark chains, until How's arms were folded stiffly behind his back and his legs were tied together with less than a foot of walking space. The man hardly had any time to call them dirty traitors, too, before his furious protest was stifled and gagged.
What else was he supposed to do? Try to free the general? Run off and warn the city? Be beaten down by his fellow agents? Lose whatever he had left of Riya? The young agent could only keep watching, his emerald eyes straining to retain any hope of saving the city before it fell.
A harsh, rather irritated voice cleared its throat in the midst of How's muffled yelling and struggling. "Where's that messenger kid? I could've sworn he was just standing back there a second ago!" said Guiren, scanning the surrounding courtyard sharply with his critical green eyes.
Under Princess Azula's command, every team of captors was to notify both her and their fellow teams immediately upon securing their assigned prisoners. It was a means to ensure that nothing had gone wrong, and to keep the entire organization on the same track – and Team Five was missing its messenger.
Yuhan spoke up before anyone could even start grumbling over whom to send in place of the missing boy. "I'll do it," he announced plainly. "After I get word from the others, I'll just catch up with you guys back at headquarters." Considering everything, he really didn't feel like being anywhere around his organization if he could help it.
His offer was met with no protests, of course, as the other agents were eager to return to their dark meeting place to begin the ultimate, final phase of Azula's coup. Hiroshu, however, eyed him for a split second with a strange flash of something that Yuhan couldn't quite put his finger on...
Pity? No... Remorse? It couldn't be.
He continued gazing quizzically after his partner as the rest of the agents turned their backs to him and began marching General How down the Palace steps. A group of carriages were already waiting to escort them in the courtyard ahead. Turning and pacing in the direction Team Four had been sent in, the Peace Orator wondered incredulously if it could actually be true.
Hiroshu had understood his partner's need to get away, as usual, and the pity for Yuhan's incurable heartache naturally followed. But there was actually more to that this time? Was Yuhan just bluffing himself, despite everything they'd always said about his accurate perception of people?
Because... It was kind of hard to believe that Agent Hiroshu Leung would ever doubt the Dai Li.
Yuhan felt like he'd dragged himself across at least half the Upper Ring before he finally spotted one of the sprinting figures of his organization's messengers. The lean young boy, 13 or 14 years old at most, was hurrying to deliver information in the direction of Team Three, from the looks of it. Sighing, Yuhan began to dash as well, before the speedy little figure in bright robes could disappear from view. If he could get a hold of the messenger, the information could then be relayed to the rest of the organization. No matter how Yuhan desired not to hang around the Dai Li, after all, it was probably best if he returned to headquarters before long. Knowing Azula, even a temporary isolation that took too long could raise suspicions against him.
Breathing heavily as he ran, the agent strained his legs further in his attempts to reach the messenger. The kid was annoyingly fast, especially considering that this was all he ever trained for in life. Yuhan could barely make out the back of his plaited black hair whipping away in the distance.
Two figures suddenly gasped in surprise right before he flitted past them in a blur – and before his feet involuntarily dug themselves into the ground with a loud, crackling skid as he stopped. Huffing and twisting himself around, Yuhan stared back with such shock that his expression could have been mistaken for horror. He was not prepared for this.
Ning and Yunxu Tsen were already hurrying towards him, the former racing ahead of the latter to throw her arms around him in a bone-crushing embrace. All the various baskets she'd been carrying from her grocery trip had been tossed carelessly aside, and a little pool of yolk from broken eggs was already starting to seep into the ground.
The woman's arms were wrapped around him so painfully tight that he could hardly muster enough breath to reply. "Hi...Mom." A strong arm clapped its hand down upon his right shoulder. "And Dad."
It seemed like his mother had wanted to shower him with more overjoyed greetings, but something about his tone made her pause and back up instead. She gazed sharply into his eyes, her arms still clinging about his. Her shiny grey irises were framed by a few loose locks of black hair, which was identical to his aside from the occasional silver highlight. She began to frown as she closely inspected his sleep-deprived eyes. It was the kind of perception that only a parent possessed, and Yuhan knew there was no escape when she slowly rested her hands upon her slim waist.
"Hannie, dear..." Her light, slightly aged face was still warm with motherly love - yet somehow ominous at the same time. He tried to avoid her gaze as her stern voice pierced through him. "What's the matter?"
No amount of brainwashing experience or lying prowess could get him out of this one. "Nothing...Mom." She only glowered back in response. "You know, I'm really happy to see you and Dad again. Really. It's just – well, I'm supposed to be taking care of something -" His stomach dropped when he realized that the messenger boy was probably long gone. "- Okay, I have to take care of something REALLY important. Seriously, I'll get in trouble –"
"Hannie, no one can punish you for one or two questions." His mother knew better than to doubt the strictness of the Dai Li, but she'd also found her own ways to chain down her son before he could go running off again without any explanation.
"Just bear with your nagging mother for a bit," added his father with a grin, his dark-tanned skin appearing a little lighter beneath the afternoon sun. Sharing the same concern as his wife, however, his emerald eyes were not to be fooled.
It must've been a strange sight for anyone else to see - two Upper Ring commoners cornering a Dai Li agent. To make the effect worse, said Upper Ring commoners didn't even reflect their high class much with their simple, few-layered robes that hardly sparkled. Yuhan's mother had chosen the tiniest green-gold hairpiece to adorn her bun with, while his father was probably one of the only people here with his half-grey, half-brown hair in a casual topknot instead of a long plait. Like him, they would never quite pick up the full, outrageously fancy customs of this place.
When Yuhan didn't reply, his mother cleared her throat and continued on. "We were starting to worry about you, Yuhan." He looked down. "We love you and completely understand the demands of your work, but as our son you can't just disappear like that!"
His father spoke up as his mother sighed and shook her head. "Well, she was just really looking forward to dinner, son." The sudden flinch he received in response didn't escape his notice. "Of course, we'll understand whatever reason you had for being unable to make it," he went on cautiously. "But we just wanted to hear something from you. Even your patrol partner friend hasn't written back to us yet."
Yuhan remained eerily silent. Of course... How could Hiroshu possibly explain to them what had made Riya unable to attend dinner?
His mother's expression gradually lost its sternness as her eyes soon joined Yuhan's in his quiet sorrow, which only seemed to grow worse by the second. She reached up and straightened his hat a little with her hands, gently brushing a few messy black strands of hair neatly away from his face. "Hannie, please... What's wrong?"
Though he looked away again, his father seemed to pick up the signs more quickly. "Oh, no... Riya broke up with you, didn't she?"
Ironically, the way Yuhan cringed horribly before his parents made it look very convincing.
"What?" His mother gave a loud gasp of horror. "Since when?" she demanded. The paved ground beneath her began rumbling every time she threw up her arms. "I don't understand! She always seemed so fond of you - and then...your friend! Hiroshu! He was always telling us how happy you looked -"
"Ning, honey, let the boy speak," cut in his father, quickly placing a hand on her shoulder as he stepped forward. He gave a subtle sweep of his foot, neatly flattening back out the cracks in the earth that she'd just caused. Speaking softer, he turned back towards Yuhan. "It's alright if you can't tell us why right away, son. You've got some pretty important things to do, right?"
His mother glared back at her husband immediately, jerking her shoulder away from his hand. "Yunxu -"
"Our son is a very busy young man," his father told her firmly. "You know we can't keep him here for long." He smiled sadly at Yuhan in understanding. "And sometimes, all a man needs is a little time away from it all. You'll write back to us about it when you can, won't you?"
Yuhan could hardly look at them without taking cover beneath the brim of his hat. What was he supposed to tell them? "I..."
"Just look at him!" cried his mother, practically grabbing the agent's face between her hands as he sighed in exasperation. "The girl's broken his heart!"
There some truth in the statement, but it was all so wrong. The agent went still, his fingers grabbing tightly to the insides of his sleeves. "Mom -"
"It was all her, wasn't it?" declared the enraged woman. Yuhan's agonized face as he strained to hold onto his composure was making her spiral of control.
"Ning," chimed in his father, "we should really let him –"
"Just what exactly was wrong with my handsome, hardworking son that wasn't good enough for her, huh?"
His stone-covered fingers were beginning to tear through the fabric of his uniform. "No... Mom, it's not her fault –"
"And she can ask me or your father anytime - you adored that girl! Does she not see –"
"It's NOT her fault!"
Both of his parents froze solid when his deafening, tortured voice silenced theirs. Yuhan pulled sharply away from his mother, though his tone immediately shrank in volume at her glistening eyes. "Mom – please....just stop it. I-I need to go. I'll be punished."
His father nodded silently towards his wife as she slowly stepped backwards to return to his side, never taking her gaze off of Yuhan. Despite everything, even she knew that there was no time left, and that her son had to keep up with his obligations to the Dai Li no matter what. She sighed again as she looked into his sullen eyes. "Take care of yourself, Hannie...okay?" she finally concluded, very softly.
The young agent nodded back, the guilt causing him to stare at the ground for a little bit before replying. "I will, Mom. And... I'll write to you both too, promise."
Before Yuhan turned and sprinted away as fast as he could, he caught once last glimpse of his father waving goodbye to him, with an arm wrapped tightly around his somber mother's shoulder.
Luckily, the messenger boy was running back in the opposite direction only a few minutes after Yuhan pursued him again. Upon seeing the agent, the boy rushed towards him at once. "Sir!" he exclaimed, both of them coming to a stop a few feet away from one another. "Urgent request from -"
"I know, I know," Yuhan sighed in reply. The thought of his organization seemed to trigger his grouchiness at once. "My group's the only one who hasn't said anything, right? Well, Team Five has secured their target."
Nodding quickly, the boy proceeded to relay his own news, with the sun reflecting off the sweat glistening off his bronze-colored skin. "The four other teams have also successfully secured their targets."
"...Good." Yuhan suddenly felt a little hint of despair threatening to creep into his veins. The entire Council of Five was imprisoned. It was starting to become a terrible reality – that the Impenetrable City was truly going to fall to the Fire Nation in less than a day. "The princess wants us all back at headquarters, then?" he added wearily.
"Sir, the princess has issued an additional urgent request that I'd planned to inform you of initially." The boy straightened up a little as he took a deep breath, his brown eyes still downcast as a sign of respect.
"Oh... She did?"
"Yes, sir. Five agents from each team are to report to the Lower Ring's 4th Division at once."
"The recent absence of the Dai Li has motivated a dangerous, uncontrolled disruption in the area, and it's been reported that the criminals intend to storm the city if you do not detain them immediately. Carriages are still available at the Royal Palace to escort you as needed."
Yuhan's face hardened, and he almost scowled back at the messenger when he replied. "Understood. Go relay it to the others."
He hardly noticed the boy bowing and sprinting off again as he trudged back towards the Palace. Knowing the organization, everyone would rather be back at headquarters. He was almost positive that his team chose four to send off and then called him the fifth by default since he was already isolated... Today was just growing more awful, at the rate he was running into everyone he wasn't supposed to run into.
For he knew that Riya's community was furious. His entire organization had mysteriously disappeared in preparation for the coup, and the humble citizens were using the opportunity as a final, desperate attempt to escape the Lower Ring. They were trying to get out. They were trying anything they could to reach the oblivious Earth King – anything to put in end to the Dai Li's twisted system of conversions at last.
The massive wall separating the Lower Ring from the rest of the city was literally rattling when Yuhan spotted it outside his carriage window. He was accompanied by a group of agents he'd pretty much never met before, who'd joined him in response to the sudden emergency.
Wobbling dangerously, the carriage barely managed to make its way through the tunnel in the wall that opened for them. The ground was shaking violently, even though the driver had already picked an unnoticeable spot to enter through, far away from the actual riot. As soon as the wheels came to a halt, the agents quickly jumped out onto the ground and positioned themselves into formation. Several other carriages had already dropped off their own agents as well, and the group gathered as a whole before rushing forward.
Joo Dee isn't here... Joo Dee isn't here... Yuhan had to repeat it to himself over and over again in order to stay focused on the horrible battle approaching.
Several feet in the distance, he could see a crowd that contrasted sharply with his own; they were made up of all kinds of dull color shades, fighting and yelling wildly in a giant, dusty mess. It took him a few seconds, after observing the crowd's movements, to realize that every single rebel this time was actually an earthbender. They'd sent any person capable of damaging the wall, and capable of fending off the royal guards that still desperately tried to uphold it. With a pang, Yuhan also realized that these benders probably desired to be the only ones punished for the effort, if it came down to it.
Giant chunks of the massive wall were crashing onto the ground, almost making it feel like a constant series of earthquakes. The royal guards were frantically struggling to fill in the damaged stone, the dark green plumes of their helmets caked with dirt from the battle. A large group of them was straining to uphold a notably large segment of the wall; its sides looked like it had been sliced perfectly through the entire barrier, from top to bottom. It slowly sank further and further into the ground as the Earthbending rebels, their fists clenched in unison, combined their efforts to bring it down. The royal guards still tried nonetheless – not out of any particular loyalty to the city's rules, but out of their permanent fear towards the Dai Li. Even if King Kuei claimed to have taken control of the city, after all, people who opposed Long Feng were still disappearing mysteriously.
With a sudden lurch, the wall segment seemed to shoot back up into place as soon as the rebels spotted the array of emerald-robed reinforcements approaching them. They all turned their attention away from the wall at once. There was a split second of complete stillness in the air – and then they all charged.
It seemed as if the crowd had gone insane with frightening rage at the very sight of the Dai Li. As the two groups clashed, the rebels attacked without hesitation, their viciousness having grown beyond all fear. The air became laden with dust as the earth exploded into all shapes and sizes. Fragments of stone whizzed here, crashed there, and sometimes burst in midair as two opposing earthbenders forced their will over it at the same time.
A woman was the first opponent he encountered face-to-face. The worst part was that he recognized her. In fact, Yuhan painfully recognized so many of the enraged faces around his organization, having never known before that these humble neighbors of Riya were benders. The woman recognized him too, of course – which was why her green eyes lit up with such murderous intent that it made his hair stand on end. Her disheveled, battle-worn black hair whipped crazily about her face as she immediately threw her arms forward with all the force she could muster.
The massive, pointed boulder that soared towards his face seemed to cut a tunnel through the very dust in the air. Knowing that there was no way in Koh's realm to intercept such a thing, Yuhan ducked low. Even with his fastest efforts, the boulder still scraped across the top of his hat, and he could feel the heavy downward pressure against his head. Reacting quickly, however, he aimed his first chain and had already swept an arm out in front before the boulder crashed into the ground behind him.
With a whizzing sound, the metal cuff shot out beneath his wide sleeve and towards the female rebel, carrying along its attached chain. Having been unable to see clearly through all the dust, she noticed it too late when it locked into place around her bony ankle. Yuhan grabbed hold of the chain and yanked immediately, causing her light body to topple backwards. He kicked himself sharply off the ground and launched himself through the air, landing crisply behind the rebel before her body could finish falling. Bending over, he grabbed hold of her flailing arms at almost the same moment they made contact with the earth. After twisting them behind her back, the agent pulled out his second chain and wound it tightly several times around her wrists, his hands moving like lightning. She writhed and struggled furiously as he reached the end of the chain and secured the cuff around her wrist, and he strained to avoid her loathing eyes as he caught one of her kicking feet in midair. Using the chain already attached to her ankle, he soon managed to get a hold of her other foot and bound her legs together as well.
Practically tossing the rebel over his shoulder, Yuhan made a run for the wall as he carried the immobilized woman away from the battling crowd, twisting about to dodge the flying stone fists of his fellow agents and sometimes ducking before a large fragment of earth whizzed over him. Finally reaching the barrier, he set his prisoner quickly upon the ground, still avoiding her hateful gaze, and charged back into the scene.
A few still bodies he passed indicated that not all of the detained rebels were removed from battle. Many agents would simply leave them after crippling their limbs, where some would suffer the full impact of a misaimed boulder in their defenseless state. Yuhan forced himself not to wonder if he knew any of those unlucky rebels, and instead resolved to focus on actually capturing prisoners alive.
He was fortunate that there were relatively four to five agents fighting somewhere near him at all times. All of the rebels who recognized him would have targeted him immediately as a group, had they not been occupied battling the rest of his team. It was the same for every familiar face he encountered; he would suddenly be looking into the eyes of a crazed killer instead of a rebel.
Three, four, five prisoners against the wall now... The earth changed shape so many times, in forms Yuhan had never imagined before. He was almost skewered by the claws of a giant stone hand at one point, ran through a shower of knife-like shards at another, and repelled the ground itself when it constricted around his leg with bone-breaking pressure. It felt like he was fighting inside of a crashing building, with its roof and entire architecture falling everywhere about him. He was exhausted and dripping with sweat by the time he set his sixth prisoner against the wall, a man who would've spat in his face had he not turned away in time.
Gasping for breath as he outran a towering, domino-like wall crashing onto the ground, Yuhan knew that he wouldn't last much longer at this rate, against Riya's violent neighbors. Fortunately, the amount of standing peasants was gradually shrinking with his fellow agents' efforts. But even so, his team was growing tired as well, and they could feel it taking too long. Azula, no doubt, expected this to be over as quickly as possible in order to move on with the coup. They had to find a way to end it soon.
Their plan locked into place as soon as the first agent suddenly moved into position next to another. Every agent who saw began to follow as well, taking his place in line with an identical stance. It didn't matter who had decided on the strategy first. Long Feng had trained them all precisely to recognize and respond to any cue for any attack formation - from anyone. This ensured their cooperation as a formidable, clone-like team within seconds.
Sure enough, the earthbending rebels soon found themselves facing a perfect row of agents, who had slowly backed up in the midst of the chaotic stone fragments flying everywhere. The team now stood a few feet before the cracked wall, and even the royal guards, who'd been helping to fend off the peasants, moved off to the side.
Yuhan and his team repelled the bombardment of attacks as best they could for a few seconds, before driving their feet into the ground in one, unified motion. The way they all spiraled their arms so quickly about their bodies with perfect synchronization made their whipping sleeves appear like a long row of green and gold circles.
Before the rebels could realize the nature of the attack, the ground beneath the entire crowd shuddered and loosened into a massive pool of liquid. Every single peasant, standing or immobilized, was swallowed into the quicksand. The earth sank over their faces before their voices could produce any cries of surprise, making it almost seem like they vanished from the world without a trace. As earthbenders, however, the mud soon lurched and bubbled as they began to push their way to the surface.
Having planned for this, the agents all charged into the quicksand as well, gliding across the surface with their stone shoes pushing against the mud to prevent sinking. The few rebels that had managed to resurface so far had only gotten as far as their heads when the stone-gloved hands reached down and forcefully bound them with chains. Those who had been immobilized already still produced the slightest noticeable movement beneath the liquid, and the agents would dig their arms into the mud and yank their struggling bodies out as well. Some agents would also reach into the mud in order to grab a rebel's wrists before cuffing them and dragging them out by the chains – but many others would simply anchor the metal around the neck instead.
Gagging, coughing, and wheezing soon filled the air as the mud-covered rebels were pulled out from inside the quicksand, each of them bound completely now. Every agent who secured a prisoner would then solidify the respective patch of earth beneath him with a stomp, and the loose ground eventually stabilized once more. Yuhan tried not to think about those whose bodies had lay still even before the organized attack, who were now forever encased in their tomb of earth.
Shaking out their arms to dispel any traces of mud from their robes, the team of agents stepped away from the rebels and finally signaled for the carriages that would transport them all to headquarters. The royal guards could only watch fearfully as the line of barred, wooden vehicles began to pull into view.
Still, as protocol the agents seemed to pause in anticipation of a spokesperson. They were instructed never to leave such a public conflict unprofessionally, after all, and that it had to be made clear how everything they did was only for the city's well-being. A few of the agents who'd heard of and recognized him naturally began to eye Yuhan, as expected; if his words could convince someone of their own identity, they would certainly have no problem explaining anything here. Those who caught the agents eyeing him joined in as well – also as expected.
He'd been so exasperated every other time this had happened. But today, before Riya's beloved neighbors – before those who he might have even considered his friends – he suddenly stepped forward without a second thought. Yuhan positioned himself well ahead of the rest of his team, where he could feel them eyeing his back curiously. He lifted his face into plain view, so that the brim of his hat rose away and no longer blocked the sun from illuminating his pale face.
Riya's captured neighbors recognized the deliberate presentation of himself at once, their faces boiling with emotion even as they still struggled to catch their breaths. Yuhan swallowed hard as he faced them. He would relay Ba Sing Se's policies to them, without question...but he had to tell them something else. Anything. They couldn't leave here thinking that a girl like Riya could just disappear without a care. He'd known her too, he'd loved her too, and he just had to say something – even if they wouldn't remember it after passing through the conversion chamber.
With a horrible twist that felt like it would tear open his aching chest, he suddenly realized how familiar this was. He'd felt the same, hopeless need the moment he told Riya that he loved her.
After a few heavy seconds, the Peace Orator finally began his speech, keeping his gaze steady upon the crowd. The overwhelming guilt wrung his chest as he was forced to make the painful introduction. "We do not desire to imprison our hardworking citizens for their mistakes." Of course, no one believed him, and some even scoffed for good measure. Yuhan paused for a brief moment before continuing, his throat starting to grow tight. "You will be given one last chance to comply with Ba Sing Se's policies, and will go through educational training to reinforce your self-improvement."
All of the life seemed to deflate from the crowd at once. The way the rebels hung their heads limply made it clear that everyone knew this meant their conversion. Some were still eyeing Yuhan, as if their disgusted faces were questioning how much more of a disgrace he could possibly become.
Yuhan looked straight into their betrayed, unforgiving faces. "Should your opportunity to improve be refused..." His dull tone remained completely the same, but something changed in his expression that caused most of the rebels to grow strangely silent and focus intently on him. Nothing was hidden from them now. It all shone clearly within his broken eyes, which threatened to blur his vision...and Riya's neighbors suddenly knew that he was explaining his failure to refuse her conversion. This was all hidden to the agents behind him, though, who watched the back of his head. "Should your educational training be refused," the Peace Orator repeated firmly, "note that you may not only be imprisoned for your violent crimes, but given a death penalty if necessary." Anyone could see from his face that "if necessary" translated to "always." Yuhan had to clear his throat in order to keep a steady voice. "We cannot afford to keep dangerous threats to the city's peaceful citizens, and will not have our generosity of allowing self-improvement in place of penalty be taken advantage of." Swallowing hard, he finally shut his eyes in conclusion.
I miss her, too.
It was a miracle that he was even able to finish his speech convincingly enough for the agents behind him. He had to lower his eyes back beneath the brim of his hat in order not to lose himself, for the crowd was now even worse than before. They almost looked ready to cry at the heartbroken sight of him standing before his prison-like team, for the girl they'd loved with him, and for the fate they were about to share with her.
The only farewells that passed between the Peace Orator and the rebels were a few mournful seconds of shared, helpless silence. Yuhan finally turned back towards his team as a Dai Li agent; his pale face bore no trace of emotion.
As it turned out, Azula had gone ahead and approached the Earth King. Yuhan and his team returned to headquarters to lock up their new prisoners and to change out their battered uniforms, only to find another messenger waiting for them there. The boy explained that they were to join the rest of the organization at the Royal Palace as soon as possible, and that Azula was already there to dethrone Kuei. She wasn't the only one.
Long Feng, who'd been planning his release from prison with them for quite a while, was currently marching over to the Palace himself. It was Team Five who decided to escort him, apparently – but not that it mattered, because the organization had decided sometime during the riot that they would rather be loyal to Princess Azula.
Yuhan's group was irritated that they hadn't been there for the decision, but not surprised. "Well – she's a lot more effective than he was, anyhow," remarked Jinhai with a shrug. "The coup almost seemed too easy, if anything."
"But... It's the Fire Nation," began another agent. Despite everything, the idea of handing the entire city to the infamous Fire Nation still took some getting used to. "Are we really going to surrender Ba Sing Se like that? After 100 years?"
Jinhai, interrogator of rebels, turned his icy green eyes onto the hesitant agent. "The Fire Nation's going to win this war. We can't keep pretending it won't happen." His addressee stared timidly towards the ground. "They take over another area of the world pretty much every day, and this city had it coming sooner or later." Jinhai gazed solemnly about his fellow members. "Also...we have to look out for each other," he continued. "Would it matter if Ba Sing Se remained free? The Avatar's turning the entire city against us. We'll be as dead as the villages that get burned down by the Fire Nation, if we don't take a stand."
During all of this, Yuhan could only stand there and listen in numb silence. So it was really going to happen. The Dai Li of the Fire Nation... Disgraceful.
Just then, a final messenger rushed forth from the shadows, coming to a stop next to the previous one. Soaked with sweat and almost trembling with exhaustion, the boy announced something that still dampened the very air and caused the world to spin slightly, no matter how much Yuhan had seen it coming.
"Well..." Jinhai cocked a smug smile as the messenger bowed and left, looking over at the agent who'd questioned him earlier. "Looks like we've made our choice."
No one took much notice of Yuhan as they all rushed past him to get out of headquarters, to join Princess Azula at her new throne, and to corner their last threat, the Avatar, inside of the Crystal Catacombs of Ba Sing Se.
The Peace Orator repeated it to himself, just to make sure. Yes, the organization had just officially declared their loyalty to the Fire Nation. Yes, King Kuei had been removed from the throne, and it was Azula instead of Long Feng who replaced him. And yes...the city had fallen.
He felt too weak to even wonder where Iroh had been this whole time, and why nothing had made a difference thus far. And the worst part was that he couldn't even despair over the news in peace, because he'd have to join his fellow agents at the catacombs before long. The Dai Li never overlooked anyone who stayed behind at headquarters, after all - just to make sure there were no traitors in the organization trying to free the rebels... Yuhan stared down the passageway ahead. Was this really it?
King Kuei was removed from the throne.
Yuhan's vision slowly focused again. The Earth King was no longer the Earth King. There was a condition that only worked if he was. Suddenly, the agent knew what he had to do – or what he could only do at this point. It was too late for the city...but...
Yuhan stood tall and scanned the green-lit hallway once more, confirming to himself that there were no agents left. But he knew he wasn't alone. "Joo Dee?" he called softly.
There was no answer.
"Joo Dee." Her name echoed loudly throughout the shadowy green hallway this time.
"Yes, Agent Tsen?"
Yuhan sharply turned himself around at once, just in time to see her thin, yellow-robed figure emerging several feet away from behind an old statue.
With Long Feng's command gone, she simply stood there as if waiting for another order. She only did as she was told...and only lived as she was told. Gazing sadly across the hall at her, Yuhan sighed. "Joo Dee... Think you could just – come over here for a little bit?"
"Most certainly, sir."
She paced across the floor towards the agent, her light footsteps echoing in the heavy silence. A grin stretched across her face as she came to a stop exactly half a meter in front of him, as if acknowledging that she'd successfully obeyed his command. More silence followed.
Knowing that she wouldn't react to anything unless he told her to, Yuhan began to address her very slowly. "Joo Dee. Ba Sing Se has fallen." He focused on the top of her green hairpiece more than he did her grinning face as he spoke.
It felt as hopeless as talking to the statue she'd been hiding behind, but he forced himself to continue. "Long Feng's word is no longer your command. You were trained to be loyal to the leader of the Dai Li, and the Dai Li have chosen to be loyal to the Fire Nation. You now answer to Princess Azula." It was still hard to believe what was coming from his own mouth.
"Yes, sir." Still no change whatsoever in her plastered expression, as expected.
Yuhan couldn't help looking down into her hazel eyes as he spoke his next words. "However... You will not meet Princess Azula. You will never see her. You will never see anyone who can command you."
Like an alarm, she immediately began to announce to him the flaws in his statement. "I live to serve Ba Sing Se. I must be available at all times to the Dai Li, to ensure that their cultural standards be upheld. I must be present to –"
Both of his hands clapped down over her shoulders as he cut her off. "Joo Dee, the Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai." Yuhan made sure to utter it loud and clear.
He watched every detail of her face as it went completely blank for a few seconds, and as her eyes stopped blinking. "I am honored to accept his invitation." Her tone was so empty that he was beginning to forget what it once sounded like.
"Listen to me, Joo Dee." It wasn't as if she had a choice, but he didn't care. "The Fire Nation army will invade Ba Sing Se. Many people will believe that the war is here."
The way she suddenly laughed made it very hard for him to continue. "But there is no war in Ba Sing Se!"
"Exactly," Yuhan replied, grasping her shoulders more tightly. "But people will say there is. And this is my command to you: From this point on, before you report to Princess Azula, before you go anywhere near the Dai Li, you will hide yourself from every living person you see until you hear..." Was it even possible to hope for? No – that wasn't what mattered. He had to say it for her. "You will hide yourself at whatever cost, until the day no one says there is a war in Ba Sing Se – no, until the Earth King himself returns to the throne. Even one glance at you from anyone before then is a failure, do you understand?"
His request was met with an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response, almost as if serious orders made her happy. "It would be my greatest honor to carry out your wishes, Agent Tsen!" Her cheekbones were going to break any minute, at this rate. "Your word is my command. I assure you that -"
"Joo Dee." She paused immediately as Yuhan gazed haggardly into her eyes. Her voice seemed to shut down immediately to allow her authority to speak. "Joo Dee..." he began again, feebly. "Just stop...for a minute."
"Stop what, sir?"
Yuhan scanned her face over and over again, staring into the two black wells inside the hazel irises, at only what he knew he would see – nothing. The grin remained glued to her pale face the entire time. He hated it. "Stop...smiling...just -" The blankness swept over her face at once, as every muscle relaxed in response to his command. Sure enough, he was looking into the face of an expressionless doll.
It was too much for him.
Choking from the suffocating lump in his throat and with trembling hands, Yuhan couldn't control himself when he threw his arms around her small figure, pulling her as closely as their bodies allowed and pressing his chin against the top of her soft brown hair for the last time. Suddenly he was embracing his dear Riya all over again, with the same warmth he'd missed for so long, the same steady heartbeat of her chest against his...
And yet, his eyes still leaked.
Joo Dee still stood like a statue as the agent held her there in his arms. There was no response from her, not a single muscle out of place. Her hands still hung at her sides in the silence. When she spoke, however, her tone was the tiniest bit softer than before. "Agent Tsen..." Yuhan's arms tightened their hold around her. "You are acting unprofessionally."
Another choking sound wrenched through his chest, a sound too broken to produce a full sob. "I-I know I am. I'm sorry."
She waited patiently for him to let go, as if politely expecting him to return to his duties like any Dai Li agent should.
But he couldn't move. "Joo Dee..." A drop of warm, salty water escaped his chin before disappearing into her hair. "Y-you'll...do as I say, right? You promise you'll do as I say...and be safe?"
He could feel the side of her face grinning against his chest. "Your word is my command, sir."
With a heavy sigh, the Peace Orator finally let his arms slip down slowly from Joo Dee's shoulders. "Right..." He stepped back, his eyes still glistening as he forced himself to smile. "It'd... It'd be best for you to take care of my request immediately, then."
She nodded and grinned again, bowing respectfully before her departure. "Goodnight, Agent Tsen."
It was only when she turned around that he was able to speak again. This was probably the last time he'd see her. But at least now, no one in the Dai Li or in all of Ba Sing Se could ever use her again. And if the city was ever freed, she would be there for it – and she would be helped. Yuhan held onto that last, hopeful thought when he replied, watching the back of her auburn hair fade into the shadows. "Goodnight, Riya."
Of course, she naturally ignored any name that wasn't hers.
If anything feels off to you, please tell me. I was sick and honestly a little delirious as I wrote this chapter xD
- The author has an inability to work on a "section" of a chapter. When she decides to start one....she can't stop until it's finished. No matter how long it takes. o_o
- School also starts for the author in two days! Delay time! Sorry guys ;)
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