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|More from Minnichi||Romance/Angst/Action||PG-13||Very Positive|
|Chapter 24 - The Blues (SHiE)|
Summary of the Last Chapter
Yuhan's painful healing sessions have begun in the Northern Water Tribe, with Yugoda in charge of his brain damage and a young healer named Doona for his broken arms. He's mostly uncooperative, especially when he sees more visions from the memory of his dying mother. However, he eventually faces the reality and agrees to try harder to get better. Meanwhile, Hiroshu spends time with the strange Joo Dee once called Suyin, but eventually sends her to find Yuhan's father, whom he confesses to that Ning Tsen's death was his fault. He finds comfort from visiting his parents and returns to the Fire Nation with new determination.
The afternoon sun reflected off the icy buildings of the Northern Water Tribe, making their carved facets glisten like glass and creating a dazzlingly bright spectacle unlike any other. The cerulean tides were calm today, allowing visible schools of colorful fish to explore the streams running throughout the pyramidal city.
Somewhere within the crystalline fortress was an open roof, coated freshly with snow that melted and hardened from the steam that escaped the bustling kitchen below. Those who passed along the spiraling sidewalks above could smell the mouthwatering aroma, and they often ended up coming down here to enjoy a fresh, hot meal.
Above one of the smooth, carved tabletops of ice, a pair of chopsticks wavered over a steaming bowl of fibrous green noodles. The thin, bony fingers that grasped them trembled as if each were the weight of a badgermole. "Argh... Come on... Ow!"
It was Yuhan's first day outside the healing facilities. He was finally allowed (and strong enough) to wander the streets of the grand city, under the condition that his healer, Doona, had to accompany him at all times. She proved to be very vital to his survival; he lost count of how many times he tripped and would've plummeted into the icy river lining the sidewalks if not for her.
Yuhan's face was extremely contorted, and sweat glistened in little beads on his forehead despite the air being chilly enough to freeze his breath. The effort of lifting his arm alone had drained more energy than anything else he remembered in his lifetime. The pain of attempting a solid grip made him wonder if he'd rather have his face ripped off by Koh.
"I'll bet you five of your Earth Kingdom 'gold pieces' that you're going to drop it again," snickered Doona, who was sitting to his right. She leaned back with a playful smile, her legs crossed and her fingers twirling the end of the braid that hung down over her shoulder.
"Shuddup Doona, I got this," Yuhan grumbled. Behind the thick, woolly collar of his blue coat, though, the edge of his lips curved up ever so slightly. His grip wavered again. "You know, it's a lot harder with these fat mittens!" He gave a disapproving glare at the fur-trimmed glove concealing his hand in navy. "Why can't I take them off?"
"Because I'd have the burden of healing you for frostbite on top of the hundreds of bone fractures I already have to deal with," said Doona. She reached to her side and drew out a tendril of water from the thick skin attached to her belt. "Poor Yuhan! You need this already?" she teased, the soft glow of the water illuminating her turquoise eyes.
"I'm a big boy, Doona," replied Yuhan with a roll of his eyes. "I don't need glowy waterbending just to eat seaweed noodles." Without thinking about it, he rotated his hand to the side to wave away the floating mass of water with his chopsticks. His wrist crackled loudly as all the knives and fire in the world twisted its fragile fragments out of place. "ARGH!!!" he screamed. The chopsticks clattered against the table. Yuhan's other hand reflexively lifted to cradle his wrist, only to dislocate another bone from too sudden a movement.
"Oh Spirits, not again..." Doona looked somewhat guilty for having provoked him in a way. "Here - turn towards me, Yuhan." She hovered the glowing water over his wrists seriously this time.
The surrounding customers in the restaurant jumped from the sudden scream, but they settled back down before long. Yuhan had a sort of reputation here: "that poor Ba Sing Se fellow who's completely mad." His course black hair was overgrown, forming a layer on his chin that was beginning to resemble a homeless man's beard, and his cheeks were still pale and sunken in from his sickly months in prison. The "mad" part came from those occasional moments in which his Earth Kingdom-green eyes would glaze over, holding a demented stare at things no one else could see. Thankfully, at least his healers seemed to know what they were doing.
Yuhan slowly relaxed again as the water circled his wrists, extinguishing the fire inside like a cool, gentle stream. His bones eventually shifted back into place with an unpleasant click. "Ugh..." His eyes finally opened to greet the smiling face of Doona. "Thanks. I owe ya one," he mumbled.
"Ah shucks, you don't owe me anything," said Doona with a little pat on his back. "I'll let you off the hook this time for the bet." She picked up the fallen chopsticks, placing them carefully between his fingers with a grin. "Here, let's try again without using any glowy waterbending."
Yuhan watched as Doona gently took his hand into her own, placing her fingers over his to support his grip on the chopsticks. After a few efforts, they finally managed to get the first mouthful of seaweed noodles down his throat. The dish had gone lukewarm during all the yelling and wrist-healing, but the noodles were surprisingly tasty and easy to swallow.
"Well?" asked Doona, waiting for his judgment of her favorite entrée in the Water Tribe.
"It's...better than I thought," Yuhan admitted. He could already sense her triumphant smirk. "But don't think this means I like your mutated sea-creature food any better than my hometown grub!"
"Keeping talking like that and I'll make you eat another sea prune."
"Don't you dare! I'll kill myself first!"
The two of them were suddenly laughing, and Doona turned her face towards Yuhan to retort with another witty remark. There was an uncomfortable pause when the glare of his three-disked bracelet hit her eye, having been exposed from the sleeve that was pulled back. She suddenly realized how little space there was between her and Yuhan, what with her pressing herself against him to support his arm and fingers.
Yuhan noticed it, too. "I, uh..." He cleared his throat and nudged Doona with his shoulder to get her off. "You know, I should really learn to feed myself. But I appreciate it." There was another pause as his healer scooted away. "I can't expect to save Riya if I can't even hold a pair of chopsticks," Yuhan added quietly.
For the rest of the meal, Yuhan resorted to lifting the bowl up with both hands and dumping the noodles ungracefully into his mouth as Doona watched in the silence.
"Yuhan, the Earth King has invited to you Lake Laogai." The eerie voice blotted out the tranquil scene of the Oasis with a hazy, swirling mass of fog.
"Ergh –" Yuhan gritted his teeth as his body went rigid and as his mind threatened to slip away once more. He forced himself to stare past the fog, and he looked about to see if he could make anything of it. "Nah, I don't feel like going to Lake Laogai," he said aloud, bold and clear.
He became aware of someone standing behind him. Just in case it was Joo Dee, he turned around and almost raised a hand to shoo her away as usual, until –
He froze in his tracks. It was Riya.
It didn't matter if this was artificial. Yuhan missed her so badly that even his hallucinations of her filled him with indescribable warmth. He'd almost forgotten what anything warm had ever felt like, here in the endless icy blue of the Northern Water Tribe. All those warm memories came flooding back, swirling around her with the fog. The day she was a stranger at a tea shop, who suddenly transformed into his childhood sweetheart when she kept telling stories of their past, the boy who always beat everyone in soccer and the afro-girl who watched shyly. The day he first held her hand. That moment both their eyes grew heavy as he leaned in for the kiss in front of the full moon. The panda lilies. The bracelet. The Fire Fountain.
"Oh, Riya..." Yuhan reached a trembling hand towards her face, which bore that same, painfully beautiful smile that signified her farewell in the conversion chamber. It was a deliberate replay of his old memories as usual, a part of his brainwashing designed to let his guard down before pulling something horrible, but just this once, he wanted a chance to hold Riya before she reverted...just this once...
"What are you doing, Agent Tsen? You are acting unprofessionally!" she laughed, causing him to recoil. Joo Dee had taken over in the blink of an eye, grinning as she pushed his hand out of the way with a single finger.
"Oh, come on!" scowled Yuhan, throwing up his arms with exasperation despite the pain. "Get out of here, Joo Dee!" He pointed sharply to some imaginary door for her to leave.
The fog dispersed.
Yuhan found himself pointing instead at Yugoda's face and immediately dropped his arm, his face red. "Erm...how much did you hear?" he asked sheepishly.
"I heard just enough, dear," the healer replied with a smile, causing him to turn his embarrassed face away. "Yuhan," she continued, her voice growing stern, "Are you choosing to stay within the confines of your Laogai trigger?"
"W-what makes you say that?" asked Yuhan, a little too quickly.
Instead of scolding him, Yugoda placed a gentle hand on his shoulder with a sympathetic smile. "I know you miss Riya dearly, Yuhan..." His eyes grew watery outside his control as she went on. "But desperate as you may be to see her again in any way possible, there comes a time when one must move forward from memories, and look to the future instead - the bright future where the real Riya awaits you."
"B-but what if she's not there?" Yuhan whispered, shaking with the signs of despair that threatened to take hold of him. "What if she's never coming back?"
Yugoda wrapped her gentle arms around him, letting him rest his weary head upon her shoulder. "You'll never find out if you keep living in your memories of her," she said softly. "Do you think you can try again tomorrow, and escape your trigger for good?"
Yuhan nodded, his throat tight as they stayed there like that in the Oasis.
It was oddly quiet in the healing hut today. Moving her arms gracefully, Doona worked the blinding bright water from fountain below into Yuhan's arms and shoulders, but he gave no reaction.
Today had also been assigned for Yuhan to finally have his haggard, wild hair managed in the barber's hut. He'd sat there dully, watching the overgrown locks of black bounce off the purple blanket tied around his neck, and he winced a little whenever a floating blade of flexible ice accidentally nicked his skin along with his stubble. The barber, an old chunky woman named Sohki, transformed the blade into glowing water whenever this happened and made any cuts vanish in no time. Unfortunately, it seemed like she'd taken more liberty with her carelessness due to the healing convenience.
Yuhan had been wheeled back into the healing hut (having lost the strength to walk for some reason), freshly groomed. He attracted some glances from the other healers, who all agreed that it was a vast improvement. Despite his still sallow skin and somber face, he was looking sharp enough to make Doona try to hide a blush. Her pink cheeks didn't escape his notice, and she had signs he knew too well from all his pre-brainwashing psychology studies. He cleared his throat uncomfortably as they avoided each other's gaze.
Despite the awkwardness, Doona couldn't help commenting at some point on his extra melancholy face. "Seems like someone has the blues today."
Yuhan turned up his dull eyes to address her. "Well, this whole place is cold and blue. Blue everywhere. It gets contagious." For some reason, he didn't feel like telling her what Yugoda had caught him doing in that fog. He couldn't place his finger on it, but it didn't feel right.
"Well yeah," said Doona with a chuckle, "but you're always blue, Yuhan. Just seems worse than usual today. Am I doing something wrong?"
"No, no," Yuhan replied quickly. "My arms are feeling great. Really." He suddenly became aware of something beyond a somber mood. It wasn't just him; his physical energy was actually draining faster than usual, and there was a strange fogginess in his head as he shivered. The air was dropping 10 degrees every second.
Doona stopped immediately when she sensed the change as well. "Um, Yuhan...you're actually turning blue. Like literally, blue."
Yuhan dropped his head with a sigh, letting it splash into the fountain before she could stop him.
Donna couldn't help laughing as she pulled him back out. "Oh come on, Lover Boy, it's not the end of the world. I heal colds all the time! You'll live, don't worry."
Despite it all, Yuhan found himself smiling a little. "So basically, I've caught a cold in the Northern Water Tribe. Very funny, Doona."
"Pft, not my fault you have the immunity of a baby in our weather," said Doona, who received a roll of emerald eyes in response. "Alright well, guess this means I'll have to hold off putting together the pieces of your arms for now. This calls for special treatment."
"Does it now?" Yuhan asked wryly.
It was late at night, but Doona was determined to make sure Yuhan would wake up the next morning feeling better. She was irritated after he didn't show much sign of improvement even after his whole body had been immersed in the glowing fountain. Too proud to accept defeat as a healer, she sat at his bedside, having forced him to sit up so that she could spoon hot soup into his mouth.
"I really want to sleep, Mom," said Yuhan, shortly interrupted as another spoonful of broth was stuffed into his mouth. He almost choked for a moment after realizing that he'd just used the term 'Mom,' which only threatened the pain of losing Ning all over again...but seriously, the way Doona treated him had a comforting, nurturing vibe - not so much a motherly vibe, but the tenderness of a young, attractive girl with that smooth, mocha skin and brilliant blue eyes...wait... Oh, Dear Spirits. Nonono, he was going to stop himself right there. Yuhan choked on the next spoonful for real.
"No can do, Yuhan," Doona replied dismissively. "Turns out your immune system's extra pitiful from your prison ordeal and your previous blood poisoning. Not to mention bones are supposed to make most of your white blood cells that combat disease, and it's pretty obvious that a giant chunk of yours aren't working properly, and not to mention..."
Yuhan warily nodded along, sleepy and delirious as she went off on another one of her medical mumbo jumbo rambles. Doona kept tapping his chin whenever he was about to doze off in order to stuff another spoonful of soup into his mouth. But to be honest, she would have left him alone if he'd really insisted. For some reason, he hadn't dismissed her yet. He'd already known that there would be an odd tension if he was stuck alone with her in this room, but instead of shooing away the very notion like he was supposed to, he'd let her come in.
"You know, it's not like I enjoy staying up this late either," said Doona, smirking a bit. "I'm not like you, who basically sees more than 3 hours to sleep as a grand luxury. Frankly Yuhan, this is torture!"
"Hey, who's the one forcing the other awake?" replied Yuhan with an exaggerated yawn.
"Who's the one keeping the other alive?" retorted Doona. She finally reached the last of the soup, placing the empty bowl upon his glass bedside table. "You'll have to eat a lot more than this, Yuhan, if you want enough nutrients to even fuel your body with the energy to get rid of the virus –"
"Yeahyeahyeah I get it, Mom," Yuhan cut in. "I'm a big boy and I want to sleep now, if you don't mind." Actually, it kind of bothered him that maybe he didn't really want her to leave yet. It was more like he was trying to make himself want her to leave.
Doona could sense his sarcasm, too, and she rooted herself obnoxiously by his side. "Well alright, my big, grown-up Yuhan, just let me tuck you in before I ki –" Horrified, she gasped as she stopped herself from finishing the sentence.
Yuhan couldn't control himself for some reason. "Before you what?" he asked quietly. Maybe it was his delirium, and maybe he'd gone insane for real, but suddenly it didn't matter much.
There was a very odd silence in the air as Doona gazed hesitantly into Yuhan's eyes. Turquoise meeting emerald.
The silence ended up lasting a little too long, and Yuhan actually couldn't keep himself awake this time. Well, good. He could forget about all of this craziness in the morning. Doona was going to leave now, seeing him doze off...
Yuhan's eyes had just fluttered shut when he felt Doona's lips press gently against his own. "Goodnight, Yuhan," she whispered. He heard her footsteps fade, then the quiet shuffle of his door as it slid shut.
He couldn't tell if he'd ever returned the gesture, but for some reason he found himself enjoying the lingering warmth from her soft lips.
It had been a while since the last time Yuhan experienced a nightmare. This one ended up being comparable to even the murdered old man that used to haunt him.
"Do you miss me, Yuhan?" Joo Dee was grinning more horribly than ever, and somehow the use of his actual name made it even worse.
"I-I don't get it. I got rid of you, go away!" Yuhan frantically waved his hands at her, desperately hoping she'd dispel into the fog.
Joo Dee caught his wrist instead, and her grip was solid as ice. "Oh, what's this?" she exclaimed, with a frightening gleam in her eye. "Someone has been healing you! You look well!" Her smile was growing wider and wider. "Who is she, Yuhan?"
Yuhan's eyes widened with horror. "W-why on earth are you using my name, and why –"
"Who is she, Yuhan?"
Oh Spirits, no. It was Riya speaking this time. She still bore her crisp, yellow uniform with the tidy scarf, the perfect little hairpiece adorning the back of her head. But her face was herself, and her hazel eyes were filling with tears. "Doona's her name, right?" she whispered. "I-it's okay if you're happier that way, I...I'll just find a way out myself..." She let go of his wrist, and this time she actually did start to disperse into that thick fog.
"Riya, no!" cried Yuhan. He lunged forward and grabbed her shoulders. "Look at me!" She was growing more transparent by the second. "HEY – stay with me, come on!"
He was distantly aware that this nightmare was another form of one of his previous memories. A brainwashing done well was designed to target any areas of weakness that caused pain or fear if the victim began to question it, and playing on those memories to make them even worse than before would tempt the victim flee back to the comforts of their peaceful, artificial new mind. Yuhan was seeing for the second time the betrayal in Riya's eyes from the day she'd watched him brainwash the woman named Suyin back into a Joo Dee. He'd clung onto her shoulders just like this on that night as she sobbed, begging for her to listen and to let him explain himself...
The world around him suddenly trembled and began to break apart. A loud voice from outside was calling his name, a frantic, concerned voice.
"Who is she?" Riya's voice was inaudible now, and the words were only recognizable from the movement of her lips. Then everything faded to black.
He was finally wrenched into reality when his arms were grabbed this time to shake him awake, which hurt like Koh's realm. "AGH – RIYA!" he yelled, having been pulled from her very much against his will. Oh Spirits, this was not the way to let her go. No, he had to go after her, she had to get her butt back over here so he could tell her that –
He finally realized that it was Doona who kept repeating his name, very softly this time when his consciousness returned fully. Her eyes were downcast, still fresh from the disappointment that followed his outburst.
Yuhan sank beneath the weight of his crime. He couldn't look up to face her. "Doona...I..."
Of all things, Doona suddenly laughed. It was a little strained, but she miraculously upheld whatever smile she forced. "What're you looking so blue about?" she asked casually. "This is the 100th time you've repeated her name in your sleep since the day you arrived here, so why the guilty face? You're hopeless as always, Lover Boy."
Yuhan was appalled at how Doona was taking it all. He deserved much worse than this. In less than a year, he'd managed to make his mother, father, Riya, and even his healer pay for his stupidity. "N-no, Doona, I really should apo –"
"What on earth are you babbling about?" Doona cut in, giving an exasperated roll of her eyes. She reached forward and pressed the back of her hand against his forehead. "Hey, looks like your fever's gone!" she exclaimed with a triumphant smile. "Told ya I could do it."
"You know, for someone who just got better, you still sound kind of insane," she continued dismissively. "We should skip your healing today to make sure the rest of your delirium wears off."
"Hey calm down, it's only for a day. I'm not going to let your arms stay a pitiful mess of jigsaw puzzle pieces. Besides, it would totally ruin my good reputation as a healer! So just..."
Their eyes finally met, and Doona lost her words mid-sentence. "Well, see ya around, Lover Boy," she sighed, rather crossly.
Yuhan could only watch in terrible silence as she turned on her heel and rushed out of sight.
Yugoda stopped smiling mid-greeting as soon as she saw the mess of emotions peering back at her. "Yuhan, did something happen?" she asked immediately.
"No. Nothing at all," he mumbled. Yuhan walked past her and plopped onto his back next to the water after yanking off his tunic. "Anyway, I'm ready."
Yugoda stood over him, narrowing her unconvinced eyes. "Yuhan, I can only help you if you don't hinder yourself with bottled-up negativity. You've seen what that does before. Your mental alterations will prey upon those dark secrets and grow even stronger." Her tone grew gentler when he looked away with guilt-ridden eyes. "Please, child... Tell me what's wrong." She lowered herself onto her knees next to him, waiting.
Yuhan looked over and met her kind gaze, knowing that she never judged for anything nor was one to talk about secrets. He still couldn't do it. A new idea suddenly occurred to him, however. "Yugoda... There's one thing I'd like to be honest about today, and that I'd like for you to do for me if you can."
Yugoda raised a curious brow. "Why of course, Yuhan. What is it?"
He hesitated for a moment. "Yugoda, can I get one last chance to uh...talk to Riya today? I mean the fake one, but you know – um..." He was expecting the opposition to come any minute now. "Well I know it's not the best idea, but I don't know what else to do. I promise you though, if I get worse after today I'll never try anything again and listen to whatever you see fit."
The old healer shook her head with a chuckle. "Dear child, only you know your mind best at the end of the day. I wouldn't have been able to stop you if you wanted to stay bound to your trigger. But if you believe this will help you..." She smiled with a twinkle in her grey eyes. "Well then, let's try it!"
Yuhan nodded gratefully as he closed his eyes. He felt the cool water pool beneath his head, a safe haven to calm any uncontrolled episodes he might have.
"Yuhan, the Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai."
He knew what was coming. Riya appeared almost instantly before him, having transferred here straight from another painful memory, which surfaced easily in light of his newfound crime. She came here from that night they'd run into each other atop a grassy hill. It was after the terrible ordeal of her finding out the true nature of his organization, which ended with a slap across his face and lots of her crying alone in her house.
Riya raised a hand to hold against his cheek, accepting his inability to help her and preparing to run off before he could see her tears. As expected, the memory was transforming into whatever would hurt him most, tempting him to run to the safety of his duties where he could do nothing wrong. "You have a better life in the Northern Water Tribe, Yuhan," said Riya, "where the Dai Li can't control you. Where I can't burden you." She lowered her hand and grasped his tightly. "As for me... Well, I've really got nothing to lose. I'm a girl who doesn't even exist. It's okay if you want someone real, Yuhan."
Yuhan was shaking as she smiled at him. "N-no, Riya, you don't understand. I did something incredibly stupid, a-and..."
Joo Dee instantly jumped in, feasting upon his shame. "Oh, what a pity, Agent Tsen." Her grinning face replaced Riya's as the scarf wrapped around her neck like a snake. "You see? This is exactly why your duty to Ba Sing Se is your true purpose. Look at this unprofessional mess you've created. Look at how disgracefully you act when you step outside Ba Sing Se!"
His shoulders slumped. Yeah, what a mess he'd made indeed. Following his duties from the start would never have let him waste time by escorting a random girl back home from a tea shop, after which her life went downhill. He wouldn't have had to end up here in the Northern Water Tribe where he would make a fool of himself. And most of all, his mother would still be alive.
Bah...curse it all. He couldn't keep playing the What-If game. Hiding inside his illusionary creepy-brainwash world wasn't going to change anything that happened. He'd come here one last time for a purpose, and it was not to accept his invitation. And, impossible as it was, he'd made a promise to Ning during her last moments. There was a girl out there who he needed to – wait, where'd she go?
Yuhan finally spotted her, just seconds from slipping out of sight as she'd done upon that grassy hill. "HEY!" he yelled. "Riya, come back!"
She turned around for a moment with downcast eyes, causing him to remember Doona with another pang of guilt. The shame immediately turned her around once more, running faster than ever.
"Riya!" he yelled in vain. She was slipping further and further away from him, and even worse, she wasn't even angry with him, she was just stepping aside, having given up on him long ago and just letting him go embrace his new...well, his new...
Yuhan's eyes suddenly flared, holding his gaze upon her with the intensity of two burning green fires. His feet ran after her like wings gliding across the clouds of fog, and all at once he was grabbing her by the shoulder, turning her sharply around before he took hold of the other one. "Riya, you listen to me right now." He felt like he didn't deserve to face her in light of recent events, which quickly began the transformation to Joo Dee again, but he refused to let go of her shoulders. Her hazel eyes, almost taken over by the black of her dilated pupils now, somberly lost their focus. "Please, Riya... Look at me." Yuhan's voice was almost a whisper, so terrified of losing her again. Both his hands finally made it to her face, caressing it with all the gentleness in the world. His eyes softened as he exhaled, savoring the smoothness of her skin that he'd never touched since her conversion. He smiled as the hazel glow returned to her eyes, her scarf unwinding and the hairpiece slipping from her head. "Riya..." he murmured. "Do you know what I'm wearing on my right hand? What I never took off? Look. Feel it."
Riya raised her hand very hesitantly, but her eyes widened with realization as she came to a stop over his right wrist. She traced over each woven disk very slowly, and then her hand came to a rest over his, which still cupped the side of her face. "Yuhan..." Her fingers found their way between his as they intertwined.
"The emerald on the left represents the nation of the giver, your nation. You wove in the emerald of the right, for the person who's very special to you. And, well... hopefully the last part about the Spirits watching over us is true. I'd worship them and praise their names every moment of every day if they were merciful enough just to let me see you again. Outside of this weird fog, that is." Even so, Yuhan could honestly stay like this forever. She was finally here, in his arms. And yet, he knew that there was someone out there far grander than anything his demented mind could produce. "Riya," Yuhan began at last. "I...I've done enough things to know for sure that I'll never deserve you. But that doesn't mean I won't come back for you." Her fingers tightened their grip over his. "I promised I would, wouldn't I?" Yuhan took in a deep breath as he prepared to let go. "I won't blame you for hating me. I won't deny that I even got chummy with another girl while you were still suffering from my mistakes. But the thing is... I love you, Riya. I'm a disgrace, but I love you. And I'm coming back to get you out of that stupid uniform if it kills me."
Ah, that sad, beautiful smile again. The same betrayed one that had glistened behind a glowing lantern, the one that could somehow forgive him for everything. "Yuhan..." Riya gazed into his eyes with the sweet truth that threatened to trap him here forever, to complete his mental prison. "Oh Yuhan, I lo –"
"Shhh." Yuhan placed a finger over her delicate lips. "I don't need to hear it, Riya. You know I'm making this all up in my head." He still had trouble finally freeing his hands from her face, especially when she kept smiling at him with the unspoken words, but he forced himself to take a step backwards. "I think it's finally time to stop talking to myself," Yuhan declared. "Either I find you again, or we don't meet at all. Not in this place." He took a deep breath. "So screw you, Lake Laogai."
A blink later, and Riya was nowhere to be seen. Only the holy Oasis surrounded him. Yugoda was sitting next to him by the fountain, her hands clasped over one another as she smiled proudly.
Yuhan's face went red again. "Oh, boy." He sat up quickly and looked away. "That must have been awkward for you to listen to."
"No. That was beautiful, Yuhan." Yugoda beamed at him. "Your love is so pure."
"Eh... No it's not. You know, this is honestly pretty lame," Yuhan replied with a forced laugh. "I've basically been talking to myself and pretending that Riya is here, running away from me or smiling at me or being hurt over Doona, and, eh..."
Yugoda shook her head. "What you just did was take control of your mind, Yuhan. You faced its weaknesses and accepted them, and regained control of it all. It can no longer act on its own. And with that said, there is hope! Yuhan, you are the first to prove that the curse of the Dai Li...can be lifted!"
Yuhan watched her with weary eyes as she raised her hands towards the moon above, thanking some spirit named Yue for guiding him out of the darkness. "...Right. Of course I am," Yuhan said flatly. "But I think I need some rest. Thanks for everything, truly." He stood up to leave.
"Wait!" Yugoda stopped him with a curious smile. "Yuhan, the Earth Kingdom has invited you to Lake Laogai."
Yuhan turned his back to her and marched out the door, leaving a very pleased healer behind.
Of course, it was Doona who was waiting at his bedside when he woke back up. He'd been drained and exhausted from the mental effort of his final session with Yugoda and had been out for a good while. Yuhan opened his eyes, went still for a moment when he recognized Doona, then sighed as he looked down.
Doona eventually spoke up, her voice surprisingly steady. "Well, I heard from Yugoda how you finally ended your brainwashing." Before he could react she continued, "She's not a gossiper, Yuhan, but I'm her student. It's going to be my responsibility, and the responsibility of my fellow healers, to help people like Riya find themselves again the way you did. We'd best start learning how as soon as possible."
Yuhan didn't feel noble whatsoever, for leading Yugoda to the "cure" or whatever. The crushing guilt wrung his chest. "Doona, the thing is... well it's just not fair to you –"
"No, Yuhan. I knew it from the start." Doona bit her lip for a moment, forcing herself to continue. "You're just like my dad."
Yuhan blinked. "Huh?"
Doona avoided his gaze as she stepped over to the window, peering at the icy streets below. "My dad, is... Well, he isn't the type of guy who can find love again in someone else, after he lost my mom. I never knew my mom, so, I always got frustrated with him for hanging onto someone who couldn't come back, someone I couldn't miss with him. I wanted him to find a woman who could make him as happy as people told me he was before I was born. And, as much as I hate to admit it, I wanted a real mom."
"Oh, Spirits... Doona –"
She lifted a hand to continue. "But it didn't take me long to figure out, Yuhan, that some girls can keep a freakishly strong iron grip on your heart. Like my mom. Like Riya. Those kinds of girls, they're ones that a guy can never be the same without. For him, there's only her. Others...well, like me, can enjoy a little spark now and then and do stupid stuff without thinking." There was an awkward pause. "But no one truly stands a chance against the special girl. No one can have the effect she does. I knew that my dad was a goner from the moment he met my mom. Just like you, for Riya." She shook her head with a sigh. "So believe me, Lover Boy. I understand. I'll still have your arms taken care of, don't worry."
She was gone before he could say a word.
Yuhan found himself dangling his feet over one of the icy bridges outside as he stared up at the full moon, which accompanied several stars and the occasional swirl of dark clouds. His face was as sullen as ever. He knew as much as Doona did that he was hopelessly in love with Riya for all eternity, if the mere hallucination of her could even bring him warmth. So why did he let Doona come so close? Why had he let her even hope for a chance?
He groaned and let his back hit the icy surface of the bridge as he stared up into the sky, his legs still dangling. He watched his breaths come out in little puffs in the chilly air. Everything was all his fault. How could he even look at another woman, knowing what kind of girl was waiting for him back in Ba Sing Se? How could he possibly have even chosen to obey the Dai Li until he'd lost her? Nope, Yugoda was definitely over-glorifying his "noble" qualities, just as Mushi always did. And apparently, just as the Spirits did when they decided to spare him. Or maybe the Spirit part was just something Mushi made up so he'd feel better about himself.
"Wha- Oh! Yuhan, you have really got to warn me before you decide to lie down on an abandoned bridge in the middle of the night. I could have stepped on you!"
Speak of the Face-Stealer.
Yuhan sat up with a grumble. "Whaddyou want, Mushi?" He paused. "...Iroh." He plopped back onto his back as the old general laughed.
"You know, Yuhan, sometimes I actually prefer the name 'Mushi.'" General Iroh sat down next to him, covered in a thick maroon cloak lined with black and gold. "It is a name free of the mistakes I have made in the past, and even better, a name that speaks only of tea and serving tea!" Reaching out his red mitten-covered hand, he pulled out from beneath the cloak – of course he would – a wooden box with porcelain contents that could only be an entire tea set. "Could you give me a minute?"
"Er...sure." Yuhan watched the old man walk to the end of the bridge, scoop up the icy water into his teapot, dump it back out after realizing a fish had slipped inside, and then fill it again.
General Iroh hummed merrily as he wiped off the teapot with a sleeve, sitting back down next to Yuhan as he set it upon a circular rack. "Ah, glacier water. Some of the purest you'll find!" He stuck a finger beneath the rack, shortly before it emitted a bright little flame that he held in place. "But only boiled water is any use for good tea!"
The two just sat like that, the grumpy former agent lying on his back, the old man who wouldn't stop humming over his teapot.
Finally, Iroh poured himself a steaming cup, and it was only after he placed one next to Yuhan as well that he raised a quizzical brow. "Well, it looks like someone's got the blues today!"
Yuhan looked over with a very dark glare. "Yes. I've heard."
Iroh chuckled. "If I must say so, you're even bluer than the entire Water Tribe!" He received a scoff in reply. "Why the frown? You look much better than when you first arrived."
"...You really want to know?" muttered Yuhan. Somehow, it was easier to tell things to this weird old man than Yugoda herself.
"Of course!" Iroh exclaimed. "You are one of the most fascinating strangers that I have ever encountered. I never know what you may be up to next, and I definitely didn't expect you to be lying out alone on this bridge during my late night stroll."
Yuhan sat up, crestfallen with shame as he took his teacup into his fingers. "Let's just say I had the nerve to...fraternize with another woman. My healer. While the love of my life doesn't even know who she is, stranded in Ba Sing Se all alone because of what I did to her." He emptied the scalding tea down his throat in one gulp. "I don't even deserve to feel things like love," he continued, the hot steam accompanying his words, "let alone romantic affection. But apparently I never learn. Not only do I still love Riya anyway, I've pulled something stupid and despicable yet again. You could write a book about how many ways I can betray a woman."
Iroh couldn't help laughing at the last sentence as he refilled Yuhan's cup. "First, forgive me for having to comment on your tea-drinking habits. You always do this whenever I offer it to you, Yuhan! I cannot imagine how painful it must be to swallow freshly boiled water. And most importantly, you cannot taste any tea if you just send it straight into your stomach! It is a tragedy!"
Yuhan dully gazed back.
Iroh took another sip from his own cup before continuing. "You must realize, though, that tea-wasting is the true tragedy. Not the actions of a grieving heart that simply misses its special companion."
Yuhan gave an exasperated sigh, resisting the temptation to dunk the tea into his mouth this time as he forced himself to drink slowly. Looking back up with the same, dull gaze, he replied, "Right. Because you could totally relate?"
Iroh went quiet for a moment. "Actually, I can. I never did find another after my wife passed away," he replied softly. The emerald eyes watching him widened. "Forgive me for not going into detail, as I rarely like to speak of her or my late son." There was the slightest strain in his voice, but he quickly composed himself again. "However, I can tell you a story more similar to yours. It happened right here in the Northern Water Tribe. Would you like to listen?"
Flopping onto his back again after placing his cup down, Yuhan nodded. "Sure, go for it."
"There lived a great waterbending master here, not too long ago." Iroh smiled. "His name is Pakku, a dear friend of mine I had hoped to catch up with. I didn't know that he had taken the first ship to the Southern Water Tribe."
Yuhan turned his head to peer up at Iroh. "He did? Why's that?"
There was a twinkle in Iroh's gold irises. "After sixty long years, he finally knew where the love of his life had gone."
Yuhan was appalled at such circumstances, sitting back up abruptly. "He hadn't seen her...for sixty years? Why?"
Iroh took another long sip from his cup. "There was a time, when both of them were young, that they were arranged to marry by their families."
Yuhan furrowed his brows. "An...arranged marriage? And she was the love of his life?"
"Yes," replied Iroh with another smile. "He considered himself blessed that his bride was the only one he could ever picture marrying." Iroh sighed as he looked up at the stars. "Kanna was capable of loving him back," he continued, "but she could not do it knowing that she didn't have the freedom to choose. Pakku, as well-intentioned he might be, didn't give her that option either. He embraced every strict custom here."
Yuhan nodded along silently. At least he could say that during his better days, he was always respectful of Riya and let her be who she was in all her natural perfection... Although that didn't really matter right now since he'd wiped her from existence.
"Kanna felt betrayed by Pakku," Iroh went on. "He had grown up with her, having been family friends long before they knew of the arrangement. Kanna thought he would understand her need to be free. She could not bear the idea of being trapped with a man practically symbolizing the traditions she so hated." He paused. "And so...she left one night without a word."
Yuhan stared down at the stream below, peering at his reflection. Had Pakku once done the same, berating the face staring back at him? For the actions he could have taken so easily to keep the love of his life by his side?
"So deep inside, Pakku hated himself for driving Kanna away. He was so ashamed that he'd hurt the one he loved so severely that she would rather leave her home, the Northern Water Tribe, than marry him," said Iroh. "He eventually tried to cope with the pain by going on as if she'd never existed. He clung onto his traditions as always. Thinking about changing them only reminded him of Kanna."
"Oh...he did? As in, he deliberately wanted to feel like she didn't exist?" Yuhan couldn't tell which was worse, erasing someone from existence yourself or actually wanting them not to exist. It wasn't as if Riya's execution was a good alternative if he failed in that conversion chamber. He'd never wanted to do it otherwise.
"Yes. But of course, it never really worked," Iroh continued, "and Pakku only grew bitter as he lived out many lonely years. Old and sour, he never changed his ways until Kanna's granddaughter from his sister tribe suddenly marched into the city with the same, fiery spirit. She bore his betrothal necklace that Kanna had taken with her."
"Huh. I didn't see that part coming." Yuhan gazed thoughtfully up at the moon. "Must've been a surprise."
"Of course it was!" chuckled Iroh. "Everything changed when Pakku discovered the token of his past, his map to Kanna, and he was willing to throw all of his customs away if he could see her again. His heart still cried out for her. As it turns out, he would leave the Northern Water Tribe itself for any chance to reunite with her. There was no dwelling on his past mistakes anymore, only a chance to do anything he could for the future." He looked over at Yuhan with another twinkle in his eyes. "I hear that the two are married now."
Yuhan didn't expect that part either. "They...got married... How old are they again?"
"You should know that love has no limits with age! Would you ever set a deadline for when you should stop seeking Riya?" Iroh asked with a knowing smile.
"Of course not, I'm going to go back and save her and see her smile again if it's the last thing I do," Yuhan replied automatically. He shifted uncomfortably when he realized how quickly he'd spewed out such cheesy, dramatic lines.
Iroh gave a little nod of approval. "What a blessing, young love..."
Yuhan rolled his eyes. "Okay, how did this story help me again? All I learned from it was that there's apparently other good-for-nothing guys sort of like me and basically, 'You could be worse, just look at that old Pakku guy!'"
Iroh laughed heartily. "I advise you not to repeat that in front of Pakku. But don't you see? It is a story that teaches us of a love that can never waver, that grows even stronger when challenged. A love that will always seek to be fulfilled, no matter the years, no matter the mistakes made along the way. And just look at the strength it can give you!" He suddenly pointed to Yuhan's fingers, which had held an unusually solid grip upon his teacup this entire time without him noticing the pain. His distress over his romantic crimes had been that much stronger.
Well, now that Iroh mentioned it, thinking consciously about his injuries made all his pain come back. "Mother of Faces, dammit -" The cup wavered and spilled its hot contents onto his thick coat.
"I apologize!" Iroh reached over and caught the teacup right before it fell. "Phew! This is my favorite set, too." He turned back towards a stony-faced Yuhan again. "Anyway, I believe that the most important message from the stories of both you and Pakku, is that no one is perfect all the time, not in any area. Your earthbending will have bad days. You will be angrier and act irrationally on other days. Your love will also be tested. It is human, Yuhan –"
"To cheat on someone?" cried the former agent. "I'm sorry, but there're certain kinds of mistakes that don't ever fly. And I'm the idiot who did it anyway."
"Yuhan," Iroh began patiently. "When you...uh, when you did whatever you did with the young waterbender," (There was a choking sound from Yuhan at how much worse the words made the ordeal seem), "When it happened, did you still feel like Riya was out there? Did you still feel like you were bonded with her in any way?"
Yuhan thought about it for a moment. It'd been the day Yugoda had asked him to stop visiting Riya in his hallucinations. It was also the day he suddenly was so terrified of what remained outside his artificial version of her. Terrified that she didn't actually exist outside his mind. "...No, I guess I didn't," Yuhan admitted at last.
"It is natural then, Yuhan, for you to resort to lower standards of behavior if you'd given up hope for Riya without knowing how to deal with the unbearable pain. It would not matter anymore if you believed her gone forever. There would be no one to 'cheat' on or betray, if she didn't exist. Pakku was the same," said Iroh. "But you learned something from it, didn't you?"
"Eh, sure?" Yuhan flopped onto his back yet again.
"We all do things we are not proud of every now and then," said Iroh. "But it is from these very mistakes that you can learn the true strength of your love."
Yuhan gazed over with horribly skeptical eyes.
"But that aside, I think you are missing the big picture here!" laughed Iroh. "You have a great advantage compared to Pakku. You already know where Riya is! You already have the knowledge to find your way back to her, to work towards a brighter future, and you haven't even gotten your first grey hair."
Yuhan finally managed to laugh, sitting back up and lifting his freshly refilled teacup with both hands for extra support. "Yeah, I'm honestly thankful about that part." He went quiet for a moment. "But what about Doona?"
"Your healer?" Iroh chuckled. "Yuhan, how long have you known her again?"
"Eh... Maybe a month or so."
"How long have you known Riya?"
"...Since I was seven."
"Yuhan!" Iroh was laughing as he shook his head. "Anyone can see who would prevail between the two. I'm sure Doona knew, too. Now, do you think you can stop punishing yourself and focus on finding Riya before sixty years pass?"
"Heh, yeah yeah I know..."
Doona never spoke of the ordeal again, and neither did Yuhan. She handled it very professionally and ended up assigning him a new healer, that old woman named Sohki who worked a part-time job as a barber. Yuhan was thankful, and he was also glad that Doona had taken the chance to step back for a while.
With a sad chuckle, Yuhan realized that maybe there was just a bit of unprofessionalness on Doona's end. Sohki was still harsh on his arms, just like the way the ice blade nicked his skin. But in a weird way, her blunt actions that were less mindful of his pain seemed to fuse more fragments of bone together at a time.
Oh, well. Even if there was a bit of spite underlying the choice of his new healer, Yuhan supposed it was only fair seeing as he'd been immature with his handling of Doona's feelings for him, too.
As much as he still hated it, it wasn't like he could do anything about it now. Doona could never be that girl who would think he was special no matter how much he wasn't, the one with a smile brighter than the sun. Yuhan had to admit that now, at least he knew pretty well how distinct and unique his true feelings for anyone were, the bond that stretched all the way from Ba Sing Se and still tugged on his chest. He just really wished he could've strengthened his conviction in other ways than kissing another woman.
Bah, at least there was now living proof that Riya had no competition whatsoever, even if they tried. It made him feel a little better and more trustworthy to himself. And at the very least, she was closer to his reach than sixty years.
It wasn't much of a bright side, but Yuhan could see it. He would never admit this to Mushi, though.
Author's Comments and Trivia
- First and foremost, I must credit the fiery for breaking down the more realistic potential of this fanon and for yes, teaching me how to incorporate "another woman" without totally going off the far end heheh.
- I always reference this calendar to guesstimate the timeline of this. For this chapter, it's around the Boiling Rock episodes where Azula's just beginning to go cray. The calendar is not official but it seems a realistic, thought out timeline; my only change for this fanon would be that I believe more time passed between the Boiling Rock and the finale than it specifies in the calendar, which makes it sound like Zuko basically only spent 11 days total with the Gaang before facing Azula at the palace.
- Doona's name was originally "Sohki" before the author changed her mind. Somehow Sohki ended up becoming an old, chubby lady with scary healing habits.
- The author never learns. You could write a book on how many ways Minnichi can ruin her sleep when she's taken over by the writing bug and ends up hating her chapter in the delirium.
- Really though, for some reason I'm not a fan of this chapter >_> I do hope that it was worth the wait for those of you looking forward to it, though...
- Or maybe it's just as uncomfortable for me to write about another woman as it is for Yuhan to be chummy with one. Good point, .
- I'm also not sure I handled that other woman thing well. I'm not used to this!!!
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