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|More from Minnichi||Romance/Angst/Action||PG-13||Very Positive|
|Chapter 25 - Earth Kingdom It Is (SHiE)|
Canon characterization checkers:
July 9, 2016
Summary of the Last Chapter
Yuhan stalls his brainwashing recovery due to his inability to let go of his hallucinations of Riya. During this time, his healer, Donna, becomes chummy with him and they share a kiss. Yuhan is horrified at himself but eventually faces his weaknesses and ends his brainwashing for good, promising Riya that he'll return to save her regardless of his romantic crimes. Afterwards, Iroh comforts him to tell him not to be so hard on himself.
Yuhan could see Iroh's ridiculously cheery smile reflecting off every facet of ice this morning. The latter had come to offer a last cup of tea before departing the Northern Water Tribe, and the two enjoyed breakfast inside a little seafood bistro a minute's walk from the healing facilities. They sat at a glossy counter that curved along a row of wide, open windowsills decorated with shells and other souvenirs of the ocean. Iroh's boarding ship could be seen in the distance, sleek and arched at the helm with ocean blue cutter sails, bobbing atop the glittering water as the stick figures of the crew ran up and down the ramp with supplies.
"Winter, spring...summer and fall..." Iroh was half-humming between every sip of tea as he gazed thoughtfully towards the ocean. Sitting next to him, Yuhan cringed a little whenever the pitch jumped sharply at the word "summer."
The tone-deaf singing reminded Yuhan of the day he'd first taken note of Iroh's existence. The old tea brewer could spot a couple in denial a mile away and had once serenaded a red-faced Dai Li agent in front of his childhood sweetheart with 'The Girls of Ba Sing Se.'
...Geez, Iroh had been around for a while.
Yuhan's happier days were a foreign past from a foreign planet, but Iroh had remained as jolly and obnoxious as he was in the Pao Family Tea House. Perhaps the only surviving proof of better times. Yuhan had no idea what to say about it all, in the face of his departure this morning. Iroh could be anywhere in the world by tomorrow. "Thanks for the tea," he decided to begin with. (Better to go in order of the old general's priorities, he figured.) "Thank you for a whole lot of things in general, Iroh." Yuhan placed down his empty teacup with a sigh. "I hope I was worth the trouble. Or will be, eventually." The old man had just stayed out in the middle of the night to calm him down about kissing anyone who wasn't Riya, for crying out loud...
Iroh beamed as he began to put away the porcelain tea set back into its wooden box. "Seeing you in better shape and spirits, Yuhan, is more than enough for me. Knowing that you have never given up. It is worth everything."
"Aw..." A sheepish Yuhan scratched the back of his neck. "You're really too kind – how is it even possible for you to be so kind? Man..." Iroh just kept smiling and folding up his box merrily. "That'll just make me feel worse on the day you finally realize I'm not that strong. Literally." He lifted a pitifully thin arm and wiggled his bony fingers. One of the decorative sand rocks on the windowsill in front of them flopped around a little before toppling ungracefully over the edge. That was about it. "See?"
"But you are, Yuhan. " Iroh had that impossible surety in his tone again, always with the twinkle in his golden eyes. "I have seen you get back up in the face of unimaginable despair, every time. Your destiny awaits you in Ba Sing Se, and you have never lost sight of it. Soon, you will discover within yourself an even stronger earthbender than before, and you will find your way back to Riya. Your destiny is to bring her back to the world. With your unshakeable spirit, you can do..."
The praises wouldn't stop. Iroh's version of Yuhan somehow managed to make an antisocial, brain-destroying psycho sound more like some silent hero in emerald. Yuhan tried to picture himself as that guy for a moment. There he was, the hero who could actually make a Dai Li uniform look cool, sweeping Riya off her feet in his emerald robes and spinning her around before dipping her for a dramatic kiss in front of a conveniently perfect sunset... He suddenly realized that it was starting to look like Hiroshu's ego; his mental eye immediately ran the other direction. "I appreciate your, er, generous vote of confidence," he quickly told Iroh. "But I think I get the point." He paused. "So, wait... Where are you going, exactly? You have to leave soon, right?"
Iroh smiled mysteriously. "Yes. To meet my own destiny. There is some family business I need to correct."
There was an uncomfortable silence before Yuhan realized that Iroh wasn't going to elaborate. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked dully.
The golden eyes fixated upon him with sudden intensity. "Remember, Yuhan, we cannot change the mistakes of the past."
Yuhan took a miserable glance towards his three-disked bracelet. "You don't have to remind me," he muttered.
"But we can prevent them from repeating themselves," declared Iroh. "We can create a better future."
"Yeahhh..." Yuhan didn't know if the old tea brewer expected him to sound more excited about this. "I'm pretty sure I wouldn't repeat what I did."
"So I know that we will meet again." Iroh tucked his tea box back beneath his cloak and suddenly stood up from his chair. He seemed to remember something and dug out a small maroon pouch from his pockets. "Before I leave you, Yuhan, please accept a small parting gift from me."
Yuhan didn't pay much attention to the pouch as he took it and impatiently set it aside. "Seriously, Iroh, where are you –"
The loud blaring from the ship's horn outside cut off his sentence.
"Oh, no – I really need to stop this habit. I'm probably the last passenger!" exclaimed Iroh. "I'll see you again, Yuhan. It has been a great pleasure." He was quite fast for his age, sprinting out the door and disappearing from sight within seconds.
"Iroh...?" Before long, a second blare from the horn signaled the ship's departure.
It took some effort for Yuhan's twitchy fingers to loosen the drawstrings of the little velvet pouch. A single Pai Sho tile eventually fell out onto his palm.
There didn't seem to be anything special or unusual about this lotus tile, aside from the fact that it was very new and shiny. It still carried the faint scent of fresh polish. Yuhan shrugged and slipped it into his pocket.
Why can't old men ever be clear about things? The former Dai Li agent shook his head with a chuckle as he left the breakfast table for his next healing session.
~-~-~-~ Three weeks later ~-~-~-~
In one of the finest dorms the grand Royal Palace had to offer, Hiroshu was asleep in the heart of the Fire Nation. His bed was surrounded by crimson and gold, but he saw Ba Sing Se and all its green coming to life beneath the warm sun. A foreign past from a foreign planet played in his head, along with some odd quirks from the present mixed in during every snore.
Ba Sing Se University was a celebrated campus. It boasted the finest education the Earth Kingdom had to offer and spared no expense in its facilities. Hiroshu's graduation ceremony came into view, bright and colorful with green and gold everywhere. Young men who reached this stage were known as advanced scholars and would have the honor of being presented before the Earth King himself. Next to Hiroshu, Yuhan was yawning and eventually nodding off.
There was a pretty girl named Suyin Zhang among the dreamland audience. She had bright green eyes and shoulder-length brown hair with a slender, curvy figure that went well with her green university robes. She was cheering next to her best friend, Riya of course, who was blowing a kiss in Yuhan's direction – until a dark figure that looked oddly like Long Feng suddenly appeared behind them with a glowing lantern and sinister smile. The two girls screamed and ran in terror, and the patrol partners immediately sprang into action. Yuhan sprinted off towards Riya, while Hiroshu was rushing to make it in time before a random carriage – which was driven by a cackling Princess Azula – could run over Suyin. When he reached her, she was lying across the ground with the back of her hand resting dramatically over her forehead. He blasted the carriage into the sky with a single kick before sweeping her off her feet and carrying her to safety.
"Oh Hiroshu, you saved me!" exclaimed the imaginary Suyin with an adoring smile. For some reason, the university had disappeared and was replaced by the shore of some beach in front of a perfect sunset. The gold trimmings of his Dai Li uniform shimmered as the dream-wind rustled his sleeves.
Someone cleared his throat from behind.
Hiroshu turned around to discover his patrol partner, who looked ready to vomit. "I would kill anyone who tries to pull that with Riya right now," scowled Yuhan. "Your little damsel in distress could be taken – or she might not even love men! You know literally nothing, you moron!" A black, stormy sky appeared behind him, complete with crashing thunder and lightning. "And besides, people tend to die around you." His emerald eyes narrowed. "Do this girl a favor, and stay away before she ends up like my mom."
It was when Yuhan's face suddenly looked a lot more like his heartbroken father's that Hiroshu woke up with a horrified jolt from his sheets. The thunder still crashed and rattled the walls. He jumped to his feet and yanked aside the scarlet curtains of his bedroom window. It was storming like Koh's Realm outside. Hundreds of tiny waterfalls were flowing from every red and gold edge of the Royal Palace.
Hiroshu couldn't help slapping his face as he threw the curtains back down. "Always the killjoy, aren't you, Yuhan?" he muttered. "Even in my sleep..."
People tend to die around you.
That...still stung. Hiroshu felt kind of stupid about the whole dramatic sunset thing every time he remembered that his reality was much darker. Ning Tsen was the first death he'd felt any remorse about. At the same moment he even met Yuhan, he'd blasted the skull of a helpless old man he only considered a name on a paper with a "begone" order from Long Feng. One name among many, many others.
Who would want to be carried off into the sunset by that kind of guy?
Hiroshu sighed again as he went over to his desk. The red mahogany wood clashed with all his bright green decorations, which included an old autographed poster of Earth Rumble II's retired champion, The Stone. Next to the poster was an emerald-framed portrait of him in his extravagant graduation robes, accompanied by his mother and father. Hiroshu chuckled a little as their voices played in his memory, chastising him for somehow remaining single longer than his ghoulish patrol partner. "You're clearly more handsome and charming, Hiro. Stop playing around and settle down before all the other pretty girls are taken! What on earth have you been doing?"
He still didn't have an answer for his mother, but the world was changing. Maybe he could change along with it. After all...he was coming home sooner than she thought. Hiroshu smiled grimly as he pulled on his emerald robes and pocketed his special Pai Sho tile. He had no idea what the world would look like in a month, when the sky would turn red with clouds like embers – but he was glad to be home to see it.
Dramatic sunsets or not, it was time to get out of this place.
Riya sounded worried, as if he were about to disappear forever. "Are you ever coming back?" she asked slowly. "To, you know...visit sometimes?" The last part was very quiet.
"Of course I will!" he assured her, smiling warmly. "And if you ever want to find me, all you have to do is look for... Well, you'll recognize me! I think. I hope."
"Yes, I will..."
"See, that's exactly why I've got to go back now," explained an ecstatic Yuhan. "I'll make sure Riya recognizes me again, like she said on the day we met! ...I mean, the day we met after, like, 10 years of not seeing each other – but ha, see, it's like before, 'cause I'll be coming back after a long time, and..."
"That's nice, dear." The old and wrinkly Sohki nodded along, somewhat sleepily, as she ran the healing water through his arms. They'd moved to a considerably smaller healing hut ever since the last of his bone fragments had melded. It was nice not to be surrounded by the groans of pain from people in critical condition for once. "I hope your earthbending can be as healthy as your voice eventually," said Sohki. "Remember what we agreed on about not lifting heavy things?"
Yuhan was too excited about the ship waiting for them at the icy docks to care. It was finally time for him to get out of this frozen desert. "Psh, I'm practically a competent earthbender again!" he declared. "Look!" His healer had to pause as he pulled his arms out of the glowing fountain just to summon one of the bistro's decorative sandstones from his pocket. Still lying on his stomach and with dripping hands, he hovered the little stone between his palms and concentrated hard on its shape...
Sohki jumped a little from the noise, which was extra startling for her sleepy ears to take in. Yuhan proudly held up a tiny replica of one of the fancy koi fish sculptures adorning the patient housing entrance. After a few seconds, Sohki realized that he was waiting for a reaction and had to squint her ancient eyes somewhat to really take in the details of the figurine. "...That's wonderful, dear."
Yuhan's face dropped a little from her glaring lack of interest. "Yeah, well, it's usually more impressive to Riya," he mumbled, stuffing the little sandstone koi fish back into his pocket. His bones were still a little wobbly and threatened to dislocate now and then, but his healers had done a fine job. Pebblebending was a milestone ahead of chopstick-wielding.
"Now, let's see what we can do about your awful hair. It's gone too far! Again!" Without warning, Sohki slipped a hand under Yuhan's chest, placed the other on his back, and practically shoved him upright.
Yuhan stumbled a little as his legs were pushed to dangle down into the cold fountain and as Sohki tightened her shiny purple blanket around his neck for the hundredth time. Her merciless, icy shaving blade nicked his chin within the first five seconds, but he couldn't help noticing how the sunlight outside intensified and penetrated the icy walls of the healing hut. Every crystalline accent around him glowed, but none as much as the glorious gold disk adorning his wrist. "Sure... Whatever you see fit, Sohki." Yuhan turned his wrist back and forth, watching each of the disks in his bracelet light up at different angles. "Gotta look sharp for Riya, right?" He couldn't help smiling.
Bobbing atop the glittering blue sea, Yuhan's ship waited patiently.
Hiroshu was out on the red and gold-lined balcony of his dorm, squinting as the blinding sunlight escaped the dispersing rainclouds. There was a large and fancy red messenger hawk gripping his arm very painfully with its sharp talons. "Ow – turn around, come on, towards me –" He gritted his teeth. Every movement from the bird felt like a new set of skewers digging into his skin.
He finally managed to get the creature to stay still as he shoved a wrinkly, rolled up piece of parchment into the special tube tied to its back. The messenger hawk seemed to have taken a liking to him and still wouldn't let go even when he threw up his arm to cue its departure. As the claws gripped even tighter, Hiroshu scowled and had to push the bird off with his other hand. "You can cling all you want in the Earth Kingdom, 'kay? I'll catch up with you there, geez! Shoo!"
Hiroshu gave a sigh of relief as the hawk fluttered away from his arm, soaring high into the sky until it was no more than a little speck against the clouds.
Someone cleared his throat behind him. "Agent Leung?" The voice belonged to a Palace messenger, from the sound of it.
Hiroshu turned around swiftly, hoping the messenger boy hadn't had noticed the hawk. "Yeah, what's up?"
"Princess Azula has returned from the Boiling Rock facilities." It was a little unsettling that that this boy had been allowed into Hiroshu's dorm to deliver the news, which couldn't mean well. "She expects all loyal agents of the Dai Li to greet her respectfully."
"She – what?" Hiroshu had never heard such an odd, almost personal-sounding request from Azula before. She'd left some time ago to collect her brother, who apparently landed himself inside the Fire Nation's most guarded prison, and she'd been smiling very confidently. Did she find out something along the way? ...About him?
Princess Azula was always scary, but there was something unnatural about it today that made her extra terrifying. She paced quite slowly between the rows of agents who'd lined up at the sides of the ramp extending down from her regal airship. Her sharp golden eyes seemed to scan through each agent as if he were surely hiding something abominable. "Mai and Ty Lee won't be returning to the mainland," she announced, with a horrible glint in her eyes. "Their treachery is better suited to rot with them inside of their new, filthy prison."
The earthbenders glanced at one another for the briefest second with raised brows. Azula's two closest companions, who'd stood by her from start to finish during the fall of Ba Sing Se, were traitors? It surprised them the same way Agent Tsen's treachery had popped out of nowhere. They couldn't fathom what kind of insanity would drive someone past the fear of Azula's wrath. As the Fire Nation princess kept walking and scrutinizing everyone, however, they quickly bowed their heads again.
Like the others, Hiroshu's hands were folded rigidly inside his sleeves behind his back, but his palms were sweaty and held a trembling grip on his lotus tile. Be like Peace Orator Yuhan, he told himself desperately. Be a boring, emotionless drone. No attitude. No reaction. Blank. Be Yuhan.
Azula came to a stop in front of Hiroshu.
Be like Yuhan. Be like Yuhan!
"I know you." Her tone was low and horrifyingly intrigued. "You spent quite a bit of time around a traitor. A miraculously escaped traitor." Azula suddenly whipped her head about to glare at the rest of the agents, causing them all to flinch. "Did he not?" she snapped.
It was Agent Tyru Mao, sneering and unpleasant as always, who spoke up. "Yes, Princess." He sounded way too pleased with himself to be healthy. "Yuhan Tsen was Agent Leung's assigned partner for patrol and combat."
Hiroshu regretted all those times he'd even offered some of his extra dumplings to this turd.
Agent Jian Sung, the rare, happily married one, suddenly chimed in. "Agent Leung has never strayed from his duties, Princess Azula." He was trembling as the frightening golden eyes narrowed in his direction, but courageously continued. "In Ba Sing Se, he himself was tasked to eliminate those who threatened our authority. He himself prevents treason."
Hiroshu's face was an expressionless slate worthy of Yuhan's praise – literally from being too baffled to produce a reaction. Jian was a long-time drinking buddy of his and fellow snack hoarder, and sure, maybe Hiroshu had played a part in setting up the first date with a girl who later became a wife...but to speak out against Azula?
"If it is within my right," Jian began slowly, "I ask that we not penalize him for a treachery he played no part in."
Agent Quan Lei Ping, Jian's patrol partner and trainer of the Joo Dees, was also crazy enough to reply. "Your Highness, Agent Leung was among the wounded during the traitor's assault on the Dai Li. He was no exception." Quan couldn't help glancing towards the prominent scar under Hiroshu's left eye. "Furthermore, he himself ensured that Yuhan Tsen's peasant girl was detained properly in the conversion chamber. He did not interfere while she was under my supervision. When asked, he did not hesitate to deliver Ning Tsen to the traitor's conversion chamber." Quan's voice began to tremble in the ominous silence, but he held onto his conviction. "The Dai Li respects your decision, Your Highness, but I do not wish to dishonor Agent Leung's name because of his patrol partner's actions. He has remained one of our most loyal agents."
Mother of all bloody Faces of Koh...
Hiroshu might have been driven to tears by the outrageously misplaced vote of confidence – if he weren't too terrified to breathe.
Azula folded her arms, her sharp fingernails more claw-like than ever as she scrutinized the rows of agents. "Would anyone else like to comment?" she demanded, her eyes flashing with unnatural malice.
Seconds became years.
Eventually, the eyes of the Fire Nation Princess narrowed into golden slits when they finally settled back upon Hiroshu. The air was so still that everyone could hear the padded shoulder pieces of her royal armor shifting when she suddenly unfolded her arms casually and shrugged. "I can live with one less Dai Li agent." She raised a hand dismissively before turning on her heel and marching away. "Get him out of my sight."
Hiroshu's stomach dropped. The rows of agents around him took formation accordingly, and their faces hid any pity they might've felt – aside from Tyru, who looked ready to celebrate.
You've gotta be kidding me.
There it was, the last Earth Kingdom stronghold, tall as the mountains themselves with its own peaks rising into the sky. A people once split, but brought together by love...specifically, by a heartbroken earthbending master. Legend had it that she'd raised this towering city out of the ground with her bare hands. Each sharp peak had been another sob of her anguish, so they said. Yuhan could see the collection of green rooftops towering in the distance as he made his way down a frightfully narrow bridge of stone that connected the city to the outer world. The one time he'd dared to glance over the side of this bridge was when some smashed cart at the bottom of the gorge caught his eye. It was stained with green, and some cabbage pieces were still lying about, shriveled and left to rot a long time ago... Yuhan decided not to look down anymore.
The king of this city had written back to Iroh sometime during Yuhan's recovery to offer a safe place to stay during Yuhan's earthbending rehabilitation. According to the stories, this "Bumi" had kicked out every Fire Nation occupant from Omashu during an eclipse in less than thirty minutes. Yuhan had no idea how Iroh could convince such a royal, supernatural earthbender to bother helping someone from the very city that had given up the Earth Kingdom without a fight. Nor were his toothpick-arms very encouraging.
As he approached the gates of Omashu, Yuhan nervously tugged on the tassels of his three-disked bracelet and kept straightening out any protruding loops within the weave, imaginary or not. He was finally out of the water and back on land, but the earth didn't recognize him anymore. His feet had been spoiled by fur boots, and the reality began to seep in when he'd hopped around in pain on his ship from stepping on the tiniest pebble barefoot. The other problem was that he refused at all costs to use any Dai Li forms; his legs were still capable of stone shoes, and rock gloves were far safer for his weak arms than any heavy boulders, but he preferred jumping off of a cliff at this point. He would never, ever rely on that organization again.
On the other hand, pebblebending didn't exactly cut it if he seriously expected to save Riya from the Dai Li. He also wasn't planning on showing up with these nonexistent muscles that couldn't even sweep her petite, lightweight self off her feet. Not that she'd ever want to be anywhere near him again, but still. Nonexistent muscles weren't an option. Yuhan had no idea why that mattered so much, but it made him more willing to show his toothpick-arms to the great King of Omashu. He needed help and wasn't about to turn it down.
Yuhan suddenly realized how nervous he was to meet King Bumi. In Ba Sing Se, he'd strolled into the Royal Palace to deliver messages countless times, and Ba Sing Se was the heart of all authority – or at least, used to be – in the Earth Kingdom. Meeting a ruler who was actually competent this time made all the difference.
There was a deafening crackle that split the air, causing him to jump. Where had that noise come from? The tremble shook several pebbles off of the bridge, and it took some time for Yuhan to notice that his shadow had grown quite large and boulder-shaped and was surrounding his feet. He began to look up very, very slowly. "...Oh, boy."
"State your business!"
The man's uniform was very unfamiliar to Yuhan, with its padded green shoulders, studded brown cuffs, and curved helmet...but it was most definitely Earth Kingdom. Beneath the helmet was a stern face that didn't look ready to welcome any visitors. He was a soldier, by the looks of it, and he maintained a rigid stance with outstretched arms. The massive boulder hovered above Yuhan's head like a murderous cloud that seemed to drop lower every second.
The realization that he couldn't feel the same connection to his own element made Yuhan's face grow pale. He, who'd once chased after Hiroshu in his annoyance with a boulder five times this size, couldn't do a single thing to defend himself right now. How far had he dropped?
"What business do you have here?" the soldier demanded, after the silence became too suspicious.
Yuhan snapped out of his past and remembered that he was still standing here like an ant about to be stepped on. "O-oh, I was directed here to, well, you see – King Bumi said – and then Mushi, I mean Iroh, um –"
"The king? You think I'll let you just waltz into the throne to assassinate him?" scowled the soldier. "Although..." He seemed to take note of the toothpick-arms. "You probably wouldn't stand a chance anyway – (ahem) Well, what are your intentions?" He narrowed his eyes viciously. "Another spy from the Fire Nation? Let me tell you, we aren't planning on letting a single one of you step foot in here ever again –"
"Wait, wait, Fire Nation? No, I'm not – no!" Yuhan sputtered back. He desperately summoned one of the pebbles off the ground into his hand. "I'm with Earthbender! I mean, Earth Kingdom! See?" It felt even more pitiful out here on land when he could only prove himself by twirling this tiny rock around his fingers.
The soldier had to squint in order to actually see the pebble. "Oh." He didn't seem to count it as earthbending, but he lowered his arms nonetheless. The boulder fell back into the ground with heavy impact that made Yuhan's feet bounce into the air for a second. "Are you a refugee? I apologize."
"I...yeah. You could say that," mumbled Yuhan. He truly was lost and helpless, wasn't he? His city wasn't about to welcome him home or anything.
"Hey, don't be scared!" said the soldier, who'd suddenly turned ten times friendlier. He walked over and placed a hand on Yuhan's shoulder. "It's been tough for all of us in the Earth Kingdom after the capital went down," he sighed. "But we've gotta help each other out, you know?"
Yuhan's thoughts drifted back to the psychos in emerald uniforms. It made him feel somewhat responsible for this widespread struggle, and he ended up sighing along with the soldier.
"Anyway, don't you worry. You'll be safe here," the soldier continued with a proud smile. "Omashu can hold its own, unlike the so-called 'Impenetrable City.'."
Yuhan nodded and had nothing to say about that last comment. "I really appreciate it... Thank you."
"The gate's straight ahead. Enjoy Omashu!" the soldier finished cheerily. "Where are you from, by the way?"
There was a very long pause. "Oh, n-nowhere important," replied Yuhan. "It's just a random city with a lot of walls. You've probably never heard of, uh, La Ling Le. Tiny place."
Yuhan was dragged to the palace of Omashu as soon as his origins were verified. The soldiers told him not to worry, though, since his "newly refurbished chamber that was once bad" was supposed to be pretty nice. Even if it had no doors or windows.
The halls of this palace were much dimmer than the ones in Ba Sing Se, relying only on the light of the Earth Kingdom's famous glowing crystals. Green glowed from every corner, illuminating the regal tapestries on the walls that stretched higher than he could see.
"Your Majesty, we've identified the weak, skinny earthbender from Ba Sing Se that you asked for."
...Was that the exact request? Yuhan sighed glumly as he was pushed in front of the throne.
There was a very impressive-looking chair with a bizarre mass of purple sitting in it. Yuhan's eyes followed two extremely long, antenna-like feathers down to a tiny hat where they connected...and below the hat was a twitchy-eyed face that looked older than the war itself.
"Well, well, well..." The ancient geezer looked like a mound of tacky purple robes with a wrinkly head sticking out of it. It seemed like he couldn't decide over which accents to include and had gone with all of them instead. His outer poncho-thing was lined with white fur, and there were too many coin-shaped Earth Kingdom emblems to count. He began to laugh as Yuhan stared, rising from his fancy chair to get a better look. His hunched back lurched from the occasional snort. "Looks like you've got a lot of fattening up to do!"
Yuhan didn't know if he was supposed to reply or not. He kept staring back and wondered who'd let the geezer out of the asylum. He also had no idea why the two guards at his sides bowed so respectfully, almost as if...wait, this guy couldn't possibly be...
"What shall we do with him, King Bumi?"
The senile green eyes peering back at Yuhan looked extra disturbing when they lit up with glee, and it didn't help that one of them could only open half as wide as the other. "Hm..." A wrinkly hand suddenly shot forth from the tacky robes.
Yuhan was too distracted by the countless rings on that hand – yet another overuse of accessories – to notice that a cold ring of his own had secured itself around his index finger.
"Our guest is overdue for a feast!" declared King Bumi. "But before we stuff ourselves, I hope you like my welcome gift. I'd say it's grown on you already!" His antenna-feathers shook back and forth with snorting laughter.
"Wait, what?" Yuhan looked down in horror at his hand, which was already half-hidden beneath a mass of bright blue crystals.
"Omashu exports them all over the Earth Kingdom, but I bet you've never tried this one. It's our newest flavor." The king's grin was missing several teeth. "You might want to wear my gift in moderation, though. Too much sugar can give you cavities."
Yuhan finally recognized it when another blue shard popped out of his ring. A long time ago, he would have done anything to get his hands on jennamite. All the kids in the Lower Ring could share a limitless supply of rock candy; they simply needed to break off pieces of the crystal to hand out to their friends, and it would replenish itself upon contact with their skin.
Today, the rock candy had become a lot scarier. It refused to stop creeping up his arm no matter how hard he tried, and his frustration made the crystals multiply even faster. An earthbender was losing to an edible rock.
Everyone was watching him. Someone coughed in the silence when Yuhan eventually fell over from the weight of his ring.
You've got to be kidding me.
A crimson airship rose high into the clouds. Both of its ends were pointed, which made the giant black Fire Nation emblems on its sides look extra menacing. Instructions to set course for the Boiling Rock facilities were shouted from the captain's cabin all the way down to the engine room, with each worker relaying the message to the next.
Hiroshu heard the instructions repeating themselves all around his chamber, each echo hitting his ears from a different direction. "Thanks, Yuhan, just thanks," he kept grumbling. His chains rattled along with the loud engine on the other side of the wall. "This is what I get for having a reckless patrol partner...things were going smoothly, dammit..." He was barefoot and gloveless, and his uniform had been disposed of accordingly. They'd even torn a hole in the nice shirt he wore underneath during their search for any other possible weapons. He was peeved beyond Koh's Realm.
He was still watching his chains rattle when the metal door of his chamber suddenly slid open and made him look up. Two Dai Li agents approached him with slumped shoulders and guilty faces.
Jian gazed sullenly at all the restraints tying Hiroshu to the wall. "I'm so sorry, man. This is just messed up."
Standing next to him was Quan, who shook his head. "You really don't deserve this, Hiroshu. Everyone knows you're not a traitor, but we can't...you know, with Azula and all...I'm sorry."
Hiroshu gave a grim smile. "Sticking up for me took guts. That was really crazy but really nice of you. And hey, guess I get to retire early, huh?" He looked down at the floor with half-hearted chuckle, glancing for a moment towards the emerald uniforms facing him. The tip of Quan's shoe was sticking out from under his black trousers. A very stiff, earth-colored shoe.
"We couldn't do anything about it in the end," said Jian. "I feel even worse that we're the ones taking you the Boiling Rock." He shot an irritated glare at the door behind him. "And she just had to let Tyru come along...wish I could punch that prick."
"Heh, we all want to punch him sooner or later." Hiroshu smirked. "If I knew I was going to end up at the Boiling Rock for the rest of my life, I'd have punched out his teeth a long time ago. That arrogant grin of his would look much better."
Jian and Quan managed to laugh a little, while Hiroshu's eyes stole another glance at the protruding shoe.
"It kind of hurts even more to see you taking it so well," sighed Quan. He took a step closer to pat Hiroshu on the shoulder. His shoe was sticking out more than ever. "But I hope you know that we'll always be your buddies. We'll do what we can for your parents, too. Hopefully they'll get one of the easier jobs in the underground supply production..."
Hiroshu choked up a little as he nodded back. "You guys..." They really cared about him, didn't they? "You guys are too much – you're getting me all emotional, dammit, stop being dramatic! It's contagious." His bare foot shifted very slowly towards the protruding shoe.
"Hey, you'd do the same for us. We've got your back," Jian assured him.
"And I've got your back, too. I hope you remember that," said Hiroshu, his foot locking into position. "I'll make up for this, I swear."
"Huh?" Quan cocked his head a little to the side. "Make up for wha –"
The stone shoe smashed into Quan's face mid-sentence. He flopped unconsciously onto the floor before Jian could finish looking over in alarm.
Hiroshu sharply retracted his leg, and the shoe came whizzing back before rearranging itself around his foot.
"What the...?" Jian was still sputtering as his gloved hands rose automatically for attack. "What in Koh's Realm are you –"
Hiroshu made a fist and threw it upwards as far as his chains would allow; Jian punched himself in the face with his stone-covered hand. The latter's eyes lolled out of focus as he dropped to the floor on top of Quan.
"Okayokay, work with me here, come on," Hiroshu frantically told his shoe. It shot beneath Jian's sleeve and searched about for any sign of a key. "Come on, come on!" Every metal object he pulled out with a clamp of his toes kept being another part of the cuffed chains that came with every Dai Li uniform.
"I know I heard something!" screamed a voice outside. "Out of my way!" A set of footsteps was rushing towards the chamber with alarming speed.
Hiroshu groaned at the unmistakable sound of Tyru. "Come on!" he yelled, sending his shoe this time into each of Quan's pockets. He finally felt the shape of a thin ring that jangled with hanging objects. The toe of his shoe mimicked his foot and clamped down over the keys before flying back. Hiroshu gave a crazy yell of triumph. "HA! AHAHA –"
He'd just finished freeing the first cuff from his wrist when Tyru barged through the door. The latter only paused for a split second to glance at the fallen agents before shooting forth a murderous rock fist.
"Oh, sh -" Hiroshu threw himself towards the floor. The fist missed his head by millimeters and indented the metal wall behind him with a loud clang. He heard the second one whizzing through the air and yelped, twisting to dodge a little late as it scraped his shoulder and ripped across the expensive fabric of his shirt. Another metallic clang ensued.
Tyru sharply drew back his hands, but most of his gloves were stuck in the metal wall and only wriggled out a few pieces. Hiroshu frantically undid another cuff in the meantime.
"I knew it – you're not going anywhere, treacherous filth!" Tyru decided to whip his sleeves forward instead when he couldn't get the rest of his glove pieces out of the wall.
Hiroshu jerked his wrists away from the two chains flying at him and caught one in each hand at the hinge of its cuff. He snapped the thick rings shut before shifting his grip to the long metal links and yanking down as hard as he could.
Tyru's arms, still connected to the chains, lurched forward and flailed about as he hit the floor face-first. He stumbled back up to his feet as Hiroshu desperately rammed the stolen key into the final cuff.
The two earthbenders were suddenly face-to-face, both holding rigid combat positions with outstretched arms...and no chains.
Tyru seemed to remember who could usually kill people with one strike. "S-SECURITY! I need back –" Both the stone shoes encasing his feet suddenly flew off, balled into one large fist, and shattered most of his teeth upon impact.
The enraged screams of agony rattled the walls as Hiroshu scrambled out of the chamber and ran for dear life.
King Bumi's dining hall was probably very large and fancy. Yuhan couldn't really tell with the jennamite blocking the upper half of his face, but the way each snort from the king echoed gave him a good guess of the vast space.
"What do you think of our food?" asked the geezer from across the table. "I had my chefs keep the skin on your chicken for extra fat."
"Yeah, well..." Yuhan's right arm stuck out of a single hole in his crystal shell that somehow hadn't crept far enough yet. His hand flopped around his plate before identifying the greasy chicken leg and picking it up. The next crystal shard extended over his mouth right as he lifted the meat to his face. "It smells delicious, Your Highness," he replied through gritted teeth.
"It's even more delicious when you chew on it," said King Bumi with an obnoxiously loud bite into a lettuce leaf. "You should try our salad, too."
"I'm getting to that." Yuhan's voice was pretty muffled by now. He seriously hoped that rock candy wasn't going to be the cause of his death. No one could blame Riya if she denied ever being attracted to him.
His right arm finally got caught by the jennamite. As it crept down to his wrist, a small shard slipped through the square-shaped hole in one of the emerald disks of his bracelet. As it grew, the width of the shard pressed harder and harder against the confines of the narrow space, and the leather cords were stretching to their limits as it kept pulling the bracelet forward...
Yuhan went very still when he heard the crack. A single, sharp snap of expensive emerald. It was the one on the left, representing the giver of the bracelet.
There was a lot of enraged, muffled yelling coming from the mass of rock candy. King Bumi cupped a wrinkly hand above his ear as he leaned forward. "Hm? Did you say something?"
The jennamite shell burst into hundreds of pieces that flew in every direction. As the guards around the room frantically ducked or pulled down their hats to shield themselves, King Bumi caught one of the blue shards in his hand and bit off a large chunk. "Mmm, blueberry. Delicious!"
Yuhan was huffing with demented rage as he stared down at the broken emerald. "Stupid geezer...ima kill you..." The disk was still secured in place within the weave, but very clearly in pieces. He slipped the bracelet off of his wrist, lifting it slowly before his twitching eyes. Without thinking, he gripped the fragments with his fingers and pressed them desperately against each other.
Something started to shift, and it took a moment for Yuhan to realize that the cracks were fusing together. His eyes widened when he let go of the disk and discovered it in one piece, good as new.
"So our guest is an earthbender, after all!" exclaimed King Bumi. He rose from his chair and motioned towards the guards at the entrance of the dining hall. They immediately came over and took hold of Yuhan's arms, who slumped his shoulders.
Yuhan looked up during the heavy pause. He was at the mercy of an antennae-wearing old man. This couldn't possibly end well.
"Prepare well, Yuhan of Na Sing Se. We're going on a field trip." The royal geezer wouldn't stop chewing on his rock candy in the silence. He seemed to be waiting for a response to his proposal – not that it was really a matter of choice.
"Sure thing, King...Bumi." The famed title was really difficult to place on that twitchy-eyed face. "Can't wait." Yuhan couldn't have sounded any less excited.
The bomb hatch at the bottom of the Fire Nation airship had a single, extremely narrow pathway with thin railings running through the center of it for engineer access. It wasn't meant for crazy, escaped Dai Li agents to be sprinting on, especially not this high up in the air with no safety ropes.
Hiroshu stopped caring about hazardous heights as soon as the first fireblast landed a blow. He yelled out in agony as it brushed the side of his neck and scorched his shoulder, and he ran wildly across the metal platform to avoid the countless other flames shooting after his back. It was so unfair to him how fire only needed to make contact at all to hurt beyond all imagination, not like air, water, or even earth that required specific forms to become threatening.
He reached the end of the platform before long and came to a hopeless stop as he stared over the edge. How much could one earthbender do on a freaking airship? Hiroshu slowly turned back around to discover an organized assembly of firebending soldiers, each sliding down onto the platform from a secure rope. They had all the fire they needed, fueled by the very chi flowing through their bodies; Hiroshu was armed with a grand total of someone's extra gloves and smelly rock shoes.
Well, this sucks.
Tyru made his way between the soldiers, covering the bloody bottom half of his face with a sleeve. Without speaking, he gestured at the firebenders with his free hand. They all pointed their arms at the cornered prisoner.
Hiroshu glanced over the side of the platform and immediately felt queasy. The earth below was a series of grey canyons rising into spiky mountains, with an occasional group of tiny red rooftops along the slopes. There was also a very subtle gap in the canyons where the cliffs surrounded a shiny blue circle of water. Only the truly insane and desperate could notice it from up here.
The commander of the line of soldiers stepped forward, his face obscured by the skull-like cover at the front of his pronged helmet. "You have nowhere to run," he declared, never lowering his fire-wielding arms in case of any sudden movements from Hiroshu. "Are you going to come quietly? Or should we burn your legs off and carry you back ourselves?" Tyru was smirking behind the bloody sleeve.
"Yeah, sorry about all this. You got me," Hiroshu replied as casually as he could manage. He could feel the cool wind on his charred back. "I'll keep it simple for you guys." He lifted a foot as if preparing to walk obediently towards his captors.
Mom, sorry if I die alone and single today.
Hiroshu turned around and jumped. Tyru's toothless jaw dropped.
Yuhan wished he was back in the freezing Water Tribe. It was hot enough out here to drown in his own sweat, and he'd only had a few nights to rest in his newly refurbished chamber. He trudged behind King Bumi as they walked, who kept stuffing another piece of meat into Yuhan's face every thirty minutes. Yuhan's overfilled stomach gave another lurch with every step, and to make things better, he was the one with the giant sack of supplies tied to his back; the geezer strolled ahead carrying only a single set of blue and white robes in a sparkly purple tote bag.
They'd hiked an impressive distance up the side of the Kolau Mountain Range, which King Bumi called the "next-door mountain" to his city. From up here, one could see the entire network of mail chutes zooming throughout Omashu. Yuhan was worried more about his wobbly legs threatening to buckle under the weight of the giant sack, and whether he'd throw up or break his back first. "Do we...really have to...go to the Lovers' cave?" he wheezed.
"Hm?" replied the royal geezer, completely unfazed by the climb and hot weather. "Who said we're going to a cave?"
"What? But you told me..."
"We're going to go inside the cave!"
"The Grand Lotus loves these kinds of field trips," said King Bumi, his tote bag swinging back and forth with every step. "Good roots are his favorite. The cursed secret-tunnel kind is my personal favorite. I think you'll really like it, too. Let's see what you can dig up!"
"Er, sure." Yuhan didn't even want to know why the king of Omashu was comparing his preferences to a flower's. "And yeah, about that." He glanced nervously at the mountainside next to him. "Well...you know that song, right?"
Any true native of the Earth Kingdom knew the ancient lyrics of 'Secret Tunnel,' which honored the founders of the Cave of Two Lovers. It really emphasized how much they didn't like intruders.
"Which song? Is it about my city?" asked King Bumi. "Or is it the one about the cave with the story about my city?
"Erm – the second one."
"Ooh, 'Secret Tunnel' is a classic!" exclaimed the royal geezer. "That's its name, right?"
"Yeah. That's the one." Yuhan gazed further down the path and noticed a large, curved hole in the mountain with endless black beyond its entrance. The dread made his sweat go cold. "So, about the lyrics...um..."
"Catchy, right?" King Bumi pulled out a green shard of jennamite from his pocket and took a large bite.
"Sure. But the thing is, there's that one line about...dying." The tunnel was drawing nearer and nearer. "Would you happen to know if, uh, people usually die in the Lovers' Cave?"
"Hm..." King Bumi thoughtfully chewed his rock candy. "Nope! I have no idea. But let's find out!" The obnoxious, snorting laugh started again.
Yuhan sighed miserably.
Hiroshu was pretty sure he was dead.
The world mixed together in weird colors that wouldn't stop spinning everywhere. His head hurt just to look at it, and he tried shutting his eyes. The last thing he could remember was this annoying messenger hawk that wouldn't let go of his arm, and he was pretty sure that wasn't what killed him. How did he end up here, exactly?
Something huge and slimy flushed into his mouth along with a sea of thick mud. Hiroshu shot upright as the horrible, rotten mass reached his windpipe and made him choke violently. He hunched over onto his hands and knees, gurgling every combination of foul curse words, his hacking coughs shaking his entire body. His hands kept splashing about wildly for anything to get the filth out of his throat. "GRAGH!" Wheezing more awfully than ever, he balled his fist, grabbed it with other, and slammed them both into his stomach as hard as he could. The slimy obstruction finally sailed out of his throat, and he took in several grateful gulps of air before crawling further into the water to dunk his face.
When he finally spat out the rest of the dirt and stabilized his breathing, Hiroshu looked down at the shallow bank of water surrounding him. The slimy thing was still writhing about. It had originally been hanging on the edge of shore to look for scraps, but the water had crept close enough for one large, muddy wave to wash it straight off the ground earlier...and over his face.
Hiroshu still had no clue where he was or why, but he'd just choked over a giant, purple slime-oozing cabbage slug. His body reacted on its own, suddenly oblivious to any pain as he clenched the abominable creature in his fingers, stood straight up, and hurled it as far out into the lake as possible. It was only when he stood there and watched it sink, chest heaving, bloodshot eyes twitching, that he noticed the reflection of the morning sun atop the glittering water.
A body of water. Hiroshu blinked at the familiar, yet unfamiliar surroundings. He felt like he'd seen something like this very recently. Especially those steep cliffs surrounding the entire lake. The one closest to him had a shattered edge, like something had smashed against it with monstrous claws that dragged a whole pathway of cracks all the way down to the water, desperate to slow the fall...
Hiroshu's legs gave away when it all came back to him, causing him to flop down into the shallow water with a muddy splash. He slowly sat up and turned his face towards the sky. Spirits, he knew what it was like to fall through those clouds. The deceptive fluff was mercilessly cold and felt like it would freeze his blood. Yes, he remembered that part very well.
In his disbelief, the newly retired Dai Li agent burst into a fit of raspy laughter. Something was aching from almost every corner of his body, but he couldn't stop guffawing like a madman and started wheezing again before long.
I just jumped off of an airship. And lived.
Hiroshu's next wheezing laugh sent a stab of pain through his chest that made him cough out a few blood droplets. The joy of living suddenly became a lot less exciting. Especially when he lifted his tattered shirt to discover the hideous blues and violets marking where his rib had fractured. Again. His left shoulder was dislocated. All of his nails – fingers and toes alike – were either cracked or missing, with crimson still seeping from the tips. There was also that excruciating pain coming from the side of his neck. It continued over his shoulder, with raw patches of skin surrounded by blackened edges. It felt like all of his burns had just set back on fire now that he wasn't lying in the cool water.
The worst of the pain concentrated where his upper back met his neck. The raw flesh was caked with dirt, and gnatflys were already starting to buzz around the oozing puss. The person who'd delivered this blow had probably meant to hit his head. The only part of his head they'd actually managed to singe off was – oh, no.
Spirits, don't tell me...
Using his good arm, Hiroshu reached slowly behind his neck, and his eyes went wide with a horror like no other when his fingers couldn't find his long, perfect plait of hair. The queue. The mark of his fashionable Upper Ring culture. For the first time in his life, he couldn't find it.
Hiroshu scrambled past the muddy shallows of the lake for a better look at his reflection. He had to see it with his own eyes to believe it. He was appalled by the braid-less person staring back. The brown hair left behind was singed at the edges with shriveled ends where the fire had scorched off the plait. "M-my...my hair. MY HAIR!" Hiroshu furiously swiped at the surface of the water to dispel the reflection. "Argh! I swear...gonna kill whoever did this...dammit, dammit, dammit..." he muttered repeatedly as he trudged back to shore. Dear Spirits, he'd never thought it possible for him to look worse than Yuhan one day. Hiroshu gazed irritably back up at the clouds.
I just jumped off of an airship...and woke up ugly.
What would his mother say? What would Suyin – well, if she was single and could love men and knew she even existed – say? And...crap, both of those people were in the Earth Kingdom. The real problem finally hit Hiroshu like a pile of bricks to the face.
How in Koh's Realm was he supposed to get back to the Earth Kingdom?
The stories about this famous labyrinth were frightening, but the sight of the entrance alone was more terrifying than all of them combined. It stretched so high above Yuhan's head that he could barely make out the characters spelling out "The Lovers' Cave" in the insignia carved at the top. The massive size of this hole made it pretty easy for anyone to spot, but beyond its entrance was the true 'secret' of the tunnel: an everlasting blackness that revealed nothing aside from the guarantee that Yuhan was about to become part of it.
King Bumi shielded his eyes from the sunlight with a hand as he also looked up at the insignia. "Hey look, we're here! Time really flies when you're having fun." The sound of his voice echoed into the tunnel.
Yuhan was visibly shaking. For him, time only flew if he was trying to avoid his destination. His elemental origin was no place for visitors. Oma and Shu had wanted to be left alone so badly that they figured out how to bend earth into eternally cursed labyrinths. Their efforts were still ridding the world of romantic hazards to this day. Yuhan couldn't think of a quicker way to get himself killed.
"Well, I hope you like 'dark' roots!" piped up the royal geezer. He strolled forward and beckoned to Yuhan with his hand. "Let's –"
"Can we go to a different cave?" Yuhan's voice was higher than usual as he backed away from the pitch-black eternity peering out at him. It felt like the darkness was just daring him to try taking another step and was armed horrors he couldn't see. "I don't think this cave likes me – (ahem) I mean, I don't think I like this cave."
King Bumi bent over and stuck his head in front of Yuhan's to look from the same angle. "Really?" He glanced back and forth between Yuhan and the tunnel. "I'd say you two are already getting along."
"Eh, no we're not –" Yuhan dropped his head with a sigh to stop himself from personifying the cave. "Seriously, do we have to go inside? I think this is enough field-tripping for me, thanks..."
"Master earthbenders never get tired of rocky field trips," King Bumi replied with an actual twinkle in his smaller eye. It somehow made Yuhan crack a sheepish smile. "But I guess it's more boring for skinny pebblebenders from Na Sing Se."
Yuhan dropped his head again with another sigh.
"You know what? Let's sing the Secret Tunnel song. It's too quiet!" The royal geezer began first and stepped into the entrance before Yuhan could stop him. "Two lovers! Forbidden from one another!" His loud, crackly voice was even more cringe-worthy than Iroh's.
Yuhan stayed rooted to the spot.
King Bumi paused and turned around. "You aren't about to let an old man wander into this dark cave all by himself, are you?"
"Hey, I'm not the earthbending master. You'll be fine." It was more of an excuse to stay out, though, since Yuhan still couldn't picture that wrinkly, snorting face on any formidable earthbender. The king hadn't actually demonstrated any bending since they met.
"Don't you have a horrifically tragic lover?" King Bumi called back. "You'll fit right in!"
Yuhan glared back ominously. "Who even told you about my -" He looked down at his bracelet, which was gleaming beneath the sunlight and reflecting off the dark walls in little specks just beyond the tunnel entrance. "What, did you think you could convince me because of that stupid rule about...well."
Only those who believe in love can make it through the cave.
...Dammit. "Hey, I love Riya plenty, okay?" Yuhan declared indignantly to the tunnel. "That doesn't mean I'm about to waltz into some cursed cave –" The golden disk of his bracelet shot a blinding glare into his eye. "Ergh, this isn't the same...thing..."
"Huh? I didn't say anything about a 'Riya,'" King Bumi replied innocently. "What a nice name, though!"
"Of course, it's beautiful," muttered Yuhan. Great, he was pretty much banned from claiming any true feelings for Riya if he was intimidated by this curse.
In the silence, King Bumi looked puzzled. "Did you want to sing with me by any chance? I'm still here, you know."
Yuhan gave a loud sigh as he gripped his bracelet. "You know what...sure. Fine. Why not." He took his first rigid steps towards the darkness, and he had no choice. He loved her, dammit. "Fine. Just fine."
The royal geezer looked quite pleased to see Yuhan making his way closer. "Isn't this fun? Let's start from the beginning!"
Their combined voices sounded very strange together – the snorting, enthusiastic king and the shaky, stuttering young pebblebender. They walked further and further away from the comforts of sunlight.
Two lovers, forbidden from one another
A war divides their people, and a mountain divides them apart
Yuhan tried to ignore the way his footsteps echoed far into the blackness ahead.
Built a path to be together. And...
King Bumi raised a brow. "Hey, why'd you stop?"
The next word hadn't made it out for some reason. Yuhan cleared his throat. "I – yeah, sorry. Er, let's just move onto the chorus."
Secret tunnel! Secret tunnel! Through the mountains! Secret, secret, secret, secret
"- Tunnel!" finished the duo, with an extra loud echo that shot down the real-life tunnel. The melody made it sound a lot friendlier than it actually looked. King Bumi clapped his hands like an entertained child. "Next verse, here we go!"
Yuhan hated to admit it, but this actually did help him pay somewhat less attention to the whole curse thing. Silence was a lot scarier than singing. He chuckled a little and began again. "Two lovers, forbidden from one another..."
"That's the spirit!" chimed in the royal geezer.
"Their love cares not for war, and the mountain protects their love," continued Riya's childhood sweetheart. His shaky, yet determined footsteps continued forward. He was the only one singing. "For their path spares no intruders..." Yuhan paused and stopped walking again, but resolved not to give up. "Who wander endlessly and -" He gritted his chattering teeth to get them to stay still. With the next grip of his bracelet, he mustered just enough romantic courage to hope that the lyrics weren't going to apply to him.
"A-and... And die."
The entire tunnel shook violently. Yuhan gave a terrified yell, thinking that Oma and Shu already hated his singing too much to tolerate him any longer. To his horror, the sunlight streaming in from behind him vanished completely. He turned about wildly, blind and utterly helpless in the dark. "K-King Bumi? Are you there?" Yuhan reached out his arms and groped about for anything to lean on, anything at all to grip for support so that it wasn't just blackness around him. "HEY, are you there? KING BUMI!" he cried out, his voice high and frantic. "Where – ow!" He hit his face on a large stone protruding from an uneven wall.
"Oops, clumsy me!" said a distant, muffled voice from the other side of the rocky barrier.
Yuhan scrambled in the direction of the royal geezer's voice, pressing his face against the part of the wall closest to it. "King Bumi!" he yelled. "Are you alright? What happened?"
"I'm sorry, I had a knot in my back and decided to stretch for a bit, and one of my arms just happened to hit the cave by accident! Oops!" The royal geezer was laughing.
Yuhan could hear the snorts even from in here. "Well, get me out!" he yelled back. "I can't see a thing in here!"
"Actually, I included twenty torches in your pack. You'll need them to appreciate the artwork they've got inside the cave. And oh! Try to get along with any huge, ferocious tunneling beasts you might come across. I hear they like music." King Bumi sounded terribly amused.
The sickening realization hit Yuhan. "You – don't tell me... YOU WERE PLANNING ON TRAPPING ME IN HERE?" The weight of his giant sack was infuriating.
"Well, not necessarily. You could always earthbend yourself back out." The snorting started again.
Yuhan felt at the stone with his hands. He could already sense the earth's refusal to acknowledge his laughable strength. "Oh, come on! Can't you help me out a little?" he called despairingly to the king of Omashu.
"I'd love to, Yuhan, but I'm afraid I'm on a tight schedule. The Grand Lotus invited me to the Penetrable City of Na Sing Se, and I've got less than a month. Can't be late." Again with the stupid flower.
"Wait - Ba Sing Se? You're going to Ba Sing Se?" exclaimed Yuhan with a jolt. "That's where I need to be! What in Koh's Realm are you going there for?"
"Oh, you haven't heard? Fire Lord Ozai's throwing a World-Destroying Comet party, and Na Sing Se is the main event. Wouldn't want to miss it!"
There was a long moment of complete, frozen silence.
"WHAT?" Yuhan's face went white. "Y-you can't mean... SOZIN'S COMET?" All the horror stories about the destruction of the Air Nomads began to run through his head. Oh, dear Spirits, no...Riya was still...
"Yep, that's the one!" King Bumi was so cheery that he might as well have just shared everyday, meaningless gossip. "Anyway, I've really got to get going before –"
"LET ME OUT!" Yuhan's enraged screaming was bouncing off every surface of the tunnel. "YOU BETTER LET ME OUT RIGHT NOW BEFORE I –"
"Sorry, I can barely hear you. Old ears, you know. Think you could earthbend some of these rocks out of the way?"
"ARGH!" Yuhan's fury shot out in several little cracks that traveled up the sides of the tunnel. A flurry of dust and tiny rock debris showered down over him. That was about it. He banged his fists repeatedly against the wall, but to no avail. Only more dust rained over his head. "I SWEAR, WHEN I GET OUT –"
"Nope, still can't hear you. Guess we'll have to catch up another time. See you later, Yuhan of Na Sing Se!"
"NO! COME BACK HERE, YOU STUPID GEEZER! NO! No, no!" Yuhan kicked and clawed and tried anything else he could think of to get the wall to budge, but it remained as solid as ever.
No one was waiting outside for him.
There were a lot of stares in his direction as Hiroshu kept dragging himself into every public place with a Pai Sho corner that he could find. His burns were hideously infected, and he constantly held a hand over his abdomen due to his cracked rib, but he refused help from even the occasional concerned villager. Thankfully, he'd found an old blanket hanging off of a laundry line at some point and wrapped it around himself like a cloak, which helped draw the attention away.
Hiroshu trudged through the next door and eyed the game table in the back of the room immediately. This was the fifth pub, old and dusty and filled with grungy men who chewed tobacco and spat constantly. Not the friendliest-looking place. But a Pai Sho table was a Pai Sho table.
"H-hey there," Hiroshu panted as he approached the pleasant old man sitting behind the large, circular board. "May I have this game?" He didn't know how much longer he could keep up this search. Maybe he should find the most comfortable tree to rest under if this one was no good, and try again tomorrow. If he hadn't died yet.
"Of course," replied the elderly host. "Have a seat." He motioned to the board with a courteous hand. "The guest makes the first move."
Hiroshu collapsed into the chair and slapped forward a palm-sized stone disk he'd been clinging onto the entire day. He'd shaped it as best he could with his fingers, and the petal patterns were recognizable even with the occasional wiggly line. His cracked nails hurt more than ever. "Uh, I sort of lost my lotus tile –" (It was probably still back at the palace in the dumpster along with his retired uniform) "- but this is supposed to be one," he explained sheepishly. "I really like that one, you see. Can I use this for now?"
There was a mysterious smile playing on his opponent's lips. "You favor the White Lotus gambit? Not many still cling to the ancient ways."
Even in his pitiful state, still breathing heavily and full of injuries, Hiroshu grinned. "Those who do can always find a friend."
Earth Kingdom it is.
The moon had risen high into the night sky by now. Several hours had passed since king of Omashu ditched the Cave of Two Lovers, but Yuhan was still hitting one of his fists weakly against the wall inside. "Stupid...geezer..." he was still huffing. Riya's sweet voice began to play from his memories again.
Are you ever coming back? To, you know...visit sometimes?
"I'm trying, Riya!" he replied despairingly to his mental image of her. "I'm trying..." There was hardly any force left behind each bump of his fist. It was really more of a desperate, subconscious inability to stop that kept him here, hunched on his hands and knees. He hadn't even opened his sack of food and supplies yet.
The former agent hated the fact that he'd been better at earthbending while wearing the stupid uniform of a brainwashing psycho. What a sad, sad day. The images of his life beneath Lake Laogai flipped through his memories. Stupid rules. Stupid glowing lamps. Stupid Peace Orators – yeah, "peace" orator, they'd called him. Peace.
Yuhan scowled as he continued hitting the wall. "No war in Ba Sing Se, my ass!"
- I had a lot of trouble putting together this chapter! Almost two straight months of draft-tossing, hair-pulling, and frustrated rage. I'm pretty sure I'll still find things not to like about it right now, but it's the best I got for the moment.
- King Bumi has a distinct kind of crazy in his tone that's really challenging for me personally to write. For that, I'm grateful to and for checking over my various plans/dialogue attempts involving him and for poking me in the right direction.
- gets credit for Iroh's cryptic farewell statements to Yuhan about "I'll see you again" and whatnot. I wasn't sure how to have him subtly refer to the future. Thanks, LL!
- gets credit for the final line in this chapter. I just couldn't get over it once he suggested it during my SHiE-plan rambling xDDD Golden.
- I feel almost weird writing a chapter of such chaotic, comical nature after so much angst, but the break from angst was refreshing! I seriously hope I didn't go overboard with the chaos and randomness, though.
|Silent Hero in Emerald|
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|Professional Illustrations - Minnichi's Drawings - All SHiE Art|
|FanFiction.net Profile - Liberal Ba Sing Se (oneshot) - (oneshot) -|
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