|More from Minnichi||Romance/Angst/Action||PG-13||Very positive|
|Chapter 4 - Recognition (SHiE)|
Summary of the Last Chapter
The two patrol partners beat down a group of drunk, raging members of the Resistance. Though the goal was to stamp out talk of the Fire Nation, a girl who'd been caught in the middle of the conflict is also saved in the process. Yuhan feels rather guilty that he'd been more concerned with shutting up war refugees than her safety...and that's somehow led to his offer to escort her home.
Yuhan had been trying too hard to avoid the gaze of the sleeve-clinging girl earlier to really get a good look at her... Well, he still didn't really want to face her, actually. He was still wondering how he even ended up by her side this late afternoon - after she'd already planned to leave for good.
Okay, so I'm escorting a random girl from the Lower Ring. Not a big deal...hmmm, except for the part about me having three hours of sleep. And the part about me being a Peace Orator who's going to drop dead on the job tonight because he decided to escort a random girl instead of resting. And the part about Long Feng reviving said Peace Orator just to kill him again for dropping dead during a conversion. And the part about annoying agents named Hiroshu who'll laugh at the Peace Orator for the rest of his life.
...NOPE, not a big deal at all!
Despite his decreasingly sane train of thought, Yuhan couldn't help stealing a few glances at the quiet young woman from beneath his hat whenever she looked away from him. She smiled both shyly and sweetly whenever they spoke, he could tell just from her voice - and no matter how terribly hard he tried to ignore it, Yuhan had to admit that she looked quite...
Her long, auburn-brown hair was completely free of any accessories, flowing down over her shoulders like silk and parted slightly to the side with a few tresses floating about her face. Her soft eyes were a light hazel, always bright and glowing as if hiding some distant hope or dream. They complimented her fair skin very nicely, which was on the lighter side in a nice healthy way, not a sun-deprived Yuhan way, and she had the slightest flush around the cheeks...
Yuhan was ready to slap himself in the face for paying too much attention to this. He already knew that Hiroshu would accuse him of calling any woman "lovely" due to his being stuck among only other agents or creepy Joo Dee's almost every night. He was also aware that his tastes may have been crippled by now; those 203 conversions could've gotten to his head over the years. Still, it wasn't as if he'd never been into the city before. There were plenty of other useless errands for Long Feng besides fetching tea...not to mention the sleep-deprived agent preferred to believe in his own sanity, mind you. Sneaking another glance at her just to make sure, though, it occurred to Yuhan that the young woman was questionably thin - most likely due to the common lack of any full meals in the Lower Ring. But even that didn't do much to deter from the rest of her charming features, which seemed to create a strange and innocent kind of beauty overall. Yuhan felt quite sure of his judgment as he smiled back down at this girl - and the fact that he'd just admitted it to himself horrified him immensely.
The rays of the red, setting sun flashed upon the two in fragments as they walked beneath the long, shabby lines of clothing strewn about the crumbly buildings. Yuhan finally gave up questioning his random decision to escort the girl, choosing to try making the most out of the situation instead. His thoughts drifted back to the angry mob from earlier. "So how'd you end up becoming such a big fan of the Dai Li, anyway?" he asked, hiding stubbornly behind the brim of his hat. "I was surprised to see you taking on four big and angry guys back at that shop." It was hard to believe he was talking to the same person he'd met at the shop, actually. She was as shy as he was awkward, always hesitated a few seconds before speaking, and constantly cupped a hand over her mouth whenever she laughed...which only made it quieter than it already was.
"Well..." she began softly. "There're certain things I find really cruel and unfair of people to say about others, a-and when it happens I tend to spit out what's on my mind without really thinking." She smiled embarrassedly, fiddling with one of her long strands of hair as she walked. "I really admire you guys for your work, and I see you help out all the time," she continued. "I don't know why so many of my neighbors always complain."
Yuhan was silent for a few seconds. Her neighbors are probably refugees... "What exactly have they been saying about me – er, the Dai Li?" he quickly asked before she could sense his discomfort.
The girl's eyes set on fire so quickly that a terrified Yuhan subconsciously stepped to the side to widen the gap between them. "Lots of horrible things!" she scowled, her tone having changed into something monstrous. Yuhan stared back. He definitely had to avoid her bad side at all costs. "Things like being the Earth King's puppeteers, killing people you don't like, a crazy war conspiracy..." The girl threw her up her hands with exasperation and might have hit Yuhan's face by accident had he not shuffled far enough already. "And for some reason, a bunch of people believe this ridiculous idea about you guys being able to control minds or something! Really, how old are they, five?"
Yuhan barely managed to choke out a hard, unnatural laugh. "Heheh...wow, that is pretty crazy. I had no idea." Um yeah, I only brainwash people every night. "But I'm surprised you don't believe them even when they all live around you," he somehow managed to say casually. "Why's that?"
"I've lived here all my life," replied the young woman, still cross. "Pretty much all my neighbors came from somewhere outside the walls, so they don't have any right to act like they know everything here. I think it's safe for me to say I can judge my own city better than them," she added righteously. Yuhan coughed uncomfortably. "And like I said, I've seen you guys protecting us," declared the clueless girl. "Like how you saved me today!"
Yuhan's gaze suddenly fell upon the ground. The other agents, like him, were only protecting the secret of the war with the Fire Nation. It wouldn't have mattered to them if she was saved or not, so long as those men were shut up. Something inside began to ache, and Yuhan found it difficult to ignore. "Oh...I see."
The two continued their walk in silence through the narrow dirt road between the little houses, which grew tinier and tinier as they moved further. Both of them seemed to be unsure of how to carry a conversation with one another.
Sighing, Yuhan decided that he should at least try making things less awkward. "...You know, I used to live down here too." It was the only thing he could think of saying. He supposed it couldn't hurt if she knew, anyhow.
Apparently, it mattered. The young woman instantly jerked her head up to stare back at Yuhan, whose eyes were still protected under the brim of his hat. "Really?" she asked incredulously.
Yuhan chuckled lightly at the completely bewildered sound of her voice. "Hey, the Dai Li can come from anywhere!" he replied, a little more relaxed. "I was just a dinky poor kid who liked to play with rocks a lot, until I decided one day that I wanted to get out of here and do something more useful." He was taken aback when the girl suddenly looked down. "Oh – not that I didn't like it here or anything, sorry," he quickly threw in. "I lived with my parents in a cozy little shop a few blocks from here – well, they're in the Upper Ring now, and yeah I mean, you know -" The young woman began to smile for a reason that only the Spirits knew. "- but anyway," he frantically rambled on, "I didn't mean for it to come out like that. It was just one of those times when a boy suddenly wants to see everything the world has to offer, and you know how it –"
The girl laughed again, cupping her hand as always. "No no, I'm sorry. I wasn't offended at all! The way you talk, you just...remind me of a friend I used to have long ago."
"He was one of my only friends, too," the girl went on, completely forgetting about the agent next to her as her eyes grew distant. "He was always playing earth soccer with his friends down the street, and he'd always beat them too easily. His parents were both scary eartbenders, but I think that's how he got so good at it. They were really kind to me, though."
For any other person, Yuhan would have gotten a little disturbed at how long someone could talk to themselves. But for this girl, this strange auburn-haired girl, he found himself frozen to the spot, his eyes widening as the details of her story - one that he knew - filled the air.
"He always rambled about the day he would surely make it all the way to the Upper Ring, to make a difference with his earthbending, to save people and stuff - he was still upset from losing several of his friends to the plague, poor thing..."
Yuhan's head began to feel a little faint. Was he kidding himself?
"So he got really excited when he heard about the Dai Li. They were his idols, and they had all the power to change things," the girl went on, slowing her pace down with the agent. She wasn't even considering why he'd stopped walking. "Well, I don't know how the Dai Li chooses its members, but I sometimes imagine that he's one of them right now. I guess I have to admit that the idea makes me more angry when people insult them..." Her voice trailed away. She suddenly seemed to be aware of her surroundings again, coming to with a jolt. "Oh, I'm so sorry! This is probably boring you to death." She turned her eyes away embarrassedly.
Yuhan didn't answer. He stood unnaturally still, completely rooted to the spot. The silence dragged between the two for several seconds, though the girl was lost in her memories again before long and didn't notice.
How'd you make that badgermole? Maybe you can teach me how to Woodbend, and I can teach you how to Earthbend.
...Woodbend? You mean carving?
Yeah yeah, that!
Um, I don't think I can move rocks like you, but okay! It's easy.
Well, so's Earthbending!
"Did you ever find out what happened to this friend of yours?" Yuhan finally mumbled, his voice almost inaudible.
"Oh, I really don't know. I had to move to another division of the Lower Ring. I think I got sick and was transferred to better facilities, I don't remember much, but my parents passed away from the plague around that time," the young woman replied quietly. "It was so long ago...I was only about seven or eight. But I really do hope this...this special friend of mine made it through in the end." She smiled sadly. "I remember him so well."
"Was his name...Yuhan, by any chance?"
The girl stopped blinking as her entire body went still. After what had to be years, she began to turn around astonishingly slow. Finally, she was looking closely into the face beneath the pointed hat for the first time. "Why do you ask?" she whispered, not daring to believe it.
"Because..." the Dai Li agent whispered back. "I once knew a lonely girl that none of my buddies ever let onto our soccer field since she was a non-bender. But life isn't all about soccer, you know. I thought she was pretty cool." The young woman looked like she'd stopped breathing altogether as she stared into his eyes. "She looked kind of like a boy because of her crazy afro, and I thought that was funny," Yuhan continued, a smile slowly stretching across his face. "Then one day she disappeared, and I never knew why. I never forgot about her, either. Her name was...Riya." He couldn't help but grin when the girl's eyes widened twice their size and when both of her hands flew up over her mouth, failing to silence the gasp that shook her whole body.
"YUHAN! YOU DID MAKE IT!" Riya jumped forward and threw her arms around him, her small body colliding against his. Yuhan was stunned for a moment as his hat flew backwards, the silk sash pulling on his neck. Before he could even respond, however, the girl suddenly realized what she'd just done and quickly jumped back, her face a deep scarlet. The agent scratched the back of his neck awkwardly, his face also reddening. Both of them struggled for a brief moment to adjust as the past slammed into the present. Afro Girl had just hugged Soccer Boy. Or rather, Riya of the Lower Ring - who was suddenly a very pretty girl, had just embraced Agent Yuhan Tsen of the Dai Li - who was suddenly a whole head taller than her.
Still, the two were ecstatic about their discovery. Yuhan didn't bother to fix his hat.
"Your eyes – WHY didn't I recognize your eyes?" Riya exclaimed, her hands waving about wildly. She'd thrown all her shyness out the window. "Wait - you were covering them with that stupid hat this whole time! Way to go!"
"Well hey, that's what Long Feng – he's head of the Dai Li – always tells us to do!"
"But why didn't you say anything? You were just going to let us go on like that while I kept rambling about you?"
"I didn't know who you were, either! Your eyes were completely covered by that huge afro back then!" Yuhan ruffled the top of her hair, finding her annoyance at their vast differences in height very amusing.
"Hey, are you saying that was a bad thing?" Riya shot back, playfully hitting his arm out of the way.
"No, of course not! Afros looked totally cool to me when I was a kid. I actually wished my hair could stand up like that for a while -"
"SURE you did, Agent Tsen."
"You accusing me of lying, Ma'am?"
The two long-lost companions were laughing in disbelief and childishly prodding each other for the rest of the trip. It was a random, crazy, and wonderful end to the day. Best escort ever, if Yuhan could say so himself. His sunny past (literally, too) had been gathering dust for so long that it brought a permanent smile to his face upon its return. Hiroshu wouldn't have recognized him.
Yuhan and Riya were both a little disappointed when her tiny house seemed to appear suddenly before them. It was a dusty, rectangular shack with antermite-eaten walls, layered and patched up numerous times with a variety of scrap wood - most likely by Riya herself. Yuhan felt a sharp pang when he realized that this rickety shelter was hers. She'd never left this dirty, humble patch of Ba Sing Se in her life. She'd even lost her parents, whom he'd painfully known well. How his life had turned out so drastically different...
Riya set aside the door – a single wooden board propped against a hole in the wall – and turned to face her childhood sweetheart, smiling even brighter than she had when he'd rescued her back at the tea shop. "Yuhan...I still can't believe I'm talking to you right now," she said breathlessly. She glanced at the shining emblem on his elegant robe, then at the rough patches holding her frayed dress together. "You've really come so far..." she continued softly. "That uniform suits you perfectly - I'm so happy for you!"
Yuhan shifted uncomfortably. "Ah, it's nothing much," he replied dismissively, trying to change the subject. "I can't believe we're here, either! And I didn't know that Afro-Girl had grown into such a..." His face suddenly felt very warm. "Such a...um...nice...woman."
...This is bad. Yuhan was blushing madly. Riya beamed. "A-Anyway, do you live here alone?" he hastily added, praying that she didn't notice.
For the first time that day, her eyes filled with sorrow. It seemed like the life had been drained out of them within seconds. Yuhan was taken aback immediately. He quickly began to apologize, but Riya stopped him. "When my parents died, a kind couple who'd just moved in from a nearby city took me in." She took a deep breath. "But, it was around 6 or 7 years ago...w-when I was 12, some Dai Li agents showed up one day and told me that - that my foster parents had passed away too. My whole street had suffered the earthquake, but only they weren't found. I never knew why." Her eyes became cloudy and downcast. "Ever since then, I've been getting by on my own. My house does feel a little empty sometimes, b-but it's not so bad, you know! My neighbors are kind, and we're all like family," she quickly finished with a smile, though she failed to meet Yuhan's gaze.
Yuhan could feel the dread slowly creeping over his entire body like ice. "I'm so sorry to hear that..." he said quietly. "I shouldn't have asked." He couldn't stop his next words from spilling out. "If you don't mind, though... Can you tell me your foster parents' names? Maybe I know some details about what happened to them." Spirits, please tell me I don't know any details...
Riya lifted her face back up, her eyes widening. "Really? That would mean so much to me! Their names are Liu and Mina. Does that sound familiar at all?" She looked so hopeful that it hurt.
Yuhan felt something in his heart crumble away and die. "N-no, I don't think I've ever heard of them. I'm sorry that I'm pretty useless here, Riya," he sighed, his eyes dropping as he finished his sentence.
I pass their cell every morning.
"Oh, don't feel bad about anything, Yuhan!" Riya replied cheerily, straining to hide the disappointment on her face. "I never really knew much about them, either. They didn't tell me anything about where they came from or how they ended up here in Ba Sing Se... They told me they just wanted to start a new life."
That must have been hard for them... Of course she wouldn't know about anything in the Dai Li headquarters. Yuhan found himself avoiding her gaze again, turning instead to observe the remaining amount of sun sinking into the horizon. He suddenly jolted. A strict, intimidating voice raced through his head. "Be back at headquarters by sundown. I have much need of your assistance tonight. There will be absolutely no exceptions for any delay."
Riya noticed his sudden change in demeanor. "Yuhan, what's wrong?"
Yuhan's shoulders lifted and fell hard as he heaved a sigh. "I'm sorry, Riya. Head of the Dai Li said that I have to be back at work pretty soon. I just forgot about it until now. I should go."
"Oh - it's okay, Yuhan. You've got a big job to do." Riya sounded worried, as if they were about to lose touch for another ten years. "Will you be back?" she asked gently. "If you get a chance to visit, we can...you know, spend more time..." The rest of the sentence was too quiet to make out as she fiddled with her hair.
Something unnatural threatened to take hold of Yuhan. His adherence to the strict code of the Dai Li lived inside of his subconscious, automatically rejecting anything that strayed from his duties. Peace Orators could not harbor emotional attachments. They merely observed, analyzed, and deconstructed them in the conversion chamber. "I may or may not pass by here again. You may or may not see me around," Yuhan replied dully to Riya. "I wouldn't...count on..." His voice wavered as he watched her smile fade away. For some reason, he remembered how tightly she'd embraced him earlier. All this time, she'd been hoping that his old dream of becoming a Dai Li agent had come true. Well, here he was, a brainwashing drone who apparently didn't care if he ever saw her again... Oh, screw duties. He knew it was a lie. "Argh - what am I even saying?" Yuhan exclaimed. "Of course I'll come visit you!"
Riya was still taken aback by the coldness he'd expressed earlier, and she seemed even more confused by his sudden enthusiasm. But his silly, if not sheepish smile eased her spirits. She crossed her arms with a playful suspicion. "Do you mean it, Agent Tsen?"
"Yes, Ma'am. On my honor." Yuhan bowed graciously as she laughed. "And if you ever want to find me, all you have to do is look for..." He paused. Look for the same pointy hat and uniform that EVERY Dai Li agent wears? He slapped his forehead with a painful clang from his earthen glove. "Well, you'll recognize me! I think. I hope."
Riya smiled ever so softly. "Yes, I will... You're not the kind of person I could forget." As she gazed up at him, Yuhan considered punching himself in the gut to kill the thing that was suddenly fluttering around in it. "Your eyes look a little tired, but they're the same as I remember. They match your uniform, actually." Wait, I even look like my brainwashing outfit? "It's such a pretty green..." Riya's cheeks flushed pink when Yuhan curiously began to examine one of his sleeves. "Hey - I think you're the only agent I've ever seen without a long hair braid!" she suddenly added, shifting her gaze shyly away from his eyes. "That'll be easy for me to spot."
"Oh, you noticed? Heh..." Yuhan scratched at the black, untidy mess covering the back of his head. He still held a grudge against the queue. The tail-like braid hadn't been an obligated style in the Lower Ring, where most people were refugees from several cultures. Yuhan was unaware of its iconic presence in Ba Sing Se until his family was relocated to the Upper Ring per his induction into the Dai Li. He'd tried to match the other agents at first by growing out his own braid, but that thing was a curse as soon as it got caught in a carriage door that dragged him across the ground when the ostrich horse took off. Hiroshu's laughter spread throughout the whole organization and ruined his image for years; Yuhan made sure that his hair would never grow past his neck again. His finger got caught into a tangle as he replied, "Well, there you have it, then! Look for the no-braid guy in a pointy hat. I'll see you around, Riya! Thanks for actually remembering me - er, I mean it's been a pleasure." Yuhan quickly rushed off before he could embarrass himself further.
"It's wonderful to see you again! Thank you for escorting me!" Riya called out behind him, waving and smiling.
"Anytime!" Yuhan returned a quick smile over his shoulder, turning the corner of the road and disappearing behind the dirty buildings.
Yuhan straightened up his hat as he ran back across the dusty paths. Okay, now he really regretted putting off his duties. Long Feng was going to kill him. How did I end up spending another five minutes to say BYE to her? I'm so dead when I reach headquarters...He silently begged the sun to stay above the horizon for just a bit longer.
Fortunately, a local carriage - one of the last ones this late - was passing through the same road as Yuhan. It was definitely far from acceptable to Joo Dee, who would scold him for not only using a peasant's carriage but for even bringing them close to the headquarters location, but he honestly didn't care right now, especially not with his certain death looming.
Yuhan raced after the crooked wooden wheels. "Hey! Stop!" he yelled.
The peasant steering the ostrich horse was an elderly man in a loose, sleeveless dirty brown tunic. He brushed some silver hairs aside with a bony arm, turning and squinting his eyes to identify the voice. To his horror, it was a random Dai Li agent chasing him, and it looked exactly like an arrest in the making. The horrified man cracked his whip, causing the carriage to lurch forward even faster.
"No, come back!" Yuhan wheezed as he struggled to keep up. "I need a ride!"
The carriage came to a screeching halt. The peasant stared in disbelief as Yuhan caught up to him, gasping for breath. The Dai Li usually never even bothered to look at the run-down carriages of the Lower Ring. They always paid the finest drivers of the Upper Ring instead. And yet...
"Thank you so much! Here's - okay here, five gold pieces, that's all I got. Please take me to the Inner Wall as fast as you can, at the tourist entrance to Lake Laogai! ...Er, I have a beach party that I'm totally going to be late for!"
Five gold pieces was ten times the actual price.
The peasant took the shining currency into his fingers with awe. He continued staring at them in his hands as Yuhan jumped into the carriage.
The sun had just disappeared into the night when Yuhan thanked the driver and shook his hand. The peasant rode off, holding tightly onto his pouch of newfound fortune as his brown eyes glowed mysteriously. Maybe some guys in the Dai Li aren't actually that bad...
Yuhan waited until the carriage had gone far from sight before waving his arms to carve his own entrance into the Inner Wall. He stumbled through the chambers, ignoring a protesting Joo Dee as he clambered out the other side, and frantically stamped the ground to raise the tunnel above the water. He sprinted along the pathway before all of the water had even left it, splashing noisily, but he somehow managed to reach the Grand Secretariat's office a minute later. Sweat was dripping into his eyes as he panted heavily.
The vast room was surrounded with towering bookshelves, each elaborately carved with various symbols of the Earth Kingdom and stuffed with scrolls detailing the lives of every citizen in Ba Sing Se. Long Feng was examining one of these scrolls before turning from behind his polished ebony desk, also carved with utmost detail.
"Good evening, Yuhan. You're just in time." Long Feng's lips twisted into a smile while his eyes remained expressionless.
Yuhan bowed low, still struggling to steady his breathing. "What can I do for you, sir?" he huffed.
"Congratulations, you've just been nominated by your fellow agents to be Peace Orator again! Today's group is terribly rowdy, so be sure to apply any necessary restraints before you begin. After you finish, I want you to take this letter to His Highness. I can only trust you alone to deliver this crucial information. That is all."
Yuhan took the embroidered letter into his stony hands and tucked it securely into his sleeve. "I will notify you immediately when I return from the palace. Have a good evening, sir." Long Feng simply turned back around to his desk.
As soon as he'd bowed himself out of the door, Yuhan slumped down miserably against a wall. The trip to the palace and back was going to take at least five hours this late at night, considering how long it had taken him last time to find out which of the fifty bedrooms King Kuei had decided to sleep in. He couldn't ask anyone for directions because the location was deliberately kept vague from even the outer guards to make it difficult for assassins. And the only agents in the palace were guarding the chosen bedroom! Curses!
Yuhan dropped his head to rest his weary eyes for a moment. He quickly picked himself back up, however, fearing that Long Feng might suddenly barge out from his office and see him sitting here. Groaning, he started pacing towards an all-too-familiar conversion chamber, trying to think of anything in the world other than the nonexistent sleep he'd have to endure once more. Riya's gentle face suddenly appeared in his mind's eye.
Author's Comments and Trivia
- Finally mustered enough courage to try reproducing my two OC's in the sketchbook this chapter! It feels like arriku's perfection of the character designs is something godly that should never be touched. But I tried! xD And I discovered that I HATE FOLDS. Clothing folds! Argh! I can't decide which was harder to do, Yuhan's weird hair/eyes or those folds. But I tried. xD
- I type everything on Word before pasting it here, but it somehow misses the italics every time >_> So I always have to go back and redo it every chapter. Posting takes a while!
- This chapter went through another revision sweep through as of January 18, 2016.
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