|More from Minnichi||Romance/Angst/Action||PG-13||Very positive|
|Chapter 8 - Subtle Messages (SHiE)|
Summary of the Last Chapter
The old man who constantly haunt's Yuhan's memories seems to have taken on another level of nightmares. The agent already starts off the day badly because of this, and Long Feng decided to order a complicated brainwashing on a rebel named Jet on top of that. Hiroshu notices his partner's hesitation and offers to take over the job instead. Yuhan ends up spending the day with Riya instead of following Long Feng's orders.
To our precious and most beloved Yuhan:
We met your friend Hiroshu while we were out shopping today. That boy has quite a character! Why don't you tell him to come over for dinner more often? We hardly see any of you these days! Anyway, your father and I also wanted to address how you rarely write back to us. We're worried about you. We only recently learned from Hiroshu that Long Feng keeps you occupied since you're one of the MOST REVERED AGENTS in the entire organization! Why would you keep something like that from us? You could've at least sent us a little note about it, or told one of the agents in the city to keep us updated. Hannie, we know how you love to be so shy and modest, but as your parents we need to know how you're doing away from home. It makes us so proud and overjoyed to hear that you're serving our city so well!
Speaking of telling us things, Yuhan...can you imagine how shocked we were when we found out that you're SEEING someone? I can't believe you would wait for your friend to tell us such wonderful news! You should've taken her to see us immediately! Hiroshu was kind enough to give us all the details, though. Your father and I remember Riya very well. Such a sweet little girl she was. I didn't know she was still living in the Lower Ring. Though your father was concerned at first about her rather unique appearance, Hiroshu assures us that she's become quite a beauty. Whether that's true or not, I couldn't be more proud of my little boy. You've grown into such a handsome, respectable young man, and I'm certain that you made the right decision. Even with all that in mind, however, you still must take her to meet us! It would be terribly rude and improper of you to do otherwise. I would simply LOVE to see the gorgeous young woman that your childhood companion has become. Tell her to join Hiroshu for dinner! Oh, he's already agreed to meet us a week from now, by the way. He even arranged for one of your fellow agents to fill in for you during that time. You're so lucky to have such a kind, thoughtful friend!
We're so excited to see you again after so many months! Your father and I have been waiting for this special day for as long as we can remember. We were almost worried that you'd always be too focused on your career – our little Hannie has really pulled through! We're so proud of you. Until dinner, then! Keep protecting Ba Sing Se, stay healthy, fix your hair, and be safe! Love you lots! And please write back this time!
With Hugs and Kisses,
Mommy and Daddy
"Hiroshu...I am THIS close to murdering you!"
Yuhan's partner ducked away, laughing as a clenched rock fist whizzed past his head. He almost fell to the ground when the glove came flying back, barely brushing the tip of his ear before re-encasing around Yuhan's left hand. The small, gold-embossed letter was still clasped in his right hand, on the verge of crumpling. Hiroshu had proudly delivered it himself.
"What's wrong, Hannie?" Hiroshu snickered. The glove shot back out and knocked over his hat. "Your parents just wanted to meet your - OW! (His jaw was hit) HEY! I'm doing you a favor here!"
"Oh? Are you sure you weren't just trying to mooch off my parents' food like always?" Another fist flung into Hiroshu's direction.
"Positive! And as much of an amazing cook your mom is, I thought that it's about time that Riya – stop shooting that at me! – should finally be introduced to your family!" Hiroshu managed to catch the rock fist in his own hands this time, struggling to keep it still.
"I'll decide when Riya meets my family, mind you! Why do you always feel the need to be...everywhere? It's getting really annoying!" The stone fingers wrenched free from Hiroshu and finally settled back around Yuhan's hand permanently (or so his partner hoped).
"I didn't follow your parents, okay? They saw me first when I was out buying lychee nuts. I was just as shocked as they were when it turned out that you didn't even tell them about your girlfriend! And then the dinner thing just...happened. Really!"
Yuhan miserably turned his back to his partner and stared straight into the sky, despite the blinding early morning sun. "This is brilliant...just brilliant..." he kept muttering.
"Yeah, it IS brilliant!" Hiroshu piped in cheerily. "You see, nothing ever happens between you two. It's such a boring relationship most of the time!"
"Boring...what?" The sudden and terrifying change in Yuhan's expression caused Hiroshu to take a step backwards.
"No! I mean, you two are just so...I can't explain it! It's this happy-dandy, cutsie shy, non-aggressive dullness all the time!" Hiroshu exclaimed, eyeing his partner's glove cautiously.
"Happy and not aggressive...you're saying that's bad thing?"
"No, not a bad thing! A good thing! But..." Hiroshu hesitated as the stone plates covering his partner's hand began shifting again.
"But?" Yuhan's gloomy eye shadows only seemed to worsen his intimidating expression.
"The way things are set up just makes it so...uneventful!" Hiroshu continued boldly. "She's this super shy, nice, and randomly hot girl that's crazy about you (Yuhan slapped a hand over his own face) while you're the quiet, Mr. Nice-Guy type who just happens to be a super secret agent. When you put the two together...both of you are like a couple from one of those cheesy stories my mom used to read to me! It's just so dull because you have no problems to work over. And you're both too shy and afraid to do anything interesting on your own!"
"Well, there are some problems..." Yuhan thought glumly of the cell between Ground Corridors 2 and 3.
"Obviously not important enough!" Hiroshu brushed the statement aside. "What I'm saying is that you need to step it up, man! Bring her to meet your parents – wait, I already set that up – or give her something special! You've been doing the same thing for weeks!" He was relieved to see his partner lower his fist (though reluctantly).
"...You really think I should?" The anger had subsided into something that Hiroshu found quite amusing. "I mean, I still feel perfectly fine around her and she seems happy too, but if you say so...I don't know..." Yuhan twiddled his stone-covered fingers around nervously.
"Of course I say so, buddy! Nothing can go wrong with a little extra romantic zing! Just – wait, did that guy just mention the Fire Nation?" In the blink of an eye, Hiroshu was suddenly running off in the direction of a little huddled group they'd just passed. Sure enough, the forbidden words rang loudly through the air.
Yuhan stopped for a minute, lost in his own thoughts. What in the world was Hiroshu's definition of 'extra romantic zing?'
Get her something special...
He finally had an idea. He'd seen it work beautifully many times with other girls. Well...Riya wasn't quite like the other girls, though. But Yuhan was still willing to try. He finally remembered his duty and sprinted after his partner, smiling to himself.
After all, nothing can go wrong, right?
~-~-~-~ 2 Days Later ~-~-~-~
It was late sunset when Yuhan dragged himself towards a familiar little house in the Lower Ring, covered in soot and wheezing awfully. He practically slapped the back of his hand against the door when he knocked and accidently left a black mark on the wood from the soot between his fingers.
The door slid open. "Yuhan! I'm so glad that you – what happened to you?" Riya watched in horror as he trudged past her and tumbled down into a chair in the kitchen. She rushed over at once. "Yuhan? Yuhan! What happened?" Riya frantically shook his shoulders while his head hung drowsily. The soot rubbed off of his robe and stained her hands. "Did you get burned? And why is it all over you? Answer me!"
"Ha...ha...no, I didn't get burned," the Dai Li agent finally huffed back, "but I got pretty close to it...heh. Totally...worth it..."
Riya had no idea what in the world was going through his head. She pulled out a small towel and tenderly started wiping some of the soot off his face. "Shhh shhh, just rest for a minute. You sound delirious! Do you need some water?"
Yuhan suddenly reached up and grabbed her wrist with a bizarre smile. Riya almost thought he'd gone crazy, but there was something about his eyes that made her heart flutter. "No. I don't want anything right now. I...I have something for you. It sounded a lot easier before I actually went up there, but...well, here!"
The girl's eyes quickly diverted to the sudden movement behind the agent's back. She hadn't noticed that Yuhan had kept an arm hidden this whole time. He swung it out before her face with a triumphant grin. Clutched in his black, dusty fingers were a small bunch of strange, black and white flowers with long, curling petals. They had been tied together hastily in a small handkerchief and a bright green ribbon.
"Oh...wow." Her smudged hand covered her mouth as she smiled. "These are beautiful, Yuhan." Riya bent forward and gave him a quick embrace, getting even more soot on herself. She quickly stood back up, placing her hands slightly on her hips. "But that doesn't explain the ashes. I'm still worried about you! What have you done?"
The Dai Li agent's face dropped when he realized that the girl had no clue what the flowers were. He suddenly noticed that his lungs ached and that his eyes were full of dust. The smile left as quickly as it came. "What...you mean...you've never seen one before? Or heard of these?"
Riya stared blankly at the black and white petals. "Um...this is the first time I've seen flowers like those. They're really beautiful, but I don't know..." She noticed the discouraged agent deflating against his chair. "I'm so sorry, Yuhan!" she gasped. "I've never heard anything about these!"
Yuhan looked like he was going to melt away into the floor. Now his arm seemed to weigh five tons as it strained to uphold the flowers. "Riya...they're called panda lilies. They, er...only grow around places like...volcanoes. And stuff. So, I kind of visited one..."
"You went into a volcano to get me flowers?" Riya screeched, jumping back. "I-I don't need anything like those! You went and almost got yourself killed!" She was already tearing up even thinking about the idea of him dying.
Shoot...should've remembered she's extra sensitive about close people doing anything life-threatening.
"Riya...please! Come on, I didn't almost get myself killed!" Yuhan tried to reach towards her in vain as she continued to back away from him in horror. "I'm an Earthbender – and a Dai Li agent! A volcano would never scare me. Look at me! I'd be perfectly clean and healthy right now if that stupid hill didn't start smoking up right when I reached...Oh boy." Yuhan immediately wished he'd kept his mouth shut.
Riya was staggering against the wall as she let out a small squeak. "It was...an erupting volcano?" Right when it seemed like she would faint however, she suddenly marched over to the agent with a terrifying pace. "I don't care about flowers!" She was shaking his shoulders violently this time. "I care about you! And you...you...!" Her eyes seemed like they were about to burn holes right through the little bundle in his hand.
"No, you don't get it...these flowers...are...different!" Yuhan's voice came out despairingly as Riya snatched up the panda lilies and threw them onto the floor. He jumped to his feet, coughing out more ashes. "It's been a tradition for ages! When you give someone a panda lily, it means that...that..." His voice suddenly trailed off as he looked away embarrassingly.
The restless girl was still too distraught that Yuhan had almost gotten himself burned to death, but she forced herself to calm down. Though Riya knew nothing about the flowers, she began to feel guilty. Her boyfriend had climbed into a steaming volcano just to pick them, for crying out loud. "You didn't have to get me anything." She gazed lovingly into his eyes. "Whatever the meaning is, I'm just thankful that you were able to come back...alive." Riya swung her arms around him and leaned hard into his chest, soot and all. The familiar warmth reminded her that he was alive and well, and it felt comforting.
Yuhan sighed as he stroked the back of her hair. "I know...but I wanted to anyway. Let's just say that panda lilies are only given to someone special. Someone really special. So when I heard that they were growing on a volcano nearby, I thought I'd give them to, you know..." he sighed again. Hiroshu would've handled this so much better...
Riya looked up at him and smiled, her hazel eyes growing gentle again. "Oh, Yuhan...I don't need panda lilies in order to feel special." She leaned forward and gave him a warm kiss. Yuhan returned it tenderly, though his disappointment was still evident. The panda lilies remained ignored on the ground.
"You taste like smoke!" Riya laughed. "Here, let me see your robes – I'll clean them for you. Oh, and your hat too. Go wash off your face!"
Yuhan sat glumly, leaning over the kitchen table in a plain green tunic and white trousers. He was turning over the little bunch of panda lilies indifferently with his hand while Riya was cheerfully scrubbing the soot off his uniform in a corner. He'd had a few weeks of peace from his duties at headquarters ever since Jet had been brainwashed. The boy somehow still hadn't run into the Avatar yet. It was the perfect time to leave in search of the flowers. But in the end..."I don't need panda lilies in order to feel special." Yuhan dropped his forehead onto the table. It's a little more than just telling you that you're special, Riya...
A dreadfully familiar clinking of metal interrupted his thoughts. He didn't even need to look in order to know what Riya was going to ask.
"Yuhan, there's a whole bunch of chains in your sleeves! Are they supposed to be there?" The girl lifted a long, soapy chain to her face with interest. She soon noticed the wide, silver cuff attached to the end and examined it curiously. "Ohhh, this must be for catching criminals...Don't all the chains get heavy though?" There was no answer.
"Yuhan? Are you tired again?" Riya looked over at the table and noticed the Dai Li agent gazing forlornly out the window in some deep, depressing thought. "Hey, don't be sad about the flowers. I really do love them. I was just worried when I found out how you got them...Yuhan?" He still didn't answer.
Riya put down Yuhan's uniform and went over to sit by him. When he shifted his gaze to her, there were traces of something in his eyes that she had never seen before: anguish and confusion. "Hey..." he whispered.
"Yuhan, do you want to tell me something?" Riya reached over and gently took his hand. For some reason, the gesture seemed to have an opposite effect. His expression became extremely pained, and he looked away while his hand remained limp beneath hers. Riya felt her heart sink. She turned his face back towards her own, despite his distant eyes. "Yuhan...if there's anything I can do..."
"No, don't worry about it. Things are really complicated these days...but it's not your fault so don't worry. You know, being part of the Dai Li..." his voice cracked as he finally looked into her eyes. "It's not always as great as you think."
Riya couldn't find the words to comfort him. There was just something so deep and so dark about his sorrow...it felt almost as if there was something she would never understand. She slowly leaned against his shoulder, feeling hopeless. Though he responded, his head seemed to hang even lower as his arm tightened around her own shoulder. They stayed in the same somber position in what seemed like eternity, neither of them uttering a word.
Out of nowhere, Riya broke away from Yuhan and eagerly jumped to her feet. He stared back, bewildered. "I-I have something for you too! I almost forgot. Maybe...maybe it'll make you feel better!"
The girl had already disappeared into her bedroom. She bolted back out within seconds, carrying an old but elegantly carved wooden box.
"That's...for me?" The box could barely fill the space in Yuhan's palm as Riya excitedly pulled out his hand, placing the little gift between his fingers. He took a look at her anxious eyes, cautiously lifting the lid. "Oh, it's a bracelet..." Yuhan tried his best to look excited. Men wearing fancy bracelets...the idea didn't fascinate him at all. Still, he simply didn't have the heart to disappoint Riya. She was still bubbling up with excitement as he picked up the bracelet and examined it closely. "Er, this sure has a cool and intricate design, Riya. I feel...better already! Thank you. But...do you maybe want to explain what it means so I can...feel even happier?" And maybe feel less weird wearing it? Yuhan put on what he thought was a smile. When he saw Riya clasp her hands together in relieved joy, however, the smile became genuine.
"This bracelet...my foster parents gave it to me when I was young."
The smile was artificial again. Yuhan strained to uphold it as he listened.
Riya took the bracelet into her own hands, dangling it before him. Two drawstrings with jade beads held it together, and it was composed of several thin strips of dark leather, intricately entwined. Three small disks, carefully carved out of precious stone, were woven into the leather side by side. The center disk, evidently more detailed than the others, was a peculiar transparent gold. Yuhan recognized the other two disks as emblems of the Earth Kingdom, with the squares precisely cut out from their emerald centers. Riya enthusiastically pointed to the gold center disk. "You see this? It has each of the four elements carved into it."
"What?" Yuhan leaned closer until the disk was practically in front of his eye, and he peered at the tiny markings. Sure enough, all four emblems had somehow fit onto the disk. He could even make out the curly details of the Water Tribe symbol. A cross had been lightly carved between the four symbols, as if to hint their separation and unity at the same time. "Wow...fancy."
Riya stared proudly at the little gift. "It's beautiful, isn't it? My foster parents told me that this crystal somehow crossed from the Spirit World into our own...Even if they were just saying that, I still think it's the most beautiful stone I've ever seen. It's supposed to have been touched by the creators of our world! It represents the beginning of life itself." Her hazel eyes filled with wonder, but she soon noticed Yuhan's skeptical expression. "B-But, you really don't have to believe it if you don't want to."
"No, no, this is very interesting. Go on!" He smiled as devotedly as he could manage. "What about the other two?"
"Oh, those are just regular emeralds."
"JUST emeralds?" Yuhan gaped at her.
The young woman laughed again. "That's not what I meant! They're precious too, but we know for sure where they came from...I like the mysteriousness of the gold one."
"Ah, I see...Go on?" The Dai Li agent felt even more disconcerted that he'd have to wear precious stone jewelry. The only other person he remembered caring about such things was...his mother...
"So, the gold crystal was carved into the four nations to bring protection to whoever wears it. The spirits of all four elements, after all, are the creators of life. You're supposed to feel some kind of connection to them if you bear the stone. If you have a pure heart, they'll answer your prayers and look after you. Well...that's what my step-parents said!" Riya's eyes glimmered. Yuhan couldn't tell whether she was adoring the gold crystal...or missing her family.
The agent cleared his throat, trying to show more interest in the bracelet. "And what about the two Earth Kingdom-shaped emeralds? Why aren't they any of the other nations?"
"Oh, they have their own special meaning." Riya's voice grew quiet. Her eyes were now shining with some unspoken delight. "You see, they represent two people. Two people who know each other very well. The stones show the nations they come from."
Yuhan pointed awkwardly towards himself. "You mean...?"
Riya nodded eagerly, her cheeks glowing with the beginnings of a blush. "Yes, yes! Actually, the one on the left is supposed to be the nation of the bracelet's giver – my nation. And when you give it away, you weave in the stone on the right representing the nation of a person who's..." She looked down. "...A person who's really special to you. A-And, the spirits are supposed to watch over you both." She was fidgeting nervously with the bracelet now.
The Dai Li agent was silent. He was beginning to be reminded of his volcanic flowers. Riya didn't say any more. An inexplicable, unspoken moment of understanding passed between them.
Yuhan finally spoke up. "Riya...I don't need a bracelet in order to feel special." He smirked deviously. The girl finally realized the full meaning of the panda lilies. She slowly brought a hand over her mouth, even when no sound came out. Yuhan gleefully lifted his hands as he rose to his feet. "Awww come here, you!" Riya collapsed into his outstretched arms, laughing and glowing with pure joy. He held her close to him, kissing her forehead. "Sooo...do you forgive me for climbing into a volcano now?"
When Yuhan left the house back in uniform, the panda lilies were displayed in a magnificent porcelain vase; a neighbor had donated one immediately upon finding out what kind of flowers it would hold. Only one bloom was missing from the vase. Riya had pinned it into her hair.
The Dai Li agent cheerfully hopped into the carriage this evening, and his trusty peasant driver was waiting with a smug smile. "I see the flowers on her windowsillll!" rang his singsong voice.
"That's right, you do!" Yuhan grinned so wide that he began to resemble Joo Dee. "And look, she gave me something too!" The peasant chuckled and turned around to look as Yuhan pulled back his sleeve.
The bracelet was hardly noticeable on his wrist as two long, twisted chains with cuffs spilled out from beneath the emerald sleeve, cascading over his arm. Riya wasn't familiar with the intricate series of sockets within the Dai Li uniform, designed for concealing the chains. She'd left them hanging loose while she was washing it.
There was a sickening pause. The old driver suddenly saw his dear younger brother again, kicking and shouting desperately while two dark figures dragged him across the ground using those very same chains. Yuhan was unconsciously feeling at his cheek with a hand, remembering a certain man's blatant show of disapproval. It was a sore reminder of just who had entered the carriage and what the true nature of his organization was. Both individual's expressions dampened, and they involuntarily looked away from each other. The peasant cracked his whip. The rest of the trip ensued in complete silence.
I'm so sorry if these updates spam the activity feed. I figure if I can post huge chunks of the story at a time, it won't appear as much throughout the day.
- Minnichi is most frightened of writing chapters of this nature.
- This is the only chapter that has escaped the author's raging revision (the time period in which she reworked every single chapter to improve the horrid dialogue). It will not be so for long... *twitch*
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