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Previously on Vortex Edit
After reaching the Northern Water Tribe in Kaddo's world, the young waterbender realizes that they are in his past and that a crucial event in his world has not yet transpired. In an effort to change the future for himself, he abandons the group, only to be confronted and brought back by Ling. Following a point in the right direction by Yue, the Moon Spirit, the new comrades venture out into the perilous arctic wild to uncover the next vortex.
Knowing that his daughter, Sakura, now goes through life as the tormented Eris, Kin wants to set things right. In order to find the information he needs, he travels toward the Easter Air Temple to meditate into the Spirit World to find Wan Shi Tong.
Perhaps a small scene (because this chapter is already very lengthy) about Kin finding Wan Shi Tong and/or Eris continued failure to find the vortex information and/or the team could be added. Perhaps a hint to the only thing to be the same in each worlds is the Spirit World could be added. That way, Eris finding the team in the next chapter due to them all being in the Spirit Library would've been foreshadowed.
Silent Heroes Edit
It was night when the group of misplaced warriors crashed down upon another unfamiliar patch of land. The ground wasn't slippery and freezing like last time, but the hard, smooth surface still caused a painful impact.
Kaddo was the first to rise clumsily to his feet, peering ahead and rubbing his throbbing back where it'd landed. "Looks like we got a free ride to another royal palace," he commented, turning back to face the others. "Anyone have an idea which one it is?"
His companions had all straightened themselves back up as well, looking cautiously around at their surroundings. They'd landed right before the towering steps at what seemed like the end of a magnificent courtyard. The pale marble glistened beneath the night sky, and everyone's eyes followed the dim moonlight up the steps before staring in awe at the enormous, green-gold spectacle of a palace above them.
One pair of eyes, its emerald irises darkened by the moonlight, suddenly froze in recognition. "Ba Sing Se." For some reason, Yuhan's acknowledgement of their whereabouts seemed more of a bad thing than good, the way he stiffened up as if the ground would explode any minute.
The effect on Yun was instantaneous. "Ba Sing Se, huh? Think it's your Ba Sing Se, by any chance? The City of Walls and Secrets? And brainwashing?" The others fell strangely silent as they glanced back and forth between the two earthbenders. They'd hoped to avoid the topic to keep everyone working together, but it seemed impossible now in their new location.
Yun's skepticism caused the Dai Li agent to narrow his eyes in response. "Maybe...and maybe not," Yuhan replied slowly. "But if it's like anything I'm used to..." His eyes scanned the palace steps once again, almost fearfully. "We're all going to have to get out of here. Fast."
"Really?" mused Yun. All of his bitterness towards the dark organization was starting to make it difficult to reason with him, especially here at heart of the cursed city. "What, afraid we'll do something in this world that'll damage your precious brainwashing repu -"
"This isn't the time for grudges!" Yuhan suddenly snapped, the urgency and lack of composure in his tone so out-of-character that even Yun paused for a moment. "You're all going to run into some serious problems if we stay here any longer!"
Ursa was the first to realize the implications in his statement. "'Us?' What do you mean that it's just us who'll get in trouble?"
Yun looked ready to draw his sword at that moment, until Ling suddenly pointed towards the palace steps. "Someone's coming!" His voice was slightly hushed due to Yuhan's warning, though it proved to be no use. The group stuck out conspicuously in the middle of the wide, open courtyard, and they'd had no time to react when Ba Sing Se's authorities came marching down.
There was a sudden pause as the Grand Secretariat came to a halt in mid-step, along with the two Dai Li agents positioned at his sides. It took him a moment to register that foreigners - the worst kind of people to be anywhere near the Earth King - were somehow standing in plain sight less than five minutes from the throne. Then his eyes fell upon the figure in emerald robes accompanying them, who frantically bowed in response.
The group could only stare in a mixture of confusion and fear as Yuhan hunched over on a knee in front of them, though Yun had drawn his sword by now and looked ready to charge for the kill.
"Yuhan!" Long Feng's voice seemed to boom across the entire courtyard and sent shivers down all of their spines. "What is the meaning of this?"
There was a clang of metal before anyone could respond. Yuhan had sprung back to his feet again and caught Yun's blade in his stone-covered hand, right as the young warrior had begun to dash wildly in the Secretariat's direction. The interruption had caught Yun by surprise in the midst of his rage, and he was yanked backwards by cold, metal chains before he knew it. The cuffs around his wrists seemed to have materialized out of nowhere, until he twisted around and realized that Yuhan had shot them from within his dark green sleeves.
"Don't move!" ordered the Dai Li agent, his flaring eyes also addressing the rest of his group as they instinctively prepared various stances for battle. It was so tempting to attack him, free Yun, and run for their lives, but something in Yuhan's blazing, determined expression indicated that he had a plan - and cooperation was the only way to save them at the moment. But they still couldn't help feeling some panic when the two agents accompanying Long Feng sprang into action, leaping down from the steps and binding all of their wrists in their own metal cuffs.
Yun was thrashing against his restraints, scowling and cursing at the Grand Secretariat peering down at him from the top of the steps, at the agent struggling to haul him backwards, at everything he hated about the city. He hardly registered the sound of Yuhan's huffing voice above his head.
"Sir, these intruders were attempting to infiltrate the Royal Palace." The young group of warriors all stared at him in disbelief as the famed Peace Orator addressed his leader. Yuhan struggled for a few seconds to keep his enraged prisoner contained before he went on. "I am neither aware of their origins nor their intentions, but I had hoped to intercept their trespassing before you arrived. I apologize for the disruption."
Long Feng was not amused by said disruption, but he didn't seem to question the announcement. "It seems fortunate, then, that your prisoners have not ventured further than the courtyard," he remarked coldly. "Though I will have to question your failure to keep them out of the Upper Ring at all. Perhaps some additional training on your part is in order?"
Yuhan bowed his head in what seemed like shame. "I'm aware that I have acted below the Dai Li's standards. I apologize." It was almost frightening to his companions how effortlessly and convincingly he formed each of his words. "I will seek to improve my abilities immediately after stabilizing these rebels," continued the agent, "though re-education may not be necessary. I sense no immediate desire to oppose the Dai Li, or to threaten the balance of Ba Sing Se."
"Re-education." Glowing lamps. Brainwashing. The very idea seemed to make Kaddo go pale, while Ursa and Ling exchanged nervous glances.
In contrast, Yun's face appeared twisted with disgust as he scowled. "I have every desire to -"
"Again, I apologize for the disruption," Yuhan cut in, shooting down a glare at his prisoner that might as well have said, "Do you want to die? No? Then shut up!" Clearing his throat loudly, he continued, "I'll send word to you as soon as we can establish a purpose for the intrusion, and whether or not more individuals are involved."
Long Feng examined the unworldy group for a few seconds, slightly perplexed that he couldn't seem to assign them collectively to any nation. "Very well," he finally replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. "See to it that such a close-ranged disruption will not repeat itself in the future." His low voice was clearly edged with a threat as he turned and strode back towards the green-gold glow of the Royal Palace.
Yuhan and the two agents that had left Long Feng's sides began to haul their prisoners away from the stairs. All of the youngsters (besides Yun) seemed to be eyeing their brainwashing ally - well, they hoped he was an ally - whenever they could. His face, shadowed beneath the dark brim of his pointed hat, was almost as panicked as theirs.
I'll...think of something.
It was already dark outside, but the thick wooden bars of the carriage made it virtually impossible to see anything beyond an arm's length. Yun, Kaddo, Ursa, and Ling could only wait quietly inside of their rumbling prison, their arms still bound behind their backs. They listened anxiously to the collection of sounds that passed outside. In the blackness, where their eyes were useless, their ears amplified everything they picked up, details that had always seemed inaudible before. The occasional snort of the ostrich horse dragging them along, the bump of a hoof that caused a pebble to roll across the ground, the steady clink of the metal fastenings within the lock that sealed them inside...
And of course, it was impossible to miss the quiet murmuring of the Dai Li agents wielding the reins. From the sound of it, they were sitting just beyond the wall that a murderous-looking Yun rested his back against, still mulling over the strange incident back at the Royal Palace.
"What were you doing at the palace, anyway?" droned one of the voices. It was clear that handling strange prisoners was nothing new to this agent; he sounded bored, as if brainwashing rebels each day were a mundane chore equivalent to taking the trash out. It didn't help Yun's demeanor at all, who by now was receiving frightened glances from his fellow prisoners. They had unconsciously huddled against the wall farthest from him. An onlooker may have believed that they expected Yun to kill them along with Long Feng, if anything.
"The same thing everyone else goes to the palace for," replied an equally dull voice, though this one caused Yun to clench his fists tightly enough to make his knuckles turn white. He incredulously wondered how he'd even been able to speak to Yuhan so civilly before, even if it was just about beating up waterbenders at the North Pole. The vile, brainwashing goon was in his natural habitat now; he had all the power here, and now that he was home again, why would he bother to search for vortexes any longer? They seemed to have returned to a time frame close enough to the present in his world, anyway.
Ursa began to watch Yun, her concerned face deep in thought as the agents continued their drab conversation outside. "I had to go check on the converted political authorities in the Upper Ring sooner or later," Yuhan explained, casually expanding his ridiculously well-crafted story even more. "Long Feng'll kill me if I don't have a status report by the end of the week. So I decided to take care of it today, and..." He gave a bored, rather irritated sigh. "Well, seems like I'm the always the lucky one who runs into all the weird rebels at the wrong times." There was a slight chuckle in response from the other agent.
Yun turned a little, eyeing the wooden barrier as if he could actually see Yuhan through it. "Quite a tongue you have," he muttered under his breath. "And what a feat, too, brainwashing even the palace authorities to worship you..."
"Yun..." Ursa finally began. "We shouldn't give up on him just yet, you know. Don't you remember that he was actually trying to stop us from getting brainwashed?"
For some reason, the recent events simply refused to register in Yun's head as anything good about Yuhan. He was sitting in a stuffy, barred carriage, headed to some obscure headquarters at Spirits-knew-where, from which he might never escape nor see the sun again. And his oh so wonderful friend, the Dai Li agent, happened to be one of the overseers driving him to his imprisonment. No, it was going to take more than a few clever words to convince this earthbender. And from what they'd seen, Yuhan had quite a knack for lying. Who knew what twisted things actually went on in his head? "That's too generous of a conclusion to jump to," Yun scoffed in reply. "Just think about it. Have any of you ever heard a single good thing about the Dai Li in history - in any of your worlds?" The painful silence was confirmation enough for him.
Ling tentatively spoke up after a few more heavy seconds. "Well...collectively, we know the group hasn't done anything noble. But you never know, there could be individual cases that differ. I've always heard that Long Feng isn't kind to his traitors, too... Maybe that's why we don't hear about them?"
It was a strange idea to think about, noble agents suffering at the Grand Secretariat's hands for their efforts. But Yun was still too preoccupied with the deeds of corrupt agents to consider such a thing, especially since they obviously made up the vast majority of the organization.
"My dad never seemed to like them, either..." added Kaddo, who was leaning his head against the bars and peering outside as if to catch his last glimpse of the world. "I don't know, though - this guy seemed kind of cool to me." He tried to ignore all the skeptical pairs of eyes staring at him. "I'm just saying! My mom once told me that you can't always listen to what everyone else says. Even if it seems crazy, sometimes you should follow that feeling inside your gut, and just...trust in it. Because you know it's right." Suddenly his face tilted downwards, avoiding the gaze of everyone else. Thinking about his mother and her heartfelt ideals was painful, especially when he'd gotten so close.
Yun understood his companion's grief, though he himself wasn't anywhere close to trusting Yuhan. After Kaddo fell silent, it was clear to everyone that this dicussion wasn't going to progress any further. And so they waited instead, returning to their observations of the little noises filling the night air.
Surprisingly, the carriage came to a squeaky halt quicker than they'd expected - or perhaps they'd been dreading their arrival so much that the trip felt too short. Either way, they'd reached wherever all of Ba Sing Se's bold citizens were taken. Yun's eyebrows began to furrow, most likely in deep thought for some elaborate escape plan. Ursa and Kaddo gazed vaguely in Yuhan's direction outside their prison, as if setting down his last chance to be trusted - though they were ready to act decisively if he butchered it. On the other hand, Ling seemed to sit neutrally, simply waiting to see what would happen and to judge things as they came.
There was a quiet shuffle as the pair of agents outside hopped onto the ground. "Good evening, Agent Tsen," a new voice suddenly announced. It was young and formal, undoubtedly belonging to a messenger.
It was apparent that messengers weren't seen as good news to Yuhan. "Yes?" he responded, civil yet edged with the slightest hint of suspicion.
"Sir Long Feng sent me here to inform you that he would like an update on your new arrivals before -"
"Before sunrise, I know," Yuhan cut in irritably. "And yes, I'll also give him every detail about how they managed to infiltrate palace grounds. It was a close call, we should fix our defenses accordingly, and yes, I'll go practice my earthbending after I'm done deciding whether or not they need to be converted."
The young messenger paused for a moment. "Y-yes, sir. That is all he wished to convey to you."
"Tell him he won't be disappointed," Yuhan concluded simply. "And, well..." He seemed to remember for a moment that the messenger boy wanted to be here only as much as he did. "Well - have a good evening."
The imprisoned group could hear the messenger scuffling off into the distance as Yuhan began to converse with his fellow agent once more. They were discussing something trivial about leaky roofs in headquarters apparently, though their voices became inaudible as they began to head further away from the carriage.
Of all the things in the world to do, Kaddo suddenly snickered. "That's kind of funny," he remarked, quickly explaining before the group could give him more incredulous glares. "I never noticed that - Yuhan's last name. It's Tsen, right?"
"Right." Yun resolved to ignore the waterbender and would have gone back to plotting their escape, had his name not come up next.
"Yuhan Tsen. Yun Zhen. Yuhan Zhen. Yun Tsen. It's kind of hard to tell the difference."
Yun very slowly turned towards the waterbender, though his ominous expression only seemed to contribute to the humor. Even Ursa and Ling appeared to be holding back a few chuckles.
"Strong earthbenders. 'Cool guy' attitudes. Always serious - well, constantly grouchy if anything. You guys have some interesting things in common... You even sound alike!" exclaimed Kaddo, with a sly grin. He began to question if this had really been worth it, however, when the earthbender crashed his way towards him across the prison with such hostily that the whole carriage shook.
It was all Yun could do not to raise the waterbender up into the air by the collar at that moment - if only his hands weren't tied down. Instead, he glowered into Kaddo's still-amused (but increasingly frightened) face as he growled his response. "Do...not...EVER compare me to those disgraceful, pathetic -"
An entire dictionary of curse words might have filled the air if Yun had continued speaking a second longer, but the carriage door suddenly slammed open and caused the group to jump in surprise. They were all yanked swiftly outside, though Yuhan notably handled his prisoners more gently than his fellow agent did; while Kaddo and Ling landed heavily on their feet, Yun and Ursa virtually hit their faces on the ground as they were pulled out.
The moonlight was making odd, glimmering shapes on the ground ahead - until Yun realized that it wasn't the ground at all. They'd reached a vast, shadowy mass of water, and the agents had walked ahead of the carriage earlier to pull up a hidden tunnel from its depths. The young group of prisoners took a last, longing glance at the full moon above their heads before they were forced deep underground into the cold, dim green passageways beneath Lake Laogai.
Yuhan left his prisoners almost as soon as he tossed them into their new prison cell, without even a glance backwards. The agents' footsteps were still echoing away into the dark passageways as the young group glanced apprehensively about their surroundings. They all seemed to be lost in their own, deep thoughts - whether it concerned Yuhan's credibility as an ally or their escape - but a low, eerie voice began to distract them before long. They couldn't ignore the haunting sound of an agent manipulating his victim's mind and sanity.
"There is no war in Ba Sing Se." It seemed as if the 'conversion chambers,' or so the Dai Li called them, had been placed purposely close to the prison cells just to unhinge their inhabitants.
"There is no war within the walls." Despite Yun's ongoing rage, even his flaring golden eyes grew a little wide with fear, a nightmarish memory having been triggered within them. He saw Ty Lee, her radiant smile gone and replaced with an unnatural, demented desire to kill.
"Here, we are safe." The rebel's last gurgling attempts to protest died out, and anyone listening could tell that he was beginning to believe the words spoken to him.
Yun shuddered. Had those creatures really forced his dear Ty Lee to undergo such a thing? It was pure insanity.
Ursa spoke up in an attempt to get their minds off of the chilling sounds, her voice quivering. "S-so, where do you guys think the next vortex is?"
"Here, we are free."
"Forget that!" replied a terrified-looking Kaddo. "We need to get out of here before they drag us into one of those chambers and turn us all crazy!"
"I agree," declared Yun, forgetting about the waterbender's earlier taunting and focusing on the more pressing matters at hand. "We have to act fast while there's still any hope of escape. If we let them mess with our heads, well...we might not even know we that we need to escape anymore."
The horrifying idea caused the entire group to search frantically within their heads for all the best prison-break strategies.
"What about Yuhan?" Ling asked at some point in the silence.
Yun let out a disdainful sound, somewhere between a scoff and and laugh. "He seems to be doing pretty well, if you ask me. Settled back into his cozy world in no time!"
"But..." Ursa frowned a little as she concentrated her thoughts. "Wouldn't it still be a problem for him? The vortexes?" She looked around their shadowy cell, as if inspecting the dark world of the Dai Li agent. "This is still a different time than what he left behind, no matter how similar it is," she continued. "So wouldn't there also be...a different person...who's still here?" They all paused for a moment. It was already crazy enough having to jump between vastly different universes, but the possibility of running into themselves was simply disturbing.
"You really think...there could be two Yuhans here?" Ling asked darkly.
"Brilliant..." muttered Yun. "Two brainwashing freaks running around this world. Imagine that!"
Kaddo looked towards the barred window of the heavy metal door blocking them from the rest of headquarters. "You don't think that Yuhan could've run into -"
Before he could finish, green light spilled in as the door swung open. There had been no sound at all, not even the clicking of a lock, and the unexpected sight caught them all by surprise.
"Come on!" whispered the figure in black, who'd appeared from behind the door. He rolled his emerald eyes at the group's bewildered expressions and motioned towards the passage outside with an arm. "I thought you wanted to get out of here?"
Kaddo stared as he quietly followed his companions out of their little cell. "...Yuhan?"
The Dai Li agent was no longer a Dai Li agent at all. Gone was any trace of his formal uniform; he was covered instead in a metallic black tunic with matching trousers. The loosely-buttoned collar sported the same silver lining that embellished the wide cuffs at the ends of his long sleeves, as well as the dark sash fastened around his waist. His black hair appeared rustled and untidy without the protection of its hat, its color almost matching the silky fabric covering the bottom half of his face.
Yuhan darted quickly ahead of his companions before they could stall any longer. They couldn't move without making a sound as easily as he made it look, but it was manageable enough. He threw out an arm to stop them right as they prepared to turn the corner of the passageway, and they all pressed their backs against the wall as a pair of agents stalked past the intersection ahead.
Their momentary pause allowed the rest of the group a chance to draw closely enough to Yuhan to exchange a few quiet words. Kaddo couldn't seem to get his mind off of the transformation. "Wow, Yuhan, I really can't recognize you without your fancy robe-and-pointy-hat getup!" He received another roll of emerald eyes in response. "Seriously though, I kind of like your ninja look better." The waterbender paused as he glanced for a moment at the dark outfit. "Just one thing - silver? Really?" The others couldn't help noticing as well; the elegant embellishments on the fabric sparkled even beneath the dim green light of their surroundings. "I thought the idea was to look unnoticeable!" Kaddo exclaimed.
"Shut up and focus on not getting caught," scowled Yuhan, though quietly enough not to be heard from more than a foot away. "What did you expect?" he muttered, peering around the corner of their passageway to give the all-clear. "The Lower Ring has better clothes for things like this, but a Dai Li agent can't really waltz out of there innocently with some obscure black outfit..." The rest of the group exchanged puzzled glances as he continued to complain about Ba Sing Se's customs, which were unfamiliar to them. "It's not like I care about anything in the Upper Ring, but apparently you just have to look as important as you are, no matter what - practically got lectured by a Joo Dee about it, too..."
Ling and Ursa strangely found the cultural rant very interesting as they followed and listened, though Yun somehow turned it into another reason to hate Yuhan. "So you're saying that anything made by the poorer side of Ba Sing Se is just beneath the Dai Li? You won't even bother with peasant clothes, so much that it's become a rule now?"
Yuhan came to a stop. The group couldn't tell if it was because he sensed more agents ahead, whose footsteps could be heard clearly - or because something had been triggered inside of him. Something bad. There was an ominous silence as the group hid themselves behind a wall once more, and as the Dai Li agent turned slowly towards Yun. "I came from the Lower Ring, you know. And it's not like I just forgot about them after I joined -" His eyes took on a strange quality for the briefest second, as if he wanted to say something else. Scoffing however, he turned back away and peered down the shadowy hallway once more. "What, is my freeing you from lifetime imprisonment and brainwashing still a despicable act of evil?"
Yun couldn't help feeling a slight twinge of guilt at the realization, but he didn't allow it to last long. "I do appreciate your help," he replied grudgingly. "Though I'm not sure if it's just because you need us in order to get out of the vortex mess -"
"You are more hardheaded and grudge-loving than Long Feng himself," snapped the Dai Li agent - well, if it was possible to snap quietly, he'd just proved it. But the statement still struck Yun like a pile of bricks to the face, both from the severity of the insult and the shock that Yuhan would ever imply anything negative about the Cultural Minister. "Whether you believe me or not, I don't want you all confined to a world where you don't belong," continued the agent, motioning for them all to start walking again. "You have homes to return to. People you care about."
No one seemed to be able to say anything for a moment, within the heavy silence. They all missed their worlds and loved ones dearly. Ursa decided to speak before any more conflict could arise. "We just have to trust each other and work together, Yun," she murmured, watching the shadows of a few more agents passing ahead. "It'll be best for all of us."
"Soooo..." Kaddo chimed in, having noticed a clearly distrustful Yun preparing to voice another snide comment about the Dai Li. He tried to change the subject to prolong the shaky peace while they still could. "Yuhan, won't you get in trouble when they find out we're gone? You were kind of in charge of us, weren't you?"
Something changed in Yuhan's expression, even if they could only see the upper half of his face. "Actually...I'm not in charge of you guys now." His explanation was slow and hesitant, and his eyes took on a peculiar quality, almost like one who'd recently been traumatized. "There's this guy I don't really like...and he wanted me to take over his brainwashing duties for him tonight...so I got him to look after you in return. It'll just be on him when Long Feng throws a tantrum."
Ling eyed him questioningly, having sensed an important detail that Yuhan seemed to be avoiding. "But you'd need to be there - um, brainwashing whoever it is you need to brainwash, right? Doesn't it look suspicious that you disappeared at the same time we escaped?"
"N-no...no, it actually doesn't look suspicious at all," Yuhan replied vaguely, his expression turning even more bizarre as he glanced away. "I'll still be there...brainwashing like I'm supposed to...yeah."
"Huh?" Kaddo looked back and forth between Yuhan and his group, who were all as puzzled as he. "How would you be able to -"
The next set of voices from the Dai Li agents walking ahead silenced all of their confusion at once. They only needed to hear one word to know that Ursa had been right all along. That it was Yuhan's own voice less than twenty feet away, complaining to his fellow agent about the troublesome conversion he had to take care of tonight.
"I still don't have any idea what 'prisoners' you're even talking about," sighed Yuhan, clad in his elegant green robes and pointed hat as he walked. "But hey, if you can take care of whatever I supposedly told you to do, I'm all for it. Just make sure you tell Long Feng that we switched duties, in case I screw up this conversion and accidentally get it blamed on you or something. I'll just assume you won't screw up your end and blame it on me, either."
"Alright, I'll tell him. No need to worry," scoffed the agent walking alongside him. "You know, that sleep-deprivation is really starting to get to your head. Forgetting things that happened less than an hour ago? That's a new record!"
"Whatever." Yuhan gave a roll of his eyes identical to that of the young man hidden in black, who'd just complained recently about Ba Sing Se's customs. "See you in the morning, Tyru."
"Later!" The agent named Tyru turned and strode casually past the wall that the young group of warriors was huddled behind. They watched him turn the corner and disapper before looking back towards Yuhan - well, the Yuhan who was currently closing the door of a conversion chamber behind him. Then they gazed towards their brainwashing companion hiding alongside them, who still looked pale as if he'd seen a ghost.
"You know..." Kaddo finally began, breaking the silence. "That's actually pretty genius. Using your other self to stay out of trouble." Yuhan only nodded vaguely in response, his ears not really registering anything he heard. "It's like Yuhan 2 was practically working with you, the way he handled things! You sure you guys didn't meet up to talk about it or something?" The waterbender smiled sheepishly as the others gave a little shake of their heads for him to stop talking.
Yuhan finally seemed to regain his senses, straightening himself up as he motioned for everyone to move forward. "Er...no. We didn't meet." The others followed him quietly in the awkward silence. "But I guess you could say that - well, I know myself well enough to predict how I'd react to the situation."
There was no further discussion.
Miraculously, the group managed to sneak all the way to the exit tunnel of headquarters without a single glance in their direction. Of course, it also helped that Yuhan knew his way around in addition to the regular patrolling patterns of the Dai Li, but they'd still come too close for comfort a few times.
"This is it," said Yuhan, letting out a long breath as he pointed towards the thick ladder that stretched towards the world outside.
Yun couldn't help giving a great sigh of relief as well. "This whole place feels like a prison, let alone that tiny cell. It's truly a wonder how you lot can enjoy isolating yourselves down here." He gave a disapproving glare about the gloomy headquarters. "Must be a Dai Li thing."
Yuhan had grown somewhat immune to the constant jabs by now, having decided to tune them out when he could. The statement still irked him, however, as he clenched the bars of the ladder and began to make his way up. "For what it's worth, I have to drag myself down here every time. I wouldn't even be able to, probably, if it weren't for Long Feng's constant threats in the background - might as well be death threats, if anything."
Ursa looked up in his direction as she began to climb with the others. She felt her face grow a little somber as she watched his dark figure, which was moving noiselessly as always. For someone who had such great respect for the Grand Secretariat and from his entire city, he never seemed too enthusiastic about himself. But he was home now, wasn't he? Or at least the closest he'd been ever since they were all thrown together. Why hadn't she seen him smile - or even hint at a smile - since his arrival? If anything, he seemed to have grown more miserable than usual in Ba Sing Se. Could it be that nothing truly made him happy here?
Or even worse...did he not realize it?
Of course, Yun didn't seem to believe the agent's words much, from the way he continued to climb indifferently. One couldn't blame him entirely, though; no one could ever tell when Yuhan was lying. It was just a matter of personal interpretation at this point.
Thankfully, Ling directed their minds towards a different matter. "When we reach the top, Yuhan, how do you know there aren't any agents entering headquarters at the same time?"
There was a pause as Yuhan peered above their heads at the tunnel exit. "...I don't."
"What?" yelped Kaddo from behind.
"Don't all freak out now," Yuhan quickly added, sensing all the tensed bodies following him up the ladder. "This entrance is one of those side ones that not many of us really use - not unless you're late for something and wanted to try sneaking quietly inside..."
Right as he finished the sentence, the circular entrance to the tunnel slid open above their heads.
For the first few seconds, both parties froze in utter shock as they faced one another. The escaping group simply clung, horrified, to their ladder.
Out of nowhere, Yuhan groaned horribly as he slapped a hand over his half-covered face. The sound was deafening to the others, who'd been so used to hearing him handle things silently up until now. He blurted it without even thinking. "Oh Spirits, no - Hiroshu, you idiot!"
The agent looking down at them from the ground above jolted in surprise, even more bewildered by the sudden announcement of his own name. Before he could ponder why that voice sounded so familiar, however, a scorching jet of flame sailed out of the tunnel that caused him to reel backwards. Things were happening too fast for him to process as Ursa and the other warriors began to scramble out one by one onto the ground.
Hiroshu snapped back into things quickly, however, jumping to his feet and readying his stone-covered palms in front of him as he faced the group. The three earthbenders among them stepped out first as they sprang into action.
Yuhan knew the first thing his patrol partner would try to do; they'd been trained for this protocol at the same time, afer all. "Don't let him touch the ground!" he yelled suddenly, whipping his head back towards the others.
Sure enough, Yuhan's patrol partner had already hunched over and looked just about ready to slam his fists against the earth. The heavy impact was meant to travel deep below the ground, towards the secret headquarters, and the rumbling would immediately alert every agent inside that an escape was taking place. However, Hiroshu's arms recoiled when the earth sprang up first and nearly hit him in the face; Ling had moved before the rest of the group, and a sharp pillar of stone was shooting from ground every time he gave another stamp of his foot. Hiroshu leapt backwards continually to avoid the array of attacks, staggering a bit as he struggled to regain his footing. At some point, however, he finally landed firmly and threw his arm forward, his fingers balled tight into a fist.
Ling was taken aback when he spotted the stone hand whizzing towards him like lightning. The pause halted his assault on Hiroshu as he shifted to defend himself, and the agent took the chance to try thrusting his arms towards the ground once more.
What Hiroshu didn't know, however, was that one of the earthbenders among the escapees knew how to manipulate the earthen gloves as well as he did. In fact, said earthbender had a stronger will over it as well. Yuhan had always been the more talented (or simply, the less lazy) of the patrol partners...which was apparent when the stony fist suddenly stopped in midair as soon as he raised his arm.
Hiroshu only had a split second to stare back at the strange, masked enemy - before his own glove left his control and shot back in his direction. He twisted clumsily to the side to dodge the quick and unexpected attack, leaving himself unprepared when the other earthbenders began their assault once more.
Yuhan almost felt bad watching his patrol partner thrash about the bombardment of attacks. To begin with, Yun had gathered a good amount of earth around his fingers and shot several little shards of stone towards Hiroshu as the agent was still twisting to avoid the rock glove. Many long folds of Hiroshu's robe were already pinned to the ground by the time Ursa stepped forward and illuminated the night, her palms glowing like embers as the long streaks of flame soared in the agent's direction. At this point, Hiroshu had meant to outrun the flames, but the sudden yank on his robes from Yun's earth shards caused him to topple over onto his face instead. The attack seared the top of his hat and the back of his uniform, and the heat immediately caused him to roll reflexively about the ground, somewhat panicked, to dispel the flames.
It was bad enough that Hiroshu was alone against five attackers; the fact that they bore almost every element only made it worse. He'd gotten so close to finally slamming his fist against the ground, and sending word to the rest of his beloved organization. He was right there, rolling over on the ground and following the momentum with his fist...until his body suddenly froze.
Hiroshu's fist had been less than a centimeter from the earth when a massive gush of Lake Laogai's water came crashing down on him. With a sound like crackling glass, his entire body was encased in ice a second later. Surprised, the young group of warriors turned around to see that Kaddo was standing several feet back near the shore, who was now resting his hands somewhat proudly on his waist.
Yun chuckled a bit at the young waterbender's expression, at how Kaddo could still find simple fun in the midst of all the vortexes and craziness. "Nicely done," he remarked.
Kaddo grinned in reply, though he was almost tempted to yell, "Hey!" upon seeing Yuhan turn indifferently back towards Hiroshu as if nothing had happened.
Lowering himself onto a knee, Yuhan peered through the ice to examine the wide-eyed, distorted face of his patrol partner inside. "Just wondering since he's my patrol partner and all... The ice isn't going to suffocate him or something, is it?"
"Oh!" exclaimed Kaddo, as if just realizing it. "Hmm yeah, usually this is just supposed to be temporary, isn't it..." Upon seeing Yuhan's skeptical expression, however, he quickly added, "Okay okay, I can fix it. Lemme see." The waterbender strode forward and came to a stop before the icy prison. Concentrating his face, he postitioned his hands rigidly in the direction of Hiroshu's head.
Before anyone could say anything, there was a sickening crack as the ice condensed. Then the entire mass spilled back onto the ground in its liquid form, down the sides of Hiroshu's limp body.
The rest of the group's jaws hung open - except for Yuhan, looked ready to strangle Kaddo as he wheeled around and began marching very intimidatingly over to the younger warrior. The fact that the ground was crackling with each of his steps only made the effect worse. "DID YOU...just..." He couldn't find the words after that as he slowly raised a stone-covered fist into the air.
"No - NO, I didn't! I swear!" cried Kaddo, who was scrambling backwards and practically shrinking beneath Yuhan's shadow. "I mean it!" he continued frantically, waving his arms about in explanation. "M-my mom showed me how to use the ice to make someone unconscious - not to kill them or something...!"
Yuhan paused for a moment, looking torn between believing his instincts or the word of a random 12-year-old waterbender.
"Seriously, Yuhan! He's fine!" Kaddo went on, now taking cover behind Yun as he spoke. "Rock glove, bad! Put it down!"
In contrast, Yun was eyeing the masked agent very quizzically, as if he couldn't decide what to think of him. This was the most emotion he'd ever seen from Yuhan, and it was so bizarre to imagine that the Dai Li would ever feel such...human attachments to their companions and even get upset over losing them.
It was only when Ursa called everyone to her attention that Yuhan finally seemed to believe the young waterbender completely. She and Ling were resting their knees on the damp ground next to Hiroshu's body, and she pressed two fingers gently against the agent's neck. Sure enough, a steady pulse responded to her touch. "He'll be alright, Yuhan," she said, standing back up to face her brainwashing ally. "Like Kaddo said, he's just knocked out. It wouldn't have been any different if one of you had struck his head with your earthbending instead."
Yuhan relaxed his shoulders at last, his arms dropping back down to his sides as he made his way over to his unconscious patrol partner. Now that he was looking more closely, anyone could've mistaken Hiroshu's expression for slumber. "Sorry about that, Kaddo... Guess we should go ahead and hide the body temporarily," he sighed, bending over to place on arm on Hiroshu's shoulder. "That's what you get for being late all the time," he muttered quietly to his patrol partner, before giving a firm push downwards.
Hiroshu's body slowly sank into the earth as if the ground were made of sand, and Yuhan stepped back after it had been engulfed completely.
"You're getting after me about suffocating people?" Kaddo suddenly cried indignantly, throwing his arms up in the distance.
"I left a little tunnel of air for him to breathe, don't worry." Yuhan dully turned back around as he replied.
"Well, how's he going to get himself back out of -"
"Kaddo. He's an earthbender."
"Oh... Yeah, I know that."
Yun found it strangely tempting to join Ursa and Ling in their quiet laughter, as they watched Kaddo scratch the back of his neck sheepishly. There was just something about their bizarre group at this moment that was somehow...endearing...no. No. He immediately frowned once more upon glancing in Yuhan's direction. Friendly feelings towards the Dai Li were a bad thing.
"Anyway, we should really get moving before we run into another agent," Yuhan announced, motioning casually towards the direction of the Impenetrable City as if he saw something the rest of them didn't.
Sure enough, their ears suddenly picked up the rumbling of an old carriage. The wooden vehicle appeared to have been waiting somewhere in the distance this entire time.
"I paid the guy a while ago to take us to an inn somewhere in the Middle Ring," Yuhan went on, walking ahead of the group towards the carriage. "You'll still have access to the Lower Ring from there, without worrying about someone mugging you in the middle of the night. And the Dai Li all usually hang around the Upper Ring, so we won't have to worry about that either."
Ling scrunched his face. "Why would someone mug us in the middle of the night...?"
"You're foreigners, and a lot of you look wealthy," Yuhan explained matter-of-factly. He paused when he glanced back towards the rest of his group, suddenly remembering how unfamiliar with Ba Sing Se they all were. "Lower Ring's my hometown, but can't say it doesn't have a lot of crime," he added with a grim smile.
The young group of warriors glanced at one another before following their agent friend cautiously into the carriage.
Everyone had seemed against wasting time at some inn at first, desiring instead to search for the next vortex. But it was late, and they soon discovered how dearly they needed sleep. The group hadn't had a minute of rest since they'd all met, and they were all virtually out cold the moment they settled down in their small room. Sleep was welcoming, especially since they could enjoy it for the first time without worrying about someone chasing them down.
Ursa was the first to awaken the next morning, sitting up quietly in the single, separate bedroom that the men of the group had set aside for her. Rubbing her eyes, she walked slowly to the wooden, smoothed down windowsill and rested her arms upon it.
It wasn't a morning one could call beautiful or anything, with clouds covering most of the sky that caused the sun to appear hazy. The citizens of the Impenetrable City seemed to go dully about their daily errands below, and only a few groups here and there really conversed much. Despite everything, however, Ursa couldn't help feeling a sense of...home. Not so much from the city, but just a growing comfort that she'd began feeling around her unworldly group. It seemed like the last thing that would ever happen, since they'd literally come from different universes and didn't belong together in any way. And yet...she began to feel a dread creeping within her chest whenever she thought of the day they would all part.
Like the sun that rises in every corner of the world, the light of friendship will shine anywhere...for anyone. Ursa smiled to herself as her great-uncle's words drifted through her memory. Did the rest of the group feel the same way, by any chance?
Resolving that it was best to meet back up with the other warriors, however, Ursa quickly redid her topknot in front of the old mirror fastened off to the side of her bed, then slid open the room's squeaky door and paced outside.
She was a little surprised to see that no one else was awake yet. Stranger yet, the men of the group looked unrecognizable during slumber - well, maybe except Kaddo, who always naturally looked more relaxed than the rest of them anyway. The waterbender was curled up comfortably on his fold-out matress, with his dull blanket wrapped around his body almost like a cocoon. Then there was Ling, who'd always been a peaceful soul but who still appeared even more tranquil as he rested on his back, hardly making a sound as he breathed.
And then...there was Yun. So gentle was his expression, and so harmless were his eyes, without his usual permanent frown. He was laying on his side, with a hand resting firmly over the hilt of his sword - which actually didn't do much for a peaceful image - but still. Watching him, Ursa began to get the feeling that this was closer to his natural demeanor. Ever since he'd joined the group, after all, he probably hadn't relaxed one bit around Yuhan. She hoped that their time here would improve his hard feelings towards the agent. Yuhan had helped them a great deal thus far...and Yun just looked so natural and peaceful in his sleep...
Someone suddenly cleared his throat.
Ursa jolted as she twisted towards the direction of the voice, her cheeks involuntarily growing warm. Yuhan was peering at her with the strangest expression, his brow raised as he propped himself up on an elbow. To be honest, he was a funny sight himself; he'd been laying on his stomach, and from the looks of it had buried his face into his pillow like he hadn't seen a bed in years. Even now, his eyes still carried faint shadows beneath them, as if the full night's rest hadn't been enough to heal his sleep-deprivation completely. "Morning. You're up early," was his simple greeting.
"So are you," Ursa replied quickly. Somehow the awkward silence made her feel defensive. The way Yuhan was examining her face was unsettling, and it was clear that he wasn't going to shrug off what he'd seen casually like she'd hoped. The Fire Nation princess suddenly realized that it was probably a natural habit from all the brainwashing, analyzing others like that - and she couldn't help wishing irritably to herself that he'd drop the agent act just once. "Aren't you tired?" she added, a little too hastily.
"Well...yeah. But I'm not used to hanging out like this in Ba Sing Se, where I'm technically supposed to be doing Dai Li work and all," Yuhan replied. Thankfully, the question seemed to have distracted his mind with another matter as he sighed. "It's kind of hard to explain," he went on hesitatingly. "But...I guess I just felt like - like I was getting in trouble when I heard you walking. Since I'm doing something not related to my duties by staying here."
Ursa immediately felt a pang shoot through her lungs at his words. He was exhausted, with constant shadows under his eyes...yet, he would still wake up at the slightest noise, just out of pure fear that it was Long Feng coming to punish him for sleeping on the job? It was such a harsh life he had to live, from what she was hearing. Ursa's tone was much softer this time when she finally responded. "Sorry for disturbing you then, Yuhan. But it's just us." Once again, the strange feeling of home warmed her chest as she smiled at him in acknowledgment of their companionship. "You can go back to sleep if you want. It's alright."
Yuhan groggily looked around at the rest of the group, who didn't appear ready to wake up anytime soon. "Yeah, I think I might just do that..." With a plop, his face landed back down upon the pillow, almost prompting Ursa to laugh - that is, until he added, "And don't worry, I won't tell Yun that you were watching him sleep."
Somehow she could tell that he was smiling, even if his face was completely engulfed by the pillow. Not that it mattered, though, because the statement had just struck her so horribly that she could care less at the moment. Her face growing scarlet, Ursa quickly shot back, "I wasn't watching him...!"
She realized before she even finished the statement that it was useless. Yuhan was already out cold. Scoffing, the Fire Nation princess marched back into her bedroom. Of all the things for that sleep-deprived agent to finally smile about here in this city...! What did he think was going on with her, anyway? She was just...just...
Strangely, Ursa suddenly preferred not to ponder exactly what she had been thinking when she'd examined Yun's sleeping face.
Yun was awoken by the loud sound of Kaddo's yawning a few feet away. He sat up quickly, feeling around for his sword handle just to make sure it was still there. Then he looked up and met Yuhan's dull eyes, who was standing above the rest of the group. The agent seemed to be able to tell that it was just him in particular that Yun didn't trust falling asleep around. "Well, I got everyone breakfast," Yuhan said simply, turning back around towards the others. "Thought we'd need something sooner or later, after running around nonstop for the past few days."
Catching the wrapped, steaming bun in his hand, Yun examined his food cautiously for a moment - until he realized that Ling was staring at him incredulously for still taking such measures around Yuhan. In all honestly, Yun wouldn't have cared anyway, but Kaddo was eating his own breakfast so heartily that he figured it couldn't hurt him. Besides, he had to admit that he was starving after going without food for days.
Yuhan moved over to the room's old windowsill as he took a bite out of the sweet bun in his hand. "So, first things first. We'll spend the day looking for vortexes or people who could help us, but Ba Sing Se's a huge city. We'll just stay at this inn for as long as we need to. Hopefully it won't drag." Ursa, who was standing next to him, nodded along quietly.
Ling finished folding up his mattress and blanket neatly before standing up as well. "So how would we go about searching?" he asked. "Wouldn't the Dai Li still be after us?"
"I was just getting to that part," replied Yuhan, turning back around to face him. "Long Feng hardly saw your faces, and Tyru doesn't even know what you look like. If you guys stay in the Lower and Middle Rings, it should be fine. Foreigners are common."
Yun narrowed his eyes. "And what about you, Yuhan?"
The agent narrowed his eyes in response. "I'm going to search the Upper Ring. I've still got my uniform, after all." He paused. "...And trust me, my other self probably isn't going to be hanging around the Upper Ring."
Everyone fell silent for a few seconds as well. "Okay, so Yuhan told me that two of us will search the Lower Ring while he goes the Upper Ring, and the other two will search the Middle Ring," Ursa chimed in, effectively breaking the awkwardness.
"Yeah," said Yuhan, clearing his throat. "Ursa, you go with Yun to the Lower Ring. You two can handle yourselves against thugs, anyhow." He turned to the remainder of the group. "Kaddo, Ling, you can check out the Middle Ring. There's plenty of water in the stream that Kaddo could use to defend himself, if it comes down to it."
They all seemed fine with the setup - except for Ursa, who whipped her head towards Yuhan for the briefest second as he announced the pairs. In return, he gave the slightest smirk during that same, split second. Thankfully, no one else noticed.
"Alright. Sounds like a plan," Yun said dismissively. "Let's go, Ursa." And with that, he disappeared out the front door without a single glance back in Yuhan's direction.
Yuhan sighed as he watched Yun's retreating figure, and as the Fire Nation princess followed hurriedly. After Kaddo and Ling shut the door behind them, he finally headed back towards the emerald uniform and pointed hat folded neatly in the corner of the room.
"Lovely weather today!" Kaddo remarked, a little too chipper for the situation.
It would be hard to spot any vortexes in this weather. Almost as soon as they'd left the inn, a horrible downpour had begun. Ling and the waterbender, however, were walking dry as they explored; Kaddo had utilized the rain to craft a dome over their heads out of water. As it hovered along, Ling couldn't help admiring the little trick. Shielding the rain with the rain itself - truly creative. According to Kaddo, his mother had taught the move to him.
Aside from the sheets of water constantly slapping against the ground, there was no sound as the two young warriors walked along the paved pathways of the Middle Ring. Kaddo began to whistle, though it was evidently forced in an attempt to alleviate the awkwardness. He didn't know much about the quiet earthbender next to him - only that he wasn't hotheaded like Yun or grouchy-silent like Yuhan. He was just...there. Neutral. Which wasn't a bad thing, really, but it left practically no grounds to start a conversation. Whistling some more, Kaddo fiddled around with the metal clasp at the side of his belt, which fastened one of the ends of the water skin he always wore. He suddenly groaned as he fingered the unfamiliar shape, however; he'd been wondering what kept loosening the water skin dangling behind his back, despite his numerous readjustments on his belt. Somewhere during the scuffle with the Dai Li last night, the clasp had been bent up beyond all function. Maybe it was that time it got caught on the carriage door, when the agents were stuffing him into the barred vehicle...
"Something wrong?" Ling suddenly asked. The irritation was written all over Kaddo's face, and it wasn't as if he was hiding any of his discomfort as he yanked on his belt repeatedly to tighten it, with no avail.
"Oh, it's just my stupid belt," Kaddo finally replied with a sigh. He gave up and let go of the belt, causing the waterskin to dangle loosely once more and slap down on his back every time he took another step. "Clasp's broken. Wish I remembered to ask Yuhan for some money...maybe could've gotten a new belt around here..."
Ling suddenly paused for a moment in thought. "Is it a metal clasp?"
"Yeah," replied Kaddo dismissively, looking around at the rainy surroundings to distract himself from the slapping water skin.
"Let me see it."
Ling had stopped walking. Kaddo was forced to stop as well, lest the water-dome shift away from Ling's protection.
"Think I could try something for a moment?" Ling asked simply. "I might be able to fix it."
Raising a brow, Kaddo slowly slid off his worn-down belt and handed it over. "Knock yourself out."
Ling held the belt in the air by the clasp, examining it closely for a moment as he turned it over in his fingers. He looked so oddly concentrated that Kaddo couldn't help watching curiously. The earthbender seemed to be envisioning what the natural shape of the clasp was supposed to be, as if it would magically transform if he concentrated hard enough.
Then...Ling simply started bending the parts of the metal clasp back into place. With his fingers. Like it was made of rubber.
It took a few seconds for the full meaning of the situation to hit Kaddo. "You're a metalbender?" he exclaimed, digging his fingers into his hair as he stared wildly back at his companion.
"Oh. Yeah, I am."
"And now you tell us? What...is...wrong with you?"
Ling looked taken aback as he quietly presented the repaired clasp and belt back to Kaddo, which looked as good as new. "What do you mean...?"
Kaddo groaned, almost causing the water-dome above their heads to disperse for a moment. "I mean that we were only trapped for hours in a metal prison, and taken to the creepy headquarters in a carriage with a metal clasp, and that they chained us up with metal cuffs! You couldn't have done anything then?" With that, he snatched his belt back and fastened it half-heartedly around his waist.
"Oh..." Ling looked down at the ground, scratching the back of his head awkwardly for a moment. "Actually, I did think about it. For a while. But, uh... We got out just fine, didn't we?"
"Barely!" The waterbender slapped a hand over his own face. "Seriously, Ling, what were you thinking?"
Ling took a deep breath as he suddenly stared back, his face hardening. Kaddo suddenly realized that the earthbender had actually thought his actions through last night. "I didn't metalbend because that would've caused more agents to attack us. Also, they would lock us up even more securely if they knew," Ling explained. "I knew that Yuhan would probably come up with a way to get us out quietly and efficiently, which he did. If I'd caused a ruckus by breaking us out of that cell, the whole organization would've been on us in no time. And even if we tried to break out quietly, we still don't know our way around headquarters as well as Yuhan."
Kaddo's expression had completely changed, now calmer and somewhat remorseful of his earlier attitude. He could only listen quietly now as he nodded along.
"Most importantly," continued Ling, "the way we escaped caused the least conflict with the Dai Li. Only one agent was hurt, and it wasn't severe. If I'd metalbended, we would have had a hard time getting out of there...and we'd have fought harder, too."
His words seemed to have a profound effect on Kaddo, who glanced away for a moment. "Sorry. I...didn't see it like that. I guess you do have a point," the waterbender replied quietly. Ling was truly one of the most peaceful souls he'd ever encountered. It almost made him feel bad about himself. "Thanks for fixing my belt, Ling." Deciding that things had gotten too serious, he cracked a grin as he looked back up. The earthbender smiled back in response. "Sooo anyway, guess we learn something new every day!" Kaddo went on casually, giving a somewhat forced chuckle.
Thankfully, Ling didn't seem to like lingering on serious matters himself. The guy was just too friendly for that. "Yeah," he replied cheerily. "Pretty neat trick you did with the water, on that note!" He pointed to the dome above their heads in acknowledgment. Then he suddenly paused.
"Ling?" Kaddo could sense that something had caught the earthbender's attention - something that couldn't be good, if he could say so himself.
"Kaddo..." Ling began very slowly. "I'm sorry -"
"Let me finish. I'm sorry that this is going to be really...uncomfortable for you. But we've just found someone who can probably help us figure out where the next vortex is."
"What do you mean? That's a good thing! How would I be affected?" Kaddo's words drifted off as he turned about beneath their water-dome, straining to see through the rain. "Who are you talking..."
His words seemed to dissolve into the damp air when he spotted it as well. There was a second water-dome moving along the path, just on the other side of the bridge they were crossing. And beneath it were two very young individuals. A 12-year-old boy sporting bright, orange and yellow Air Nomad attire. A 14-year-old girl accompanying him. With casual Southern Water Tribe attire and brilliant blue eyes identical to Kaddo's. The young waterbender knew their ages only because he'd heard the details of their adventures in Ba Sing Se so many times before.
Ling began to give Kaddo a little push in their direction, but the latter was rooted to the ground. "Kaddo, it'll be alright. They don't know who you are," he said softly. "We're just going to ask Avatar Aang if he can sense any spiritual disturbances like a vortex, and that'll be it. Come on...I'll talk to them. Just listen to me."
Kaddo's throat was frozen stiff. "M-my...mom. That's...my..." He choked up too much after that to manage any more words. Was that truly his beloved mother, Katara of the Water Tribe? Who spoke so cheerily to his...12-year-old father...as they walked together beneath the rain?
Ling practically had to drag the waterbender along at that point, lest Aang and Katara disappear from sight before they got a chance to ask for help. Kaddo looked oblivious to the world, and the water-dome above their heads had long disappeared.
"Excuse me..." the earthbender called out hesitatingly. The pair ahead didn't seem to hear anything above the pouring rain. "A-avatar Aang! Excuse me!" Ling called louder.
Aang and Katara turned around abruptly, peering at their addressee through the heavy downpour. Kaddo had already shifted behind the earthbender and looked as if he hoped he could hide there and disappear from sight forever.
"I'm...sorry...Avatar," Ling began awkwardly, as the pair drew closer and closer to them. "We, uh...were wondering if you could help us with something. It's kind of...serious."
Smiling brightly, the 12-year-old airbender nodded in reply. "Helping people - that's what I do! What's the problem?" It caused a little giggle from Katara, though she raised a brow when the figure behind Ling shrunk even further towards the ground.
"You see..." continued Ling. Kaddo was making it very difficult even for him to speak. "W-we didn't want to disturb you, but...we're, uh, pretty sure this is a spiritual energy-related problem. And...since you're the Avatar..."
Katara and Aang looked at each other for a moment, but the latter quickly grinned in response. "Don't worry, I gotcha. I'd love to help - but think you could give us more details? We can try to figure it out."
It became too much for Kaddo. "Yes, of course!" he suddenly piped up, scrambling out from behind Ling. His expression made the young pair take an involuntary step backwards. "Yeah, um, we'll give you all the details. But right now, we, um - we really need to tell the rest of our group about this. You know. Think we could meet up some other -"
Ling cleared his throat loudly, frowning a bit at his waterbending companion as he stepped forward. "I'm sorry about him," he sighed. "He's just...nervous...since you're the Avatar and all." He desperately continued before the situation got any worse, since Aang was now flashing one of those 'Don't worry, I'm friendly!" smiles in Kaddo's direction - which, unfortunately, definitely wouldn't help right now. "Avatar Aang -"
"Just call me Aang."
"Right," Ling replied sheepishly, trying to ignore the waterbender shrinking behind his back once more. "So, Aang, we have a serious problem, and it might sound pretty crazy. But I'll try to explain it the best I can..."
The heavy sheets of rain were too thick to ignore, and the buildings appeared even duller around them with their shrouds of fog. Ursa lifted a hand towards her brows, shielding her eyes for a moment to see through the downpour. "There's a clearing over there. See those tables?" She pointed towards a little patio outside of a run-down restaurant nearby, which had already gathered a good number of inhabitants seeking to avoid the rain. "Think we should wait there for a bit?" she asked.
Yun took another glance around at his surroundings, then sighed. "I guess it wouldn't make a difference."
The two of them paced quickly through the downpour and took a seat quietly at one of the damp tables, their clothes trailing puddles. Ursa couldn't help feeling a little down that Yun hardly took any interest in acknowledging her existence this whole time, let alone talk to her.
Yuhan's smirking face suddenly appeared in her mind's eye.
No, not like that! She irritably brushed the vision aside. It was just a matter of friendship. Yes. She wanted the group to get to know each other better, and she'd already progressed nicely with Yuhan. Right now, Yun was just making her feel down because he was still acting detached from everyone else. That was all there was to it.
"Hey, Ursa..." Yun began quietly. The Fire Nation princess surprisedly looked up at him in return. "Sorry if I've been acting kind of rude around all of you."
"Oh! Oh. N-no, I didn't think you were being rude whatsoever," Ursa quickly replied, turning her face away.
"It's okay, really. I know how I've been acting," Yun went on, slumping his shoulders. "It's just this city... I hate it." Thunder crashed loudly above their heads for a moment as his expression darkened.
Ursa sadly looked over. "Because of the Dai Li, right?" She sighed as Yun nodded grimly. "I know they did something to...your girlfriend..." For some reason, the words felt heavy on her chest. Clearing her throat, she continued, "But we can't treat Yuhan like that. He's helped us in many ways already, and you know...I've been talking to him a bit. I really don't think he's so bad."
Yun slowly looked back at her, with a face that seemed like he was struggling with all his might not to shoot down the statement, but was refraining only out of respect for her. "I...suppose." It was all he could manage to say for a moment. "But there're just some things about the Dai Li that you can't forgive. I -"
The shrill, accusing cry caused both of them to jump. Yun whipped around, drawing his sword at once, while Ursa immediately stood and shifted into a rigid stance for combat.
They were surprised to see that it was a haggard old man pointing crazedly in their direction. "Fire Nation!" he screamed. "They're here! firebenders! I told you! They're here!"
Confused, Ursa and Yun looked at one another, both evaluating each others' attires for a moment. Sure, they were wearing untraditional red and gold - but it couldn't have been that obvious, could it? Ursa's eyes suddenly widened in realization, however, when she slowly reached a hand up towards her topknot. Where the mark of her royal heritage was fastened. She quickly slipped it off and stuffed it into her pocket, though she wondered incredulously why the old man would even be paying attention during such a downpour.
Yun looked at war with himself on what to do, as the old man continued yelling nonsense about firebenders invading the city and overthrowing the Earth King. They couldn't just attack the pitiful man, but at the same time his outburst was drawing too much attention to them that they really didn't need. Especially with the Dai Li already looking to capture them.
Speak of the Face-stealer.
They were onto the old man faster than lightning. The elegant green uniforms whipped into view, practically materializing out of thin air. Ursa gasped as Yun tightened his grip on his sword. But by now it was apparent that the Fire Nation teenagers were the last thing on these agents' minds; they'd only heard someone mention the Fire Nation at all, and that was what mattered. There was some scuffling, yelling, the sound of solidifying rock...then silence.
Yun shakily slid his sword back into its sheath as he and Ursa watched the unconscious old man, hands bound by stone, being dragged noiselessly towards a barred carriage by the two Dai Li agents. It had happened in less than a minute, and the peasants around them began to stir again in nervous silence, as if trying to look unaware of it all. Yun finally found his voice again, though it was low and venomous when it came out. "Disgraceful." His trembling fists were clenched similarly to when the group had been captured by the organization themselves.
Though she was shaking a bit herself, Ursa gave his sleeve a little tug. "Come on, Yun. We need to get out of here."
Thankfully, Yun agreed to be led away from the scene, and the two of them paced quickly through the downpour, through rain as heavy as the silence that dragged between them. Ursa decided just to let the earthbender walk it out, and for now she would do the vortex-searching; he didn't look in any condition to focus on that at the moment.
If she could say so herself, it really seemed as if the Spirits were plotting against them today.
At that moment, the unmistakable sight of a Dai Li agent was charging straight in their direction, his soaked uniform leaking water through the air as he ran. Ursa was the first to spot him, and she could only tug slightly at Yun's sleeve again, her face white, to get his attention as well.
The Fire Nation princess would have resolved to run as fast as they could at that moment, but Yun seemed to have the opposite thing in mind. It was as if he'd figured that they were caught away - and if anything, he appeared to be looking forward to killing an agent or two. Horrified, Ursa tried pushing him along so that they could get away from here - anywhere away from here - but he wouldn't budge.
However, Yun's fingertips had just touched the edges of his sword handle when the Dai Li agent charged right past his face, splashing some water on him in the process. The earthbender simply stood there for a moment, as if struggling to register what just happened.
Ursa's gaze followed the direction of the agent, however, then suddenly froze as her eyes widened. She simply pointed slowly in his direction after that. "Yun. Look."
Yun wouldn't have thought much of the agent, really - if said agent didn't suddenly remove his own pointed hat from the top of his head. It seemed so unconventional, casually sliding off such an iconic part of the emerald uniform. But it wasn't even that which was most bizarre.
For next to the Dai Li agent was a thin young woman, donning simple robes and long, auburn brown hair. He'd been charging through the rain only to catch up to her, and was now setting his wide hat gently upon her head to shield her from the downpour. She looked surprisedly into his face with a smile bright enough to dispel any of the gloom from the weather around them. "Yuhan!" she gasped, before he reached down and softly took her hand. Then they darted through the rain to find shelter. Together.
Ursa and Yun could only stare, and stare some more. So many things were off with that scene. Had they really just seen Yuhan in the Lower Ring, where he wasn't supposed to be? Had Ursa really seen him just smile giddily, when the night before she couldn't imagine him smiling at all? Had Yun just witnessed a downright display of...human affection?
"W-what... What's he doing here?" Yun finally sputtered, for lack of better words. "He changed the plan! And he's not even looking for vortexes!"
"I don't know..." Ursa replied, also at a loss for words. "What should we do then, Yun...?"
Yun groaned exasperatingly as the rain continued to slap against his face. "We're going to the inn, that's what! That good-for-nothing agent went and changed plans behind our backs - as expected. We're going back to straighten things out with him!"
Even though she didn't really have a choice but to follow a scowling Yun back towards the direction of the inn, Ursa couldn't help smiling to herself. She knew that he was only frustrated and having trouble registering that Yuhan really wasn't that bad - that he was just a human being like the rest of them.
Yun slammed open the door of the inn, causing the wind outside to howl unpleasantly as he marched inside. Behind him, Ursa hurriedly slid the door shut again before following.
"Hold it right there!" a chipper young voice suddenly cried out.
Kaddo had stepped in front of them, though Yun was too busy peering over his head and trying to pinpoint Yuhan to pay attention. A second later, he suddenly felt all traces of water leave his skin and clothing, and he was faintly aware of a sloshing sound as it hit the bottom of a wooden bucket somewhere in the room.
"Thanks, Kaddo!" said Ursa in the background.
Yun didn't hear any of it. His eyes locked onto the Dai Li agent near the back of the room, who was sitting quietly across from Ling over a Pai Sho board, at the single table the innkeepers had provided. Strangely, he was back in his black robes from last night, and he raised a brow when he turned and noticed Yun's expression.
"What were you doing in the Lower Ring?" the younger earthbender demanded at once, pointing accusingly in his direction.
Yuhan's brow rose even higher. "...Excuse me?"
"We saw you!" snapped Yun, marching over to the table. Ling scooted away in his chair. "Did you just decide to settle down here now? Going off and doing your own thing while the rest of us are looking for vortexes?"
Despite everything, the Dai Li agent truly looked as if he had no idea what was going on. "Yun, I really don't know-"
"Can't you just tell us next time?" Yun threw up his arms exasperatingly. "Seriously, it's like nothing you say is actually ever true!"
Ursa stepped forward, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Yun...I really think you're starting to overreact -"
"Overreact to what?" Yuhan was finally fed up with the hotheaded earthbender, and the others fell silent when he jumped to his feet and faced the latter. "How am I supposed to explain myself if you keep interrupting me? Tell me, what did I do, Yun? Last time I checked, I was walking through the rain all day in the Upper Ring, met up with Kaddo and Ling here, and then waited with them for a good few hours before you two finally came back!"
"Wait..." Yun looked bewilderedly at Kaddo and Ling, who nodded in agreement. "You were waiting..for... How's that possible - I just saw you...and that girl..."
Yuhan suddenly went very still. His eyes strangely couldn't face anyone else, as if this were a topic they were never meant to touch on. "A girl...?" he asked quietly. His tone, however, indicated to everyone that it was more of a rhetorical question. "Oh...well..." Yuhan shifted uncomfortably and very uncharacteristically. "I think I know what happened, then."
Yun sighed exasperatingly. "Good! Then could you please -"
"You saw my other self."
"What...?" It finally dawned on Yun as he looked around at the rest of the group. They were all surprised like him, but it was the only explanation that made any sense.
"Anyway..." Yuhan continued, his voice barely audible. "That girl...um... That would be Riya."
Ursa finally realized what he was implying as he turned away embarrassedly. She suddenly remembered his smirk from earlier this morning, and how uncomfortable she'd felt. Even though his antics were totally uncalled for, she couldn't help a little feeling pity for the agent as the whole group stared at him. Deciding to be the better person, Ursa tried her best to alleviate the mood, clearing her throat. "She's very pretty, Yuhan."
No one could miss the deep shade of red that suddenly flashed across his cheeks.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa..." Kaddo stared back and forth between Yun, Ursa, and Yuhan. His eyes had widened twice their size from the realization. "So first Ling can metalbend, and then I run into my dad, who's like my age..." Yun and Ursa exchanged puzzled glances as he continued. "And now...Yuhan has a girlfriend?"
"What's that supposed to mean?!" the Dai Li agent immediately snapped back, though the bright pink color of his pale face was there to stay.
"We learn something new every day!" Ling chimed in, chuckling merrily. It didn't help Yuhan at all.
"Spirits, you've gotta tell me about this girl!" Kaddo piped up enthusiastically. "So she's pretty? Really?"
Ursa spoke up again, somewhat despairingly, as Yuhan shot an unappreciative glare in her direction. "Oh yes, Kaddo, he has a beautiful girlfriend," she explained. It was a sincere compliment, but it only caused the waterbender to give another exclamation of shock. "I thought it was sweet of him, really!" she went on desperately. "He was giving her his hat to protect her from the rain and everything..." With the next outburst from Kaddo, she finally decided that Yuhan preferred for her not to talk at all and pretended to look in a different direction.
Ling couldn't help laughing from his corner at the table, since the collection of bizarre expressions around the room was quite amusing.
"Do any of you even remember that we're searching for vortexes anymore?" scowled Yuhan, turning away from the rest of the group with even more failed attempts to hide his face. "Yun, you were getting after me for not focusing!" he suddenly threw in, causing the earthbender to look up with a jolt. "Well, here's the gist of things: Ling and Kaddo met Avatar Aang, who meditated for a little while and found our next vortex. It's stuck somewhere inside the Outer Wall, which we'll have to sneak into without getting caught by all the soldiers defending it! There!"
"Oh. Glad we found the next one." Yun somehow lost his drive to say much. Ursa's sheepish smile, Ling's laughter, Kaddo's incredulous displays of shock... It was all adding to something he couldn't quite fathom at the moment.
"Well alright, then!" Yuhan crossed his arms irritably. "Since I'm the only one who seems to want to get out of here, I'll just call the shots! Rain's too heavy to travel efficiently, so we're spending another night here. Outer Wall invasion, first thing tomorrow morning!"
No one protested as he stomped off towards the little windowsill. It seemed as if he was trying to focus on the sound of the pouring rain to distract himself from the quiet laughter that still resounded behind his back.
Yun sighed as he shifted for the hundredth time about his dull mattress. Finally giving up, he sat up grumpily and decided to grab some leftover dinner that Yuhan had bought for the group earlier. He soon realized, however, that the Dai Li agent was also awake.
Yuhan wasn't even making any effort to sleep this time, as he leaned his back quietly against the wall and peered towards the full moon outside the window. "Hey." He waved dully in greeting.
"Hey." Yun hesitatingly made his way over to the room's little table, grabbing another bun before taking a seat a few feet away from the agent. "Thought you were tired."
"Yeah, probably," replied Yuhan with a shrug. "But honestly, I got so much extra sleep recently that I'm not even used to." He gazed quietly out the window once more. "Not that it doesn't feel nice or anything, but right now I'm just thinking about...stuff."
Yun looked upon the agent's pale face, its expression so familiar...and he suddenly knew what Yuhan was referring to. "Did we remind you about her, Yuhan? The girl - Riya."
"Maybe." Yuhan's face indicated a definite 'yes,' despite his reply. "I...I do remember that day, you know. With the rain." Yun fell silent as he picked slowly at his bun. "I try not to think about it," continued the agent. "But - well, there's always a chance we might not ever make it out of this vortex mess. And sometimes..." He chuckled slightly and looked down. "It sounds cheesy, but I just start wondering...what if..."
"We might not see our girlfriends again," finished Yun, laughing a bit as well. "Don't worry, I get paranoid about that all the time when I think of Ty Lee these days."
It was the first time the two earthbenders could truly converse with each other, and even smile at the same time. Both of them seemed to resolve to enjoy the peaceful silence for a long moment, and Yuhan continued gazing wistfully at the moon outside.
Giving a long sigh, Yun finally gathered up all of his willpower for his next words. Yuhan deserved that much. "Look...I'm sorry for the way I've been acting."
"Huh?" Yuhan gazed back surprisedly, before scratching his head and looking away again. "Oh - it's nothing, really. I don't blame you entirely for it."
"Yeah...about that..." Yun took a deep breath. "Yuhan, I feel like you'll actually get what I'm talking about now...now that I saw you and Riya."
Yuhan grew quiet as he gazed back.
"Just imagine it for a moment, Yuhan," Yun continued boldly. "You care about Riya, right? You...love her, right?"
Yun already knew it was true from the moment he saw Yuhan exchange smiles with the auburn-haired girl in the rain. But it was still something else to see the agent next to him grow completely still, staring at the moon for a good few minutes before he could actually reply. Yuhan's eyes softened ever so slightly as he spoke, his voice barely a whisper. "...Yeah."
"Well..." Yun couldn't help smiling in understanding for a moment, at such a pure display of emotion that he'd never thought possible from a Dai Li agent. "I also love someone, Yuhan. Ty Lee." He inhaled slowly as he sensed the emerald eyes examining him closely once more. "You have to understand... The Dai Li changed her. They took her and...made her suffer..." His fists involuntarily clenched again, causing his bun to shed several crumbs onto the floor. "I just - I can't forget that. What they did was just...terrible."
Yuhan couldn't find the words to reply. He could only keep watching Yun, his eyes clouded and somewhat conflicted as he envisioned the scene that the younger earthbender described.
"So, I think we might actually be able to get along now," Yun continued quickly, shuffling a little as he relaxed again. "But if I act up around the Dai Li tomorrow...just try to understand." He paused for a long moment. "Yuhan...wouldn't you do the same? If they took Riya?"
The agent was taken completely by surprise. "I..." He seemed to have lost the ability to speak, as he frowned and stared down upon the wooden floor.
Yun knew that it was best to leave him at this moment. He knew enough about his agent friend now. It suddenly dawned on him that yes...Yuhan really was a friend, wasn't he? "Night, Yuhan." He stood up swiftly and brushed off the crumbs of his snack from his shirt.
"See you in the morning, Yun." The agent continued to gaze solemnly at the full moon long after his earthbending companion fell asleep.
"Alright, ninja Yuhan!"
Kaddo grinned as the group hunched behind Ba Sing Se's breathtaking Outer Wall. Indeed, Yuhan was sporting his shadowy getup once more. But today, he seemed to be in a better mood than usual. "Get used to it," he replied casually, as if there could actually be a smile somewhere beneath the mask.
Stranger still, Yun seemed more cheerful as well - like he could actually feel team spirit - despite the fact that they could be caught any minute and get beaten down by the hordes of Royal Guards patrolling the wall.
"So Kaddo, which area did your dad say the vortex was near again?" asked Ling, leaning forward a bit to see the waterbender over everyone's heads.
"Over there," replied Kaddo, pointing in the distance to a patch of the wall that appeared oddly discolored. "I'll bet the vortex is right behind those bricks and making them look like that."
"Alright then," said Ling. "So Yuhan and I will take down the wall first, while everyone else tries to fight off any disruptions?"
"Right," called Ursa from the other side of the group. "Hopefully it won't take too long to get to the vortex - I'd imagine that it'd get pretty crowded with guards right away."
"We'll be fine," declared Yun, stepping forward to join her. His reassuring smile caused her face to feel strangely warm again, but she ignored it.
"Sounds like we're all ready, then!" announced Yuhan. "On the count of three: One...two..."
They all charged at the third count, and the wall next to them immediately rumbled horribly as the Royal Guards jumped at the discovery of intruders. Yuhan and Ling already had to shove aside several boulders crashing down over their heads as they clenched their fists and started tearing off chunks of the discolored wall.
It was actually a lot easier than expected at first, even though rows upon rows of guards started landing on the ground in front of them. To begin with, they hadn't been expecting flames or water whips as attacks at all, and the initial shock disoriented them. On top of that, Yun had found much use for the rock-glove trick he'd picked up from Yuhan, pinning down the guards here and there before they were knocked out by another water whip. Other times he actually had to utilize his sword, though, whenever they became too numerous. But overall, his little team of three was holding up quite well on their own.
"Almost...there..." he heard Ling grunt in the midst of the breaking wall pieces.
"DAI LI!" a terrified waterbender suddenly screamed.
Yun's stomach dropped as he followed the direction of Kaddo's finger towards the array of emerald uniforms quickly approaching from the distance. "Yuhan! We have a big problem!" he yelled, twisting his head back towards his brainwashing companion.
Yuhan jerked his head to look, then turned back around just as quickly as he continued to tear away at the wall as fast as he could. "Just try to hold them off as long as you can! We're almost there!" he shouted back.
The Dai Li were much more formidable earthbenders than the Royal Guards, dodging the group's attacks for the most part as they continued to close the gap between them. Their earthen gloves began to shoot towards the group like a dark shower of stone, and Ursa and Kaddo frantically struggled to avoid getting caught by any of them. Yun soon found himself pulling the gloves off of his companions to prevent them from being yanked away more than actually attacking his enemy. Growling, he elbowed one of the agents in the face right as they drew too close to him, then swung his sword threateningly at the others as they approached.
Come on, Yuhan...Ling... It was becoming apparent that too many guards and agents were gaining on them at this point, and Yun desperately wished for the wall to tumble down more than anything else as Ursa cried out and began struggling against the ground as a stony hand dragged her feet along. She shot both palms forward and released a powerful jet of flame that caused the capturing agent to yell and fall backwards from the impact, but not before three or four more pairs of gloves shot down in her direction.
There was suddenly a loud rumble and a series of crashes that drowned out the rest of the noises in the world. Everyone, even the Dai Li agents, paused for a moment as the side of the Outer Wall gave away and crumbled to the ground, sending ripples like an earthquake.
Out of nowhere, Ling stepped foward and lifted his arms high into the air for a moment. He threw them down towards the ground a split second later - and every Dai Li agent's hat toppled over and covered its owner's face at the same time.
Ursa didn't need to ponder what had just happened as she jumped back to her feet. While the horde of agents were still distracted and blocked from vision by their own uniforms, she swung her arms as hard as she could, her body almost spinning slightly from the circular momentum in her feet. A curved, massive wave of flame immediately shot out, its sheer size and overwhelming heat striking the Dai Li agents off-guard and causing most of them to fall to the ground.
"Let's go!" Yuhan yelled from the distance. The group turned around to see that he was standing next to the newly uncovered vortex, which looked like a swirling black sea of emptiness in the middle of nowhere as always.
None of the guards nor agents really knew what happened at that point. It looked like there was something that resembled a giant black well made of shadows - but it disappeared just as quickly as the intruders.
Some could've sworn that they'd heard a few last sentences from the unworldly group before their mysterious disappearance, however:
"By the way, I still think that rock-glove trick of yours is pretty cool."
"Oh? Heh, thanks..."
"Hey Ling, looks like you actually found something useful for metalbending!"
"Well, yeah. Dai Li hats. They've got metal."