If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
- Matthew 7:11
Bae is out shopping for treats.
Unusual for an agent of the Dai Li, but Bae once worked under Lake Laogai, under the command of Xin Wan and Captain Liu, and he knows the workings of the mind. If he is to talk to the Fire Nation men left behind in Ba Sing Se, he needs to have something to set them at ease.
Food is very good for that.
He has just turned the corner leading into the food shops when something explodes against his side and a small arm latches around his waist. Without even thinking he grabs at the earth around him, ready for a counter-offensive as he looks down.
Pale green eyes filled with tears stare up at him, surrounded by a pale face coated in dust and grime. It is a little girl, ragged and filthy and holding onto him with only one arm but clinging for all she is worth.
Even if he couldn't see her face he would know who she is; only one child in Ba Sing Se sees the Dai Li as protectors these days.
"Mi-Cha!" Ignoring how filthy the child is, he kneels and hugs her close. She's thin, much thinner than she should be, and trembling in his arms. The Commander said she was being cared for. Something went wrong.
"Bae!" Hyo's little girl sobs, burying her face in his tunic. He lets her hold on, and very carefully examines the arm hanging limp at her side.
Bae is Dai Li, and a student of Xin Wan. He lets no trace of rage cross his face to frighten the little girl as he spies the bruises under the dust, the slight bend in her arm where there should not be one.
Someone has been cruel to the Dai Li's little girl.
But now is not the time for anger. First Mi-Cha has to be taken care of and made safe once more. Only then can the hunt begin.
"We need to visit a doctor, Mi-Cha," Bae tells her gently. "May I carry you?"
She looks up at him and he sees that her tears have spilled over, forming tracks in the dirt coating her face. But she's trying to be brave now, and she nods, moving her good arm from his waist. As carefully as if she is made of porcelain, Bae lifts her into his arms, ignoring the stares from the passers-by. She clings to him desperately as he begins to walk, but her trembling is starting to abate. She knows she is safe now.
"I'm so glad to see you, Mi-Cha," Bae says, his voice low and soothing. "We've been worrying so much about you."
"D-daddy took me to a f-friend," she tells him, her voice wobbly. "So the p-princess wouldn't know 'b-bout me..."
"That was very smart of him." And unusual. It's rare for a Dai Li agent to maintain the friendships he had had before his appointment, but then, everything about the Commander of the Dai Li is unusual, including the little girl in Bae's arms. And Hyo understands people just as well as the Dai Li who do their secret work under Lake Laogai. If he had trusted this friend to take care of his daughter, Mi-Cha would have been cared for, not harmed. Therefore something has happened to this friend.
But there is nothing he can do about it right now.
A few minutes' walking and they're at the place of a doctor the Dai Li make use of on occasion. The woman is discreet and knows better than to ask about anyone brought to her for clean-up; in return she is well-paid for her work and her silence. As gently as she is able, the doctor cleans Mi-Cha up, finds her new clothes (a little large, but for one as fastidious as Mi-Cha is that doesn't matter as much as the lack of grime), and sets the break in her arm.
Once all that is done, Bae pays her, then offers to carry the little girl once more. In answer Mi-Cha wraps her good arm around him again as if she'll never let go. It is a good thing they were in the Lower Ring already, because there is only one place where she will be safe.
King Kuei and the friends of the Avatar thought that the base below Lake Laogai had been destroyed. What they hadn't realised that only one pathway to the base had been. After all, why let only one breach make their stronghold inaccessible? Even if the mindbenders can no longer work there, that base still had use - even now it served as a hiding place for Captain Jae, 'killed' by Long Feng in a fight and now free to serve their Director from the shadows.
Once they are below the surface, Bae continues on, travelling through the dark with Mi-Cha's small, trusting body in his arms, her face pressed into his shoulder to hide from the darkness and the fears lurking within. He needs no light; he knows this base from all angles and directions after over a decade working away from the light.
It isn't a long way through the twisting passages to where Captain Jae has holed up, and Bae is pleased to see that Captain Liu is there as well. The two men turn as he walks in, and their shock is evident on their faces.
"Mi-Cha!" cries Jae, and the only reason Liu does not is because he can not.
The little girl takes her face from Bae's shoulder, and her tears spill over once again. "Jae! Liu!" She lets go of Bae's neck with her good arm and reaches for the two captains.
It's Liu who is closest, and he is just as gentle with her as Bae is as he lifts her into his own arms. Some time is spent for the three men to fuss over her, and she is passed between them, never without the safety of their arms. She is in Jae's arms when Liu pulls away to put his hand on the wall. The time for reassurance is over; now she must be debriefed. Gently, for she is only eight, but they still must know what transpired.
"What happened?" Jae asks her, for Mi-Cha is young and still learning to read and so questioning falls to him rather than Liu.
For the second time, Mi-Cha explains how Hyo had left her with a civilian friend in order to hide her from the princess. From there, she picks up with new information. "About... ten days after Daddy left, a man came to the door." Her tears spill over once more, and her body trembles from the memory. "He killed Daddy's friend."
The three men nod, then Bae asks, "Do you know his name?"
Mi-Cha shakes her head. "He never told me," she says, but then her pale eyes flash. "But I know what he looks like." She describes the man for them, hair and eyes and shape of the face, height and even approximate weight; Hyo has taught his darling child well, and that will help the Dai Li to catch the trash who dared to harm her.
As the child speaks, Liu splays his fingers against the wall and a man appears there as he makes the stone to flow like water and renders him in stone, so the three men will know the face of the trash to catch him and reward him properly. "Is that him?" Jae asks now.
Mi-Cha turns in his arms to look; her whimper and the way she hides her face again is answer enough. Liu smooths the walls to bare stone once more, then fetches his writing kit. Soon all the remaining Dai Li will know whom they hunt.
When the little girl is calmed once more, Jae continues the debriefing. "What happened after that, Mi-Cha?"
She takes a deep breath and licks her lips. "He- he took me. He knew what I can do, I don't know how. But he wanted me to change gems for him."
Jae's eyes narrow and his lips peel back in a snarl; Bae rescues Mi-Cha from his arms before he can frighten her more and turns her to face him. "What did he do?"
"At first, he just gave me the stones," Mi-Cha tells him. Her voice is shaking slightly; Bae holds her close and strokes her hair to soothe her. "When I refused, he wouldn't give me food." She ducks her head, shamed. "I... I gave in. I was so hungry...," and her voice was soft and sad, ashamed at her weakness. "I shaped him some rose quartz."
Bae holds her close to him, trying to comfort her. "It's all right. Sometimes we have to do things we wouldn't want to do so we can get by."
Jae nods and adds, "Survival is the most important thing, Mi-Cha."
The little girl snuggles close to Bae, clearly trying to borrow strength from him. "It kept him happy for a day or so. But then... he decided I wasn't fast enough. He wanted more."
Jae hisses; all the Dai Li know that Mi-Cha's bending is a delicate thing that cannot be sped up, especially given how young she is. Bae, however, cuddles her close to him. "Did he hurt you?" he asks.
For a long moment, Mi-Cha is completely still.
When she nods, Jae has to close his eyes to keep from shaking the walls with his rage, Bae hugs her tightly, and Liu slashes characters into the walls. 'How long?' is his demand.
More silence, then she whispers, "A long time." She is practically inside Bae's jacket now. "I kept trying to run away, but he always caught me. He'd hit me to make me stay, and wouldn't feed me."
Bae's arms tighten around her, though he is mindful of her broken arm. The little girl trembles, but goes on, "And he started making me bend. All the time. I was so tired, but he'd kick me awake if I fell asleep." She looks up then, and her pale eyes flash, so like her father when he loses his temper. "So I waited until he was drunk and I went out the window."
"Brave little Mi-Cha," Bae says, rubbing her back gently.
"I was dirty," she says, and they all know how difficult that must have been for her; Mi-Cha is infamous for her hatred of being dirty. "And I broke my arm, but then I saw you, Bae..."
Her voice trails off, and Bae picks up the story from there. "I took her to our doctor. Liu, you know the one. She set Mi-Cha's arm and cleaned her up, then I brought her straight here."
The two captains nod, and Jae speaks again. "Well. I think you should take Mi-Cha down to the storage room and get her some lunch. Then a bath, then some sleep."
Mi-Cha snuggles against Bae, the hard part done with, and smiles. Her love and trust for the three men is evident as she says, "Thank you, Jae..."
Jae smiles back. "It's so good to have you back, Mi-Cha."
Bae rises, still carrying her, and takes her off to be taken care of and fussed over.
General How is unaware of his visitor until the door of his metal cell opens. His head snaps up and he falls back into a fighting stance. He doesn't relax on seeing the forest green uniform of a Dai Li agent; who knows what the traitors are doing for their new Fire overlords.
But then the man shows him ungloved hands. He carries stone with him, but it is a slate. This means nothing; the Dai Li shape stone just as well as anyone. The fact that it is the mute agent does nothing to reassure him.
Then the agent drops into the bow of deepest abasement, forehead touching the floor.
How's eyes narrow. Something is going on here.
It seems that the agent -- Liu, that's his name -- needs something.
"What is it?" he asks, keeping his voice down.
Liu places his hand on the slate, and characters appear there as if carved. 'We need to borrow one of the Army's trained torturers.'
How stares at the agent. Has the man run mad?
When the silence has stretched for more than a minute, new characters appear. 'We have found Mi-Cha, our Commander's daughter. She was stolen from her caretaker, her caretaker murdered, and the man who stole her abused her. She has a broken arm, has been starved, and is much bruised.'
How's eyes narrow further. He has no love for the Dai Li, but their Commander is at least respectful (unlike certain Captains who shall go unnamed), and he has met the little girl. She is sadly too fond of the Dai Li, but she can't be blamed for that, given her parentage.
And he has no love for the abusers of children.
But on the other hand, how does he know Liu speaks -- or writes -- the truth?
More characters replace the ones on the slate: 'We cannot free you; it would be noticed. But we can carry messages.'
But how can he know for certain this isn't a trap?
He looks at Liu again, and he remembers a Dai Li agent being carried past some of his troops, with the lower half of his face and his throat melted to uselessness. He remembers another Dai Li agent with an unprecedented promotion, straight to Commander without making Captain.
And most of all, he remembers a happy little girl who once pressed a bit of pure jade into his hand for no true reason.
"Ao Jian is still free," How says quietly.
Liu bows his head in thanks, then tilts his head. How is used to silence, given his own aide-- Kiet.
"What happened to Kiet?" he asks.
'Gone,' come the words on the slate. 'He vanished during the confusion after the coup. Nobody has laid a hand on him.'
Not the answer How had hoped for, but better than he expected. Kiet is an intelligent man and made it through one invasion already. People underestimate a deaf man, which is why How finds him valuable.
Liu rises to his feet with easy grace, gives How a full bow of departure, then vacates the cell.
How could almost pity the man who harmed Commander Hyo's child. Instead he wonders what it's like to be dead and not yet realise it.
And the moral of our story is: don't mess with a Dai Li's kid. The consequences will be physical, mental, and horrible. And then they'll kill you.
Notes: Bae, Liu, and Jae all belong to Rebecca Hb. and are used with her permission and input. Hyo and Mi-Cha are mine; she has standing permission to play with them as she desires. General How is canon and I'll put him back when I'm done with him.