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|All Good Things III: The Beginning|
Thursday, March 26, 2016
Across town, an enormous oblong shadow drifted over the stalled train. The airship dangled lines upon which the cops and politicians climbed aboard, Chief Beifong helping the portly and balding Yánjī, robe hems burned and still jumpy from being cornered by the Agni Kais. While they ascended, healers dropped down, boarding the train to help those still inside.
Once the officials were inside the ship and the bay doors closed, the craft lazily swung around and began drifting towards police headquarters.
"Candidate Yánjī," Lin Beifong instructed, "When we get to HQ, you may wish to stay behind in the airship. The situation inside the building will probably be very dangerous."
"So you 'rescued' me only to bring me into more danger!?" he asked incredulously, chest swelling, threatening to dislodge the row of gold clasps down his front, "The Earth Queen will be sure to hear about this!"
"That is why I suggested you stay behind in the safety of the airship," the Chief said in a deadpan voice.
"And let those 2 boast about how I cowered in the sky while they marched bravely into battle?!" he shrieked, pointing a stubby, many-ringed finger at Keter and Franz, who stood as far apart as possible, arms crossed. In return, they took a break from glowering at each other to combine their glare against Yánjī.
"Fine, have it your way," the Chief remarked irritably, throwing up her hands and turning away, "Just stay close to Kali and myself, so we can protect you."
Soon enough, a man announced over the intercom that they were closing in on the building. Awash in the floodlights, they could see that the parking lot was unusually free of pedestrians, but otherwise seemed normal. The bay doors opened once again, and a hum vibrated through the chamber as the Chief directed the enormous spools of steel thread above them to unravel.
As they slid down the lines to the roof, they noticed that many of the police cars bore deflated tires, dented chassis, and other signs of vandalism. After touching down, they entered the nearest stairwell. Kali and the chief were in front, followed by Franz and Keter, elbowing each other aside, with Yánjī taking up the rear. A short jaunt downward, they reached the top landing and the chief stomped, closing her eyes to focus.
"...From what I can tell," she announced after a few seconds, "They're mostly below us. There's a small group about 2 landings down. Follow me and be ready."
They complied, Kali igniting a bright flame in her palm and holding it up for all to see. The group turned down 2 flights of stairs, now shining bright as day, their pupils constricting to adjust to the new level of light. Once they reached the bottom, the chief unceremoniously kicked open the doors, the light from the halls joining with Kali's.
Seeing a cloud of bolas heading towards them, Kali and Keter stepped forward, fists outstretched. Though they launched a swirl of orange-blue fire down the hall, the group was still forced to duck as the projectiles shot through the blaze.
"Flame-retardant weapons won't stop me!" Kali jeered, again withdrawing her weapons and sending arcs of electricity up their length. This time, the energy did not fly from the tips, but rather ran back and forth along the length of the metal, sending out trails of brilliant blue sparks as she whirled forwards, swinging them into the abdomens of Purists to reduce them to fallen, twitching masses.
Eventually, they caught on, and began catching her attacks with their shields. Shimmering sparks cascaded down the plastic, glowing violent red as her sticks sliced through them, dangerously slowing her momentum. Before they could shoot their firebows, Yánjī and Lin each pulled walls out, sandwiching the Purists and allowing Kali to knock them out with precise jabs. When the earthbenders put the walls back, all that remained was a contingent of 6 individuals around an eerie masked man.
"Stay close to me," the man said calmly, "And you will have nothing to fear."
Being the closest, Kali stretched both batons out in front of her, spraying the energy in a wide cone. The hall crackled and banged, awash in oscillating blue light from fingers of lightning raking across the walls, but the Purists had ducked down another stairwell. The ionic spears sank into the walls as quickly as they were fired, and Kali and the others thundered along down the stairs and out the door behind their quarry, noticing too late the blasting jelly packed into the hall's molding.
By the time Kali had yelled that it was a trap, drowned out by the flashbang, Keter was already reaching out to pull the fire away from them while Lin and Yánjī stomped, dropping the group through the floor. Though Kali, Franz, and Yánjī had to dig themselves out of undignified, half-buried positions, Keter and Lin landed in catlike squats. The ringing in their ears gradually faded, until they could hear the patter of the last bits of smoking plaster raining into the seemingly deserted hall.
"They should have been back by now!" Aroma cried anxiously, wringing her hands as she paced, wobbling on every other step. "That's it," she decided, stamping her good foot, "We should go after them!"
"Are you sure?" Naakée asked.
"I'm the highest ranked Healer in the room, aren't I?!" she asked frantically, looking around at the sisters, who exchanged glances. "Then help me into the hallway!"
"Y—yes, Ma'am!" they called, hurrying around to her either side.
"Hey, hold on!" a young metalbending officer protested. As he stepped forward, Aroma recognized him as the young man she had treated before the undercover operation. He pointed his now-rejuvenated finger at the Healers and continued, "We were ordered to stay here and protect you, not go charging into certain death!"
His superior officer, whom Aroma again recognized as Chan, also stepped forward, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Well, then, I guess that means we'd better go with them to protect them, and see if we can't make death a little bit less certain."
"He's right," the 3rd officer said. This was a slender woman whom Aroma didn't know, with lavender eyes and a single curl of black hair sticking out from under her helmet, "Chan's the highest-ranking officer in this situation. Rescue missions are his call. If both he and the Healers agree, regulations say to proceed."
"Thank you, Lian," Chan said before turning back to the young man. "We need to be flexible in a perilous time like this. Besides, you always said you wanted to see real action, right Dong?"
The young man nodded slowly, but clenching his jaw did nothing to hide his quivering knees.
"...Your name is 'Dong'?" Aroma asked slowly.
"Yeah?" he spat, whipping his head around to face her, "What of it? It means, 'excellent,' you know!"
"I think it's a very strong name," Aroma answered with a nod, using every ounce of her self-control to keep her face straight for his sake, succeeding but for a slight twitch of her mouth, "And very fitting." Fortunately, the intern sisters were clutching their stomachs and looking too sick to even open their mouths, let alone laugh. Instead, they just nodded.
"Thanks," Dong said, smiling slightly, but still shaking.
"Alright!" Chan interjected with a clap, "Let's move out!"
As it turned out, they did not have to "move out" very far before finding a trio of metalbenders half-buried in rubble in an adjacent hallway.
"Are they—y'know?" Dong asked, grabbing the wall to keep himself steady as his superiors set to work clearing the rubble with waves of their hands.
On cue, the intern sisters helped Aroma kneel down, each checking a respective officer's pulse. "This man is in bad shape, but he may pull through with emergency healing," Saanya reported, a declaration her sister soon echoed. They looked to Aroma, who shook her head. "I am very sorry, but—"
"You don't need to say it," Dong said wistfully, "I get it. Poor Kong...I mean, I never liked the guy, but still. And what do we tell his parents?"
"Perhaps that they should try to not give birth to a violent, despotic freak next time," a familiarly cold voice said as the cop duo cleared the larger rubble away, "Or perhaps you should worry about yourselves."
The Purist Leader was hunched over on the other side, with her left arm outstretched as if holding something. She twisted her short sword and stabbed over the wall, aiming at Lian. Chan pulled her back by her arm, launching the concrete slab he was moving forward with a punch. She ducked, it skidding across the floor behind her, before vaulting over the debris pile to kick Lian in the chest and send them both toppling backwards. Aroma could hear whatever she was holding slump to the ground, and grabbed hold of the rock pile to prop herself up and peer over it.
"Thiera!" Aroma cried, spotting the waterbender lying on her side in an odd "L" shape. Part of her throat had been nicked, but fortunately aside from that and an ochre stain on the back of her cranium from a small abrasion, she seemed okay.
"What do you want us to do?" Saanya asked.
"Uh—just make sure Thiera's head injury isn't too severe, then help your sister with the officers! And speaking of 'officers....'."
She looked back over her shoulder to see the Purist Leader plunge downward with a 2-handed stab. Lian countered by bringing her knees to her chest and flipping, flinging the Purist Leader off of her. The crazed warrior twirled in the air, bouncing on her heels, and produced a bomb from her kimono as the cops were trying to regain their footing.
After extricating themselves from the rubble, Keter immediately brushing dust off of her dark dress and lustrous hair, the Beifong Party looked around.
"They should be coming from the other end of the hall," the Chief snapped, "But they won't know that we escaped the explosion, so we'll have the element of surprise!"
"An intriguing theory, Chief Beifong," the deep voice from before interjected. Their necks snapped upward to see the masked man standing above them, his hands behind his back and his forces surrounding the hole, the points of their firebows gleaming down at them. "But I do believe you are mistaken."
"The mistake was opening your smarmy mouth," she countered with an overly smug grin for the situation, "Now you've ruined your own ambush just as much as ours."
"On the contrary," he replied, "I simply do things differently from you or our glorious Leader."
"Is that so? Like what?"
"Surrender," he commanded, ignoring her question, "There is no way that you can metalbend all of these weapons before they can be fired. But if you give yourselves over willingly, you will not be harmed—merely incapacitated and taken to be cleansed of your impurities."
"Sounds pretty harmful to me," the chief quipped.
"I admit," he drawled, "Dr. Avici's techniques have not been...refined quite yet."
"And how do you plan on refining them?"
But the masked man was no longer paying attention to the Chief, looking instead to Keter, who was closing her eyes and flaring her nostrils in what he at first assumed was a resigned sigh. Now he knew better.
"Get down!" he wailed with an accompanying gesture, but too late—Keter opened her pursed lips slightly, blowing a deadly dragon's kiss up to the impromptu balcony. The Purists stumbled back, chased by lashes of furiously burning azure. Chief Beifong reached up, squeezing her hands into fists, crushing the forgotten firebows into twisted hunks that were quickly cast aside. As Keter twirled to exhale her inferno on Amon, Kali thrust her palms to the floor and leaped like a rabaroo, bursts of flames at her hands and feet launching her into the air.
The Purists managed to fan Keter's flames away with their shields, but Kali emerged from the blaze, withdrawing her weapons as she flipped forward. A pair of Purists went down as her strikes connected with their clavicles. As she landed, she leaned, bashing a 3rd Purist in the back of the leg, a spasm running through it when he tried to regain his balance. When he hit the floor, she quickly rotated her weapon to a reverse grip and pounded the tip against his stomach. He retched, from the bright blue light surging into him until he rolled around in a wild seizure.
However, when she attempted to swing her other weapon at Amon, he effortlessly ducked back, the crackling sparks of the platinum rod coming within an inch of his plastic face. She tilted her left hand weapon, which glowed brightly before thrusting a single spear of lightning through the wall—Amon had jumped forward and over her attack. While airborne, he slapped Kali in the face, prompting the stumbling firebender to wave wildly with her right-hand club. Again, Amon weaved around her attacks, but this time he shot forward.
Meanwhile, the remaining Purists regained their composure, each tossing a bomb down the hole. As the explosives struck the ground, they shattered, releasing rushing blooms of orange flames. But this time, their enemies were prepared. With a clap of her hands, Keter caused the explosions to wobble, briefly frozen in time, before compressing as if in reverse, and then finally spiraling together and darkening into a swirl of azure flames.
With a vicious high kick upward, Keter sent the blaze drilling through the roof, shattering the Purists' footing. Briefly trying to catch their fall, they hastily let go of the glowing, dripping sludge that was once the edge of the ceiling tiles. Once they were down, Franz made a quick draw slash, launching a wave of freezing water to bind their legs and arms to the ground.
"Finish up here and guard Yánjī with your lives!" the Chief ordered, before repelling upward to assist Kali, ignoring the distrustful glares exchanged between politicians.
Amon ducked under Kali's right-hand swing, grabbing her wrist in the process. A writhing mass of electric tendrils surged from her left hand up the baton, but before she could fire, Amon twisted her captive arm, forcing her to expose her right side and launch the blast down the hall. In a single motion, he kneed her in the ribs and extracted the weapon from the now-limp fingers of her right hand. Similarly, her right leg also rolled underneath her, but Amon was forced to back off as Chief Beifong sprang up and brought her heel down where his elbow had been moments ago.
The metalbender surged forwards with a series of jabs, cracking a floor tile and swinging the dirt up towards his face with her foot, but he ducked away from them all. Hearing the crackling of Kali's weapon, she twisted away from Amon so her subordinate could let the next bolt fly. As the chief moved, she extended her fists and, with them, a chunk of the wall to pen Amon from behind.
Amazingly, he managed to roll underneath the lightning--which carved a lattice of fissures in the barrier behind him--hurling a bola that snapped Kali's forearm back and tied it against her upper arm, causing her to drop her remaining weapon. With the right half of her body below the neck still paralyzed, she thrashed around until she managed to bring her left foot up to kick a fireball at him, which ended up only blowing her down to the other floor as Amon ducked once again, the flames splashing uselessly against the floor.
"Slippery, aren't you?" Chief Beifong commented. With a powerful stomp, she shattered the floor tiles all around him, which rose up as a thick, shadowy cloud of dust. "Let's see you dodge this."
She started to bring her hands together, but the clouds in front of her dispersed as a kali stick came spiraling out of the cloud, bashing her in the face. Amon swooped out seconds later, grabbing the thrown rod out of the air and bringing it down on her shoulder. While he was stooped, he took the other weapon off of the ground and swung it into her knee, using his weight to push the chief over the edge.
She landed next to Kali in a bed of powdery snow which, with an upward slice of Franz's sword, melted into blade of water that sliced cleanly into the stone above, Amon scrabbling out of view. The chairman rotated the sword in his palm, splitting the liquid into a series of ice spikes that rocketed down the upstairs hall on his down stroke.
"How incompetent could you possibly be?!" Keter roared furiously. "Why would you strike at a target that you can't even see!?"
"Don't be such a daft dame," Franz replied gruffly, waving her off, "No nonbender could have possibly evaded that. He'll be lucky if there's enough left of him to fit in a match box."
Naturally, Amon swooped out of the shadows, landing just in front of Franz. When he tried to slash, the Purist grabbed his blade with the kali sticks, flinging it at Keter's outstretched fist. The flames emerging from her knuckles fizzled out as her evening gloves tore and she grasped her bleeding arm with a sharp gasp.
Still dazed, the police officers were of no help as Amon brought the pommel of his right kali stick into Franz's stomach. He exhaled sharply, but caught Amon's wrist as he aimed a side swipe at his head.
"You'll pay—for underestimating an Officer!" he wheezed, swinging a left hook at Amon's head. The masked man shifted his elbow, knocking the blow aside, then jumped back as an infuriated Keter opened her mouth wide, screeching out a cloud of flames. Franz immediately let go of the Purist and staggered back. For his part, Amon pushed off of the wall, evading a haphazard stone block shot by Yánjī via rolling between Franz and his saber.
"AUUUGH!" the firebender's screech rose to new heights as she plunged her burning fingers into her wound and swiped down, sealing it with a glossy red scar and arresting the stains spreading down her gloves. In the same motion, she pointed at Amon, a growing blue light crackling at her fingertips as she continued to roar in fury, aiming through a squinted, tear-soaked eye. No fool, Franz tried to back away again, but was tripped up by Amon's kali stick.
As the chairman was pierced by Keter's lightning, the masked Purist shot towards the earth delegate who tried, too late, to raise a defensive curtain of rock. Amon sprang over the wall, deftly incapacitating Yanji with kali jabs to his armpits. Spinning his weapons, he followed up with pommel strikes to the throat and temple, knocking him out.
Hearing a crackling behind him, Amon glanced back to see that Keter had slid heels-first across the floor, splayed pale limbs and dark dress twinkling in a fierce blue backlight. Her left hand seemed to be vacuuming up the sparks coursing through Franz. She reared back with her right, fingers outstretched as if drawing an arrow of lightning, which she loosed at her foe.
Dropping to a crawl as the luminous trail sailed harmlessly over him, Amon reached into his belt and slung a bola out like a whip. Keter clawed at the strap that suddenly wrapped tight around her throat, Amon clutching the other end with his fist. When it wouldn't give, she pointed her fingers at him, but only sparks drizzled out.
"The power of firebending comes from the breath, correct? Now you know what it feels like to be powerless in the face of a relentless foe."
Amon single-handedly pulled Keter to her knees, where she tugged futily at her noose, unable even to gasp out of her gaping maw. He turned his attention from her to his wriggling comrades, smashing the ice binding them with a few precise swipes of a kali stick.
"The Chief of Police is stirring," he noted, "Bind her and her comrades, while I finish with the Chosen Tyrant of the Firebenders."
They nodded, striding carelessly past Keter, ignoring the way she glared at them through bulging, fluttering eyes. Just as her eyes began to roll upward, the pressure on the bola released, snapping it back to its owner. Keter fell to her hands, sucking in air as quickly as possible, but had little time to enjoy it. As soon as the flickers of blue began to form over her tongue, she was hit square in the face with a smoke bomb. She hacked and coughed herself into unconsciousness, while Amon secured the kali sticks behind his back, just as their former owner had once worn them.
The officers' eyes opened weakly, pupils focusing on the Purists above them. Shrugging her shoulders to find she still could not move her arms, Kali tried kicking her good leg up close to her chest to bring an arc of flames down upon them, but they fizzled the instant the smoke reached them. The Purists merely tightened the fabric around their mouths, before withdrawing and twirling their bolas.
The battle only ended when Chief Beifong, quickened by sheer desperation, rolled over and hammered her fist into the floor. Cracks spread across the tiles, like the creeping webs of a giant spider-scorpion. Amon's gang backed away, nervously eyeing the floor, before it suddenly collapsed beneath them.
Meanwhile, steel wires from both of Lin's gauntlets snaked through the rubble, before coiling around the waists of Keter, Franz, and Yánjī. Gritting her teeth, the chief began the agonizingly slow process of reeling them in with her searing, twisting shoulder muscles. At the last possible instant before the floor's shape dissolved, Amon's hand shot out, grabbing the cable carrying Yánjī. With a nod of her head, the chief was able to strike his hand with a rock, causing him to plummet after his comrades into the abyss.
"Please wait!" Aroma called desperately, holding up her hands. "We're at your mercy, why not take us prisoner!" What am I even saying?
"What are you even saying?" Oh, she has the same question. It's a good question.
"Uh—just—just that I know how you never wanted to hurt anyone, only protect those who couldn't fight for themselves. That's why you funded Dr. Avici's research, isn't it? You thought he could finally end the violence?" I just need to keep her talking....
"You have no idea what you're talking about!" the Purist Leader spat. When the officers tried to move, she waved the bomb threateningly at them. "That research was a complete failure, dozens of Purists would still fall trying to capture these—these abnormal savages, and for what?! Just to cripple the beasts that are better off being put down?!"
"That must have been very disappointing..." Aroma replied with sympathetic slowness.
"I told you, you don't understand my plans at all!"
"But I know what Hikari Hayashi told me."
"How many times do I have to tell you?! Hikari Hayashi doesn't even exist!" She roared back, looking more crazed than usual, eyes focused on something far beyond Aroma, the bomb clutched dangerously in her quivering hand.
"It was wrong of Kyoshi Island to try to forget you like that," Aroma pressed on despite her protests, "To ignore all of the good you did for them. The years of loyal service."
Hikari lowered her hand slightly, shaking her head. "That doesn't matter. I never wanted to be a Kyoshi Warrior in the first place. And now I see what my true mission is." She frowned, her gaze unfocused, doubtful.
"Your mission is to spread peace and prosperity," Aroma asserted, "It always has been. You can still have what you want. Come with us, and help us rebuild the Dragon Flats Clinic. Then you can continue to serve the community as a Healer. We can keep on saving the Triads' victims together. Just like you planned, only with better facilities, and you don't have to hurt anyone else. It's all up to you...you can change your destiny...please?"
Hikari's eyes wandered away from Aroma, lingering over the field of partially-buried bodies, unconscious or worse, and the limp Purists anchored to the wall.
"There is no going back," she said with a sneer, her pupils beginning to refocus, "We both know you're lyi—"
The second she reared her hand back, Chan nodded and Lian struck the ground with her heel, causing the tiles in front of her to disintegrate into a wave of sand. The crime boss's foot sank just an inch, but it was enough to throw off her aim. The bomb struck the ceiling, a fist of flame punching through to the upper floor, showering them all with large chunks of concrete. As Hikari and the officers cowered under her shield and their bending, respectively, Aroma eased herself over the debris pile and crawled over to Thiera. Withdrawing a pouch of smelling salts from her utility belt, she waved them under the waterbender's nose.
"Ma'am! I think you should see this!" Saanya called out.
"Euryale!" Aroma cried, rushing to her side to revive her next, as Saanya cupped the fallen officer's chin in her wet, glowing hands.
Once the rocks had finished falling, the metalbenders swung their fists, Dong joining in now that he realized the plan. They attempted to converge the debris on Hikari, to trap her inside of a monolith. With the grace of a circus gymnast, she backflipped through a narrow gap, springing from a handstand into a roll, and snapped a bola around the trio of metalbenders. Tugging to make sure they were bound tight, she raised her sword.
"Leave them alone!" Aroma shouted, utterly fed up. She grabbed a rock and threw it at the Purist Leader, who effortlessly ducked aside, but then had to raise her shield to protect against the water shots from the intern sisters. When Thiera, clutching her head, rose groggily to a sitting position, the attacks caught her eyes. Tracking their trajectory, she saw the Purist Leader and scowled. Reaching out towards the shield, she caused the water coating its surface to freeze, crystals squeezing into all of the little cracks. Then, swiping her hand, she bade the ice to explode, shattering the shield with it.
The shards of frozen platinum clattering to the floor drew Euryale's attention. She turned her head weakly to stare over the wall from her supine position on the floor, spying the foggy form of the Purist Leader in her dim vision. Groaning, she swung out with a wild overhand strike, sending a cable careening towards the warrior. It wrapped around her wrist as she pointed her concealed dart gun at them, crushing the weapon with an audible snap.
Euryale winced, grasping her shoulder as a concerned Aroma cradled her head in her hands. The cable went limp, allowing Hikari to grip her wakizashi in both hands and make a desperate lunge at Lian, Dong, and Chan, who were now cutting themselves free. But after a few steps, she slipped on a slick ice fragment, jerking backwards in an ungainly arc. As she fell, her head struck a jagged rock with the force of a hammer. She tried to roll forward, but was barely a foot off of the ground when she started swaying.
As a last ditch effort, she hurled her wakizashi. Aroma squealed as it soared towards her head, but Euryale dragged the Healer towards her bosom and Thiera reached out, condensing the vapor in the air around the weapon. It, too, was shattered with a clench of her fist. Glancing towards Lian, Dong, and Chan, she slowly relaxed her fingers, allowing the fragments to fall to the ground. The police trio were cautiously approaching the Purist Leader, only shooting cables around her when she finally fell unconscious. With Euryale embracing a joyfully sobbing Aroma, Thiera took a lingering look at the battered closet door, then turned to assist the interns with the healing.
Gray-uniformed custodial earthbenders were moving up the halls, raising the concrete debris back into place along the walls, floors, and ceilings, before re-melding them. During this process, the occasional flash burst out from a tripod camera, the photographer concealed behind it recording the state of the damage. Occasionally, a worker would stumble across a fragment of a Purist's weapon, wrap it in a cloth, and take it to Deputy Chief Saikhan, who oversaw the operation. The wounded were packed in the infirmary like Pai Sho pieces in endgame, those not being treated swathed in blankets.
"We're going to have to airlift most of the injured to a proper hospital," said Chief Beifong, herself sporting some new head bandages. She folded her arms, adding, "We've started with the Purist Leader. She's seriously wounded, but the interns think she'll survive."
"We can only hope for a miracle," Thiera answered bitterly, massaging Franz's chest with healing water.
"What's wrong with the boss?" Saanya whispered to Naakée, as they attempted to restore the swollen face of a man sitting beside Euryale to recognizability.
"What's your name?" Euryale asked.
"S—Saanya," she squeaked, looking around guiltily.
"Well, Saanya," she began, breathing heavily, "I'm afraid that Lilith—well, she didn't make it. The search and repair team found her body in a closet near where the Purist Leader finally fell."
"That's—that can't be!" the intern sisters cried in unison, covering their mouths in shock.
"It can, it is, and I can hear you, so stop gossiping about it," Thiera said coldly, not looking at them. Aroma frowned at her from her vantage point of forcing a personal oxygen bottle and mask onto the face of a fussing Keter Aurora, who continually tried to push it away, despite being too light-headed to put up much of a fight.
"Unfortunately," Chief Beifong added, "The masked man, this 'Amon,' seems to have vanished. With the rest of the Purist Leaders finally in custody, he will be at the top of Republic City's Most Wanted List. Some of the Purists seem to have escaped with him, but we got most of them. The rest won't last. I doubt they can expand enough to pose any real threat before we catch up to them again."
The department worked long into the night—silently and drearily, as nobody was in much of a mood to celebrate—and off-duty officers were eventually called in to lend a hand. In no position to go home, most of those not either shipped off to a hospital or staying for their regular shift nodded off in the break room just after sunrise. It was not until mid-afternoon when people woke up and began filing out.
"I will call you later," Thiera said at once, turning away, when Euryale and Aroma awkwardly approached to ask her if she was ready to go home, "With details about the—the ceremony. Mom should have been told by now, about—about what happened. So I will be taking a taxi to go stay with her for a while."
"We can take you there, if you'd like," Euryale started, reaching for her shoulder. Thiera shook her head, walking briskly out the door. Euryale looked inquiringly down at Aroma, who shrugged and clutched her girlfriend's arm. Euryale held the Healer closer as the she started to sniffle, misting up a bit herself, and they left the building together.
At sunset many days later, Aroma and Euryale found their seats beside Binah, Thiera, and a wavy-haired blond man whose hand Binah was squeezing, presumably Mr. Psyche. A whole dock had been rented out for the funeral, everyone sitting in folded chairs, with those not wearing United Forces uniforms in suits, robes, or shrouds of white. All were facing a pedestal, upon which sat a black urn, almost comically decorated with red flowers, butterflies, and dragonflies.
Sitting around it were pictures of smiling, red-haired girls. A little, freckled girl with pig tails, standing by her dad with the fish she caught held proudly in front of her. A slightly older girl with braces in a pink school dress, arms folded behind her back and now with a ponytail. A saluting Lilith who appeared to have just joined the United Forces, still in her gray uniform but now wearing her signature braid. A similar shot, but with her red officers' coat. Lastly, dead center, a large, close-up shot of Lilith's broadly grinning face, a pair of black ribbons along the top corners. On either side of this last image were bowls full of many-colored flowers and candles, pale ribbons of smoke curling around the urn.
Eventually, when everyone seemed to have filed in, the Psyches rose to their feet. Aroma noticed with a pang that Binah appeared to be sobbing softly into her palm. But worse was Thiera's cold glare, as if this were her own funeral. A few of the audience members even looked away from her as they all stood as well.
"M—my daughter," Binah addressed them, upon reaching the pedestal. When her husband looked at her, she corrected herself, "Our daughter, Thiera's sister—" she hugged Thiera closer to her, but Thiera did not respond, "Dedicated her life to protecting the world. But her idea of the world, it seems, was her f—her family."
She dabbed her eyes with a tissue. Her husband continued, "When she heard her sister was in trouble, Lilith raced home to help with the Purist case." Thiera shuddered. "We think she would take consolation in knowing that, if she had to—if she had to leave us, then she at least did so helping to finally bring the Purists down, and ensure that our family would no longer be threatened." He wiped his eyes, trying to pass it off as wiping his brow.
"I think—" Binah cleared her throat, "I think I would be remiss if I didn't mention the new friends Lilith made with Aroma and Euryale. I mean no disrespect to her comrades in arms, but—well, I fear she had little time to experience this world she was so determined to protect." She then bowed, the audience reciprocating. "Lilith was very blessed to have known you all. Thank you."
The crowd murmured their thanks back as the elder Psyches looked expectantly at their daughter.
"I will see to it that my sister's killer reaps what she has sewn," Thiera said in a venomous tone, "I swear it on my own life."
The crowd looked at one another, unsure of what to make of this, only resuming their seats after the Psyches had. Aroma frowned at Thiera, distracted from her burning retinas by Euryale squeezing her hand. Looking over, she saw that the earthbender's jaw was firmly clenched. She nodded at Euryale, giving a weak, twitchy smile, and looked back to the podium as Commander Bumi took the stand, rubbing the back of his dark, wily mane.
"I'm, uh, I'm not so good at this serious stuff," he began, jowls aquiver, "But—well, I think it's important that Lilith—uh, that is, Captain Lilith Psyche be posthumously awarded with the Harmony Restoration Medal."
He held up what appeared to be a large, golden coin, with the symbols of each nation around its face, before placing it in front of the main picture.
"She'll also be promoted to Major. I—I enjoyed having her in my battalion—very much."
Sniffing and wiping his face with the back of his fist, he returned to his seat in the back. Twisting around, Aroma could see that he had slumped over and his shoulders were heaving. She could also see the various Councilpersons and delegates sitting rigidly nearby, their expressions unreadable. Far away, on the other side of the street, a row of tripod photographers recorded the event.
Binah rose once more, shaking as if unsteady on her feet. She made her way to the pedestal, picking up the urn. Looking away and shutting her eyes tight, she whipped off the lid and threw the glittering contents into the sea. Tears were now streaming down Aroma's face, and she looked over to see Euryale covering her eyes, her lip quivering.
Once Binah had set the urn down, she raised and lowered her hands, sending Lilith's remains out to the sea in a series of frothing waves. On cue, a low, somber melody of funeral horns began their lament.
"There is no time to be upset," Thiera murmured as her father patted her on the shoulder. Her eyes were drooping, and Aroma could now see how wrinkled and blotchy they looked, "I still have a lot to do to ensure that the Purists are no more. This is only the beginning."
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