|By Neo Bahamut||Genre||Rating||Reviews||Updates|
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|Back to the Drawing Board|
Monday, October 12, 2015
"Leader," a deep, gravelly voice said patiently, "Vyanna has been captured. Of your lieutenants, only I can match her in hand-to-hand combat. It took months to build Dr. Avici a lab, and now it is lost to us. We need to attempt a new strategy."
The man's icy blue eyes followed the Purist Leader as she paced between the rotted, sagging beams of wood. The rest of his face was sallow, ghostly, and glinted slightly in the light of the torches set in the wall sconces, reignited for the 1st time in decades. A mask. Unlike the rest of the Purists, he was wearing a much simpler hooded cloak, which seemed to melt into the shadows.
Also present, leaning against the wall beside him, was a man about as tall as he was, with dark hair styled like the backside of a turtleduck. Both men towered over the Purist Leader, who at times it was easy for them to forget was barely taller than the average woman.
"We still have the maps of the tunnels," she said without looking at him, "We can easily recollect the Purists. But you are correct that it will take a very long time to outfit the doctor with a new lab. What do you suggest?"
"The recent break-in at the Sato estate should make him more inclined to work against the Triads."
"And if he doesn't agree with our larger goals?"
"I can persuade him. We can relate to each other. He lost his wife to firebenders. I lost my parents."
The Purist Leader finally stopped pacing, tapping her chin as she considered this. "Yes, you should be able to get into the maintenance tunnels beneath his estate. And our other mission would be greatly aided by vehicles."
His eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. "What is this other mission, Leader?"
She turned to face them, folding her arms. "We have taken too long biding our time. We will free our comrades, and we will destroy those working against us. Starting with the boars."
"One thing I can assure you is that every citizen of Little Fire Nation mourns the passing of Mrs. Sato," the high, carrying voice of a woman announced gently, only slightly broken up by radio static. "Everyone in the Council can promise to bring the perpetrator to justice, but the way to do that is to restore the run-down neighborhoods that allow these scoundrels to hide, not tear more down and send the police to fight them in the streets."
"Do we have to listen to this?" Thiera frowned, soaking her feet in Binah's pool, wearing her usual white one piece. Aroma and Lilith swam up alongside her, the former wearing her pinstriped green leotard, a plastic bag tied over her left foot to keep water away from her cast, while the latter wore a kind of frilly bandeau, which rippled gracefully in the currents. Pink with white streaks, it looked a bit like giant flowers had been shoved over her waist and chest. She had the same pale skin as her sister, but her deceptively thin frame was surprisingly toned, though her musculature didn't hold a candle to Euryale's.
"I do not say this to disparage the RCPD," the voice continued, "I backed the operation myself. It was a necessary evil to empty the kettle before it boiled over. But in a better world, it may not have been. We can still create that world. Together."
The radio sat on Binah's poolside tea table, a power cord stretching into the penthouse. Also on the tabletop was the silver platter and ceramic tea set, which now included octopus fritters and dumplings. Sitting around the table were Binah in her usual training outfit of yoga pants and qipao blouse, and Euryale, in her old school Fire Nation bikini. The latter turned away from the radio, gold eyes glistening.
Thiera looked away. "I did not mean to insult Mrs. Sato's memory, but this has just turned into Keter's latest campaign speech."
"Well, I happen to agree with her!" Euryale said, crossing her arms and sitting back.
"I—I sort of agree too," Aroma said. She pulled herself out of the water to sit next to Thiera, who passed along her knitting tools and a half-formed cloche hat, white with pink flowers wound around the brim. Aroma recommenced her work.
"A very moving tribute from the Fire Nation delegate," the radio buzz of a man's voice cut through the silence, "Our next speaker is a long-time colleague of Mr. Sato, the CEO of Varrick Industries, Sir Iknik Blackstone Varrick." Euryale turned off the radio.
"So...what's our next move?" Aroma asked, more to end the uncomfortable silence than anything.
"I'm surprised to hear you say something like that," Thiera commented.
"Nonsense," Euryale said, walking over to ruffle Aroma's hair, "This little tigerdillo fought tooth and nail to protect me from the Purists."
Aroma flushed scarlet, fumbling with her knitwork, though she wore an enormous grin. "It...it was nothing. I certainly couldn't keep up with you...."
"You also figured out the identity of the Purist Leader," Euryale pressed.
Aroma looked up. "You found a record?"
"Well," Euryale said, folding her arms again, "Sort of. There is an Aki Hayashi, who died fighting pirates a few years ago. And there's an article about her giving birth. Her daughter is never mentioned again, but there are a lot of holes in the island's history that could easily be fixed by a missing Kyoshi Warrior. Like records where no one seems to be on duty, yet criminals still get caught. Mostly around Koko Village, between 5 and 15 years ago."
"Everything seems to fit," Aroma observed, "Were the pirates benders? That could be her motive."
"I think at least some of them were, but I'm not so sure that's it. Your vision suggests that she didn't have a very good relationship with her mother. They certainly didn't keep in touch after she was cast out of Kyoshi Island."
"What do you mean by 'her vision'?" Thiera asked.
"Aroma and I went to the spirit world while in a trance. You weren't around. We met a little girl named Hikari Hayashi. A prophecy for Aroma."
Thiera rolled her eyes and muttered, "Or you may have just been dreaming."
Euryale promptly leaped over her, doing a bit of a flip to dive into the pool. Scowling, Thiera swiped her hand to divert the wave away from herself, while Lilith paid no attention, given her braid was already sopping wet and her bangs plastered over her eyes.
Aroma put down her knittery, scrunching up her brow as Euryale surfaced, shaking water out of her now dull gray hair, only for Lilith to splash her once she stopped.
"I don't understand," Aroma began, "The girl we met was so sweet, and if she didn't want to be like the women of the island, wouldn't that mean she abhorred violence?"
"I guess they taught her a little too well," Euryale said with a shrug, frozen in mid splash-fight with Lilith.
"Sometimes being made to fight brings out the worst in people," Lilith commented, "Just look at the Freedom Fighters in the Hundred Years War."
"She set me on fire and stabbed Euryale," Thiera remarked dryly, "Not to mention burned down our hospital. My sympathy is a bit strained."
Once again, Aroma found herself having to bridge an uncomfortable silence. Tentatively, she asked, "So, Lilith, where were you stationed before you came back to Republic City?"
"Huh? Oh, we were helping the Earth Queen ensure the safety of her candidate for the Council." She began wading around the edge of the pool, adding, "He should be getting here soon, actually."
"He is," Euryale said, "The Chief just told me yesterday that he'll be at a Council meeting next week to discuss how to seize the rest of the Purist leaders."
"Leaders?" Aroma asked. "You mean besides Vyanna and Hikari?"
"Yeah, we don't know much yet, but we hope to convince newer, low-level thugs to talk in exchange for waiving criminal conspiracy charges."
Hours later, Thiera, Euryale, and Aroma arrived home, the former 2 helping the latter limp across the threshold. Aroma had finished her hat and was wearing it alongside a matching dress, white with a swirl of pink flowers running up the left side, along with a pink shawl and matching evening gloves, a heeled white boot on her right foot. Thiera was of course wearing her usual calf-length white dress with matching cloth belt, slippers, and jacket, while Euryale wore a plain red dress and sandals.
"You can go straight to bed if you'd like," Euryale said, "I can get Aroma to her room."
"Oh, it's no trouble," Thiera said.
"No trouble for me either. Go ahead and get some rest."
"Well...if you're certain...."
"I am," Euryale said, waving to Thiera as they exchanged their goodnights with her, Aroma casting a curious glance at Euryale.
Aroma's room sported a round bed with a fuzzy pink bedspread, a pair of end tables with green paper lamps cut with flower symbols, opposite a white dresser with a large, oval mirror, and shelves adorning the walls with all manner of books and knits in every color of the rainbow. Euryale helped her hobble over to her closet and shut the door with a wave of her hand. She waited outside of the closet, until Aroma emerged in a sheer pink night gown. As Euryale helped her to her bed, she deposited Aroma's day clothes in a hamper.
"There you go," Euryale said, pulling back the covers and helping Aroma climb into bed. "Would you like me to kiss you goodnight?" she asked slyly, glancing sidelong at her.
Aroma blushed again. Euryale looked her head on, her expression suddenly very somber. Aroma's pulse quickened as her skin quickly began to match her hair. Suddenly feeling very hot, she fiddled with her collar, panting slightly.
"Listen," Euryale said, "I know this is a lot to lay on you right now. A lot of stuff has happened, and I know I wasn't your first choice, but that's exactly why I feel this can't be put off. But...maybe until morning. You're probably tired, and don't want to think about things like this right—"
Aroma had sat up, putting an arm around Euryale's shoulders, and leaned in. To her immense relief, when her lips made contact with Euryale's, Euryale leaned in too, twisting her head to give Aroma more contact. Then the earthbender draped her own arms around the healer, and the pair locked eyes, green reflected in gold reflected in green in an endless loop.
"I am so glad you didn't push me off of the bed," Aroma whispered.
Euryale giggled. "I don't really want to leave you. Can I stay for a while?"
"You can stay as long as you like. Would you like to borrow a night gown?"
"That'd be great," Euryale answered, heading over to Aroma's closet. Fortunately, she wore them pretty loose, so Euryale just managed to squeeze into the garment.
When she emerged, she saw that Aroma had moved aside to make space for her. She climbed under the covers next to Aroma and they lay in each other's arms until Aroma groggily whispered that she wanted the light off. Euryale obliged and made to get up, but Aroma clung to her tighter. So she obliged again, stroking the healer's hair.
The next day, Aroma and Euryale rose in unison to quickly feed the fish and prepare a hearty breakfast of sautéed seaweed noodles. After setting the table, they scooted their chairs closer to one another. Aroma waited quietly, drumming her fingers on her legs and watching Euryale as she closed her eyes, clasped her hands, and bowed her head over her meal. Euryale had dressed in sort of a red version of Keter's dress and a pair of open toed slippers, while Aroma was wearing her new hat, matching evening gloves, a green qipao dress with clusters of pink flowers along its surface, and finally a pink overcoat draped over her shoulders.
Meanwhile, Thiera stepped out of the shower, clad in slim fit white pants matching her coat with a short, black pencil skirt. She swept her hands through her hair to pull the water out of it, simultaneously straightening it in the process. She shuffled into the kitchen, depositing the floating orb of fluid into the sink, and took her seat. Head bowed and eyes almost sealed in grogginess, she did not that the pair were holding hands under the table.
"We'd better go get Lilith," Euryale announced once breakfast was finished, eliciting a vague nod from Thiera.
"Yullo?" Lilith answered as she swung open the door, eyes still closed. She was wearing her usual slacks and qipao shirt, this time pale gold with various red, green, blue, and orange flowers scattered along it. A pink toothbrush hung out of her mouth and her hair was unrestrained, trailing down past her waist.
"Honestly," Thiera scoffed, "You're not ready yet?"
"Your fly is down," Euryale added.
"Oh, geez!" Lilith said, eyes snapping open as she corrected that straightaway.
"I can help you with your hair if you'd like," Aroma offered.
"Thanks, that'd be great. Just let me take care of this," she added, removing the toothbrush from her mouth.
So Euryale and Thiera helped Aroma to the couch, Binah smiling at them from over a copy of The Republic Reporter, titled "Purist Leaders Still at Large," with sketches of the Purist Leader, a man in a hood and mask, and a man with a turtleduck tail hairstyle. Vyanna's mug shot was also featured in the article. The next leading story was "Delegates Departing," which had side-by-side photographs of suited, square-jawed politicians, helpfully painted to differentiate that the tri-ponytailed man smiling and waving was Water Tribe and the balding man with the rueful looking smile was Earth Kingdom.
"Can I get you anything?" Binah asked, but the trio politely declined.
Moments later, Lilith entered and sat on the floor in front of Aroma, who began braiding her hair, turning briefly to Euryale to ask, "So, what did you find out about the other Purist leaders?"
"Mostly just their descriptions. Only the newest recruits were willing to bargain with us. We have a bit more on the guy in the mask, I guess because he stands out. He's apparently a burn victim who calls himself 'Amon.' He's new, but he's mastered their fighting styles very quickly."
"Well, that's not a problem, 'cause I'd recognize the other guy anywhere," Lilith said, pointing to the man with the slicked-back hair, "His name is Ivan, he's a master archer. Not Yu Yan good, mind you, but he served in the United Forces until a few years ago."
"What happened to him?" Euryale asked.
Lilith shrugged, "Nothing, he was just discharged. They didn't need him anymore. I heard he was having problems, but then he just kind of fell off of the map."
As healers were familiar with this problem, Aroma pointed out, "Soldiers who can't pay their healing bills tend to become either homeless or imprisoned. That's a lot like the Purists I spoke to."
"So we have motive," Euryale summarized simply, "But do we know anything that might help lead to a hide out?"
"I can check the United Forces records for any abandoned posts in or near the city," Lilith offered.
"Goodness, I hope you girls plan to do something other than work on your last day off," Binah piped up.
"Nah, I'll just swing by. We're going to be downtown anyway. Aroma wants to buy some new clothes now that she's got her purse back and changed her account information."
Once Aroma announced that she had finished, the women stood, Binah gathering her daughters in an embrace.
"Just be careful. I know you think I'm paranoid, but I can't help but worry, thinking there are still Purists out there, and that they've come after you before."
"We will, Mom," Lilith answered.
"We'll be fine," Thiera added.
"I assure you, Mrs. Psyche, I won't let them out of my sight," Euryale promised.
"I have no doubt. But make sure you have someone looking out for you, as well. No one is invincible."
"That's what I'm here for," Lilith pointed out as she pulled herself and her sister from her mother's grasp. "Later."
Once again in the back seat of the cruiser, only now more awake, Thiera soon noticed Aroma and Euryale holding hands across the center console. She drummed her fingers on her knees, awkwardly looking around for something else to comment on. She could see Euryale frowning in the rear view.
"So..." Thiera began, "Have you noticed...?"
"That Aroma and Euryale are holding hands?" Lilith asked, completely missing the point, "Yeah, but I wouldn't read too much into it. Girls hold their friends' hands all of the time."
"What? I don't do that and neither do you."
"Yeah, but you know—other girls."
"We're not friends," Euryale began to correct her, "I mean, we're still friends, but—y'know—we're dating."
"What? When did that happen?" Lilith asked incredulously.
"Last night, actually," Aroma answered. She tried looking away, but this just reflected her blushing grin in the side mirror.
Lilith turned to her sister, "Did you see that coming? It seems kind of out of nowhere to me."
"Well, we obviously knew about Aroma, but as far as I've known Euryale, she's only ever dated men."
"Man. Singular. I've dated 1 guy since you've known me. And that doesn't mean I'm not also interested in girls. Nobody ever asked."
"You sure Aroma didn't just wear you down until you gave in?" Lilith asked shrewdly.
"Can we please stop talking about this?" Aroma requested.
I don't think they're telling the truth, Lilith mouthed to her sister.
The girls sat in a fuming silence until they reached the clothing store. Euryale parked and they headed inside, Aroma making a beeline for the boots and hats. The others looked at each other, shrugged, and wandered off in different directions.
When they wandered back together, Aroma was clutching a new set of rain clothes, a few different colored hats, and a pink purse. "I think I can fix my old one," she explained, "But I'll use this in the meantime. Besides, my other purse isn't always easy to accessorize."
"Great idea," Euryale said with a grin. She had a few sets of unidentifiable clothes under her arm, likely connected to the magazine she was also clasping, Keter's snowy hair and sapphire eyes peeking out from between her fingers.
Thiera, who had not bought anything, merely twiddled her fingers. Seeing Euryale's and Aroma's jaws drop, she turned around. Lilith was wearing a flowing pink skirt with a cut up the side. She had red slippers, matching her officer's jacket, which had been left open, revealing a black top covered in White Lotuses, the dress failing to cover her navel. Her old clothes were presumably in the paper bag she was holding.
"I decided to wear this out," she explained, "Do you like it?"
"I didn't think you wore dresses or skirts," Euryale confessed.
"Yeah, well, maybe this will encourage Mr. Right to come talk to me."
After paying, they swung by the Council Building. The Town Hall was empty, clearly all of the council members were in their offices. Heading down the stairwell, they came down to a basement library lit by dusty caged lightbulbs.
"Uh, you guys are going to have to wait out here," Lilith said, heading past the rows of shelves to unlock a faded oak door, which she disappeared behind. The other girls quietly perused case files, articles, and other records, but didn't find anything interesting. Eventually, Lilith returned, sifting through papers on which she scrawled notes.
"Okay, I've got a few possibilities. Most are in the mountains, as you'd imagine. We should get these to HQ before we head to the Blue Spirit."
I was early dusk by the time they pulled into a remote corner of Little Fire Nation. Unlike the fierce oranges, reds, and bright golds of the rest of this part of the city, the alley in which The Blue Spirit was situated was paved from street to ceilings with dark stone, the street lights a pale blue. Euryale parked next to a squat, single-story trapezoidal building, and the girls descended a staircase carved into the concrete.
Aroma began coughing the instant they stepped into the low-ceilinged room, though the film of smoke in the bar was fairly thin and concentrated at the roof, shimmering in an eerie blue.
"To the non-smoking section, then," Euryale said, leading them around a dividing wall and to the back. This section of the establishment was filled with black square tables, though the dividing wall featured windows, so they could still see the main bar, at which the bartender was preparing a drink with a set of dao swords, slicing through a mango with his left while grabbing a cup off of a rack behind him with the other.
Aroma sat, listening to the slow, mournful melody of the tsugi horn as the bartender flipped the mango, draining it into the glass. After a few seconds, he peeled it with his left blade, slicing it as he went with his right, so that pulpy chunks fell into the glass. Thiera and Lilith sat across from her.
"Guess I'm on drink duty, then," Euryale commented dryly, "Okay, what do you all want?"
"We'll have a couple glasses of that mango juice," Thiera answered as Lilith opened her mouth.
"Mango juice doesn't exactly calm the nerves," Lilith muttered.
"Trust me, the mango juice will be better for her," Thiera said firmly. Euryale raised her eyebrow at their argument, but just turned to Aroma, whose gaze snapped back to Euryale after she realized she'd been staring.
"Uh, may I just have some lychee juice, please? And do you need me to help you carry the drinks?"
"Don't worry," Thiera said, rising back to her feet, "I'll do it."
"Thanks," Euryle said. "Okay, 1 Verricola, a lychee juice, and 2 mangos, comin' right up." With that, she turned on her heel and headed off, Thiera on her heels.
"So," Lilith said, turning to Aroma as they walked off, "I get the impression you spoke to Thiera about my coming to visit."
"Wha—oh!" Aroma, already caught off-guard, looked increasingly panic-stricken as she took to fumbling with her fingers under the table. "Yes, I'm sorry, I hope I wasn't intrusive. It's just—she was upset, and I wanted to help."
"No, it's fine. Actually, I really appreciate it. So, you and Euryale, how'd that happen?"
"Um...I guess after Thiera turned me down and things didn't work out with Roatha, we were just kind of...there for each other. I wasn't sure she was interested until last night either. I was too afraid to ask."
"I guess I know that feeling. I kind of doubt anyone will notice me next to her, but I guess it helps that she's taken."
"Why would you think that?" Aroma asked, frowning. "You look amazing."
"Well—thank you," Lilith said, blushing.
"It's strange...you always seemed so confident. Maybe even more than Euryale."
"I guess I just want to prove myself. If I can't be a bender or look like Keter, I should at least be good at something."
"I don't think you need to worry. You're perfect just the way you are."
Lilith flashed Aroma a toothy grin, which she returned. "Thanks. You shouldn't change, either." Then Lilith ruined it by adding, "Hey, just to be clear, you're not—"
"No, I am not flirting with you," Aroma said, smile unwavering. Just then, Euryale and Thiera returned, setting the drinks on the table and resuming their seats. Euryale put her arm around Aroma and gave her a quick peck on the cheek.
"We're back," she announced unnecessarily, "So, what were you 2 talking about?"
"Nothing much," Lilith and Aroma said in unison as the music began to pick up, percussive instruments added to the melody. They could see the vague shape of a crowd pouring into the bar.
Aroma caught Euryale eyeing the swaying shapes, her leg tapping. "It's okay," she told her, "Go have a dance. I'll be fine over here."
"Sounds like fun," Lilith said, rising and twirling as she went. Her skirt whipped around with each shimmy of her hips as she made her way to the dance floor, hands clasped over her head and abdominals undulating. Euryale also stood, holding her arms back like wings, and shook her upper body, the fabric threads on her dress flailing as if she were on fire.
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