|By Neo Bahamut||Genre||Rating||Reviews||Updates|
|More from Neo Bahamut||Adventure, romance||PG-13||See main page||See main page|
|Earth & Water|
Thursday, December 25, 2014
Aroma looked over to Euryale, who was leaning back and had her right arm stretched out, holding the top of the steering wheel to keep it steady. "Um—excuse me, I don't want to sound accusatory, or anything, but—uh... ."
"It's fine, just say what's on your mind."
"Okay, uh—are you allowed to drive your patrol car while off-duty?"
"Yeah. A lot of officers can't afford cars of their own, but there are enough that we can rent them from the department. Have to take the lights off unless we run across a crime-in-progress, though. I might even be able to convince the Chief to let me start my rounds straight from the apartment. That'll let us get one that's much closer to the clinic."
"That would be nice," Aroma concurred.
Since the conversation seemed to have died down, Aroma looked out the window. The visible sliver of river was shrinking away behind them, replaced by brightly colored buildings and awning-covered stands displaying fruits, gardening tools, dresses, any kind of merchandise imaginable. Parked outside of a phonograph shop was a low-hung, ruby red Satomobile with an ornate, golden lion turtle adorning the front, and from out of the shop walked a dark-skinned man in a blue jacket. Aroma had just enough time to see that he stopped counting his money in order to wave at them, before he disappeared around a corner. Aroma enthusiastically waved back, hoping she was in time for him to see it.
"You are aware that man was a Triple Threat, right?"
Aroma jerked her hand away like she'd touched something she wasn't supposed to, and looked back at Euryale. "How—how do you know?"
"He stepped OUT of the shop with THAT MUCH money in his hand? He obviously just extorted that shop owner."
"Um—I don't mean to question your experience, but that doesn't sound like enough evidence."
"That's why we're not stopping. Unfortunately, there's nothing I can do—if the shop owners here would at least file reports—but I guess they're all too afraid." Euryale punctuated her annoyance with a sigh. "Aroma," she asked, glancing over, "Are you sure you want to live here? The Dragon Flats is kind of a bad neighborhood. And that's not even counting the Purists."
"That's what makes it such a great place for a clinic," Aroma pointed out, "We have to go where the people need us."
"I guess that's true. You know, you're a lot braver than you look."
Aroma looked over into the side view mirror. She was wearing her hat from yesterday—and matching shoes, of course—and the dress that she wore nearly 3 weeks ago, when Thiera moved out, making her look a bit like a great big bald flamingeagle. She felt it was a bit nippy this morning, so in addition to her stockings, she put on a pair of full length, white evening gloves. Aside from her clothes, her hands were folded in her lap and she was biting her lip.
"Uh, thank you?"
At that moment, the radio buzzed to life, and a man mumbled through the static, "All available units, please respond to a heist in progress at United Republic National, in the west Dragon Flats."
"Ready to put that courage to the test?" Euryale asked. Without waiting for a response, she sat up, gripped the steering wheel with both hands, and spun it hard to the left, turning down the nearest intersection. Aroma gripped the seat between her legs as hard as she could, looking from each of the mirrors to the front of the road frantically, a harsh blare ringing in her ears.
"Car!" she shouted as Euryale passed a blue sports car in their lane. "Truck!" she continued, seeing it barrel towards them. As Euryale swerved back into her lane, she saw the gold writing on the emerald door spelling out Narook's. When she realized she was holding her breath, she let out a strained gasp that faded into a whimper.
"Just relax," Euryale said, "Do you think this is my 1st rodeo? Hey, I know what will take your mind off of the road: Do me a favor, reach into the back seat and get the lights."
Aroma stiffly turned her neck back, now breathing twice a second to make up for lost time. As she heard the sirens switch on, she realized that what she was hearing before was just her blood hammering away at the insides of her ears. When she didn't see the lights, her eyes darted to Euryale. Her mouth hung open, but she didn't know what to say. She was ruining everything!
"Check the floor," Euryale said calmly, and Aroma's gaze darted back just as quickly. There they were, twinkling up at her innocently like a pair of big, dopey, blue and red eyes, waiting patiently for her to take them. She obliged, wondering why she couldn't do such a simple task for Euryale.
"Just a second," Euryale said when Aroma held the lights out to her. She quickly rolled down the window, then reached across herself with her left hand to take them, adding, "Thanks."
She reached up and out of the window to affix the lights to the ceiling with a heavy, metallic THUNK! Aroma jumped a little, then shut her eyes tight to avoid looking at the road, but this wasn't much more enjoyable, because it made the furious beating against her ribs that much more noticeable. She had gone back to gripping the seat, necessary to keep the whiplash turns from throwing her into the console, and so now her fingers were starting to ache, as well.
"You're going to be fine," Euryale reassured her, "And you'll get used to it. Besides, we're almost there."
Cautiously, Aroma opened her left eye slightly to take a peek at Euryale. The Earthbender was wearing a dress that loosely hung from her frame, almost like a red sheet that drooped down from her shoulders and ended diagonally at her waist, with a knee-length earthen green skirt underneath to finish the ensemble. A small flutter ran down the covering each time she turned her hands end over end to navigate around some corner or obstacle. Unless the Purists were scared of bold colors, it seemed to Aroma as suicidal to confront them in this outfit.
"But you don't even have your armor!"
Euryale reached for the keys dangling from the ignition and effortlessly pulled 1 right off of the ring. She then passed it to Aroma. When the girl simply stared at it, Euryale added, "Take it." Aroma slowly released her seat from the claw-like grasp of her left hand and brushed over Euryale's palm with trembling fingers. She immediately noticed that the key felt unusual somehow—smoother, and not as cold as she'd expected, and this is when it hit her—though it looked like metal, the key was actually made out of plastic. Was she concerned about Earthbenders stealing the car?
"Unlock the glove box," Euryale elaborated, "I always keep a spare pair of gauntlets in there, just in case of an emergency."
Aroma did as she was told, scratching at the lock a few times before she got it in. Euryale winced each time. Aroma apologized as she turned the key and pulled the glove box open. Sure enough, sitting atop a pile of papers and notebooks were a pair of innocently crossed steel gloves.
"But this won't be enough to protect you!" Aroma protested.
"Aroma, seriously, it's just a bunch of small time criminals. I could handle them without wearing anything."
Again, Aroma's gaze darted to Euryale. She looked the cop up and down, from her smooth calves, up the slight curve of her waist to her well-toned arms and broad upper body, then back down. Perhaps it was new light, or the way the wind whipping through the now-open window brushed it about, but Aroma now saw the dress completely differently; hauntingly, ethereally beautiful and fierce, like some kind of flame spirit.
"...Why are you smiling at me like that?" Euryale asked, casting quizzical glances in Aroma's direction.
"Oh—I was smiling?" Aroma questioned back, just before Euryale's arm shot out in front of her chest.
"Brace yourself," the officer added as she slammed on the breaks, tires squealing with righteous fury as they lurched into a parking spot behind an unmarked black van.
They abruptly came to a stop, Aroma's head and neck only jerking forward slightly, due to Euryale's hold on her. Though her grip compressed the Healer's ribs like an iron beam, Aroma thought it prudent not to complain. Euryale grabbed the gloves and pushed her door open, strangely kicking off her emerald sandals inside of the car before stepping out.
"Now, climb into the back seat and get down on the ground," Euryale ordered, as gently as she could in the present situation. As Aroma unbuckled herself, Euryale put on the gloves and closed her eyes—which Aroma thought seemed rather counter-intuitive—before stomping on the ground. After Aroma had finally managed to climb over the center console, Euryale opened her eyes and nodded.
"I'll be right back," she said to Aroma with a wink, as well as her usual warm smile.
"Wait, please don't leave me!" Aroma begged after Euryale as the latter slid across the roof of her car.
"Don't worry," Euryale called back, "I won't be out of your sight! I promise!"
Euryale stomped quickly to shake the dirt off of her back, then ran up the stairs, leaving Aroma to cower in her own fear and shame, kneeling below the seats with her hands crossed tightly over her crimson locks. Because she had turned when she yelled for Euryale, every now and again, she would glance up to see what action she could catch from the sliver of window that she could see. For a while, she simply saw Euryale, alternating between blue and red in the harsh light the car was throwing over the window, taking cover behind the bank's large, oaken door and occasionally looking inside. The sirens seemed to climb constantly in pitch, howling ever louder, as if calling for some deadly beast within.
Then, everything changed when a fist-sized object was tossed out of the doorway. Euryale leaped back over the railing, narrowly avoiding the huge cloud of ash and fire that consumed the staircase in an explosion loud enough to drown out the sirens. In spite of herself, Aroma crawled up onto her hands and knees to get a better look. A trio of Purists, seemingly clad in shocking blue, shot out of the dust and slid down the railings, each with a fat pack secured to their backs. Shortly after their feet hit the ground, the central Purist was pulled back to Euryale, the scene flashing red as Euryale knocked him out and blew away the dust cloud with a single punch like something out of a comic book. Over the noise of the sirens screaming, cheering on the battle, Aroma could just barely hear Euryale shout something about taking bills next time.
The other Purists each pulled on the cords that secured their packs. As they fell, gold coins and paper yuans spilled across the ground, glistening deep red in the police lights. The duo swung those cords, each with a weighted ball at the end, in blinding circles of dazzling blue. One man lashed out. Whatever was on the end evidently wasn't made of earth, because Euryale's spastic arm movement did not knock it off-course, and she barely had time to raise her shoulder to take the hit instead of her jaw. With a jerk of his wrist, the Purist sent the bouncing cord snapping and coiling around her arm like a rat viper, tightening around its prey as it slid down her to her wrist. While she was distracted by having her arm secured, the 2nd Purist was able to lash out and similarly secured her other wrist. The Purists then began running away from each other, spreading Euryale's arms and exposing her stomach like that of a sacrificial animal. In response, she simply kicked up a chunk of rock, hurling it with expert precision into Purist on her left. Now illuminated in red, he hit the door of what Aroma now realized was their getaway van so hard that the van tipped over momentarily, allowing Aroma to see where his head had cracked the window. When the car slammed back onto the ground and the man slumped over sideways, the door even swung open.
With only a single Purist left to deal with, Euryale grabbed his line with both hands and began pulling, literally digging her heels into the sidewalk, fusing the rock around her ankles. Realizing this was a tug of war that he could not win, the Purist let go and made a run for it, but Euryale flicked off pieces of her gloves, glinting blue like spikes of ice flying through the air, fast enough to throw up puffs of pulverized rock with each piece of sidewalk she struck. The Purist jerked as a shot finally struck him in the back and Euryale performed a sweeping motion with her arms, breaking her back leg free and stomping it down with just as much force. This caused mounds shining of red earth to shoot up around the Purist and swallow him whole, and for a moment, Aroma mistook her for a lavabender.
However, the second Purist proved to be not quite unconscious, as he used his bola like a lasso to grab his pack and jumped into his getaway car, doing an impressive little flip that Aroma presumed landed him in the driver's seat. The car immediately sped off, door still hanging open, flapping, and trailing specks of broken glass like drops of bloody water.
Euryale punched the ground hard enough to send a visible wave through the road, but it was not enough to stop the Purist. After some swerving and a near-miss with a light post, he turned a corner and disappeared.
"Look out!" Aroma screamed as loud as her lungs would manage, seeing at this point that the original Purist had managed to get up and was now charging Euryale from behind, pulling a concealed blade from his belt. He gripped it in both hands and plunged it towards the woman's abdomen, but she had enough time to whirl around. With her left gauntlet, she intercepted the blade and deflected it into her hand, where Aroma saw her crush the knife up into her fist like tin foil. Euryale followed through with the same momentum and, using her right leg, she aimed a roundhouse kick that impacted the man in the side, twirled him about, and sent him skidding face-first across the pavement.
Fortunately, a sudden influx of blue light drowned out the results of this scene. Not wanting to see his road rash and confident that Euryale was now safe, Aroma ducked back down, and so for a while, she heard only the sirens and saw only the flashing lights playing on the dingy carpet.
"Don't worry, it's just me!" Aroma didn't hear Euryale approaching until she had already come to the driver's side door and turned off the sirens.
Aroma then looked up, finding the officer leaning through the window. She asked, "Do any of them need first aid?"
"If you want," Euryale answered, furrowing her brows and adding, "But I don't know why you would."
Aroma looked out of the window again. The visible Purist was half-buried in rock as though it were simply sand, arms and legs sticking out at odd angles, but Aroma saw enough to realize that, without the strange effects of the police lights, his clothes were actually in various shades of brown, matching the dull, unpainted stone of the nearby buildings. His face wrappings were torn off, left discarded at his side like stained road kill, and so Aroma could see that this was a man with a fair complexion and a receding head of dark hair, probably a middle-aged Fire Nation descendent. His bangs and the fact that he was turned away from her obscured most of his face, but she still noticed a hint of glistening red flesh that was starting to swell. She also noticed a slight rising and falling of his chest, indicating that he was in stable condition.
Aroma grimaced, but brightened up as she looked back to Euryale. "You were amazing," she murmured.
Her friend smiled and shrugged. "All in a day's work. Sorry about this little detour. I hope you weren't too scared."
"I hope not either..." Aroma trailed off, staring at the gray carpet of the Satomobile. "I wanted to live up to your expectations."
"Hey, now, don't be so down on yourself," Euryale answered hastily. "Once reinforcements arrive to collect evidence, we can continue on to the apartment. That'll cheer you up, right?"
"I guess..." Aroma trailed off again, before looking up with sudden realization. "Oh, I'd better fill Thiera in on what happened!"
Thiera picked up her office phone after a single ring, placing the earpiece to her right ear and leaning in to say, "Hello?"
"Hi Thiera," Aroma answered quickly.
"Oh, hello, Aroma," Thiera said, transferring the ear piece to her left hand so she could grab the article she was reading, and then rolling her chair over to be closer to the phone.
While she was doing that, Aroma tumbled out question after question. "Where are you? Are you alright? Has anyone been bothering you?"
"I'm at the office, and as I keep telling you, I'm fine—did something happen? You sound a bit frantic."
"Well, Euryale and I were on our way through the Dragon Flats when she had to stop the Purists from robbing a bank."
"What are Purists?" Thiera asked.
"Oh, that's the name of that anti-bender gang. They sent the police a sort of message telling them that."
"Wait, what?! Are you sure it was a coincidence?" Thiera demanded, dropping the paper and grabbing the candlestick phone.
"They didn't even seem to know that I was there," Aroma answered. "I was hiding in the back seat of Euryale's cruiser the whole time, but they ignored it. It was just 3 thugs, Euryale took them out easily."
"I see," Thiera sighed, letting go of the phone body and leaning back, "But I can't say that I really approve of her dragging you into such a dangerous situation."
"She's just doing her job, like we do ours. Trust me, she never left my sight, and she made sure that I was safe the whole time."
"If you insist," Thiera conceded with resignation, picking Dr. Avici's article back up. "In any case, what were you 2 doing in this Borough on your day off?"
"There are some nice 3 bedroom apartments that we wanted to look at," Aroma answered.
"Did you just say, '3'? Aroma, we talked about this, I'm not moving back in."
"But I really miss you—that is, I miss doing things with you that aren't strictly work-related. Um—Thiera, would you like to go out for dinner this Friday? At Kuang's, maybe?"
"I'd be glad to spend some time with you," Thiera confirmed, "But why Kuang's Cuisine? What is the occasion?" As she asked, Thiera surveyed sketch of the brain with labels like "regulates anger and desire," "sees objects," and "recognizes objects."
"Just—I really want to do something nice for you. It'll be my treat."
"Are you sure?" Thiera asked, dropping everything to look into the ear piece as if it could actually transmit to Aroma how stunned she was. "Uh, Kuang's Cuisine is rather expensive."
"Positive. Unless you would prefer something else? I don't want to drag you into a situation you're uncomfortable with."
"How about this—I'll trust your judgment, but you should at least let me do something nice for you, in return. I'll buy something for you, and bring it with me on Friday."
"Oh my, you don't have to do that!"
"So it's a date?"
"We have an event set for a date?"
"Oh, in that case, yes."
"I can't wait!" Aroma squealed loud enough that Thiera grimaced and pulled the ear piece away from her head. She continued, only slightly more calmly, "Well, I don't want to keep you from getting any work done, so is there anything else that you want to ask me?"
"As a matter of fact, I would be most grateful if you wouldn't mind informing me of which bank the Purists robbed this time."
"United Republic National."
"But which branch?"
"Uh, I don't know. The one in the west end of the city. Why?"
"I was just curious. Have a pleasant afternoon, Aroma."
"You too, Thiera."
Thiera hung up the phone. Rolling back over to her usual work station, she opened a drawer and pulled out a rolled up piece of parchment. Unrolling it on her desk revealed a map of the city. Picking up a plain black pen, she marked a small "X" at the United Republic National building in the west end of the Dragon Flats, joining several other markings clustered across a 4 block radius. She had also marked a number of gold X's at the east side of the Flats. She frowned as she noticed that her most recent marking indicated that the Purists were now operating within sight of the bridge.
She rolled the map up and shut it back into the drawer when she saw another waterbending healer enter. Shooting to her feet, she added just as abruptly that she was going to eat lunch outside.
"Uh, okay," the confused Healer responded, "Have fun."
Thiera thanked her before striding out of the office.
Outside, she walked westward, stopping at a vendor that was essentially a steel cart, painted red, with a charcoal grill set inside. The cart was pushed by a burly man nearly 2 feet taller than her, also wearing red, but with a white apron and a matching triangular hat. He looked down at her with brown eyes, smiling broad enough to reveal that he had a missing canine, coupled with a small scar on his left cheek that formed a triangular bald spot in his dark stubble.
"Good afternoon. Could I just have a single nuò mǐ cháng, please? And—" she paused, thinking that it would be rude to comment on whatever accident he'd had, even if it was to express her condolences. Instead, she asked, "Could I have just tomato and sweet sauce on that, please?"
"Sure thing, little lady," he answered gruffly, using a pair of tongs to grab a bulbous white rice-filled sausage and place it in a pre-prepared roll and box.
"Thank you," she said with a slight bow after he'd set the tongs down and handed it to her.
"You're too nice," he answered, before continuing eastward.
Thiera went the opposite way, spotting Harmony Tower peeking over the nearby apartment complexes. As always, when she arrived, there was a thick ring of traffic around the structure. Having finished with her meal, she pulled a cleansing wipe from a dispenser strapped to her belt. Dabbing her face and fingers with it, she looked around until she spotted the tunnel, a yawning chasm opening right into the sidewalk. Nearby was a lamp post and, more importantly, a wastebasket, into which she deposited her sausage holder and cleansing wipe before descending into the earth.
Inside, the tunnel was surprisingly well illuminated, with caged light bulbs over her head approximately every 2 paces. It was somewhat musty, and cold enough that she felt the need to cross her arms and tuck her hands into her armpits. She thought the discomfort worth it, because she had always heard that the tunnels were secretly patrolled by Tower Security at all times, via secret passages just behind the walls. On the other hand, even if the tunnel wasn't safe, there was always her water skin.
However, as anticipated, she faced no danger, and soon she was climbing the stairs to the surface. She squinted at the sudden burst of sunlight dazzling off of the pillars which loomed above and around her, supporting the ambitious steel lattice of the tower. Approaching the closest leg, she eventually saw a gilded cage, beyond which a woman in a dark uniform with gold buttons and matching, boxlike hat smiled and waved at her.
Thiera gave the slight inclination that signaled to the operator to open the elevator's cage door, which rattled open and then clanged shut behind the Healer shortly after she stepped inside.
"Good afternoon," Thiera greeted the woman, turning towards her.
"Thank you, you too," the woman answered, displaying her predictably impeccable smile and pulling the large lever jutting from the wall. The clunk of the handle was met with a loud groan of protest from the elevator. It would continue to groan and bang during its entire ascent. Thiera was having difficulty meeting the gaze of the woman, sparkling alongside the lotus clasps of her lapels, so she made a lame show of looking around by awkwardly rotating a few degrees every few seconds and looking up and down repeatedly.
"Is this your first time?" the operator asked.
"What?" Thiera questioned back, looking at her. "Oh—not quite." If it wasn't her peculiar behavior that made the lift operator suspect her, then it could have been her slight jerking and swaying due to a lack of proper balance.
"I assure you, the elevator is perfectly safe. This much metal just tends to make strange noises when you try to move it. If it helps, some people find that the view takes their minds off of the noises."
So Thiera she glanced over her shoulder, but seeing her viewpoint shoot above the rooftops strangely did nothing to assuage her nerves, so she quickly returned to staring at the wall.
"Then again, others don't," the operator added sheepishly.
Actually, the metal box looked a lot better than it sounded. The floor was inlaid with some manner of artificial stone, with fake wood on the walls that reached to approximately waist height. These design elements were, in turn, offset by the gold painting on the upper walls, ceiling, and door grate.
"We have arrived," the lift operator suddenly announced. "Like I said, nothing to worry about."
Thiera looked back. She had not heard the door open, but sure enough, there was the highly varnished cherry wood hallway that led to the tower's various attractions. She gave another inclination of her head to the operator and stumbled out of the lift on still-shaking legs, grabbing the walls for support. Sufficiently mortified, she did not bother to see if there were any other nearby workers she should greet. Instead, she simply headed directly for the glass doors marked "Observation Deck" in golden calligraphy.
As it turned out, it wasn't completely empty outside. There were a few couples hanging onto the safety rail, gazing out at the streets below. Fortunately, none of them were using the southward situated telescope. Thiera walked briskly towards the meter-long golden rod, drawing a yuan coin from her pocket and depositing it into the black box surrounding the eye piece, which in turn caused a port to open over the lens. Gazing inside, she directed the telescope towards the river. The 1st thing she noticed was a series of large drain pipes, which could be utilized to ambush hapless boaters, and then to store stolen goods or even the boats themselves.
She couldn't see what the buildings were on the other side of the river, but on her end, they were mostly shops. She caught a glimpse of what was once a nice ruby red sports Satomobile, but now had dents beaten into its hood, a shattered wind shield, and flat tires, likely slashed. The obvious conclusion was that some hapless visitor had been set upon by a Triad as a warning, but deducing any more details would probably be impossible from this distance, so she panned over to the United Republic National building. Of course, the Purists' getaway van was already long gone, now replaced by a hoard of police vehicles. Other than that, the crime scene seemed to have been cleaned up from the struggle. The only notable exception was the irregular, roughly circular chunk broken off of the stairs. Judging from the Purists' anti-bender methods, this was most likely damage from an explosion.
She wasn't sure when or how the Purist Leader arrived in the city, beyond that it was improbable that she walked all the way from the Chin Peninsula, but she was pretty sure of one thing: That woman planned to start the Purists before she even set foot in the city. Gathering small time criminals, training them in Chi Blocking and the Kyoshi fighting style, she couldn't have done all of it overnight. She had to have started this a long time ago, and to remain secret, she had to have a plan. But did she have accomplices outside of the Dragon Flats?
With a sigh of resignation, Thiera headed back into the tower, placing a call at the nearest pay phone.
"Hi, Mom. I'm—well, I'll tell you all about it, but first, can I come to visit? And...can you teach me how to fight?"
For the collective works of the author, go here.