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|Leaving the Nest|
Thursday, July 16, 2015
She bowed to Lilith as the trio stood in the apartment, between the entrance and the living room. Aroma's goldsilverfish pressed up against the tank, gawking at them and smacking their fishy little lips, Legs crawling up the side. Beside the fish sat a beaten-up old cardboard box with a pile of Aroma's clothes thrown haphazardly inside, weighed down by her purse. All of the girls were still wearing their work clothes, sans absurd hats, which lay abandoned by the door. Thiera and Aroma twiddled their thumbs nervously while Lilith stood across from them, leaning against the wall with her arms crossed.
"I get it," Lilith answered, "And you don't need to be so formal. I look forward to talking to you when you get back."
"I just hope your assumptions about the Purist Leader's thinking are correct," Thiera said, "You are making a great deal of them."
Aroma turned to her with a frown. "Thiera, every day your control over the human body becomes even more precise, and I struggle to keep up. There's not a nonbender alive who doesn't think about what others can do that we can't. To someone like the Purist Leader, it's not a far leap from that to assuming that you and Euryale simply got rid of me because I was a burden."
"Oh, absolutely," Lilith commented.
"What?" Thiera asked, gaping at Lilith in disbelief, "I didn't know you felt that way. How could you feel that way? You beat me up until I was 12!"
"C'mon, Thi, who would always stop me? Mom. A waterbender. If you would have ever bothered to learn how to fight, I wouldn't have stood a chance."
"Um," Aroma began, "I'd hate to interrupt, but—"
"Oh, yes," Thiera said, taking the box of clothes and passing it off to her, "Please be careful going down the stairs."
"I will," Aroma answered, shifting the box to get a better grip.
Reflexively, Thiera grabbed it with both hands to steady it. "So..." she began as they both awkwardly scanned the room.
"Should we fight, or something? I feel weird pretending to not be friends."
Lilith abruptly slammed her fist against the door, causing it to rattle thunderously, the fish to disperse, and Legs to fall. When Aroma dropped the box, which fell over and released a cascade of clothes, Lilith pointed to it and bellowed, "Pick up your garbage and get out! Now!"
Aroma hurriedly stooped down and scrabbled along the floor to shove everything back inside. Lilith winked at Thiera, who was gawking at her.
"It's not that I don't realize what you're doing," Thiera slowly whispered, "It's just that it's really, really strange."
"Oh well!" Lilith shouted, not breaking character as she reached back and wrenched the door open. "That's too bad, just find somewhere else to go!"
With that, she grabbed Aroma's shoulder and made a big show of dragging her, stumbling, into the hallway. She then pushed into the small of Aroma's back, which the latter thought was overkill, stepped back inside, and slammed the door.
Scanning up and down the hall, Aroma could see that a few doors were cracked so their occupants could peer at the scene. Admittedly, the embarrassment probably helped her case, as she was now flushed and even tearing up. She smiled nervously, hoping none of the occupants would try to be good citizens as she began her walk of shame.
Of course, somebody did. A woman 3 doors down called out, "Excuse me, Miss, but are you okay? Do you need a place to stay?"
"Oh no, I couldn't," Aroma politely declined, doing her best to bow at the door with the heavy box weighing her down. When it started to wobble, she shot back up.
"It's no trouble," the woman assured. Aroma caught a glimpse of brown curls and a green eye.
"Honestly," Aroma said, searching for an excuse, "We've been fighting for a while now, so I already have a place in mind."
The woman's eye squinted at her. "Really?" she asked. "But haven't I seen you go out with those other girls a few times?"
"Yes," Aroma said, "But things have been going downhill recently. Just ask them about the fight we had at Keter's welcoming party."
"I'm so sorry to hear that. May I at least help you with your box?"
"I really appreciate it, but I think I just want to be alone for now." I want to look vulnerable. Like easy prey.
After a few seconds of silence, Aroma added a sniff, hoping that would convince the strange woman. But she hardly needed to act. As her neck grew hotter, she could feel wet tracks start rolling down the sides of her face.
Finally, the woman responded, "Okay. Best of luck to you, Sweetie."
"Thank you!" Aroma said with another quarter-bow. After the woman had reluctantly closed the door, she bolted to the stairs, eager to avoid more of the same. Peering out from around the shredded corner of the box, she tentatively began her descent.
Since they didn't want this to look too staged in case anyone was watching them, Aroma had to actually walk to the nearest bus stop, though it was a few miles away. She passed no one and eventually reached a bench sitting flanked by a quartet of poles. One still bore the tattered remnant of the tarp that long ago protected travelers from the rain.
She set the box beside her and looked around to see that the street was still completely deserted. She thought she heard a noise and twisted around to look in the alley behind her, but saw only an elephant rat digging in a trash can with its little hands and trunk. She squinted, thinking she could see shapes deeper in the shadows, and forced a gulp down her desiccated throat.
She jolted and whirled back around when she heard a horn blare behind her. Seeing the bus crawling tremulously up the street, she quickly rummaged in her purse for fare. Essentially a long ted box with an engine sticking out of the front, it had circular windows on its side, spaced about 2 feet apart. These were devoid of glass, relying on a gold-painted cage to keep anyone from climbing in or falling out, though some had off white shades pulled down over them and locked in place that flies kept twanging into. The inclined roof, carved to appear as if it were made of tiles, featured an upturned spike on each corner and a ridge running along the length of its apex. Both the roof and the engine were emerald in color.
It slowed to a stop in front of the bench and, when the driver turned a hand crank, the door slid open in fits and shakes. Aroma could now see that she was a heavily pear-shaped woman sporting a brown bob. She was wearing a gray coat with 2 columns of bronze buttons, as well as buttons on the pronounced cuff links and collar. This was matched by a stout, flat topped hat with a long visor jutting out.
Aroma stood and gave a quick bow before snatching up her box and squeezing inside. She clenched her teeth as she heard the scraping: The box had a newfound opening gouged into it, but fortunately, it still held together. Aroma wished the driver a nice day as she passed, depositing a trio of yuans into a slot built into the dashboard.
"Yes, thank you," the driver muttered, making smacking noises indicating that she was chewing something.
There were few other passengers. A pair of teenage girls sat near the front, giggling about something. They wore dresses of a style similar to Aroma's and Euryales, but made of sequins matching their hair. They had presumably discovered Verridye, as their bobs were neon violet and deep sea blue, respectively. In the back an old man slept with his arms crossed, only wrinkled lips and white whiskers peeking out from beneath his thick brown trench coat and matching flatcap.
She sat a few seats up from him, her box occupying the window seat. She would ride to the nearest hotel, check out a room, and arrange a meeting with a realtor for the apartment she was "looking at" the first chance she got. Of course it would not be occupied. Unbeknownst to the Purists, the landlady was on contract, though for what purpose even she didn't know. She was told that she would be supplying temporary housing for Future Industries personnel.
Ignoring the dust stinging the inside of her nose and the acrid, moldy stench that always seemed to plague old busses, Aroma leaned against her box of worldly possessions. Folding her arms around her purse, on which she rested her chin, she stared out the window. Trying to avert her gaze from the darkened alleys, she looked instead at her now former neighborhood, wondering what her friends had been up to since she left just an hour or so ago.
"Don't you think that was just a bit extreme?" Thiera asked, turning to track Lilith as she headed into the living room proper.
Now that the furniture was all unpacked, Euryale and Thiera had compromised on having a white and a red couch, facing each other with the rectangular ebony table from Thiera's old apartment between them. The table featured Euryale's radio to the left and a built-in, but slightly scratched, Pai Sho board in the center.
Lilith flopped down on the red couch, closest to the door, and answered, "Hey, nobody else was doing anything. I had to think fast. Now just sit down, we're going to be playing the waiting game for a while."
"I would honestly feel better if the Purists simply never took the bait," Thiera said, sitting on her own couch.
"You'll feel the best when you know they're off the streets for good," Lilith pointed out.
"When do you think Euryale will return from the Triple Threat headquarters?" Thiera asked, opting to change the subject, "And what if she can't convince Zolt to aid her?"
Lilith shrugged, spreading her arms over the back of the couch. "Then I guess we just do without them. But I don't think that'll be a problem, the Triple Threats have the most reason to hate the Purists. As long as we don't antagonize them or ask them to admit to anything incriminating, I'm sure they'll agree to a short alliance. So it was probably a smart move not to try to drag him down to the station."
"I still feel filthy asking for help from career criminals like them."
"I'm sure Euryale does too. It won't be a popular decision, but to ensure this all goes off without a hitch and Aroma stays safe, we have to have as many eyes on the streets as possible."
"I also feel guilty for not helping more."
"Hey, I'm sure the tips you gave her will come in very handy. But instead of worrying about things outside of your control, how 'bout we play a bit of Pai Sho until Euryale gets here?"
"This table was a hand-me-down and you lost all of the pieces, remember?"
Lilith raised her right index finger with a sly smile. She dug around in her pocket with her other hand, pulling out a black case. When she set it on the table, Thiera could see that an edge featured a row of 5 golden wheels with symbols carved onto them, set on their sides so that only a single symbol on each was poking through the case at a time. When she lined up the symbols for the Fire Nation, Air Nomads, Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, and United Republic, in that order, a latch inside clicked and Lilith could open it up like a book.
The inside wooden, and painted on both sides to form the designs of a standard Pai Sho board when opened, while leather straps stretched across the case kept the pieces from sliding around too much. Once it was laid flat, Lilith unclipped each strap and began taking pieces out, plopping them in a pile at the center of the table.
"It gets boring on the ship," she said, sorting the pieces according to their symbols, "So I bought this in Jang Hui."
"...Are you aware that the game pieces in sets like that are pre-sorted? If you would just return them to the case the way that you found them, then you wouldn't have to sort them now. You haven't changed one iota. You're still so disorganized."
"Commander Bumi clearly disagrees," she countered, "That's why I'm an officer now."
"I don't think that he's the best example, from what I have heard."
"Well, then, I'll convince you by showing you how much better I've gotten in Pai Sho. Do you still prefer Northern Water Style?"
"...Let's play Fire Frenzy. That's the rule set that you always liked."
"Uh, okay," Lilith responded, clearly surprised. "Thanks."
Thiera watched Lilith's hands as she set the pieces up in a grim imitation of the Hundred Year War, giving herself and her sister each a series of white dragon and red fire tiles in a trident formation, facing a much larger group of rock tiles and white flowers at the board's center. She also passed Thiera half of the boat tiles. As Thiera recalled, each player was to place these at various points on the north and south ends of the board, at his or her discretion. She chose to cluster hers in an L-shaped formation to block off Lilith's access to the "Earth Kingdom" that was the mass of rock and flower tiles.
Lilith chuckled, shaking her head. "Still favoring defense even in a fast-paced game of chance?"
"The objective of this particular variation is to capture as much territory as quickly as possible," Thiera countered, "Fast-paced to be sure, but chance has nothing to do with it. If one thinks quickly, she will always find that the defensive option is best."
"Bah, that's no fun," Lilith said with a wave of her hand. She then flicked her rose tile into a jasmine tile. Once the jasmine was knocked free, she placed it in the kit. Thiera just stared at the board with a faint glaze in her eyes, so Lilith eventually spoke up, "You know, I'm trying to be nice since you're my sister, but you're supposed to move within a breath."
"That's what I was thinking about."
Lilith cut her off, "You're not supposed to think, just act."
Thiera closed her eyes and breathed softly through her nose. "Lilith, please, just listen. I am trying to apologize for acting so cold towards you today. I realize that you were only trying to be nice."
"It's not a big deal," Lilith said with another casual wave of her hand, "I'm having fun."
Thiera opened her eyes, staring stone faced at her. "That's exactly it. You're always trying to help me, to not let me take responsibility."
"...You want me to not help you?" she asked, turning her head to peer sidelong at Thiera.
"I just...I feel as if you treat me like a child. As if I can't take care of myself." Thiera shook her head, sending waves shimmering through her blond hair. "I'm sorry, I didn't want to say anything because I knew it would upset you, but—"
Lilith shook her own head, eyes and mouth drooping. "No, I guess that makes sense. Look, I just know I wasn't the best sister growing up, and then when we finally started growing close, I just up and left for the United Forces. Mom told me how you cried when I left. A lot."
Thiera's eyes shot open further as color swelled up her neck. "I most certainly did not!"
"The point is, I just want to help you for a change. To be a good sister." She stared down at the board and added forlornly, "But I guess I missed my chance...."
"You're not—I knew I shouldn't have said anything," Thiera said bitterly, looking away. "Just forget it, I'm only being ridiculous."
"No, I think you're right. You're not a little girl anymore. You're not my responsibility to care for, you're my platoon mate. We're in this one together. Agreed?"
She held her hand over the board. Thiera looked at it, then up into Lilith's face. Slowly, the corners of her mouth crept upward and her lips curled away from her pearly whites. Lilith smiled back, and Thiera reached out to give her a single, firm hand shake.
"...And now that I've agreed not to coddle you anymore, the penalty for cheating the time limit is decimation!" Lilith pointed out, as well as literally pointing to the board. "Remove one of your own pieces."
"I've changed my mind, you should treat me as if I were a child again," Thiera said flatly.
"Hey, you made a joke! Good one, but neither of us is getting any younger, so stop stalling and take the penalty already," Lilith ordered, twitching her finger.
A few moves later, Euryale burst through the door, rounding on them with a smirk of smug self-satisfaction.
"I take it that your mission went well?" Thiera asked.
Euryale swung the door shut and answered, "Zolt asked what was in it for him, so I told him he didn't have to help if he thought his restaurant was more fireproof than the Council building or your old clinic. That shut him right up."
"I'm confused, does that mean that he's helping or not?"
"He eventually agreed," Euryale clarified, "When he realized he needed police protection and the only ways to get it would be to either help the operation or admit to criminal conspiracy charges."
"That's good," Lilith commented, "Because I don't know if you heard or not, but the Chief gave us the order to start the plan while you were away."
"Yeah, I heard. Using Aroma as bait, Triads, foreign metal police...I still don't like how many moving parts this plan has."
"I understand the sentiment," Thiera said, "But it really is our only option. Now that the Purists have the only maps of the tunnel system, they could expand all throughout the city and you'll never be able to find them."
"I guess you're right," Euryale sighed in resignation. "Hey," she added, straining to return to her upbeat tone, "Are you guys playing Fire Frenzy Pai Sho?"
"Oh yeah!" Lilith called out, "It's still my move."
"The penalty for going over the time limit is decimation," Thiera reminded her. "Please remove one of your pieces."
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