|By Neo Bahamut||Genre||Rating||Reviews||Updates|
|More from Neo Bahamut||Adventure, romance||PG-13||See main page||See main page|
|Sink or Swim|
-1 (Blood & Steel)
Sunday, December 18, 2016
Senthose sat at a rickety table in a run-down, ramshackle room that was serving as his living area as well as his kitchen, appliances and dining set separated from a lumpy beige chair by a meager 5 feet. Thanks to his waterbending, the appliances and white counters were nearly spotless, though some of the more stubborn smoke stains would never come out. At the opposite end of the room sat oaken cabinets, their cracked façades nicely complimenting the gouges on the bare white walls from whatever had torn up the last owner's gaudy fish-themed wallpaper, which he'd since removed.
Upon the cabinets, he'd set a radio obtained using the hocked boat parts. A sandpaper shining ensured that it looked a whole lot worse than it sounded, so visitors wouldn't suspect it was obtained illicitly. Not that he was in the business of accepting visitors.
However, it was the books and charts covering his table that had the young Monsoon's undivided attention. Charts on the circulatory, chi, and lymphatic system, as well as primers on the anatomy and physiology of the different organ systems. The keys to the human body, spread out before his fingertips.
Hearing a series of raps, he stood and strode to the door, opening it to unveil Inspector Matsu, razor thin eyebrows converging as if in an effort to stab him.
"Good morning. May I come in?" she asked.
"I'd—uh—really rather you didn't. This place is a mess."
"Oh, I assure you, I don't mind."
"I see...but, um, I still don't want anyone to see it."
"Why not? You wouldn't have something to hide, would you?"
"N—no, I just—"
"Then there shouldn't be a problem if I take a look." She leaned forward, but before she even took a step across the threshold, Senthose's arm shot out to block her path. She narrowed her eyes at him, but he met her gaze, unflinchingly unimpressed.
"I'm sorry, Inspector, but you can't legally enter without a warrant. Not unless I allow you to."
She cocked her head back to sneer down her nose at him. "You're much bolder all of a sudden."
"Oh?" he asked, raising his eyebrows in idle curiosity. "You think so?"
"Certainly. You're no longer stammering, for one."
"I don't believe that's a crime."
"How about we get straight to the point, Kid? Why were you putting on that act?"
"An 'act' implies that I lied to you in some way, Inspector. All I did was take a polite tone with you. Are you also going to interrogate me for not telling you that I have not, in fact, had a good morning?"
The inspector cocked her head. "And why is that?"
"I guess you are. Well, as you can undoubtedly see from here, I am studying to become a Healer. I'm afraid this means many migraines and sleepless nights."
"You seem pretty relaxed to me," she retorted, making note of his exaggerated shrug.
"Well, not to brag, but I have excellent relaxation techniques. Would you like me to show you a few?"
"...I suppose I can spare time for a short demonstration. Emphasis on short. I am a very busy woman."
"Of course," Senthose answered, stepping outside and shutting the door. Noting the Inspector's ever-creasing brow, he smiled. "I never said that I would allow you inside to show you, Inspector. My apologies if I inadvertently gave you the wrong impression."
"Never mind that," she barked, waving as if swatting a mosquitofly, "What were you going to show me?"
Senthose held his right arm out diagonally towards the sun, then stretched to cover his right hand with his left without moving the rest of his body.
"Basic waterbending forms are excellent for relaxation," he said. "With this exercise, you slowly move your left arm down your right, then down the natural curvature of your stomach, before bending your knees slightly and slowly raising your other arm, extending it as you go. Only then do you lower your right arm and begin the process from the other side. Now, it's important to clear the mind and maintain proper breath con—"
"Forgive the interruption," Matsu said, "But I just realized I hadn't given you my condolences on the damage to your club building."
"The RCPD fixed it," he said, still practicing his maneuver, "So we're square."
"Did you find out anything about the cause of the explosion?"
"No more than I told your cadet. Sobek was his name, correct?"
"Remind me again what you told him?"
He grinned at her upon finishing his technique, leaning against the building and crossing his arms.
"Why, Inspector, don't you think you should ask me 1 thing at a time? That way your every question will have my undivided attention? It's almost as if you hope I'll slip up." She had just barely opened her mouth when he cut across her, "There was a gas explosion, probably caused by a faulty pipe. We club members hadn't been on the lookout for it, since we were patrolling to make sure the citizens of Little Water Tribe were safe, and there was no suspicious activity to report to you. Once we saw the fires, we raced there as soon as we could to control the damage, and had no time to call in a report. I remember every word as if Sobek asked me all of this yesterday. Because he did. And I can't imagine your department would be incompetent enough to lose this information."
"Yes, you seem to have rehearsed your story awfully well."
Senthose spread his arms wide and shook his head. "Use all of the fishing techniques you want, Inspector, but I assure you that I have nothing to hide. If you don't believe me, and you're confident that you can prove it, why don't you take me in? Because otherwise, we are both very busy people, and we need to get back to our responsibilities."
"Responsibilities for the club?" she pressed, leaning in.
"Yes," he said, turning the doorknob, "I'm thinking of joining its Healing program. Now goodbye, Inspector." Before she could reply, he stepped through and slammed the door in her face.
Fuming, but not wanting to give Senthose any satisfaction in case he was watching from a window, Matsu shuffled stiffly to her car. Once in the driver's seat, she clicked on the radio and barked into the receiver to be patched through to Detective Rakshashi.
A few seconds of static later, the detective asked, "Inspector Matsu? Did you find something?"
"Not as such, no," she said shortly. "This Senthose kid is a much tougher nut than we thought. He must have a lot more experience than he lets on, but there's no record of him and nobody seems to know who he is."
"...I'm sorry to hear that," he said with poorly disguised hesitation, "We've had...debatably better luck."
"Yes, I'd heard about the fight at the steel mill. I'm glad you and Euryale are alright, by the way."
"Thanks," Euryale chipped in less enthusiastically than usual, "But unfortunately, we lost the trail."
"Officers are still combing that part of the city," her father added, "But there are just too many places to search, and for all we know, Gevurah is on the other side of town by now."
"Whoever he is," Euryale added. "He wasn't lying when he said his name wouldn't help us. Maybe he's using an alias."
"We think he might have named himself after his would-be predecessor," her father informed the inspector.
"Well, I'm fresh out of leads," she sighed in response, "All I can do for now is to keep watch on Club Voland. I'll be sure to keep you posted."
"And we'll be sure to return the favor," Phorcys assured.
Many hours later, when the sun was finishing its plunge into the Mo Ce Sea, darkness thickening as the moon had yet to arise, Senthose donned his typical attire and left his apartment. He tediously shoved his way through the chattering throng, ignoring their scoffs and snorts, until he came to a cross intersection. Car after car whizzed by in the cool blue light of the billboards and signs, until the signal suspended overhead switched. The herd of Satomobiles slowed to a stop, allowing Senthose to continue to Club Voland.
Thanks to the miracle of bending, the street was practically as good as new. In fact, the only sign that anything was amiss was that this section of the street and the adjacent wall looked just a bit too good, having been repaved recently and thus free of the wear and tear of the surrounding buildings.
He tipped his hat at the door guards, receptionist, and elevator operator. This time, the man pulled the lever to the basement and waved a hand over the panel, unseen fluid sloshing around to his guidance until a lock mechanism clicked. The gates clanged shut, and hummed as the unseen pulleys dragged the chamber down the building. They next opened onto a vast cavern of smooth, sable rock, lit by a galaxy of gem stones embedded in the walls and ceiling. The young monsoon continued without a word as the elevator retreated back up the tower.
Senthose paused, using his truncheon to pry a crystal free, then slipped it in his pocket before winding his way around the towering columns of stone. He found Netzach and Selene standing next to a subterranean pond, in it a motor boat lashed to a stalagmite. The former wore a dark purple trench coat with dark fur at the collar and cuffs, accentuated by black belt, bowler hat, and a single row of buttons along his chest. Still, his white slacks could just barely be seen poking out from under it.
"Is it just the 3 of us?" Senthose asked. "To search the entire industrial center?"
"Not quite," Netzach answered. "But see, we're gonna have to go into Triple Threat territory, so the boss thought it might be prudent if we met up with some folks there."
"Some of the Triple Threat waterbenders are in our pocket," Selene explained as she untied the boat, though all he could see was her jet-black wrap coat and the bobbing of the bright blue feather in her hairband. "We pay them to look the other way when our shipments come through, and keep tabs on things for us."
Senthose nodded and climbed into the back seat, while Netzach once again took the wheel. Once finished, Selene climbed in back with Senthose, prompting the younger waterbender to raise an eyebrow.
"Well, don't just gawk at me, the boat won't get itself out of here."
Imitating Selene, Senthose swept his arms forward, the pair forming a wave that took them up the slope of a dry river bed. They soon reached an apparent dead end, but with a curious patch where the stone was replaced with a steel wall. As they held the wave steady, Netzach reached out and slid the wall aside, granting them passage to a drainage pipe.
"Shouldn't be too long now," Netzach said after resealing the secret door and coasting into the river. "Maybe 10 minutes before we find our guide."
Selene withdrew a slender, slightly tapered rod from her coat, leaning forward to press it to a socket in the dashboard. When she removed it, a fine line of smoke emerged from the end. Cradling the point in her lips, she inhaled gently, removing it briefly to blow a mist of smoke.
"Sadly, Boss V wouldn't let me bring any wine," Netzach whined, "And Selene won't share what she brought."
"I said I wouldn't share with you," she corrected, before turning back to Senthose. "If you'd like something for the nerves, I'd be happy to oblige."
"That's not fair!" Netzach pouted.
"No thank you," Senthose answered. "But I was wondering, would you have any bloodbending tips that Netzach wouldn't know?"
"Would I!" she laughed, flicking ash in the general direction of Netzach's glowering. "Kid, there's a lot more to bloodbending than cracking limbs and bursting organs. Unlike Netty here, I am not just some street fighter, I am a fully-fledged Northern Water Style practitioner."
"So, what would your advice be?" he pressed.
"The biggest error that most bloodbenders make is that they're far too direct. But before I continue, you should know that your collar could use some adjusting."
As Senthose reached up to check the button, she giggled. "You see, what you don't know is that, under my coat, I have my free hand trained on your wrists. If the full moon were out, I could have easily forced you to strangle yourself. Always conceal your own movements, and look to exploit your target's natural inclinations. A tie or a pocket watch can make an assassination look like a suicide. A butler could easily slip and stab his boss while cutting his food. A drunk could stumble into a store and rob it, before losing all that money in the river for you to collect. Or perhaps a busy government official doesn't notice he's stepped into traffic."
"Yes, the true purpose of bloodbending is clearly petty theft and comic violence," Netzach snarked. "Kid, do you really think all this jibber-jabber about subtlety and surprise that Selene can fight better than me?"
"I don't have to trade blows with a duo of firebenders if they burn each other to a crisp!" she countered heatedly, jabbing him in the back of the head with her nail. "As a business woman, I don't need to beat people up on the streets to make money, and that's why I'll be in charge when Father retires, and you'll still just be the thug who looks out for the signal!"
Senthose looked between them, intrigued. Netzach's clenched his jaw furiously while Selene turned her back on him and snootily observed the lights twinkling on the water.
"We're here," Netzach said shortly as a soft light flickered on a nearby bank, from a man frantically adjusting a lantern as if it were dying. Nearby, his companions drew gobs of water from the river, pulling fish out of them and throwing them into a cooler. The Monsoons drifted up to the strangers, killing the motor and freezing the water to hold the boat in place. The fishermen let their water orbs splash back into the river.
"We'll tell you how to get to our friend's house," a shadow-clad man said in a low, conspiratorial tone, "We just need the ride there."
Senthose shuffled to make room for a pair of men wearing dark slacks and Manchurian jackets. The shorter gangster had neatly parted hair and a small ponytail, with tattoos of waves spreading from his fists, almost masking defensive scars. The taller man had much more wild, frizzy hair, with rough sideburns and a pointed mustache sitting absurdly on his wolfish features. This duo dragged the cooler forward and stowed it under the seat. The last man, now in the light but still concealed by a gray duster and wicker boater pulled over his face, sat beside Netzach.
The ice melted and they moved further upstream into the dark, twisted towers of the industrial sector, which belched thick clouds of smoke into the sky. Their halos of flashing caution lights were choked out by the smog, obscuring the group as they drifted behind an enormous, half-sunken Fire Nation battleship, its bow jutting defiantly from the water.
They once again drifted to a stop, this time in the shadow of the boat's tower, throwing their anchor into the depths. Boater climbed over the seat to take the controls as Netzach reached up, grasping the rung of a ladder to begin an awkward, tilting climb up to the ship's deck. He was followed by Selene, Senthose, and the pair of jackets.
The ship was rusted out even worse than the Sinkable, with vibrant blue and white striped iguanagulls perched on the rail, preening their forearm wings with their toothed beaks. They fluffed up their crests and flicked their long, feathered tails irritably as the gangsters alighted.
There were several holes in the boat's shell, exposing the skeleton of the support beams below, while the vaulted door to the below decks was chained off, with a sign saying it was for public safety.
"This is definitely a new chain," Netzach said, reaching out to inspect it as they approached. "It's just been burnt so it looks old from afar."
Ponytail spoke up, "Our sources said the fire-tossers ditched a pair of jalopies down river. The boars prob'ly expected 'em to continue down to Little Fire Nation, plus they're still wastin' their time searchin' that old mill. This is the last place anyone would think of lookin' for 'em."
"So how're we gettin' in?" Wolfish asked. "We gonna freeze it, or cut our way through?"
"Neither. Am I the only one here with any sense of subtlety?" Selene shoved them out of the way, stepping forward and removing her hairpins. After a few minutes of prodding inside the lock, it clicked and they slowly drew the chain aside.
The stairs underfoot groaned and the ceiling above slowly dripped as they descended into the shapeless chasm. They gripped the walls carefully and scooted down to counter the tilt of the boat, peering through each doorway as they passed. Some of the vault doors merely hung open, too rusted to be resealed, while others had broken off entirely and were slowly sliding away from their origins. As they continued down the halls, Wolfish turned his lantern back on, shining the beam over a dark, sloshing pool far below.
"I guess we should've expected some flooding," he said gruffly, "Even if it's the shallows."
"That just works to our advantage," Selene commented.
"Something isn't right," Senthose contradicted.
"What, you afraid of the Big Bad Agni Kais?" Netzach asked. "Or maybe spooooky ghoooosties, oooooh!" He waved his fingers over the lantern, creating vast, indistinct dancing shadows.
Selene scowled. "Do you ever stop prattling?" Swatting his hands away, she added, "And stop that, it's giving me a headache!"
"I smell...oil," Senthose continued, ignoring them.
"Not surprising," Netzach noted, "The lubrication on this old clunker's prob'ly leakin' everywhere."
Suddenly, a thunderous bang reverberated through the ship, demanding everyone's attention. The others started towards it, but Senthose withdrew his gemstone and dropped, ignoring the shouts of protest. He slid further down the ship with his hand on the wall, fashioning ice claws to keep himself anchored. Once he was nearly level with the oil-drenched water, he shined the light through the nearest door.
A wire drooped almost imperceptivity, ripped from its proper place in the wall to dip under an old bunk bed and into a discretely hidden crate. A red glow rapidly swelled in the blasting jelly packed inside. Senthose dropped into the frigid pool, erupting in a waterspout just before the fireball burst from the room, igniting the surface of the water.
Across the ship, similar fire bursts were going off at the same time. No fools, Netzah and Selene each pulled water from Senthose, creating a whirling shield around themselves. Though they kept the flames at bay, some of the blast force still punched through, slamming them against the bulkhead.
By this point, burning balls of deformed, razor-sharp steel were falling on them. Senthose rolled and kicked out, turning the waterspout into a wave that arched over them. It crashed against the ceiling, freezing solid to trap the death balls. When he rose to his feet, Wolfish had already dropped the lantern, and light was fading fast as it sunk into the depths.
The ship gave a great lurch, falling level, then sliding deeper into the river. Dark bubbling water rushed in from every direction, impossible to tell where it was echoing from. Senthose jabbed in the direction opposite the tilt and twisted his arm, causing spiraling sea to leap from beneath his feet and drill through the ceiling. Unfortunately, more water just came crashing in from the new hole, sweeping him closer to the bow. He thrashed, scrabbling in vain for a hand hold, before hearing the squeal of something shearing through solid steel.
The crystal's pale virescent glow barely revealed a solid wall of ice. Craning his neck and using the stone as a flashlight, he found a drizzling hole in the ceiling that a set of trousers quickly disappeared through. Swinging his arm forward, he lashed a water whip against the side of the iceberg, jerking back to pull himself forward so he could climb the frigid crags.
He rolled forward onto an awkwardly teetering deck, near a great spire of ice that the river was anxiously flowing around in its hunger for the old ship. Netzach snatched the crystal from him and waved it over the water until he spotted a cerulean feather floating on the surface. Carefully scanning that area, he eventually found Selene breaking the surface, gasping for air as she propelled herself to the opposite bank in a single kick.
"Guess it's just us," he observed.
"What—about—the lookout?" Senthose asked between gasps.
Netzach whirled to examine the water behind him, where they saw only a boater hat floating on the surface, half-scorched and still smoking slightly.
"They sure have a thing for blowin' stuff up," Netzach grumbled bitterly. "Forget reporting back to Voland, just get home. Make sure you're not seen and we were never even here. We'll figure out how to pay back these pyros in the morning."
For the collective works of the author, go here.