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|The Big Night|
Saturday, January 10, 2015
Stopping at the end table, Aroma explained, "It's getting colder and I have to wear it anyway, so I figure, 'why not cut out the middle?'" Her hand brushed over her purse and Euryale's keys before knocking over a gold-painted cylinder with a silvery label, which struck the table with a heavy thud.
"Darn it!" she yelled as it rolled off of the table, but by the time she reached for it, it had already stopped in midair, bobbing gently up and down. Aroma looked around in confusion until she noticed Euryale, now how holding her left hand out as though grasping an invisible can. So Aroma clasped her hands at her waist and gave a quick bow, adding, "Thank you."
"No problem," Euryale answered as she watched Aroma take the container and twist it to and fro to try to remove the cap. Euryale figured Aroma wouldn't notice if she helped by flicking her wrist and causing the cap to pop itself off. "So, am I driving?"
"I don't know how Thiera would take that," Aroma answered, sprinkling some dingy brown flakes into the aquarium. Apparently, they were better than they looked, because her goldsilverfish immediately darted to the surface to gulp down the food. All except for Legs, who just flicked his forelegs spitefully at Aroma from his cave, sending out a flurry of bubbles and eliciting a frown from the girl. She ignored her jerkfish and added, "Do you think it's safe?"
"Well, there's no way that the Purists could have found out so soon that your witness protection ran out," Euryale pointed out. "Plus, it's a simple matter of going to and from your job. I can just call you a taxi and watch from a neighbor's window, if you don't think I should come with you."
"That would be nice," Aroma answered. "Sorry we're being so inconvenient."
"It's no trouble," Euryale said with a shrug, "These things happen. Plus, I really enjoy having you around."
Moments later, Aroma was sitting on the steps of the apartment, doubled over, resting her arms on her purse and panting, "One day...they should really have elevators...in all buildings...taller than 3 floors...."
She looked up, craning her neck to see Euryale giving a reassuring wave from one of the windows higher up. Of course, Aroma waved back, and scrambled to her feet once the taxi arrived.
"Hey, it's you again," the driver said once she entered. She jerked her head up, terrified that she was about to see a zombified body say something like, "You're the girl that killed me!" but all she saw were a pair of green eyes. She squinted in confusion.
"Don't remember me? That's okay. I took you to work the day you got that magazine, remember?"
"Wha—oh! Oh, yeah. How have you been?"
"Pretty good. How 'bout you? Did you enjoy that magazine?"
"Can we talk about something else, please?"
"Sure. Did you hear about that new Triad, the Purists?"
"Uh, yeah, how about something else? Like maybe—flowers? Do you have a favorite kind?"
He did not, and so Aroma was doomed to a long cab ride of awkward silence. But her thoughts quickly turned to meeting with Thiera, so it wasn't so bad.
As always, when she entered the clinic, she put her purse in the office. Seeing that Thiera wasn't in there, she set off down the hall, finding a male waterbender outside of what was formerly Mrs. Lee's room.
"Excuse me," she asked after clearing her throat, "Have you seen Thiera?"
"Yeah, I think she's in the pharmacology lab," he answered.
"Alright, thank you," Aroma said with a bow before setting off for the stairwell. The pharmacology lab was in the greenhouse on the roof, so she had some climbing to do. There were elevators in the building, but nobody really used them unless they had to, because the clinic was only 3 stories and elevators don't give a very smooth ride. Besides, they wouldn't take her directly to the roof anyway.
As the sun broke through, she headed for the sparkling glass box. When she entered, she tried to duck under a large leaf, but hadn't realized that the plants had just been watered, so a small bump drenched her. She squealed in surprise and tried to shake the droplets from her hair.
Thiera dashed right over, soaking up the water with a wave of her hand.
"Sorry, if I knew you were coming, I would have warned you."
"That's okay," Aroma said, flushing scarlet. "What are you doing in here?"
"Have you read Dr. Avici's paper?"
"I've heard of it," Aroma confirmed with a scowl.
"Believe me, I don't approve of his social views either, but his theories on localization of brain function are sound. So I wanted to try synthesizing some medications that the nonbending staff could use to treat various afflictions. I thought I would start with a mood elevator."
"That's a great idea. You're so smart."
Now it was Thiera's turn to blush. She scratched her head and said, "Thank you—oh, I nearly forgot, but this is for you."
She reached into her Healer's Jacket and pulled out a parcel wrapped in white paper, which Aroma reluctantly took.
"I still feel a little strange accepting this. I hope I don't appear ungracious."
"Nonsense," Thiera assured, "Just open it."
So Aroma grabbed a corner of the paper and pulled, tearing it open, tape and all. Sitting folded in the heart of the open lotus of the package was a pair of sheer, silky green evening gloves with a lattice of gold vines running down their length.
Aroma's hand shot to her mouth and she bounced a little in her glee. "Oh, Thiera, they're just beautiful! I'll be sure to wear them tonight! Thank you SO much!"
"You're welcome, and I'm glad you like them."
"Like them? I LOVE them!"
"Yes, you've made your enthusiasm known."
Thiera returned Aroma's awkward smile and moved back to her work table, on which was a cup of water, a microscope, and a glass pot filled with sand. She held her hands out over the pot and moved them in a pattern very familiar to Aroma, being exactly how Aroma would go about knitting a complicated pattern.
Aroma watched, running her fingers over the soft, smooth fabric of her new gloves, as roots began to worm their way through the soil. Thiera then poured some of the water, which glowed at her touch, into the pot. She raised her other hand, causing a small, but gradually growing, green bud to push its way out of the soil. Aroma tilted her head with fascination when small parts of the mound began to swell. These buds quickly grew longer, but didn't get any wider, and their coloration faded as they hardened into long points.
"Did you just make a cactus?" Aroma asked what she thought was the sensible question in this situation.
"I only sped up what nature already does," Thiera corrected, "It is cultivation, not creation."
"It's still amazing," Aroma murmured.
"We know that some Si Wong cacti can produce a chemical that alters mood," Thiera continued, "So I'm going to try to isolate that property and remove the side effects. But I needed to grow one of the seeds so that I didn't risk destroying one of our rare cacti in my experiment."
Drawing some of the water out of the pot, she generated a scalpel at her fingertips and deftly sliced into the cactus, placing what she obtained under the microscope.
"I think these striations might exist to filter the chemical. Perhaps, if I change the shape of the filter, then it will change the chemical's effect."
She turned to the cactus and poked it, at which point the pores in the exposed gap grew much closer together.
"Well," Aroma said softly, "I'd love to stay and watch you work...but I should probably get to work myself."
Absorbed in her duties, Thiera merely grunted vaguely, so Aroma headed back for the stairwell, wrapping the gloves back up and placing them in her pocket.
When she reached the lobby, she saw a woman in a thick trench coat at the front desk, fanning herself with a paper fan. Aroma couldn't see the receptionist, so she approached.
"Is there anything I can help you wi—" Aroma stopped dead when the woman turned to her and Aroma recognized her cold gaze over the golden fan. Aroma turned to run, but the Purist Leader snapped the fan shut and jabbed her in the lower back, sending her skidding across the floor, her hat flying off to parts unknown. Finding that she couldn't move her legs, she panicked and started clawing her way across the floor, but the Purist Leader paid her no heed. Instead, she headed around the desk and pulled the receptionist up by her hair. Her grunt was barely audible over the fabric cleaving her mouth, and judging by her limply swaying limbs, she had been chi blocked too. The Purist Leader leaned her over the desk with an unusual amount of care.
"Relax. If you're not a filthy bender, I won't kill you."
Aroma inhaled to scream, but the Purist Leader was on her in a flash, shoving her face painfully against the cold, unyielding floor, the dust burning her mouth and throat. It all happened so fast that she didn't even know when her arms were chi blocked. She'd barely crawled more than a foot.
"None of that, now. Don't think I don't remember you. I'd have to have a pretty good reason to not kill you after the stunt you pulled. Lucky for you, we could always use more Healers in the Purists. I think I can persuade you to abandon your ridiculous attachment to these water savages. It's just a question of whether we'll do it the easy way...or the FUN way."
She grinned coldly at Aroma, who stammered out, "How—how did you—did you know that—"
"That the boars wouldn't be protecting you?" the Purist Leader finished for her, her smile growing warmer, which oddly did nothing to settle Aroma's fears. "Maybe I didn't? Maybe I just ran out of patience."
She pulled a thick pad of gauze and a strip of fabric out of her pocket, setting her fan on the ground. Aroma clenched her lips tightly, but it was no trouble at all for the Purist Leader to pry her mouth open and jam the gauze practically down her throat. She then wound the fabric around her lower face and pulled it tight enough that Aroma though the corners of her lips might break open. After the gag had been tied, the Purist Leader retrieved her fan, stood up, and pulled off her coat to reveal that she was in full armor underneath.
"Now I just need to go get the records." Chuckling, she added, "Wait here."
She tossed the coat roughly over Aroma, who heard her heavy footsteps recede, and soon after, heard her shuffling papers in the office.
"By the way, don't harbor any delusions of security coming to save you. I sent them a telegraph about 'suspicious activity' right before I cut all of the communication lines. That suspicious activity, of course, being my Purists, though the earthbenders you've hired are so weak that I could probably take care of them all myself. They don't even have that disgusting foot vision power."
Aroma wriggled out from under the coat to the best of her ability, enough to just barely see the Purist Leader approach the reception desk and toss the papers on it.
"Guess you're not so lucky after all," she cooed into the receptionist's ear before seizing her curly auburn locks. She let loose a muffled scream as the Purist Leader held her down and unsheathed her blade, lifting it high over her head.
Aroma added her own muffled pleas, but they might as well have both been mute. The Purist Leader swung her sword down like a guillotine and both girls shut their eyes tightly.
"Wait!" a man's voice cried out.
"What now? This had better be good, I was just about to execute a degenerate."
"I was just thinking, wouldn't it be more efficient if we just took all of the benders, tied them up in the office, and locked the door? They'll die when we burn the building down anyway."
"I guess you're right. Good thinking. You have a bright future in the Purists, Lee."
Aroma stole a glance. Lee was dressed just like the bank robbers from the other day, only his clothes actually were dark blue, almost black. The Purist Leader had sheathed her weapon and was turned towards him, leaning against the desk. She couldn't see the receptionist, and guessed she fell behind the desk, but she couldn't see any blood either.
"Um—I don't mean to be ungrateful, Leader, but are you sure you should be saying my name?"
"Don't be ridiculous, the dead can't snitch. Besides, there's a million Lees."
Aroma shut her eyes again. She couldn't suppress her shaking as the 2 criminals walked past her, but from the whimpering cries she overheard, she knew that the receptionist was still alive. She wondered how long she laid there, unable to comfort the receptionist or warn the patients or, of course, Thiera.
Meanwhile, the Purist Leader stalked up the hall, pushing doors open with her folded fan to check inside. It wasn't long before a stream of fire shot at her, at which point she flicked open her fan and literally waved away the flames. The patient was a pale male with slicked-back, greasy black hair who looked ridiculous flailing around in a paper thin hospital gown. He was also standing on the bed, having just kicked his blankets askew.
He kicked out and the Purist Leader ducked under the flames, seeing more than she really wanted to see as she lurched forward, withdrawing her sword and slashing in the same motion. The patient tripped while trying to avoid having his leg cut off. When she rose up, he made a wild jab at her head, but she shot out with her fan, bashing his wrist aside. Fire shot across the wall, peeling the paint, and she slipped in to attack his shoulder. His arm fell limply to his side and he didn't even have time to attempt another attack as she descended upon him with the fan and pommel of her sword, striking his limbs and throat in succession. Within seconds, he was completely incapacitated.
"Take him," she ordered simply, sheathing her sword. As the Purist behind her rushed towards the bed, she glanced over to the other patient in the room, currently shivering under the covers and peeking out at her like a child having a nightmare, inch-long auburn locks plastered against his skull by sweat.
"He's clean," her assistant said, flipping through the records they stole with the firebender under one arm.
"Then today is your lucky day," the Purist Leader said with a smile, approaching the man and extending her hand. "Come with me."
When the man didn't respond, the Leader's smile instantly faded. "Do you want me to be angry with you?"
Of course, he abruptly grabbed her hand, shaking his head vigorously. "N—no! Of course not! I'll go anywhere you want!"
The Purists dragged their captives into the hall. Lee still had the firebender under his arm, while his Leader had her arm pressed tightly around the other man's shoulders, as if taking him out to drink. Out of the corner of her eye, the Purist Leader spotted something green whipping out towards them. It struck her partner on the shoulder and kept going, but she rose her arm so that her gauntlet took the brunt of the blow, at which point the vine had wrapped itself around her arm. Following the vine with her line of sight, she saw that it extended from Thiera's outstretched right arm, with both of the waterbender's arms having vines, leaves, and moss wrapped around them.
"How did you know we were coming?" the Leader asked casually.
"The call button can be heard even in the greenhouse," Thiera answered with equal matter-of-factness.
"But who would have pressed—" The Leader turned to glare at her captive, whose eyes widened, but he was saved when the Purist Leader was distracted by her partner falling to his knees. Thiera then jerked on the vine with both hands, dragging the Purist Leader to her own knees. She let go of her captive and jabbed him in each knee as he turned around, causing him to fall to his face. Of course, Thiera kept pulling, eventually dragging the Leader to the floor.
The Leader withdrew a knife to cut the vine and quickly shot to her feet. Of course, part of the vine was still clinging to the Leader's left wrist, so Thiera raised her arm, causing the severed plant to tighten and jerk upwards. The Purist Leader's feet barely left the ground before Thiera clenched her teeth from the struggle. The Leader then swung forward, dropkicking Thiera in the chest. While she was down, the Purist Leader pulled the rest of the vine off. For her part, Thiera flailed until she could pull herself up on a nearby drinking fountain. One she found the button she used her free hand to conduct the stream into a haphazard jet, but it splashed uselessly against the wall as the Purist Leader ducked and jabbed Thiera in the neck.
Thiera was sent sprawling across the ground once more, this time her face growing red from coughing. She held up her right hand, exposing a few small patches of cactus stuck to her underarm. Suspecting all of the plants were poisoned, the Purist Leader unfolded the shield on her arm to deflect the needles Thiera shot at her.
Thiera was prevented from scrambling away when the Purist Leader charged through her attack and stomped on her ankle. Fire shot through her leg as it twisted the wrong way. Confident that her thick gloves would protect her from the plant toxins, the Purist Leader grabbed Thiera's arm and gave her two quick jabs in the elbow. She then yanked on the arm and jabbed her in her left shoulder. When she was dropped on her injured shoulder, Thiera flipped over and did her best not to black out, a battle she eventually lost when the Purist Leader struck her in the back of the neck.
It should have only taken the Purist Leader moments to gather up all of the hospital's inhabitants. Was she being delayed, or did it just feel like it was taking forever? Whatever the case, Aroma was powerless to help in any way, and now that the receptionist had ceased whimpering, felt even more alone than before. This was a feeling she would soon come to miss when she heard that horrid woman's voice again.
"He can't have gotten far. I'll scout the grounds. Everyone not on lookout duty should be meeting up with us soon, anyway."
Aroma heard something heavy being dropped unceremoniously nearby, and when it let out a groan, she knew it was an adult male patient. The Purist Leader set someone else in the receptionist chair. Was this the person she was talking to so amicably? Was one of her own injured? But how?
"Hold still—quit flinching, you baby, it's just a shot! There. Now, once you can move again, go back for the waterbender."
Which waterbender were they talking about? Was it Thiera? Did she escape, or...?
Aroma's thoughts were broken by the screech of approaching sirens, followed by the heavy footsteps of the Purist Leader's boots passing by her head.
"The boars are comin' right for us! Who spilled the beans?!"
"I—I don't know, Ma'am!"
"I've changed my mind. We're gonna torch this place right now." The Purist Leader stomped right back over to the office.
"But what about the boars?"
"The others can hold 'em off for a while. Once the prisoners are secured, I'll head out there myself—and I'll carve up some ham."
"Can—can you really take 'em?"
"I don't think I like your tone."
"I—I'm sorry, Leader! I won't disrespect you again, I swear!"
"See that you don't. And get up to help me with the ropes, or I'm leaving you behind."
Some time later, the Purist Leader seized Aroma roughly under her arms, dragging her to her feet. Her arms and legs felt like they had little caterpillars crawling all over them, but worse was the shortness of breath that came when she caught sight of a Purist, presumably Lee, similarly dragging an unconscious Thiera into the office.
Unable to struggle or shout, Aroma was helpless as the Purist Leader dragged her out of the door, where she saw a pair of hospital security guards. They were recognizable by their padded emerald uniforms, reminiscent of Pro-Bending outfits, but bearing the Healer's Cross on their chests, backs, and above their visors. Strangely, instead of using earthbending, they were each armed with a contraption that seemed to be cobbled together out of pipes, which were somehow able to shoot flames. Stranger still, they were using these contraptions on a duo of metalbending police.
The metalbenders raised a wall and punched pieces of it at the disguised Purists, who rolled out of the way, one tossing a black sphere behind the officers' barricade. Not as spry, the metalbenders disappeared in a cloud of ash. As the Purist Leader strolled past, Aroma caught a glimpse of stained armor in the rubble.
"They'll be sending in back-up soon. But we have what we came for."
"Okay, light it up!" Lee shouted as he emerged from the clinic, pouring the last of the contents of a red plastic canister onto the floor and tossing it inside. The disguised Purists with their home made fire tossers happily obliged and pretty soon a trail of fire was streaking through the building.
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