"BUTTERCUP!" fumed Bubbles, slamming the back door behind her as the warmth of the afternoon engulfed her body, "We gotta do homework!" she cried, stepping out into the backyard where she knew her sister would be. Today, a Sunday and thus their last chance to do their schoolwork before heading back the following day, was reported by the Megaville Meteorological Assosciation to be the warmest day of this year's fall season. It would be only a few weeks until the winter months began and so receiving a day as beautiful as this was an utter blessing. Bubbles loved warm days, definitely, and she missed the beach (the one thing Megaville did not have to offer was a pristine shoreline, instead providing an expansive harbour for commercial shipping and recreational boating). But when the prospect of being faced with a grumpy Ms Meryl because she did not finish her math work terrified her into getting her priorities right. But being the funloving opportunist that she was, even priorities paled against the chance to have a bit of fun. She often sat in the lounge room, watching TV or stayed in her room to draw or have tea parties with her toy collection and Octi, her plush octopus doll. Buttercup called her crazy, but Blossom tolerated her. But it was Blossom who had to remind Bubbles that their maths work was due tomorrow, and Bubbles still had no idea how to make sense of improper fractions. Utterly freaked out and definitely not wanting a detention first thing tomorrow, Bubbles now turned to the only person she knew would be in a similar boat to her.
Buttercup sat back in the deck chair she had set up in the backyard, her loose t-shirt hanging off her shoulders lazily. Her eyes were half-open, the girl roused from her afternoon snooze. Peculiar indeed to see someone lounging in the backyard as though it were mid-summer, wearing loose clothes and sleeping under the sun, Buttercup didn't care that it was almost the start of winter. Buttercup hated the cold and so there was nobody enjoying today more than herself. Once the sun set and the evening chill set in, she would climb into a hot tub of bathwater - by herself this time - and then snuggle down into her pre-heated bed. She honestly didn't care about school tomorrow, so long as the rooms were likewise heated. Hardly glancing at her sister, Buttercup dismissed her with a scoff, "Eh... I'll copy off Blossom later."
"WHAT!?" screamed Bubbles, mortified at the idea of Monday detention. It wouldn't be the first time she forgot her homework, either, "Buttercup, don't you CARE about getting your work done? You know that Blossom won't let us copy her stuff! She finished it yesterday!"
Buttercup rolled her eyes, lying back and sunning herself. There were so few clouds overhead that one could have indeed mistaken the afternoon for an early summer's day, "Great... good for her. Go away." she muttered, being patient with the girl who annoyed her so frequently.
Bubbles clenched her fists, outraged. This girl, who had so adamantly wanted to train and prepare herself for whatever trial lay ahead as much as possible, was shunning ALL responsibility to herself and her future by lazing around out here just because today happened to be unusually warm! "You're LAZY! That's what you are!"
Buttercup grit her teeth. She sorely wished for a pair of dark-shaded sunglasses. Perhaps then she could somewhat block Bubbles' frantic face from sight, "Says you who plays with her dollies all day!" She turned around a little, not wanting to even acknowledge her sister's presence.
"Buttercup..." Bubbles muttered, sounding hurt and worried but not for Buttercup. Bubbles didn't want detention.
Buttercup murmured, "Go. Away. Blondie." and shunned her away with a wave of her hand, extended out toward the Puff in a sign of no interest.
But instead of retreating, Bubbles' hands latched onto Buttercup's own and she tugged hard, trying to yank Buttercup out of her state of dormancy. The moment Buttercup felt the grasp upon her, she resisted so that every tug and pull was met with a sharp opposing jerk back toward her. Nevertheless, Bubbles persisted, screaming at her sister both in fear of punishment at her own forgetfulness and in complete resentment to her sister's attitude, "Buttercup, I HATE YOU! You're so USELESS when I need you! You just sit there and be arrogant! That's what you are, sis! You're arrogant!" she hoped she was using that word correctly. Big words weren't her forte. She liked the sound of it, though, and she tugged with each syllable, "ARR!" tug, "O!" yank, "GANT!" pull. Buttercup would not budge, instead piercing her sister with her bratty glare. Bubbles had grown up dealing with that glare as well as the behaviour that accompanied it. She was hardly scared by that anymore. Instead, there was another pair of eyes who lived under their double-storey roof that had the task of scaring the daylights out of her.
Buttercup pulled her arm away from Bubbles, growling, "I'll be whatever I damnwell want. If you wanna get your homework done so desperately, go get yourself a butler or something..."
"A.... a butler?"
"Sure... call him Sebastian, while you're at it. All butlers are named Sebastian..." Buttercup pictured an image in her head of some helpless middle aged thin man running around the house doing chores for her while she cracked a whip on him, "Hmm... that'd be the life..."
Bubbles grit her teeth, "Well we don't HAVE a butler, so I need you to come ins-"
Buttercup flicked her hand upward to eye level as her emerald eyes drifted shut and a cocky smile game onto her face. At that moment, the entire fist lit up with a greenish aura, "I think I told you my answer, Bubbles..." she said in a dark tone. She knew that Bubbles understood her threat. The frightened whimper she got in return only confirmed it, "Homework's for nerds anyway."
Bubbles cowered slightly, "Buttercup.... y-you can't do that here..."
Buttercup chuckled, "I could, but you wouldn't like that."
"You almost KILLED US last time you did!"
Buttercup's eyes opened into malicious slits, "If it shuts you up, I'll do it again!" Bubbles sniveled and backed away, on the verge of tears. Buttercup sighed, "I'll cram the homework later..."
Bubbles gulped back tears and mumbled, "Buttercup... sometimes... I really hate you..." Her declaration made Buttercup glance at her; a puzzled glance that seemed to want an answer to something. Before she could ask, however, a voice interrupted them as they heard the back door swing open on its squeaky hinges. Furious Bubbles turned to greet the mane of ginger hair coming through the open door. Blossom was not wearing her bow so her hair was loose and messy-looking. For that, she had a reason. Blossom noticed the flushed face of Bubbles and Buttercup's grumpy disposition and straight away she could tell there had been some sort of fight. She had been fortunate enough to arrive before it had turned into all-out war. Buttercup didn't refrain from issuing challenges even to her own sisters. As she got older, her will to fight grew larger. One day, she'd live off adrenaline alone. That made her dangerous to everyone. Both girls hopes Buttercup's maturity would grow at the same time. Bubbles was seething, trying to bottle her anger back down inside herself. How could she release it? Fight Buttercup? No way. Scream? Yeah, and shatter every window in the district. Cry?
"Girls, the Professor just came back with our new uniforms. We gotta try them on for him!"
Buttercup scoffed but Bubbles' tormented face lit up. She loved new clothes! These new winter outfits for Megaville Elementary were their first opportunity to slip into something warmer than their standard dresses. The Professor had described the new outfit to them. It was a pinafore, which was a sort of dress with buttons on the shoulders, covering a long-sleeved blouse which was made of a warm, thick, durable cotton. The dress was one-piece, instead of the usual two that their summer outfit had. Bubbles loved one-piece dresses. She said that dresses liked to hug her and keep her feeling safe. Buttercup rolled her eyes each time Bubbles would say that, without fail. Buttercup only wanted to try on the new football jumpers that the school were bringing in after Christmas. The dress was supposed to be one colour, thereby making it a usual pale blue for most students but the girls' signature colours individually. The Professor had shown them the girls what the dress would look like, and Bubbles had gotten excited over the catalogue picture alone. A pair of white stripes ran along the dress's hem and around the waist, but apart from that it was all one colour and about the same length as the sum of the summer uniform's parts. Beneath the dress was worn a thick cotton blouse, white as snow but warm rather than freezing. Its sleeves were bulky for extra insulation, their length extending to the wrists. The collared blouse was complimented with a smart ruby ribbon, similar to the bow that was worn with the summer outfit, that tied around the neck formally. One of the most anticipated parts of the uniform, however, was the thick grey leggings that were to be worn by all female students in the winter time in place of socks. They were to be worn almost like pants (which was why Bubbles thought Buttercup ought to be happy) to provide cold and wind protection for the girls' otherwise undefended legs due to the rather short length of the pinafore itself. New slip-on foot-hugging shoes provided necessary warmth for the soles and toes. Buttercup indeed had no right to be disappointed by what the outfit offered.
She just hated dresses.
Having made her request, Blossom slipped back indoors. Bubbles breathed out a sigh, casting aside her immense irritation at Buttercup for now. She had reason to be happy. At least, for now. She stepped forward, heading to the door. A sharp tug on her ear made her squeal and go no further as beside her, Buttercup, wearing her pale green T-shirt with its dark green love heart, standing up next to her immobilised triplet sister. Bubbles gasped as Buttercup pinched a bit tighter, fearful that her typical aggravated next move would be to rip her ear off entirely. Those eyes were narrowed, no more than emerald slats glaring at her as though she had done something awful. Had she? All she had done was speak her mind. Buttercup moved to stand in Bubbles' way, looking pensive and not exactly furious, but probably not far from it. Bubbles gulped, expecting to be screamed at in Buttercup's usual lecturing way. Instead the girl just blinked, eyeing her further as if not sure what to do next. Then, she prodded her sister in the blue-and-white clothed chest and stared at her, "So you hate me, eh?"
Bubbles blinked, taken aback. What should she answer? She had openly expressed her dislike for her sister, her actions and her attitude. Yes, in the spur of the moment, she had hated her. But Bubbles being Bubbles, she could never keep a grudge beyond two or three seconds. To answer with an affirmative would be a lie. But she wanted to make the most of it. Buttercup always got the best of her, because Bubbles was by nature soft, timid, gullible and susceptible. To admit its effect on her, and perhaps even catch Buttercup offguard, was too tempting to turn down. Summoning her courage, she nodded her head and declared, "Yes. I do!"
Buttercup blinked but her expression didn't even waver. But there was a look in those eyes that suggested she found that proclamation suspicious, if not at least insincere. She approached her sister no more, but her gaze was unbroken. Bubbles started to quiver, expecting Buttercup's fist to suddenly knock all her teeth out. But no strike came. Buttercup just stood there, frozen, as though becoming stone. Then her lips parted. Bubbles anticipated a scream. Again, no violent action. The lips gave a sigh. Buttercup slumped a little. Was she... disappointed? "I hate to admit it.... but it was only through Breannin's death that I realised how much my sisters meant to me. We can fight and bicker, sure. But I don't hate you. If I ever do, then there's something wrong with me. When you say... that you hate me... just because of what I did.... I'm disappointed in that." she shrugged, "I only wanted to make the most of the weather, but you think it's the end of the world. I don't hate you Bubbles, but I wish you would grow up a bit."
"Buttercup..." mumbled the blonde, surprised by how she was being addressed.
Buttercup grit her teeth, "You know... there'll come a time when you and I are the only ones we can count on. And if you still hate me when that happens..." her malachite eyes were gravely serious, "then don't count on me to help." she turned her back on her sister, "I'm gonna put on this stupid outfit..." Buttercup was indoors before Bubbles had even made sense of what Buttercup said. Breannin's death had softened all of them. But Buttercup had kept it hidden until now.
"I..." Bubbles mumbled, just above a whisper. She was afraid she may have hurt Buttercup somehow. As ridiculous as that sounded, it appeared to be true, "I... I LIED!" she yelled. But Buttercup was already indoors. Bubbles growled, staring at the ground. Now she only hoped Buttercup would give her a chance to properly confess. Still driven by the urge to jump into a new outfit, she headed inside as well, leaving the unusual heat behind. She felt bad, suddenly. She wondered if Buttercup's words would somehow hold true someday...
The Professor leaned against the small coffee table, his arms folded as he watched Bell. She was silent and pondering, holding small rectangular objects in her hand. The Professor had only just remembered that his camera had not yet been emptied of its film. In this age of digital cameras, polaroids, iPods, cameraphones and the like, it was rare for anyone to keep hold of an antique, negative-using camera from back in the 'good old days'. The Professor still knew of one store that developed photos and it happened to be near the downtown Megaville uniform shop which was owned by a company called Lowes, who were happy to do a whole reel of film in an hour or so since their customers were few and far between but willing to pay for them to bring their precious memories into photograph form. While the Professor had picked up the pinafores, he had sent his film into the photostore for processing. He kept this camera because he hardly used it except for special occasions, so it was easy to maintain and did not need constant recharging like those popular digitals. He hadn't used the camera in a little while, but he had not before now taken his film to be developed. He didn't regret it in the slightest the fact that the last pictures he had taken upon his trusted device were of a day that would forever be etched into his own mind, the mind of Bell and the mind of his three angelic creations. A day when they witnessed an event so tragic, he truly thought there was no recovery from it. Now, this far on, he and the four girls had laid the matter to rest. But there was one picture he particularly wanted Bell to see. The last picture he ever took.... of her...
Bell flipped over to the next photo, holding each so delicately in her fingers. She blinked, her hollow gaze now falling upon a picture of Bubbles, lying on soft green grass, watching a tiny leaf in front of her. Upon it, Bell could see, was a tiny fleck of red that could have only been a ladybug. Bell giggled. It was a still-shot of time gone by, reflecting a gentle serenity. It had been before the girls got their new outfits, and honestly Bell was beginning to miss the overdose of blue. Still, the white of now was a nice touch. Her finger brushed against the cheek of photo-Bubbles and Bell sighed. "You should be a professional or something."
The Professor chuckled, shaking his head, "Haha... no... she didn't even know I was taking it. I guess that's why that picture looks so beautiful. She was in a natural state of mind and in a natural posture. Captures her personality well, doesn't it? I bet she'll be mad that you got to see it. She doesn't like it when people see pictures of her before herself."
"She should be proud... it's not a picture I'd complain about if it were me."
"Try the next one, too."
The first picture had been that of Buttercup, who was posing for the camera and acting tough and boyish. Again a good reflection of her normal demeanour but unlike Bubbles' picture it lacked a certain... reality to it. A certain depth. The next photo had been of Bubbles and her tiny insect friend. Bell turned over. She was greeted with a photograph that made her blush slightly, but she tried to hide it as best she could by tucking her head in and letting her long and pristine hair fall around her face. The picture was of Blossom, who was sitting on a checkered rug and staring off at something that the picture did not show. She didn't seem to be paying much attention to whatever it had been, though, for her eyes were half-open and her expression nearly blank. Was she thinking to herself? Bell felt heat, oh so sensational heat, rising in her cheeks. She was very conscious of Blossom, not only because she had almost tried to kill her that one time but also because she believed that Blossom was the closest thing left in this world to her. They had been close on many occasions, including their first bath together back when Bell was deprived of sensing temperature such as that still rising in her face. Blossom was beautiful and she had said that Bell was too. She always felt a little different around her. She had never said it aloud, but her love for Blossom was deep. She never really thought about the fact that one day, their being together could get her killed. Every day was a blessing. Blossom was a blessing. Bell knew she'd fit in nowhere else. Blossom was an image of beauty, of courage, of fortitude and of realiability. But to Bell, Blossom was her sense of belonging.
The Professor chuckled, "Between you and me, I think Blossom is the most photogenic out of my three. She.... has a certain.... something..." he couldn't quite describe it. Neither could Bell. But she was glad they were both thinking the same thing.
Bell did the unexpected and brought the picture to her lips for a fraction of a second, planting the softest of kisses on the girl's face, "Over the time I've known her... she's been my enemy... my friend... my comfort... my sanity... my conscience... my release... my punching bag... my partner... and my sister." Bell looked up at the labcoated man, her eyes shiny in the room lights, "She was made by accident.... and me by vengeful choice.... it still amazes me how she can accept me."
"There's a lot that even I do not know about my girls," the Professor admitted. He felt a gradual throb of pain in his chest and he tried not to wince. Medicine time... "Sometimes, it's better not to think about it. Just be happy that it is as it is."
Content with such an answer, Bell placed the picture down on the table. She didn't notice it was still moist from the peck she gave it with her lips. The next photograph made Bell blush again, but for a different reason. There was one other photo beneath this one, but at the moment, she was taking the time to view the picture that, within its small rectangular shape, showed a miniature version of Bell herself. She was sitting on a large whitish lump of rock, so similar the colour of her hair to the colour of the stone itself that she almost seemed to meld with it. The Maiden of Northstar Rock. The rock was still standing today, untouched by the events that unfolded on the same day that picture was taken. A breeze had been blowing, for Bell's hair was billowing like the sails of an ancient flagship, majestic and embracing the wind as it came. Her eyes were fully closed. She was daydreaming, something she hadn't been able to do until just before that day. She looked no different. Then again, why should she have? She was ageless. A goddess in a robotic body. She would look no different 5 minutes from now, no different tomorrow, no different in a decade's time if she wanted. The girls, frozen in time in these pictures, had no doubt grown, albeit by a tiny fraction. Their pictures captured their essence, immortalising their younger selves. Bell sighed, realising how little her picture meant. She was immortal already. She didn't need photographs. There was one left to be seen. Something tingled inside Bell's tiny body. She had a haunting feeling that she knew who it was. But at the same time, something deep down urged her to see. A warm feeling. An eager feeling. As though this was what she had been waiting for. She didn't turn over just yet. She viewed herself some more. She mumbled, "These pictures.... they're beautiful."
"Well, not exactly." the Professor corrected, "The girls within the pictures are beautiful. It's their beauty that in turn makes the picture beautiful. As for the surroundings, well... Jazzal picked a good spot, yes?"
Bell nodded, "Yeah... it was..." memories came flooding back to her, "Very pretty..." With slight hesitation, knowing what was to come next, she lifted the photo up slowly, gradually revealling the one beneath. But she had barely gotten anything other than soft green grass when she felt something pounce onto her shoulders and wrap their arms around her neck in an affectionate hug. Bell inhaled sharply, startled and turning red in the cheeks.
The Professor grinned, "Blossom, that pinafore suits you well!"
Hearing those words, Bell turned as Blossom let her go. Blossom stood there in her new uniform arrangement, the pinafore buttoned smartly at the shoulders and travelling down to its usual upper-thigh length. Her blouse, beneath, was thick and wooly and no doubt very comfortable. Blossom's legs, wrapped in the gentle grey of the leggings, were artistically curved. Bell went a little redded. Blossom's hair was tied up with her usual bow-and-ribbons and the smile on her face said it all. She loved the outfit too. Bell nearly dropped the photos out of distraction as Blossom beamed at her, "You like it, Bell? You like it??"
Bell stammered, finding the right words to describe it, "It.... it's p-perfect!" she blurted, before blushing even harder and resisting the urge to cover her mouth as though she had just sworn. She backed away a couple of paces, shy as ever. She wanted a pinafore, now. Or at least those leggings. Her legs were getting cold. Those little things called 'goosebumps' were appearing on her shins and working their way up. Bell felt her spine tingle. Was it THAT cold? Or was the sight of Blossom in that outfit discreetly driving her crazy?
Blossom, about to respond, was cut off by a loud screech. At once, Bubbles came running into the lounge room, chased quickly by a complaining Buttercup. Bubbles had tears in her eyes and the pinafore dress was slipping off her because it had not been done up at the shoulders. Her hair was no longer tied up but all scraggly on one side as though forcibly pulled out of arrangement. Buttercup looked frustrated and annoyed. Bubbles stopped right in front of the Professor, stared right up into his dark eyes and bawled, "PROFESSORRRR! Buttercup pulled my HAIR!" Tears streamed down her face. To have her hair pulled was to be violated, at least to Bubbles. Buttercup folded her arms, grumbled and said nothing. Blossom shared a glance with Bell, before the white-haired girl turned away, still red-cheeked.
"I didn't pull it! Not on purpose!" Buttercup huffed, glancing away and staring at the wall, arms pressed tightly against her chest, head tucked in, angry expression in place, "She asked me to help button her dress up! Not like it's hard, though..." she added, scathingly. Buttercup's own dress was neat, buttoned and by all means perfect, emerald green backed by white and the cute red tie-up bow. Her legs were every bit as accentuated as Blossom's but for some reason Bell didn't quite establish the similarities. She still liked Blossom's more, for some reason. "But when I go to help out, what does she do? Fidgets so hard it's as though I gave her an electric shock!"
Bubbles was still squealing, "I'm SENSITIVE around the neck!" she protested as the Professor buttoned her at the shoulders so that her dress could now stay on.
"You coulda just taken it off and buttoned it yourself!"
"But then you'd see me!"
"Girl, I 'SEE' you every day!"
"PROFESSOR! Buttercup's yelling!" Bubbles squealed.
"WE KNOW!" yelled Blossom, somehow louder than Bubbles.
The Professor spoke firmly, "Everyone quieten down!" He finished fixing Bubbles' outfit and picked her up into his arms. She responded by throwing her arms around his neck and holding him protectively as if to assert ownership over him. Buttercup scoffed, poking her tongue out. The Professor fixed Bubbles' hair ribbon, getting her hair back into place. He held her under the backside, her leggings brushing against his fingers and feeling slightly coarse. The softness of her leg and the texture of the leggings went together to form an interesting sensation to his fingers. It only served to remind him that his little girls were getting older; growing like weeds nearly. Bubbles' pouty look was still on her face. The Professor chuckled to himself. She was growing older, but she would always be seen as the 'youngest'. She smelt like the grape-scented soap that he had got them for the bathtub. She must have lathered well last night. "There." he said, fixing her fringe to remove hair from out of her eyes. She really needed a hairclip there or something, "You girls want to have a look at the photos Bell has? I think you might be interested."
Blossom sidled up to Bell, who had lifted the picture up to be viewed again. Buttercup still joined, the girls standing shoulder to shoulder as the picture was passed on to Blossom in the centre. Bell, seated upon Northstar Rock and staring out at the harbour, still looked serene. Blossom made an 'Ooooo' sound whilst Buttercup frantically searched the coffee table for the one Professor took of herself. Bubbles, it seemed, didn't want to let go of the Professor. Bell sighed, giving Blossom her moment. She wondered what Blossom thought of her.
Buttercup picked up Blossom's picture and tilted her head. There was something shiny upon the surface of the photo, forming a strange oval shape. It took a moment but she managed to work out what it was. But it made little sense. Bell was the last one to have this, right? This was a picture of Blossom. Had Bell... KISSED this??
Blossom noticed something, "Bell, there's a picture beneath this one." she tried to reach for it, but Bell pulled away. She looked up with those icy glass eyes and stared at Blossom, a look of hesitation on her face. Then, to Blossom, it clicked, "Oh... does that mean... ?"
Bell tentatively began to lift her picture up and off, "I've already seen... pictures of the four of us... so who is there that is left?"
Blossom gulped, "H-Her...?"
Bell lifted her photo off and revealed the one beneath. Her voice was almost a whisper, "Her..."
This photograph was not like the others. The others captured a moment in time that had since moved on, the girls now representing their present selves and leaving the photos as nothing more than a snippet of their history. But this photograph was different. In it, there was only one person. Just one. Their smiling face alone made Blossom want to cry. Whereas the girls were here to personify their present existence, the person in this photograph would be forever trapped there, unable to escape. The photograph was now their home. The final doorway into their life. Bell shook her head. Those tiny sapphire eyes seemed to sparkle beyond the reflectivity of the photo's glossy surface. That smile was so pure, knowing nothing of the events that would take place mere moments after that photograph was taken. Bell saw a face that she could no longer touch. Two eyes she could no longer gaze wistfully into. She saw a body... that had since been obliterated without remorse. She wanted to reach to the girl, as if she'd somehow come to life and be pulled through the barrier between that time and this. But such naivity made her almost choke. Blossom whispered a single word, one that reached deep into Bell to tug at her 'heart', spewing forth every memory she cherished. Just when she thought she had put it behind her, she had to see this photograph that brought it all back, undoing all her good work. But she was not upset. Not in the slightest. The girl in this picture was smiling. She was happy. Carefree. The perfect way to be captured in a photograph. Nobody at the time knew that this would be the girl's final photo.
"Well... at least she was happy, eh?" Blossom murmured.
"Mhm..." Bell sighed. Breannin was smiling, with her hands raised and clasped behind her back in a playful stretch, pulling her body backwards ever so slightly. The Professor still remembered the words he had said to little Breannin at that moment. He asked her to give a cute pose. She had done so with an angelic smile. Blossom, meantime, recalled Buttercup's reaction. She had called Breannin a 'showpony', which had prompted Blossom to hold back her laughter. Nobody was laughing at the end of that day. Nobody would forget a moment of it.
"She... she really looks beautiful in this, doesn't she?"
Bell was smiling, "She looks like some sort of hydrokinetic waterbaby, a sprite of pureness and joy."
Buttercup glanced at her, "...the hell?" she muttered. Blossom wasn't sure where Bell had learnt such words either, but she didn't put it past Bell to have, during one of her regeneration cycles, assimilated a dictionary.
The Professor continued to cradle Bubbles, "I... hope the picture does not upset you, Bell. It... it is the last memory we have of her, though."
Bell noticed Breannin's left arm, as seamless as the rest of her body. But unlike the rest of Breannin's little body, that arm partially survived. Bell knew where that arm was now. The others didn't. "Why should I be upset.... This shows her exactly how she was. Even though she had no idea her life would be so short..." she placed the picture onto the table for Blossom and Buttercup to regard together, "she always made the most of it." Bell blinked, and a tear fell down her face. She looked up at the Professor, "I envy her so much!"
Blossom's heart sank. Was this Bell's depression arising again? Bubbles held onto the Professor harder, frightened by Bell's sudden change in tone. The Professor, meanwhile, tilted his head, "Why is that, Bell?"
"B-Because... she lived so happily... all her life..." Bell's fists tightened, "You gave her love... you were her family! And I.... I didn't have any of that. I just had me... and Daddy... and Bar...." her voice caught in her throat and she said no more. Instead she looked down. Great, way to wreck a happy time of recollection. 'Good one, moron...' she thought to herself.
"You have those things now..." Blossom mentioned.
Bell wiped her eyes, "Yeah..." she turned back to face the picture. Blossom always seemed to lift her spirits a vital fraction, "Yeah, I do..."
Buttercup's arms were folded and she stood almost side-on, staring down at the picture from over her shoulder, "I... still can't believe she's gone, you know? It was just... so sudden and... unfair."
Bell knelt down in front of the table as though she were about to pray. She stared into the picture of the pure-hearted, beautiful-natured little girl who now only existed as a print on this piece of photo paper, "You gotta remember, though... the way she lived her life was the way any normal little kid would. She always had you... from the moment I disappeared for all those weeks, she had you to look after her. She told me that... that she'd always do her best to help out, even if she was the littlest. That's why she fought Barasia that day. She wanted to return the favour. And it got her killed. But... surely to fight would have been better to have done nothing."
Blossom gulped. She, like her sisters, had been forced by Barasia to do nothing. But, looking back, it would have been better to have risked their own lives rather than watch another one end before their eyes. Blossom regretted her inaction to the fullest, but at the time it happened, she hadn't known any better. "Every superhero goes into battle... thinking that they will come out of it ok, just like in those comics... and if you think you won't, then you've really already lost. We had... no idea that she wouldn't get out of it..."
Bell's smile, despite being so tiny, was radiant, "She died the same way she lived: standing up for others."
"A little champion." Buttercup muttered. A tone of deep respect was in her voice, and it took a lot to impress her.
For a moment, they simply remained there, silently observing their little keepsake snapshot of a time gone by, a life gone by. Nobody said a word. They just took in every tiniest bit of Breannin and absorbed her smiling image into their heads. She was gone. Irretrievable. But this photograph was a pretty way to remember her. To use an old cliche (one Buttercup tended to hate), she lived on inside each of them, Bell even moreso. She had been her sister. Her creator. Her closest friend. Her strength, her courage and her shelter. Breannin saw the same things in Bell that Bell saw in Blossom. The irony and tragedy of relationship. But when one life had ended, another had truly begun to start. Since her sister's death, Bell had discovered so much more about herself, her new family, and even of Barasia. All of that new knowledge would be needed someday. Someday soon. Breannin had shared some of her stored data with Bell when they were reunited. It had not been much, but still enough for Bell to preserve with the greatest of care. She had passed this on to Barasia when their minds had melded for those few agonising seconds on Barasia's orbiting weapon of mass destruction. She deeply hoped that memories of Breannin were plaguing Barasia to this very instant, and when it came time to confront each other again, Bell would be carrying the will of both herself and her little sister into battle against the one who had so deeply cut her. Then, perhaps, this could all be settled for good.
Then, Bell blinked, "Huh.... fancy that..."
Blossom turned to her, startled. Was something wrong? "What is it, Bell?"
Bell's eyes narrowed a little but her smile was playful, "Breannin should have been more careful about her pose. She's hitching her dress up just a bit too far, there."
Buttercup raised an eyebrow, "We sorta noticed that..." she drawled.
Bell pointed. Indeed, Breannin's act of placing her hands behind her head had caused her already-meager dress hem to rise up further, exposing to view just a small bit of the white cloth beneath. Buttercup always wondered what the big deal about white ones were. Surely there were ways to make them more interesting. She thought about it, sometimes, picturing all sorts of crazy designs and ways of decorating it, venturing away from plain-old white and into the touchy field of expression. The Professor had bought so many white ones, it was hard to distinguish whose were whose. Only a few of their pairs had colour, fewer still with some sort of design. She often wondered why so many girls settled for white. Then, every time, she realised that the subject of her thoughts was girl's underwear and she promptly went red-cheeked and thought about something else entirely out of self-embarrassment. Monster trucks usually took her mind off it. Bell was gesturing to the little bit of cloth they could see, "She's wearing her favourite pair..."
Blossom and Buttercup both gaped. Blossom was first to speak, "WHA? Bell, she had at least a dozen white ones! How can you possibly tell which was her favourite? And even then, it'd be impossible to tell that she was wearing i-"
There was a pause.
Then Buttercup shook her head, "What!?"
"Red stitches. Breannin told me that her favourite pair was the white one with red stitches around the leg holes. You probably can't see 'em but I can. She wore her favourite pair that day... I guess she took them to her grave. Sad, but... symbolic, really. I guess she wanted simply the best for her meeting with Jazzal."
Blossom blinked and looked up, "Professor, when was the last time we heard from Jazzal?"
The Professor was still carrying Bubbles, bouncing her up and down in his arms gently. He had been a lot more social around his girls lately. It was as though he was treating life as extra-precious and he only had a limited time to do so. Blossom knew why he thought like that. "I haven't heard anything since his quick letter two weeks ago. He's doing a good job, you know. He's quite a battler." he gently set Bubbles down, the little blonde Puff skirting over to the table to join her pinafored triplets beside Bell, who was still kneeling. Her eyes, azure and shiny, stared down at Breannin. Bubbles used to play so many games with Breannin. Since her death, her life had felt a lot less interesting. She knew nobody could take the girl's place in her heart, but at the same time she yearned for another friend. Octi just wasn't good enough, most times. The Professor's voice whispered, "Blossom?"
The orange/brown-haired girl turned. The Professor beckoned her with his finger before he turned and entered the kitchen. He had called only her. It was important only to her. Blossom had a dark feeling that she knew what this was going to be about. She snuck away from the group and followed the Professor. A chill traveled down her spine as the thought of what his hidden illness was doing to the Professor conjured all sorts of disgusting, horrific images. She had seen those no-smoking ads on the television, showing the various effects of modern cigarettes. His antique pipe was considered a healthier option to standard cigarettes, as the tobacco often got stuck in the pipe and became useless, compared to the concentrated, modern method of inhaling the ultimately harmful substance. As she walked, her legs brushed together, the noise of her leggings making contact with each other new to her ears. The outfit looked cute and yes, it kept her warm. But she deeply hoped she would never be forced to fight in it. She stepped onto the polished linoleum kitchen floor, just as the Professor put a pair of pills, one dark red and the other creamy-white, into his mouth. He had a glass of water in his hand and with it, he washed his medicinal supplements down. Blossom felt so hopeless. The Professor, her father, had to resort to trial drug use. And even then, there was no way to prevent the inevitable. Only delay it for as long as his body and the medicines would allow.
"Professor?" Blossom asked in that little voice of hers, "Are... are you alright?"
The Professor turned and stared out the kitchen window toward the distant Megaville central business district with its famous skyline. Beyond the tall financial highrises and the broad accomodation skyscrapers that formed a beautiful tribute to modern artitechtural engineering and prowess, the glistening Acheron Bay sparkled under the late-autumn sun which was providing them such lovely weather on this, the road to a frosty winter. Megaville was billed country-wide as 'The Next Big Thing' in liveable cities, hoping to knock off even the big names such as Dubai, Paris, Miami and Melbourne. Amongst the clutter of high-rises and office buildings towered the MATT Spire. The Megaville Accomodation and Tourism Tower was shaped like an enormous needle, mounted upon four diagonal stilts, its top protion resembling San Francisco's Transamerica pyramid but with an ovoid bulge at the top, a prong-like radio mast mounted atop that for extra height. Inside was mostly apartments and cafes for those visiting Megaville for tourism or other temporary purposes. The large bulge at the top was a large, rather extensive observation area for those keen on taking in the splendour of the entire supercity, from the horizon beyond the bay which the Harvey Bridge spanned on one side and the Clayton Bridge traversed on the other, all the way around to the distant mountains further inland and the small counties beyond the city borders, tucked in amongst the mountainous forest. The colours visible when viewing from the tower was a postcard photographer's dream. The MATT tower was not the tallest tower in the world, but it was by far the tallest residential tower there was, eclipsing Melbourne's Eureka Tower as the tallest residential building in the world, despite having less floors due to its design. Not wanting to be outdone, though, the building consortium who owned the huge tower was keen on starting a new project, a building taller than anything else than the world. It wasn't clear (not even to the media) what the proposed Megaville Obelisk was to be used for. But so long as it outdid Toronto's CN Tower in height, then nobody would really care in the end.
The Professor licked his drying lips, leaning against the bench. Beneath him was the sink, which he liked to keep spotless. He was a bit obsessive about presentation and cleanliness. He had become even more concerned about the state of the house since his diagnosis. Seemed he wanted to stop the same thing that happened to him from happening to his girls. Blossom hated the idea of putting a pipe or a cigar to her lips, and she was too young to even think about that, or drugs, or alcohol. Superheros had an example to set. He sighed. Such beauty. It took him this long to begin to appreciate it, "It... it feels like my chest is on fire sometimes..."
Blossom was standing by his side already. He hadn't noticed her arrival, instead being too transfixed with the distant city, "Is there... something I can do?"
Utonium chuckled, "No superhero that I know of can perform miracles." he muttered. Blossom glanced down, slightly hurt by that comment. If only she could. The Professor sighed, "And I'm stuck like this now..." he shook his head, "I'm taking more pills than I am classes..."
Blossom leaned her head against his side, savouring his very presence that comforted her more than all the candy in the world, "I still... can't believe what you told me that night... it's just... so hard for me to accept."
The Professor's hand found her hair and stroked it gently, but his eyes still gazed out the window and into the blue sky beyond, "I still regret the way you found out. And... I can't bring myself to tell the others." he glanced down, "But you told Bell..."
"It... sorta spilled... I'm sorry..."
"She wouldn't know much about it, anyway. Neither would the other two. You only know of it because of Dexter, right?"
"He... makes me read a lot of books..." Blossom blushed.
The Professor chuckled, "Good..." his fingers brushed against her neck, and she made a soft noise, "At least I won't have to worry about my little Blossom when I'm not around to look after her."
Blossom whimpered, "D-Daddy...." she held him closer, her arms around his hips as she buried her face in his side.
The Professor looked down at her again, "You keep calling me that... don't tell me that this... eh, 'problem' changed your habits."
"No, it's just..." Blossom remembered Bell and how she had struggled to come to terms with what happened to her father. She loved him and yet she hated him for what he had done. She had watched him die and then watched him come back to life again, watched him become a human again and then lost him in a supreme act of self-sacrifice. The fact that the man who had been her father used to be some sort of monstrous creature rather than an actual human had burned into Bell's mind, imprinting the mutant in her mind forever. It was that man, the monster, who was her father. The man who was human and who looked like Professor Utonium to some extent, was not the same person to Bell. To her, her father had died the moment he changed back. Now Bell lived as an orphan, adopted into this family and treated with utmost love and care. Through Bell, Blossom had learnt just how lucky she was to still have her creator. Her father. Her best friend in so many ways. But he was slowly slipping away, too.
The Professor whispered to her, "Blossom... please don't call me that. I... I'm not ready to be called that..." his statement only prompted her to hug harder. "Blossom... you're worried about me, I know... but can you even imagine what I go through? Every day?"
Blossom looked up, not understanding, "W-Wha?"
"It's as though... every time you fly off the front step to fight the day's villain... there's the chance that I may never see you again. Remember with Breannin? That could have so easily been all of you, that day. I can't help but think that one day I'm going to lose you... and there'd be nothing I could do! I'd be just some poor, sick old man living out the rest of his days in this... crazy, messed up, unfair world." Every word made his little baby hug him tighter still, "And with this Barasia stuff... you cut it close last time. I was so worried, you know? I just keep thinking.... eventually... it's going to happen. I don't want to lose you."
Blossom knew the risk it was to be a superhero, and moreso being the group leader. She was the Powerpuff icon of sorts. Their M.V.P. That would make her a bigger target to most, and the staple of Powerpuff Girl morale. Barasia wasn't particularly interested in Blossom or her sisters. It was Bell she wanted. But to get her, Blossom knew Barasia would go to any length necessary. "Professor... when we fight her again... I promise you, we'll come back in one piece. ALL of us. Trust me, ok?" A pair of hollow white eyes stared in from the doorway, listening to every word.
The Professor smiled a little, "I trust you. And hey, I want you and your sisters in one piece for the Christmas barbecue next month. Wouldn't want anyone to miss you, ya know?"
Blossom's face lit up. She loved social gatherings. Everyone from their stretch of street would be attending. The Professor, along with the neighbours the Staydaminds, were organising and running the get-together. "Oh! I forgot about that! Who's coming? Do ya know? Is Professor Lez... Laz... Lac... Lucas... Lucario...?"
"Professor Lezcano, yes. And his wife. Blossom, you know he prefers to be called Jose."
Blossom indeed knew that. But like a child addressing their dad as 'father', she had a deep conviction to be polite, "I can't wait. It'd be the best if Barasia was taken care of beforehand, you know. We can do it, Professor! Believe in us! We worked hard!"
"I know you, have, Blossom. I know." the Professor returned to staring out the window. The burning in his chest seemed to die away a little. His tablets were at last kicking in. But they would not cure the pain. Only suppress it. He was alone with his thoughts again. Not even the presence of his pink-eyed angel could quell the deep sense of forboding that he felt deep within his stomach. He didn't want to be left alone in his final years. It was his own stupidity that was going to claim his life. He just didn't want the lives of his girls to end before his did. If that happened, the torture would be too much.
Blossom squeaked in surprise, suddenly. The Professor glanced down, and he started to chuckle. A pair of hands had laced themselves across Blossom's hips, around her pinafore-covered middle and latched together into an embrace from behind. A soft, warm cheek came to rest on her shoulder. Blossom went just a little bit red on the cheeks. The Professor chuckled a bit louder at seeing this. "Blossom..." a voice muffled against the thick cloth of her blouse and dress mumbled, "you said we'd all make it out of there in one piece, right?"
Blossom turned a little but the newcomer would not let go, "That's right, Bell. We're gonna get out of it. I know it. Believe me, alright?"
Bell looked up at her. Her face was red and her eyes were a little puffy. Had she been crying? "Are you crazy??" she asked, making Blossom blink in surprise, "You're just saying that to make yourself feel better, right?"
Blossom bit her lower lip. It was naive of any superhero to believe that one would be perfectly fine at the conclusion of a fight simply because they represented the forces of good. According to Bell, no side was right or wrong in this skirmish. Barasia fought for her ideals, and the girls fought for theirs. The winner was not a matter of whose will was strongest and most genuine. It came down to a matter of power. Blossom didn't need reminding that Barasia had such power. But when she was around Bell, Blossom felt that such naivity was justified. Bell had survived against Barasia numerous times and kept coming back despite the girl of black's best efforts. With Bell, anything was possible. Sure, it was foolish to think such things. But at the moment, such things were still true. "Bell, I know it's hard for you to understand why-"
"The next time she comes here," Bell's gaze was stern. She wasn't even acknowledging the Professor, "she won't stop 'til she gets what she wants. What she wants is me. Me either dead or by her side. Doesn't matter. She cares NOTHING for you, your sisters or this entire planet. She'd chuck you aside in an instant and let you watch this planet burn before she kills you! Your who life goal, going up in smoke before your eyes! Your dreams and future dying before you, just before your life ends. There's no worse way to die than within your own worst nightmare. I've been through my worst nightmare, Blossom. Twice. But I'm not dead yet..." she said the word 'yet' with some emphasis, implying that she mightn't remain that way.
Blossom gulped, "Bell, that's exactly the point! You're part of our team! We can't let you go up there and fight Barasia alone! You're part of this family now!" her hands came to rest on Bell's shoulders. Blossom noticed she was slightly taller now than the sugar gynoid. Bell could not grow like Blossom could. "You're our sister now, just like we both wanted."
Bell blushed, "I know you're not afraid of her... but watching Breannin die was enough for me. I don't want to watch you do the same. I know that I'm the only one who can defeat Barasia-"
"But WE'RE A TEAM, Bell!" Blossom said loudly. Her face inched closer to Bell so that she could get her point across, "Bubbles, Buttercup and myself brought you into this family and it is our duty as friends and sisters to ALWAYS stick by you, no matter what! And I promise you that as long as we have you by our side, we can do the impossible! THAT is why I know we'll come back alive. THAT is why we want to fight along with you."
Bell's cheeks were flushed, "Al...always?"
"Now and forever." Blossom took ahold of Bell's hands and gently started to lift them up so that they pressed together, palms inward, before their faces. Blossom's hands lit up with a calming magenta glow, "You are a Powerpuff, Bell. We love you. We'll always be there for you." both girls watched as the glow overcame Bell's hands as well. A moment later, the pink receded and the energy began to glow in pristine white. Then, the light faded into Bell's hands and out of sight. Their link could not be stronger.
Bell retreated a step and then thrust her hand forward, her littlest finger extended, "Pinky swear!"
Blossom blinked, "Wha?"
"Come on! Make this promise with me!" Bell urged. Blossom tentatively extended her own pinky to link with Bell's. Blossom had outgrown pinky promises in kindergarten. The moment they link, Bell locked the two tiny fingers in tight. Then she recited a small chant as she stared hard into Blossom's eyes, "Pinky swear! Pinky swear! If you're lying, may you drink a thousand needles!" on that last, rather affronting line, she let go of the finger.
Blossom was slightly freaked out now. Wasn't it supposed to go 'Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye'? Bell no doubt picked this one up off Bubbles and one of her slightly more childish TV shows. Nonetheless, what Bell did just then was cute. But Blossom didn't like the idea of swallowing a bunch of need-
In an act of pure impulse, Bell leaned in and placed a kiss upon Blossom's lips. The lead Powerpuff's eyes went wide as her cheeks suddenly went redder than the bow in her hair. Bell's eyes, meanwhile, were closed. After a moment, Bell pulled away, blinked her huge white eyes once so that her midnight-black eyelashes beat like the wings of a butterfly, and said to Blossom in a happy voice, "I'm going to remember that. I promise I'll always remember that." Then, saying no more, she turned and scooted out of the kitchen, beaming like a child at play. Blossom blinked, stunned. Bell had never done that before, and the only kisses Blossom ever gave Bell were on the cheek. That one, planted directly on her lips, seemed to indicate something more than playful sisterly affection. Blossom felt her spine tingle. She couldn't believe what had just happened. She heard a sob and looked up.
The Professor was wiping his eye and shaking his head, as though trying his very hardest just to avoid collapsing into a blubbering heap. When he noticed his baby's pink eyes upon him, he sniffled, "I'm sorry, I just choke up when I see such beautiful things..." a wistful smile was on his face.
"Beautiful..." Blossom murmured, turning back to the door through which Bell had disappeared. Had the gynoid been watching every moment of their conversation? Blossom felt another tingle. But it didn't feel remotely bad at all. The only thing swimming through her head at that moment was that smiling white-eyed face. How long had the little automaton been wanting to do THAT for? Blossom brought a finger to her lips, which were tingling also. Blossom had made Bell two promises just now: The promise to return from their confrontation with Barasia alive, and the promise to forever and always be at Bell's side as sisters. Blossom had no idea when Barasia was coming. She didn't even know if Barasia was still alive. That daunting feeling still haunted her, however. All her mind could answer was 'Soon'. Blossom's legs were quivering slightly. The Professor reached for the nearest box of tissues. Bell promised to never forget what Blossom had said to her in that moment. Blossom's breaths were heavy and rapid. She, too, would not forget that moment.
But for a COMPLETELY different reason.