Cherry Blossom Procession 4 4 2

[15:56] <Minaplo> ["But she's a Prime, Raphael." Said the Empress in a chiding tone. "If you cut her head off, it just grows back."-
[15:58] <Minaplo> [Raphael and Empress Chiisana had been having this running argument for more than fifteen minutes. Raphael was on his way to the Gendo's Medical Wing when he'd passed the Empress wearing what can only be described as a scary expression.-
[15:59] <Minaplo> [She'd followed him after that, and perhaps to Raphael's alarm, fifteen minutes of arguing over whether the Empress should've been allowed to kill Aline had only improved her mood.]
[16:12] <Raphael> The days of minimal sleep after the loss of the Dorian seemed to be taking their toll on Raphael judging by the bags under his eyes, but he'd borne the argument with good grace - perhaps due to the visible improvements on the Empress' mood.-
[16:12] <Raphael> "Not fast enough for us to find out if she has information we need," Raphael said patiently. "And we can't afford to lose another pilot right now, especially Shinji and 05. Honestly, Empress, you're more practical than this…"
[16:13] <Minaplo> ["That's all true." Said the Empress. "But it's all reliant on her actually being as on our side as she says she is."-
[16:16] <Minaplo> ["I suppose she hasn't done anything suspicious yet." She said. "But you of all people will have to forgive my being suspicious of a powerful AT Field user at the moment?"]
[16:23] <Raphael> "As I've said, I'm not taking her story on faith," Raphael said. "If it's true, we've saved Paris-2 from an unnecessary scrap between you and 05 and we get information from a willing source. If it's false… well, you're confident you can deal with her in short order, correct?"
[16:24] <Minaplo> ["Of course." Said the Empress with a toss of her hair.]
[16:25] <Raphael> "Then it's fine, hm? You're one of the only people we have right now who could fight a Prime. If she leaves her cell it'll be under your watch for the forseeable future."
[16:26] <Minaplo> ["That's a reasonable point." Said the Empress.-
[16:28] <Minaplo> ["Will she be allowed to meet with Shinji…?"]
[16:30] * Raphael sighed a little at that. "I'd prefer if she didn't, but enforcing that would be difficult…"
[16:32] <Minaplo> ["Hmph." Empress shook her head.-
[16:33] <Minaplo> ["Well, I can't begrudge them that." She leaned toward Raphael and nudged his shoulder. "I'll just have to learn to block my ears, huh?"]
[16:35] <Raphael> Raphael gave a small, grim smile. "Enjoy those AT senses of yours, ma'am."
[16:35] <Minaplo> ["Pah."-
[16:35] <Minaplo> [She ran a hand through her hair idly. "I assume you're going to the Medical Wing to see Eevi?"]
[16:37] <Raphael> "Mm. Alphonse is already there, I think…" For the first time in the past few minutes he actually glanced over to meet her eyes. "Would you like to come along?"
[16:40] <Minaplo> ["Thank you for the offer, but I don't want to intrude." Said Chiisana, waving a hand at Raphael. "Besides, I have plenty of my own things to be doing."]
[16:41] <Raphael> He watched her for a moment, then gave a quick nod before turning eyes-front again. "Of course, ma'am."-
[16:41] <Raphael> "Feel any better?"
[16:50] <Minaplo> ["I am a little, thank you. Without this talk I'd have to fall back on Plan B."]
[16:51] <Raphael> "And what's that?"
[16:52] <Minaplo> ["Defacing any plaques bearing the vessel's name." She took a turn into a side corridor, waving slowly behind her as she went. "Have a good day, Raphael."]
[16:53] <Raphael> That faint smile again. "Same to you, ma'am."-
[16:53] <Raphael> He moved on towards the Medical Wing.
[16:58] <Minaplo> […-
[16:59] <Minaplo> [The Medical Wing was identical to the one on the Dorian, yet something felt slightly off about it.-
[17:00] <Minaplo> [It would become obvious to Raphael after a few seconds: they were in the middle of a crisis. Usually, the Medical Wing was full of the injured during a crisis- but not this time. There simply wasn't anyone to treat.-
[17:02] <Minaplo> [Eevi and Alphonse were some of the few occupants. Eevi was sitting up on her bed, wearing fresh clothes and talking to Alphonse; both of them wore dark expressions.]
[17:17] <Raphael> Raphael closed the curtains around the little cubicle as he stepped inside, but his attention was on Eevi. His expression was as serious as theirs, but he reached into his pocket and produced a brightly wrapped chocolate bar emblazoned with a roaring tiger. "Auntie Suzie's orders," he said seriously, setting it on the bed.-
[17:17] <Raphael> "… I'm glad you're alright, Eevi."
[17:29] <Minaplo> [Eevi took the chocolate bar, but didn't eat it; she gave it a tremulous little pat before resting her head against Raphael's side.-
[17:30] <Minaplo> ["Rei's still over there." She said quietly. "And Timur too."]
[17:39] * Raphael put a hand on her head and sighed. "They are. Still, Rei would be happy to know you're safe…"-
[17:39] <Raphael> "We'll get them back."
[17:49] <Minaplo> [Alphonse sat on the bed as well, curling his arm around Eevi's shoulders. "Raphael's right. Raiding Iron Guard camps to save Ayanamis is how he made his name- we haven't a thing to worry about."-
[17:49] <Minaplo> [Eevi bowed her head for a moment. "I'm going too."]
[17:55] <Raphael> Raphael didn't reply immediately, choosing instead to give Alphonse a questioning look.
[17:56] <Minaplo> [The look in Al's eyes suggested that this was not a new topic.]
[17:58] <Raphael> "Hm. Maybe we should decide that later, once we know what we're doing. Would that be ok?"
[18:02] <Minaplo> ["Okay. But we should figure out what we're doing real quickly."]
[18:06] <Raphael> "That's the plan," he agreed, ruffling her hair gently. He left Eevi in Alphonse's grasp and lowered himself into one of the hospital chairs with a wince that suggested he'd spent a long time on his feet.
[18:07] <Minaplo> ["Oh, I suppose you haven't had a chance to rest what with Russia, hm?" Said Alphonse.]
[18:16] * Raphael waved a hand. "I'll survive. I'm taking some joy in the fact that Menshikov will be a footnote in his own downfall."
[18:17] <Minaplo> ["That is pretty satisfying." Said Alphonse. "Still- get proper rest tonight."]
[16:43] <Raphael> "I'm sure I'll sleep like a baby, sir."
[16:51] <Minaplo> ["See that you do."-
[16:51] <Minaplo> [Eevi, meanwhile, shook her head. "Can we go? I hate hospitals."]
[17:00] <Raphael> "Are they holding her for a particular reason, Alphonse?" Raphael asked, idly massaging his right hand. There were a few patches of broken skin along the knuckles. "Or is this just observation?"
[17:03] <Minaplo> ["When Solheim and Raskova arrived, they had Eevi with her, but it seems that Mortens' lot were past taking risks: they had her wrapped up in this thick padding, then bound by metal straps. It's only been a few hours since the straps were cut, and we're not familiar with their make, so we were making sure there weren't any nasty effects…"]
[17:07] <Raphael> "Hm. Makes sense, I suppose…" Raphael murmured. "And we're not familiar with the materials? How did they get them off?"
[17:21] <Mianplo> ["We had Yanmei cut them off with Excalibur."]
[17:22] * Raphael looked over at Eevi and raised an eyebrow. "That must have been an exciting afternoon for you."
[17:26] <Mianplo> ["Yeah…" Eevi's eyes narrowed. "I was starting to smell, though. Having a bath is nice."]
[17:27] <Raphael> "You were bound up like that the whole time?"
[17:28] <Mianplo> ["Yep."]
[17:32] * Raphael exhaled hard through his nose and stared down at his hands.-
[17:34] <Raphael> "Ok," he said, with the finality of someone filing a fact away for later. "I don't want to ask too much of you, but did you see anyone else? Marianne, or the bridge staff like, or Rustami?"
[17:36] <Mianplo> ["I was in the same cell as Doctor Tenma and…" She waved a finger around in the air aimlessly. "Casey Cole. They were okay. We also saw some other people in cells on the way out, and we were going pretty fast."]
[17:39] * Raphael nodded. "That's ok," he said, forcing a half-hearted smile. "Thanks for trying."
[17:54] <Mianplo> ["Okay."-
[17:54] <Mianplo> ["Should be okay for us to leave, though." Said Alphonse, rising to his feet. "Eevi, is it alright if Raphael and I are a bit late? I want to talk to him about something. I'll bring you back dinner on the way, though."-
[17:55] <Mianplo> ["Hm, okay." Said Eevi.]
[17:58] <Raphael> "I won't keep him too long." This time the smile came a bit more naturally. "Do you want us to get anything else for you?"
[17:58] <Mianplo> ["Suzie and Caity…?" She asked slyly.]
[18:06] * Raphael chuckled. "It can be arranged," he said easily. "They'd find you sooner or later anyway."
[18:08] <Mianplo> ["I'd find them first."]
[18:16] <Raphael> "Hah. Probably true…"
[18:18] <Mianplo> [Eevi slipped off the bed. "I'll see you guys later. Don't be too long, ok?"-
[18:18] <Mianplo> [With that, Eevi ran, became airborne, and floated away.-
[18:19] <Mianplo> [Once Eevi was gone, Alphonse sunk back onto the bed; he pinched at the bridge of his nose with his hand.]
[18:21] <Raphael> The remains of Raphael's smile died the moment Eevi was out of the cubicle. He sat back and sighed.-
[18:21] <Raphael> "… how are you coping?"
[18:30] <Mianplo> ["Better than I expected, honestly." Said Alphonse. "I want to tear that man limb from limb, and the sooner I do it, the less chance he has of killing Rei or someone else important to me."-
[18:30] <Mianplo> ["The Welsh say anger's as good as courage in a fight, so we'll have to go with that for now."]
[19:07] <Raphael> "You won't be on the ground with us, Alphonse," Raphael said quietly. "The Guards are going to turn that battle into a meat grinder even without Akagi's help, and we can't afford to lose a Prime Minister to it."
[19:20] <Mianplo> [Raphael could hear the grind of Alphonse's teeth against each other.-
[19:20] <Mianplo> ["… I know." He said eventually. "That doesn't really make me any happier about it. I hate this part of things."]
[19:29] <Raphael> "I know you do. If the positions were reversed I have no idea how I would manage…" He rubbed at his cheek and eye with one hand.-
[19:30] <Raphael> "But we've prepared for… parts of this, if not the whole thing. General Lin and I had drawn up plans in the event of an Iron Guard coup, although they didn't account for Akagi. We'll do this."
[19:44] <Mianplo> ["Mmm."-
[19:45] <Mianplo> [He sighed. "Come with me, then? I want to show you something."]
[19:48] <Raphael> Raphael clapped both hands on his knees before clambering to his feet. Some distant part of him missed the Shinji shape on days like today, when a week of aches and pains had built up to the point of distraction.-
[19:48] <Raphael> "Of course, sir."
[19:51] <Mianplo> [Alphonse and Raphael walked through the unadorned corridors in silence.-
[19:59] <Mianplo> [They arrived at a smaller command centre, where a general and their staff might work without sharing space with other commands. Indeed, the room was already populated with technicians and staffers- as well as a hologram of Liu Lin.-
[19:59] <Mianplo> ["Hello, Wellesley, Guillory." Said the Acting President.]
[20:09] <Raphael> Raphael stopped for a moment at the door, looking around at unfamiliar faces in a room that - to the best of his knowledge - should be unoccupied.-
[20:09] <Raphael> His eyes narrowed a fraction as he gave Alphonse a sidelong look, but he bobbed his head in Lin's direction. "General."
[20:28] <Mianplo> [Alphonse gave Lin a nod as her hologram walked away to converse with some staffers.-
[20:30] <Mianplo> ["For now, Lin and I are in charge of analysing where they might be, as well as looking for evidence of their activities." Said Alphonse. "And they have been active."-
[20:31] <Mianplo> [He walked over to a large wall monitor. It showed a series of dots along the western border of the Pacific Ocean.-
[20:32] <Mianplo> ["These are convoys the enemy have attacked in the past 72 hours." Said Alphonse. "Most of them are Canadian food shipments to China, and of those, around half are empty decoys…"]
[20:37] <Raphael> "No sign of the Dorian in the interception grid, which means they're either dropping Skytears from orbit or they've got a strike force holed up on an island somewhere?"
[20:45] <Mianplo> ["Or they've found some way to slip the grid." Said Alphonse. "Nonetheless, any of those are possible- the area around the attacks is home to hundreds if not thousands of islands, even though some are little more than pointed rocks."-
[20:46] <Mianplo> ["Furthermore, they don't seem to be using high-calibre weaponry during these attacks. So them dropping in with skytears is likely too."-
[20:47] <Mianplo> ["They don't seem to be in any kind of pattern, though, except that as noted, they're hitting food shipments… Which is odd."]
[21:02] * Raphael nodded slowly. "Even if the Guards are eating more than usual to maintain combat readiness, you'd expect them to be fine for at least a few more days. Do the shipments just present too much of a target? The only other possibility I can think of is that they're preparing to set up off-world…"
[21:06] <Mianplo> ["I agree." Said Alphonse. "Losing those food shipments is painful, but not enough to disrupt our plans in China, so the agitation angle isn't worth much either."-
[21:07] <Mianplo> [He rubbed his knuckles with his other hand. "The shipments are supposed to be secret, but there's a few ways they could've gained that info."-
[21:08] <Mianplo> ["Finally, we've been analysing the tracker that Raskova left behind. So far it's the same story- it picks up a signal for one minute, then stops before we can lock onto its physical signal. However, each time we get something, an attack on a convoy follows about 30 to 40 minutes later."]
[21:10] <Raphael> "What's the range on the tracker she planted?"
[21:19] <Mianplo> ["It works within the inner earth sphere, so between here and the outer edge of the moon."]
[21:28] * Raphael cupped his chin and examined the map with narrowed eyes. "Alright… so if we were to trust that data - and that's a significant if - the most logical situation would be one where the Dorian was jaunting to a predetermined location in orbit, loosing another raiding party and collecting their old one, then jaunting out beyond the orbit of the moon."-
[21:30] <Raphael> "If that was true, and the time from ping to raid was consistent, could we use the known speed of our Skytears to estimate where the Dorian might appear? Tighten the net, as it were?"
[21:47] <Mianplo> [The door opened- a young woman entered, carrying a tray of coffees. She approached Liu Lin first, although obviously didn't offer the hologram anything.-
[21:47] <Mianplo> ["That's possible." Said Alphonse. "Skytears are pretty fast at full speed, so it'll not be as narrow as we like, but it's definitely better than nothing. I'll get on that right away."]
[21:52] * Raphael blinked, the reality of the situation catching up to him and pulling him from his thought. "… Pardon me, sir. It's not for me to tell you how to do your job."
[21:57] <Mianplo> ["What?" Alphonse frowned. "What do you think I brought you here for? To check out my incredible computer setup?"]
[21:58] <Raphael> "It would be your prerogative, Mr. Prime Minister."
[22:05] <Minaplo> [Alphonse gave him a dark look.-
[22:06] <Minaplo> ["Excuse me, sirs." Said the young woman, arriving at their shoulders. Raphael would realise now that he actually knew this woman somewhat- one of Yanmei's friends. Lanfen? "Would you like some coffee?"]
[22:14] * Raphael gave Alphonse his most sincere, professional smile as he turned towards the new voice. "Oh, thank you…" Raphael said, taking the coffee closest to him.
[22:16] <Minaplo> ["You're welcome." She said happily, her gaze turning toward her computer screens.-
[22:16] <Minaplo> [Then her eyes suddenly lit up. "Oh, are you guys doing astrology?"]
[22:22] * Raphael looked from the woman to the map and back again, curious. "… mapping recent attacks, actually," he said mildly. "Why? Does it look familiar, Ms… Lanfen, wasn't it?"
[22:24] <Minaplo> ["Song Lanfen, at your service. I'm part of the President's team!" She said with immense pride, puffing out her chest.-
[22:25] <Minaplo> ["But yeah, it does." Said Lanfen, turning back toward the screen.-
[22:30] <Minaplo> ["Look, see?" She drew a line with her finger between four points. "This is the Chariot, of the Chariot mansion." She moved down to two other points. "This is the Military Gate, also Chariot."-
[22:31] <Minaplo> [She moved to another cluster of attacks and drew another pattern- fourteen of them. "This is the Celestial Temple, and this-" She drew a line between five stars, "… Is the Extended Net, but it's not finished yet. It's missing its last star."-
[22:31] <Minaplo> ["All of these are part of the Vermillion Bird Mansion, you see…" She said, colour rising in her cheeks. "So, it's associated with heat and fire!"]
[22:38] <Raphael> Very slowly over the course of that lecture, Raphael began to smile. "Why would they—… doesn't matter. Ms. Song," he said, correcting the earlier error, "Where would you need to place the final star to finish the symbol?"
[22:44] <Minaplo> ["Right here." Said Lanfen, pointing to a spot on the map.-
[22:45] <Minaplo> [Alphonse was already onto a computer, tapping away.-
[22:45] <Minaplo> ["We have a convoy going through that area in eleven hours." Said Alphonse. "Food."]
[22:51] <Raphael> "Too circuitous to be an effective trap, but the timing works out very well for us," He said thoughtfully.-
[22:52] <Raphael> "… Wait. Didn't Rustami have something to do with astrology?"
[22:54] <Minaplo> ["Yes…?" Alphonse frowned thoughtfully for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, actually. He used to be an astrologer back in China. I think Rei told me that. He calls himself the Simurgh, but apparently he translated that into…" His eyes widened. "'Vermillion Bird'."]
[22:55] <Minaplo> ["Also, he has a big fiery bird." Added Alphonse.]
[22:57] <Raphael> "And of course he had access to the shipping timetables. I'm fairly sure he planned them."
[23:00] <Minaplo> ["Meaning he's pretended to defect in order to 'write' to us through attack patterns." Said Alphonse. "Chariot, gate, celestial temple and a net- I'm no astrologer, but to me that sounds like trap language to me. If we intercept that final attack…?"]
[23:16] <Raphael> "We find the trail back to the Dorian, one way or another," Raphael said firmly.-
[23:16] <Raphael> "Thank you, Ms. Song. You've done us a great service."
[23:17] <Minaplo> ["O-Oh. Yeah!" She laughed highly. "Sure thing!"]

fin

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