Tula leans back on the old, rickety couch. If you could call it a couch. While the inside of the hotel looks suitably fancy for the rich tourists, they still cut costs in some places. Tula has no idea just how long it's been since this couch could be called "new-ish", but she would guess that it dates back to before her parents were her age.
She'd sat in this very spot at least dozens of times by now, waiting for her next group of wide-eyed tourists. For virtually all of them, it was their first time outside of Simnation. The tourists from a few other countries like France and Egypt tend to be more well-travelled, but a lot of them didn't need her services.
She's here to give a guided but "authentic" experience to tourists, who can then go home and say how they "saw so much" and "really experienced the culture" in just a few days or weeks time. Then after saying how transformed they are, they go right back to their normal lives like their life-changing trip never happened.
Nonetheless, it's been an interesting experience. She's met many different kinds of people; families, teenagers on school trips, people going on a wild bachelor or bachelorette party-trip, first time tourists, seasoned travellers, stressed businessmen and women, researchers...
They all have one thing in common, though.
She can earn their trust. Every single one. Sometimes it takes a few days of deep conversation, sometimes a well-timed caress or an "accidental" slip-up... even the story of the tragic incident that led her to Shang Simla. Once their trust is won, it's all too easy to get close to them, make them feel at ease telling her things they wouldn't to anyone else... do things with her they'd never imagined.
It's exhilarating having that much power, but it's an intense, burning feeling. She constantly needs more and in different forms from different people or else she gets...
bored. Bored like she is right now. Where the hell are these people?
As if on cue, a man with gelled back hair and a very expensive, very authentic watch strolls into the foyer.
"...You the tour guide?" he says, giving her a once-over.
Definitely from Bridgeport, Tula thinks with slight distaste. She'd recognize that accent and that uppity look anywhere.
"Yes, hi," she says, clumsily getting to her feet. She inwardly swears. Stupid two left feet!
"I'm Tula, I'll be your tour guide for the next three days. I thought there would be two of you...?"
The man smiles, seemingly genuine, "Oh, my girlfriend won't be long. She's just moving her things to a room upstairs."
"Of course. I can let you two get settled in if you'd rather begin the tour later..."
"No, it's fine. Me and Jessica don't get out much," he laughs a bit to himself, "I'm sure she'll be eager to explore."
You make her sound like a dog, Tula thinks dryly to herself, but just nods.
It becomes quickly apparent that Jessica is no dog.
Tula hasn't seen a vampire since her Aunt Tulip's last visit. She almost forgot just how piercing their eyes were.
She squints at Jessica's face. Something about her, aside from her eyes, reminds her of Tulip...
"Is there something wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost," Jessica remarks coolly.
"You could say that. You look a lot like someone I used to know."
"Oh? Who might that be?"
"It was fine. I slept for most of it, so I'm more than well-rested enough to see some of the city." She doesn't smile, but Tula can't deny that something about the woman's stare seems...alluring.
She shakes it off. "Well, if you insist! When would you like to leave?"
Jessica peers over Tula's shoulder at her boyfriend. "I'll let Rafael shower first."
Tula casts a dubious glance outside at the streaming sunlight, "It's rather hot outside. Maybe after night fall?"
Jessica's eyes narrow, "Are you insinuating something?"
Tula looks at her, her eyes level with Jessica's, "Not so much insinuating as observing. Unless you use some expensive contacts, I assume your eyes glow naturally? Like a Vampire's?"
There's a tense pause.
But Jessica laughs, and to Tula's surprise, smiles.
"I admire your bluntness. Most people outside of Bridgeport are afraid to mention my vampirism. As if it were some sort of disease. I don't really understand it. But you don't seem phased."
"My aunt is a vampire," Tula says.
Tula can't stop herself from staring at Jessica's fangs as she talks, "Yeah. She was adopted."
Jessica quirks an eyebrow, "A vampire raised by humans? Interesting. Maybe you can tell me more about it on the way to the city."
Tula nods cheerfully, "Sure. Whenever Rafael's ready!"
Not long after the trio heads down to the Forbidden city. Tula has been here hundreds of times, but she gives Jessica and Rafael the opportunity to "ooh" and "aah" regardless.
Well, gives Rafael the opportunity to "ooh" and "aah". Jessica, a bit more subdued than her boyfriend, smiles and takes in the sights.
"Do you know if there's any Ming and Qing era artwork still left on display here? I wasn't able to find any information on it on your agency's website."
"Unfortunately no," Tula informs her, a tinge of regret in her tone, "All of it has been purchased by different collectors over the past few years."
Jessica looks at the archway behind Tula and sighs, as if nostalgic, "A pity. I wouldn't have minded seeing it again."
"Again?" Tula echoes.
Jessica closes her eyes, seeming to be remniscing, "Yes. I came here once, quite some time ago. Travel was quite a bit less popular then, there weren't any tour guides, such as yourself."
There's a long beat of silence. Jessica, her eyes still closed, exhales from her nose slowly.
"But it was a different time. We're here to explore Shag Simla as it is now, yes?" she opens her eyes and pins Rafael with her intensely red eyes.
"That's right," Rafael agrees.
Tula waits a moment for the look to pass, but it doesn't. The couple stands there, eyes locked, for what seems like an eternity.
"Well, now that we're here, let's look at the bridge behind us..."
"This bridge is what used to be one of the several entrances to the forbidden city. Changes in the landscape as well as several natural disasters destroyed the other two."
"After the Forbidden City was reclassified as a cultural heritage site, many of the former inhabitants relocated to other areas in Shang Simla. Over many years and painstaking work by archaeologists and government architects, these two additional arches were built to replace the old entrances to the city. Their bases have been reinforced to prevent past destruction from repeating itself..."
After touring around for several hours, Jessica and Rafael decide to take a lunch break. Tula leads them to the nearby restaurant, one that has almost reasonable prices for tourists.
Jessica and Rafael both smile as they chatter about the beautiful architecture of the city.
"I've missed China," Jessica sighs to no one in particular.
"Were you here for long?" Tula inquires conversationally.
Jessica's smile becomes devilish, "Less than a year. I was here on...business, you could say."
"Oh, what did you do?"
"I worked-and still do- for the military."
Tula arches an eyebrow, "So you were stationed here? I wasn't aware that Simnation had a base in Shang Simla..."
Jessica laughs, "It was a long time ago. Things were...different, shall we say."
Jessica doesn't add anymore, and Tula decides not to push for details. At least, not yet. She senses that there's a much more interesting story behind this.
Tula orders them lunch (well, her and Rafael). Jessica elects to read during their meal, not contributing to their lighthearted conversation about their next destination.
"Too bad we're only staying for a few days," Rafael laments, "I have so many ideas of where to go and what to do!"
"Ah, the problems of a traveler... I don't envy your burdensome issues," Tula says with an air of mock-compassion.
Rafael chuckles, "I face many hardships. I'm in China with a beautiful woman..." he winks at Jessica before leaning towards Tula and says in a false whisper, "Just don't tell Jessica!"
Jessica smirks, "You know when I was stationed here, I met a very handsome man...hmm, what was his name? Zhan? I should really get back in touch with him."
Tula laughs at the bantering. She's witnessed her fair share of bickering couples and relationships on the verge of collapse since becoming a tour guide here. They use a "romantic getaway" to Shang Simla as a last ditch effort to save their dying romance, but it rarely works for long. Rafael and Jessica don't seem to be such a couple.
But, glancing at Jessica's almost hypnotic eyes and Rafael's almost vacant smiles towards the vampire, she wonders if there's something more than she can see.
Rafael's laughter fades, though his expression is still bright when he turns to Tula.
"Say...do you know any clubs around here? I was thinking me and Jessica could go out this weekend..."
Tula chews her food thoughtfully, "Well yes, but the hotel has parties sometimes. I could see if we would arrange something a bit more affordable, and something where you're less likely to get ripped off than in a club"
"I prefer that idea," Jessica cuts in, "We've seen enough clubs in Bridgeport. I'd like to experience something a bit different."
And so it's decided.
With their weekend plans set, the trio heads off to another popular tourist destination; the Phoenix Martial Arts Academy.
Despite living in Shang Simla for nearly a year and taking tourists here countless times, Tula has yet to progress beyond the white belt.
"Screaming at it won't make your blows land any more accurately," Jessica remarks sarcastically.
Tula grins at Jessica before schooling her features and repositioning into a better stance.
"Better," Jessica approves, "But this would be easier if we were all wearing appropriate clothes..."
They all pause from their strenuous exercise to pilfer uniforms. Tula's pretty sure no one will mind.
She sighs and taps her foot impatiently outside of the bathroom. Rafael and Jessica went inside to change together, and have been taking their sweet time. She can only imagine what they're doing in there together...
Her imagination might be slightly off the mark.
Jessica's bites stopped hurting long ago. Rafael feels only bliss.
Eventually Jessica also gets changed. She's unsurprisingly several belts above everyone else.
She can already break boards with ease.
After a long, tiring training session, they all head back to the hotel. Tula has a room she rents here for a hugely discounted price considering how sparsely furnished it is. She doesn't spend that much time in here; it has a bed, several power outlets that she uses for her phone, computer, and lamp, and a bed. That's all she really needs.
She collapses in bed and vaguely thinks about getting into better shape before drifting off into a dreamless sleep.
The next morning, she and Rafael are up rather early in the morning. They share a salad together. Rafael jokes that he needs to stay slim for his job back in Bridgeport as an explanation.
"So are you in the military too?" Tula inquires. Though from appearances alone, she wouldn't take him for a soldier.
Rafael gives a hearty laugh, "Now that's a good one! Plumbob, no. I'm a report processor at Doopeas's headquarters."
Tula raises an eyebrow, seemingly impressed, "Fancy." In reality, she's met plenty of their corporate drones, all coming to Shang Simla for a conference or a desperate (sometimes forced) reprieve from their stressful jobs. But Rafael seems anything but stressed. After living with Sun for the duration of her pregnancy, Tula thinks she's gotten pretty good at spotting most of the signs of anxiety, both blatantly obvious and hidden. Rafael exhibits none of them.
Rafael smiles at her, interrupting her musings, "Hardly. It may not seem like it, but all I really do is manage reports. Correct errors, process data. It's mind-numbingly boring. If it weren't for the pay..." he sighs, and inspects his watch before glancing quickly at their hotel room door, still firmly shut, "Well, some things are worth suffering for, right?"
"Speaking of things worth suffering for," Tula says with a sly grin, "How did you and Jessica meet?"
Rafael smiles gently, his eyes glazing over nostalgically, "Like a lot of couples in Bridgeport, in a club. It sounds cliche, but when I saw her dancing, I was mesmerized..." He glances at Tula before adding, "And no, not in the creepy 'vampire' way if that's what you're thinking."
Tula shrugs, "I wasn't. Like I told Jessica, my aunt is a vampire. She's been married twice and as far as I know, she never had to mind-control them to love her."
Rafael looks apologetic, "Sorry. It's just that people are always getting the wrong idea. My brother thought that Jessica...well, I think you can guess what he thought. It's nice to find someone more open minded."
"Well, to be cliche myself, travelling does give a new perspective, doesn't it?"
"I'll say!" Rafael gazes at Tula for a few moments as they both eat and then with a cocked eyebrow, asks, "Well you have my love-story. What's yours? I'm sure that you must have a boyfriend or lover somewhere around here..."
Tula looks away and giggles, "No luck on that front, I'm afraid. Not many people I meet are interested."
"I find that hard to believe..."
Tula blushes, "Oh shush. You don't know what you're saying."
Rafael shakes his head, "Oh believe me, I do."
Tula slaps his shoulder, then gets up to clear her plate. "I should get away from you before you say anything else silly," she gives a meaningful look to their hotel door, Jessica still sleeping soundly behind it.
Rafael rolls his eyes, but grins compliantly, "Yes, ma'am!" he even throws in a salute in the direction of his and Jessica's room. "Don't worry, I know who my commanding officer is."
Given that it's a weekend and their extensive walking under the hot sun yesterday, Jessica sleeps well into the afternoon. Rafael decides to explore the hotel and the surrounding forest, so Tula takes advantage of her free time to arrange that party. Being here for nearly a year has given her plenty of time to make friends to invite over...
After a shower and a late brunch with Jessica, the couple is ready to party.
It doesn't take long for the guests to trickle in. Jessica and Rafael playfully bicker about whose phone playlist to use for the music.
And then it's party time!
Jessica and Rafael warm up with some silly, outlandish dancing. They're saving their real moves for later.
Tula is not nearly as coordinated, but she makes a good effort. Her friends here have long learned to put up with her awkward, discordant movements and now only judge her silently with smirks instead of giving feedback.
It doesn't take long for Jessica and Rafael to split up and meet new people. Rafael dances with Sun Young Kim. She smiles at him, her gaze warm and inviting. Though he smiles indulgently at her and compliments her on the way she moves her body, he doesn't do much more to take the bait.
Just as well. As Tula will later tell him, Sun always tries to snap up her younger male customers, allured by their exotic origins and stories of faraway places. It's mostly harmless, but Tula has her suspicions that it doesn't always end well...
Tula and Jessica end up nearby the stereo, tearing up the dance floor.
Well, Jessica tries to teach her how to tear up the dance floor. She mostly just holds in her laughter at Tula's awkward flailing.
"A young, attractive woman who can't dance," Jessica mutters, "What a waste."
"I've always been pretty clumsy," Tula replies, a shy smile on her face, "Makes dancing pretty difficult..."
"And is this why you don't have a boyfriend?" Jessica asks bluntly.
Tula jumps in surprise, causing Jessica to laugh, "I see Rafael told you..."
"I've been around for a while Tula. You don't seem like the type to have trouble getting someone. Anybody."
Tula pretends not to take Jessica's meaning, "Well it's true...single for life! I've always been such a ditz around people... guess it comes from small-town living."
Jessica leans in a bit closer, "You don't seem to have any problems convincing people to do things for you, like with getting us the uniforms at the martial arts academy... throwing this party together on such short notice..."
Tula avoids eye contact. No one has ever come this close to finding out how she manages people. She must admit, it's a bit unsettling.
"In this business, you need to have a way with words, I guess," she smiles awkwardly.
Jessica grins warmly at her, "Yes, that's true. Tell me, Tula... how did an 'awkward ditz' such as yourself become a successful tour guide with a 'way with words'?"
Tula inwardly curses. How did she make such a stupid miscalculation? Now she's contradicted herself. "Some people are easier to...converse with...than others," she says cryptically.
"I think," Jessica takes a step towards Tula, eliciting a shiver, "That we'll get along quite nicely."
"Glad to hear it," Tulip answers brightly. Jessica seems to sense she's unsettled and smirks.
It's at this point that Rafael stumbles in from the kitchen, clearly drunk, and passes out on the couch.
"If you ever find yourself around Bridgeport, we'd love to have you," Jessica says, a congeniality in her tone that wasn't there before.
Tula knows it's a bit of a non-sequitor, only thrown in because Rafael is here, but she can sense that the offer is genuine.
"I'll definitely let you guys know if I'm around there."
Bridgeport... a large city where no one knows me and I have no reputation? Sounds promising.
She hasn't given much thought to her plans for after Shang Simla, and this just seems to perfect to ignore.
For their last day in China, Jessica insists that they visit the Scholar's Garden. Rafael, as always, follows her judgement, but isn't afraid to show that he's a bit bored. Being hungover and under the hot sun outside isn't the best combo.
He watches two children play chess and is goaded into keeping time for their game. He supposes it's easier to be a timer with his dry mouth and pounding headache than going on a tour and "meditating" for a few hours...
Tula takes Jessica to the "room of contemplation", usually used for reading, meditation, or sparring when it's cold or raining. Jessica has already been here before, but seems to enjoy Tula's spiel about the garden nonetheless.
Jessica spots the caretaker of the garden and leaves Tula's side to ask more questions.
The woman is usually a fountain of information for curious tourists, repeating the same responses over and over. But seeing how long their conversation has gone on for, Tula guesses that Jessica wants a deeper understanding of the gardens.
"Do they still grow Peonies here?"
"'Still'? No one has seen that flower in these gardens for decades..."
Tula wonders exactly how long Jessica was stationed in Shang Simla for.
Satisfied with her short interrogation of the caretaker, Jessica turns to Tula.
"Not many people spar here anymore... before I leave, would you treat me to a match? I don't get the time to practice in Bridgeport..."
The caretaker, having seen this scenario happen often with excited tourists wanting to "re-enact" such and such battle, or engage with the Garden's practice dummies, has uniforms ready for both of them.
Rafael wanders in to see the much more exciting match.
"Don't hold back. I certainly won't," Tula begins their battle with a fierce challenge.
Jessica nods once.
Though Tula is unpracticed and unbalanced, she gives it her all.
Jessica easily dodges the kick, but seems surprised at how intensely Tula is going on the offensive.
Her blows are clumsy and easily blocked, but Jessica sees that unmistakable predator's gleam in Tula's eyes. If she ever got the chance, Tula would take her out instantly. No mercy.
Jessica, in turn, shows Tula none. She's surprised that Tula is managing- although fumblingly- to block her strikes. She obviously has gone too long without practice. Jessica resolves to order a training dummy when she and Rafael get back to Bridgeport.
Tula is still no match for Jessica's better training and superior agility. Jessica doesn't even need to use her enhanced speed to hit Tula's shoulder.
Jessica barely pauses before kicking upwards. Tula barely has enough time to duck, but Jessica's calf hits the top of her head. She's one blow away from losing this sparring match.
Jessica easily sweeps Tula's feet out from under her, tired of playing around. She bows and turns to change her clothes.
In a moment of blind rage, Tula lashes out.
Jessica spins around in a blink of an eye and thrusts her arm in front of Tula's. There's a resounding smack as their arms hit each other. Tula's face, previously erupting with fury, is now blank. Even Jessica is having problems seeing if any of that anger still remains.
They both bow to each other.
"I know you're just a beginner, but that was an illegal move," Jessica says in a low voice.
"Who says I didn't know?"
Jessica smiles devilishly.
"A good way to think, but be glad that this wasn't a real fight. You need more training."
"If I come around Bridgeport, maybe you could be my teacher."
"I'd be glad to be of service."
They exchange emails and phone numbers. "Could you get Rafael for me and tell him it's time to head back? Our flight leaves in a few hours."
As Jessica gets changed, Tula has a much more affectionate goodbye with Rafael.
"Please come visit us if you ever get the chance!" he says, wrapping her into a warm, tight hug.
"Will do," she says with a brilliant smile, "And maybe you can help me with my dating problems."
Rafael winks at her, "Trust me, you don't really need any help. But I'll see what I can do."
She gives Rafael her phone number and email address. Once Jessica comes out, she calls a taxi for them.
With any luck, this won't be the last time they'll see each other.
AN: None of the facts I used about the forbidden city here are true, I decided to make something up.
Jessica and Rafael are actually a very affectionate couple in my game, and Tula made friends very quickly with both of them. Rafael kept spamming her with romantic interactions, so I think he might like her a bit too much.
Sun Young Kim, the woman Rafael is dancing with, has the flirty and good kisser traits (like Rafael himself). He was the mother of Yasu Archer, the generation 10 heir to NutsAndDolts's first RLC blog, R&R, hence the super vague reference to her romantic trysts "not always ending well". That wasn't to make a crossover or anything, but just some behind the scenes trivia ;)