In Dreams: Dream A Little Dream For Me
In Dreams: Dream A Little Dream For Me
For Sandra Carter, nightmare haunts her day and the past lies ahead of her. Can the Tao and its Handmaiden shine new light on her way, or must the darkness prove stronger?
"... the smile that you're wearing
Is just a lovely veil
For the secrets that you're hiding
That are just too dark to tell
Well, you don't have to be cut to be scarred, no
And you don't have to be struck to leave a mark"
—Wayne Kirkpatrick, Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Roads Schlapman, Phillip Sweet, Jimi Westbrook, "Evangeline"
February 19, 2007,
Doyle Medical Center, Whateley Academy
Another generic office lined with bookshelves, industrial carpet, and framed diplomas, another luck of the draw on-call psychologist. She should remember the doctor's name, but Sandra is finding it difficult to even care. When she can sleep, Ryan doesn't; when he can't hold out any longer it's a crapshoot just what they get hit with — nightmares or creatures of nightmare. The so calm it's maddening mid-something woman drones out something that amounts to "Please tell me about this dream that you've been having. I'm very curious why it's manifesting now."
Weeks of intensive and emergency counseling sessions, Team Tactics class, caliban spirits, simulated bloodsport matches for the benefit of Vegas gamblers, memories of a city besieged and a scythe at its neck, memories of a "home" town that just might deserve that scythe: they've all begin to blur together. Sandra held her sigh in. They never want to hear the patient's real opinion. Ryan rolled his eyes unseen and un-analyzed. Might as well get with it; neither one of them would be getting any more sleep.
"It always starts with me, naked, in a TV sitcom version of the Garden of Eden, complete with its own Snake whispering in my ear to convince me to consume the fruit from this one forbidden tree. Very Christian, you know, in a naive way. Of course I give in. I always give in. I can't say 'no' can I? Not without passing the curse on to Matt.
Who's Matt? Someone I thought I knew. Can we get on with this? Could you have read my file before starting?
Next thing I know, I have the fruit in my hand, and I have the flesh in my mouth. It's sweet and the juice is sticky, and I can't stop until I've eaten it all. Every last lick and swallow. The snake bites me as if it thinks the show was over too soon. I'm too weak, too tired to resist or stand on my own. I fall, and the snake slowly swallows me. The next thing I'm aware of, I'm as you see me now. Pastor Ferris condemns me as a demon, and he's leading a lynch mob."
She hears that same damned professional detachment again; what she needs is someone to personally react, to acknowledge that what happened to her was not right. Instead? "You must know on some level that you survived. After all, you're here, safe, and still alive, as is your sister."
"Am I, doctor? Because some days I don't goddamn well know myself."
Undisclosed location, Washington State
"You choose your siblings well, daughter. Take my blessing, and a gift."
Only Sandra 'Diamondback' Carter heard it, and she wasn’t sure she did, but something beyond her senses and experience had noticed and blessed the ritual. Only later would she remember that sometimes the reward for a job well-done is a bigger job.
Outcast Corner, Tunnels under Hawthorne, Whateley Academy
"... I would have hoped that with everything else that's happened, my mind would either get over becoming what I am or come up with something new to complain about. But here I am, stuck with reruns." Sandra's shoulders slumped. A salvaged table lamp cast shadows across her face that hid the physical tattletales of too little sleep while her voice told the story in full.
Caitlin nodded. She had so many things of her own to get over, she could have piled them up and built a bridge. "Have you talked with anyone else about it? That's what the quacks and mind-screws say they're here for."
"Have you? Talked about some of the things eating you, that is?"
"I'm special: got a short school bus all to myself and my neuroses. My question stands."
Sandra's deadpan impression of one of the psychologists on staff was at once insulting and accurate: It looks like an ongoing case of anxiety over your manifestation trauma. It's not unheard of. Perhaps once you accept yourself for who you are, not concern yourself with your appearance, these messages from your subconscious mind will cease to be needed.
"But I think that you have a beautiful personality somewhere, and we can help you find it." Caitlin's celebrity psychologist impression needed work. She could have tried to get the Texas twang right!
"Sure! It's buried in a mason jar in my parents' backyard." Sandra cocked her head in a smirk, "Hope you have a valid digging permit and a good lawyer."
"Not the Turners' backyard?"
"I happen to like Mama Turner!"
"Good enough. What does the other side of the aisle think about it?"
Caitlin watched the snake-girl straighten her back and neck. She could even imagine a more squared jaw.
"What I think is that I'm more than a piece of someone else's broken mind, to be glued back into place and forgotten. We both share my memories, or our memories, whatever. There are gaps, sure. No one remembers everything. But sometimes gets to be like a chipped tooth that we can't stop running our tongue over"
Diamondback's posture shifted back to Sandra's, "Some of the dream is easy to interpret, from freshman Mystic Arts class notes. At the start, I was vulnerable to the Snake because I thought I was in a safe environment or maybe because somehow I'm supposed to think of myself as Eve. That's a narrow interpretation of the snake, along with hidden threats like snakebite." She looked Caitlin in the eye, and let some of her eastern Texas drawl come through, "But back in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, the forbidden fruit was red as sin, not yellow, and the skin on it don't peel back none."
Caitlin understood that "Ryan" could be the result of intense trauma and guilt. Some of the elements in Sandra's dream made that disgustingly clear. Yet they could operate independently with both speed and intelligence. When the simple explanation doesn't solve the question, find another one.
"Sandra, what do you remember from the day you manifested? I'm not interested in what you figured out afterward, but what you recall from being in the moment."
"I remember listening to another hellfire sermon from Pastor Ferris and feeling literally sickened by it. Next thing I know, Matt's screaming in my face about a demon."
"I thought you two were Wiccans?"
"We were, but we were also stuck going to church every Sunday with our parents. If Kalrys hadn't stepped in, Matt would still be doing it. I'm still kind of pissed that he didn't even think to look up any snaky mutants not named Ryan Carter. Did he really think I was stupid enough to make it that easy for H1 to find me?"
According to their lifelong friend Joe, the Carter twins had always been clever, inquisitive, and imaginative. Matt should have known better even if no one else did. He'd even had a chance to hear and see Joe Turner, if not the Ryan Carter he remembered, and willfully ignored it. Brilliant people, at least those in Caitlin's acquaintance, never stopped thinking or asking questions unless they knew they didn't dare examine the answers too closely. Why they had stopped was a mystery, unless a person knew someone with a knack for digging into matters they shouldn't...
"It is a tool of the Handmaids, so I used it. Aren't you the one always harping about having the intel you need to make decisions?"
Time for one enigma to get some intel from another mystery? Payback!
"Sandra, I know someone who can maybe find out more about the events leading up to the torch and pitchfork parade. Do you want me to ask them to take a shot at it?"
"It beats going crazy by myself. It's a short enough road as it is. Who?"
"Chou Lee. Will that be a problem?"
"No matter how much dirty laundry she finds, I don't want to hear anything from either of you two wiseasses about 'ancient Chinese secrets'.
Range Four, Whateley Academy
Chou 'Bladedancer' Lee kept a light touch on the Tao while she went through the ritual of cleaning her USP45 Compact Tactical pistol. Caitlin didn't go for the "Constant Vigilance!" nonsense that some of the upperclassmen had started springing on the training teams, but there'd been a lowered pitch to her voice when she hustled the Range Master into leaving (temporarily only, as the man seemed cut from the same cloth as Erik Mahren had been.) Chou's friend was worried about someone. Had it been something, it would have been bulldozed by now.
Caitlin supervised the range operations, start to finish, before laying out what she knew and did not know about Sandra's returning nightmares. When she finished, the first thing that came to Chou's mind was:
"Caitlin, the Loom and the Garden aren't a mystical DVR."
To an Artificer or a Taoist Sage? Oh, god. To the rest of us mortals? Not as much?
Chou shivered at the memory of finding Alex Farshine's body, face down in the dirt of an unnamed field, cold blood darkening the sticky red clay beneath it. A DVR replay would have been so much better. Sensing Caitlin's incoming objection, she raised her hands in an attempt to hold it off. "What I mean is that while I am shown visions of events, they usually are incomplete and I have only my own judgment and skills to figure out how and why they came to be. The more I understand about the missing pieces around those scenes, the more meaning I can obtain from them."
The Tao did not urge that she should refuse, but neither did she get any sense of encouragement. Was this all something she needed to learn on her own, or did it reflect the ambiguity wrought by the Artificer's path through the weave?
"'To know and yet think we do not know is the highest attainment; not to know and yet think we do know is a disease' Yadda, yadda, ancient Chinese secrets."
Destiny's Wave objected. "Lao Tzu's writings are hardly a secret in this age."
"The meanings qualify. There is a practical thing to take into account. When I use these tools, I leave my body vulnerable to attack or possession."
"There's always a catch. What sort of protection do you need, and will it help if Sandra is present?"
"A casting circle should be sufficient to keep any outside bad influences out. When it comes time to find her thread within the Tapestry, I think having her around would help. DW?"
"Using what your teachers call a casting circle would seem prudent. Perhaps Miss Stone may have ideas for incorporating traditional protections? Having the person present, whose path you seek to tread, may not be required, but I feel it would be most appropriate."
"That's settled then. Work out a day and time when the three of us aren't stuck running the sims, then I'll sign out one of the better rabbit holes under Witchypoo Square." Chou would be on her own when it came to negotiations with Molly for "Tao time". That was something to look forward to!
Kirby Hall, Whateley Academy
Becca Stone had calmly listened to what Chou could tell of what she would be attempting. Instead of forcing Western forms and symbols to accommodate Taoist symbolism, Becca suggested that Chou research and compound some incense formulae for the working. After several sinus-clearing attempts, they settled upon a mix of agarwood, sandalwood, benzoin, incense-cedar, frankincense, camphor, cinnamon, and spikenard. A chance reference found to an Anglo-Saxon charm led to a medicinal aromatic tea that might aid in settling nerves afterward.
The two Outcasts had settled on a double circle with legible symbols of protection for the evening's festivities. Diamondback would be inside to provide a close-in watch for Bladedancer and the Talky Pokey. Eldritch would stand watch outside the circle, thank you very much, and Nephandus would be smart to stay very, very far away. Both brought homework or projects to work on while Chou did whatever it was she had to do.
When all was ready, Chou lit a small brazier she'd brought for burning incense. The combination of cool and warm fragrances, familiar and exotic, simply fit Penglai Shan — a place as far from Nashville as time and place would allow, yet a welcoming home for the Tao's chosen Handmaids to return to as they could or needed.
Penglai Shan, The Dream Lands of the Celestial Emperor
As the will she brought to her meditation practice won past the yellowed mental leaves which hid her waking mind from itself, Chou Lee began to perceive herself as a young woman walking along a forest path. The dry smells of hardwood trees, their accumulating leaf mould lying soft on deep soil, anchored her mind in their sense of place in the half-remembered dreams of men and the Tao. She was where she needed to be. No matter what byways this path might follow, they both would arrive where they were going. She departed it at a round pool of water walled around by moss-covered limestone, shaded by ancient oaks and cypress.
"Come along, Handmaid. The earlier we are on our way, that much sooner I can take some weight off my feet."
Chou turned to see a balding, middle-aged man. His robe and pants were ragged and threadbare in places. Even now, Li Tieguai leaned on an antique crutch.
"Shì, Li Tieguai géxià."
Li's dark eyes sank into shadow under his frown. "Draping fancy titles upon the shoulders of one such as myself does not become you, Handmaid."
"Now who's dealing in fancy titles, Li dage?"
"Better, Chou. However, we should still be on our way. As we walk, I recommend you tell me what you may of this errand. Medicine." Li Tieguai patted a pilgrim's gourd hanging from a strap. Some liquid sloshed within. "It may heal some wounds and many pains, but not all. Never all."
"What of illnesses that cloak a deeper injury?"
"There are times when one must cut into a wound if the poison is to be drained. Cleaning out the decayed matter may cause immense pain for a time, but if this is not done in a timely matter it generates a greater amount of poison. There is even risk to the physician in these cases."
Chou did not respond to this. Her mind recalled with unwanted clarity a cold December day, and two men who used to be highway patrolmen.
Li Tieguai nodded. "Just so. However, there are poisons of the heart and the mind that are no less deadly for the fact that they are slower in action. We have sought to teach you that there are times that you must act decisively and correctly from the Tao's perspective when others would counsel patience. Perhaps the lesson that Immortals may pursue our goals as foolishly as the next person is the more important lesson?"
"What if that next person is me?"
"Then endeavor to avoid foolishness."
A quarter-hour of dream travel later, Li Tieguai bid farewell to Chou at the steps to the Temple of the Handmaids. She watched him limp away and wondered if he hadn't left her with more questions than she'd started with.
"I'm tempted to take my time, just to see if Caitlin ends up whittling that block of wood she brought into a toothpick."
"If it is the Artificer's goal to make the perfect enchanted toothpick, then that is what she will do. From what I've seen of American culture in this time, it's conceivable that someone would commission such a thing." Someone might still be annoyed at being called Talky Pokey.
Destiny's Wave continued, "Li Tieguai lost his original body while occupied with learning from Lao-Tzu; I would recommend against spending any more time away from your own body than required."
"I have someone guarding my body."
"Chou. So did he."
That was a sobering thought, one Chou held in mind as she followed lines of chi flowing into the Central Building. It may not have been strictly necessary for what she planned, but replenishing her chi when available was prudent. Perhaps it was a trick of the light or just a shift in her mental focus, but some of the magnificent carvings and decorations inside did not match exactly those she remembered. Was it she who had changed? Or, if this was all a reflection of the Handmaids, the Tao, what they have known, and what they could know, might there not come a time when she needs to recognize how the chi lines have danced through this place? Such things had happened at school, with ill effects, even under the watch of powerful mystics.
Destiny's Wave asked, "Is something wrong?"
"I was just asking myself how I would know if something was wrong here until too late."
"I doubt we have time tonight to memorize the entirety of the Temple."
"But if I can learn a little more on each trip, I shouldn't put off starting until I have that time."
Chou left the building to enter the Hall of the Tapestry. Each time she saw the Tapestry, here or in the waking world through the Tao, it never failed to instill a sense of awe. Most of the threads were pretty average on average, but from such threads were woven amazing patterns. Amazing but not permanent. She concentrated on finding Caitlin's thread, knowing it was one of many that intersected the burned and smoke-obscured scar she still hoped to prevent. Where it was woven into the now, Sandra's would be relatively close, like each of those for the other Outcasts.
Tracing those threads back from the future's weaving into the finished past wasn't easy. Once in place, whatever leeway they'd had was battened down with the next moment's weft. Looking closely at what had recently become more of a tightly braided ribbon of seven, she saw that ancient threads, worn down to barely more than filaments, were worked into those threads she sought. That made a kind of sense for Razorback as a re-envisioned Pack Stalker of the Center Court. The Fury Twins were two that became three and remained three as one braided thread waned abruptly and the other grew in substance. The Carter Twins were also two threads that became a twisted pair of two and one, then a fourth reached from the deep past to be spun into that singular one. Both sets were obscured by smoky haze clinging to their own scorch marks. Cross-checking Jericho's and Caitlin's threads, she found a fifth filament that lay hidden behind the Artificer's. The outcome for Caitlin and everyone else was just as maddeningly uncertain as before. Balance had been maintained, but someone, somehow, somewhere, had run a bait and switch under everyone's nose. She pointed this out to Destiny's Wave.
"Chou, I am not certain of that. In Three-card Monte as it's now called, the Queen remains on the table and the mark is misdirected before the reveal. One should also worry that the dealer may have a lookout in position that we are unaware of."
Chou concentrated on the Tapestry, and Sandra-who-had-been-Ryan's current place in it. Once sure she had that, she looked to where that separated from Matthew Carter's life. As far as she knew, that would be the incident that sent Sandra running from a family home and a community turned against her. How well the events and the dream-memory would coincide remained to be seen. She turned and left the low, one-story building that housed the Loom, returning to the central building through which The Garden of Forking Paths and the vistas it held could be entered.
Sunday, November 13, 2005,
Forest Ridge Freewill Baptist Church, Kilgore, Texas
A member of the congregation – one of the Carter twins, in fact – had begun feeling ill during the morning sermon, so Pastor Ferris opened up his schedule and his office after the sermon, to talk with the troubled boy that the congregation knew he'd grow fond of. Deacon Andy James waited outside the office, should he be needed, until the pastor came out to freshen up in the men's room. Inside, Andy found the boy sprawled out on the small couch used for couples counseling. Sweat matted reddish-brown hair against a pale forehead. Andy was just about to make sure everything was as it should be when the Pastor returned.
"No need to worry about all that, Andy, he's as cleaned up as he can be."
"I'm not sure I follow."
"Going by the looks of his eyes, I fear that young Ryan Carter is soon to be excommunicated from this holy communion."
James recoiled from the unclean thing. No wonder it had been so adept at temptation!
"Don't you worry he'll make a run for it?"
"Oh, yes. But I'd worry more about him harming his fellow demonspawn first. The infection often stains siblings, as you know."
"That's a shame."
"You said it, Andy, you said it. Best to put some of your guys on stand-by. I'll wake the boy up soon and return him to his folks."
There was an oily feel to the men's chi. The way that Ferris guided Ryan down the hall, his tanned hand on the back of the boy's pale neck, reminded Chou of how some of the douchier boys back home tried to maneuver their girlfriends like a pet or a possession. The hand moved down to a shoulder at the outer door. Ferris continued to guide Ryan from the back of the church to his waiting family. The results of this event had needed to happen, but the Tao had not needed it to happen this way. Chou backed away from the vision on autopilot. She spent several minutes staring into the water that flowed under the bridge that joined the Temple's space to the Garden's before realizing she'd stopped walking. Below, two leaves – one rotted, one whole – danced together on the current until they separated or the weight of one pulled the other under.
"DW, if this went down the way I think it did, Sandra has more right to see and experience it than I have."
"Perhaps it would be better to try again on another day?"
"Maybe. I want to see if I can find out what could have happened if Ryan had hurt or killed Matthew before I call it. I have some suspicions that even if there wasn't that intent, there's still more to this than I can see, but suspicions aren't intel."
"As you wish."
Chou sees a pastor counseling the Carters together and individually on the loss of their children. Ferris is quietly speaking to them, telling them what happened and how they should feel about that. What he tells them are half-lies and misdirections. Their chi flows in harmony with their belief in him with all their heart.
Another time, another counselor is with Mr. Carter. Alone, in grief, he learns that his losses had served the purposes of a stranger, not a merciful and loving God.
Confused and heartsick, she walks on to the next clearing.
Two heavy GSD students arrive on campus; one resembles a Naga, the other a many-armed Asura. Their chi loops back upon them in their isolation, tight as a noose. This feels wrong; not the tainted wrongness of mythos corruption, but there's an air about them of something having never being meant to be.
She pushes through visions of bullying, retribution, and escalating fights at Whateley and elsewhere. The Diamondback and Anomaly she knew would have sought peace and looked out for bystanders. Some other students tried to fill that gap, but even with training, Anna Parsons' spine and ribs were no match for the gravitic chaos of a pissing match between Gravmax and this Anomaly.
This time the dead and dying aren't limited to baseline humans and mutants but animals of every kind are included. Many of the latter bore marks of corruption. Chou is startled to see a living woman close by, weeping over two battered, bloody bodies. Kwan Yin, her robe stained with blood, tries to comfort the woman, but even the mercy of a Bodhisattva is no match for the grief and regret of a mother who has lost her children. All her children. Kwan Yin turns her head and speaks directly to Chou.
"Once this path was taken, the fate of this world passed beyond anyone's ability to save it. Please, Handmaid. Go from this place. There is nothing left for you or anyone else here."
Again, Chou retreated all the way to the central gallery at the entrance to the Garden before she dared speak. "I thought that even the Immortals could not come here".
Destiny's Wave did not respond at once. "I believe that that remains true. It is possible that The One Who Hears The Cries Of That World did perceive your presence. To my knowledge that has not happened before. Are you ready to return now?"
"No. I won't go so far forward next time, that's all. That was too intense."
"I recommend caution."
Chou searched for an earlier fork in which Matt Carter dies and Ryan – now Sandra Carter – becomes a fugitive.
It is a changed Outcast Corner that haunts the Crystal Hall. Outside it is winter. Going by who Chou sees sitting together, she'd place the date near the beginning of the current calendar year. Diamondback and the Fury twins project a reactive field of grief that isn't at all mitigated by the presence of a different Anomaly. Chou moves in for a closer look and she sees that Jack is holding his sketchbook tightly in both hands. It's open to a sketch of a happy young boy on his Very Own Dinosaur's shoulder. The paper is uneven, creased, and stained, as if the book had been left open in the rain.
It was strange how in dreams rain could fall even inside a fancy glass dome.
What she walked into in the next clearing made no sense. The sky was an ashen dark gray. The air had a sulfurous bite. She'd rather deal with that than look out at untold miles of barren and blasted granite as far as the eye could see. Whatever had hit the school, it had taken out the Queen to Come, the Scourge, the Last World Tree, and too much more.
Still choked, Chou tried an earlier clustered set of forking paths.
Both Carter twins seek refuge with the Turners but move on to Whateley Academy before they are discovered.
They are discovered.
They are discovered too late for the mob to do more than take out their hatred on Jericho's family; life goes on in Kilgore, Texas, without law enforcement or the MCO taking note.
One time she lingers with Matt after Jericho and Sandra depart for school and she witnesses Kalrys discharge her duty to Kashaly as best she can.
Differences from her own world mount, but they are overshadowed by other, greater events. Some of the corrective actions the Tao required of its Handmaid were no less extreme.
Destiny's Wave said, "I believe that this is what Snarky Golem Girl would call 'Five-Fold Court droppings'." Chou's faint laugh at the joke satisfied the sword spirit that her charge would recover from this effort.
Chou Lee was tired. Too much of what she'd witnessed was just — it was too much, given the context she was working with. She left the Garden and the Temple behind her, not slowing down until she got to the courtyard at the Temple's front. Not that she should, but she could have easily run the entire way back to where she'd arrived.
Kwan Yin waited for Chou Lee and Destiny's Wave near the entrance of the Temple, forestalling flight. Having last seen the Immortal in her sorrow, Chou's soul basked in the warmth of the woman's genuine smile.
Kwan Yin motioned for the young girl to follow, "You have questions. If I have any answers in my possession, you have but to ask. Let us sit for a while."
Under the shade of a pergola supporting an immense wisteria they sat. Once she could collect her thoughts Chou said, not quite as an accusation, "Back there in the Garden, you spoke to me."
"Yes. Had you gone further or stayed in that place, you risked becoming lost to us. It is thought to be rare, but the blending of What Could Have Been and What Yet May Be is capable of overwhelming the Garden's own protections. There, Gaea was dying; losing the last of her four daughters was too much to bear."
"How is it that you, I mean here-you, knows that?"
"I am, and always must be, Kwan Yin. How could I not know the sorrows and joys in my own heart? I am here because you need me and because I care for you no less than my fellow Immortals do. I am not only here but also wherever else Kwan Yin is needed."
"Who were Gaea's daughters?"
"They were – are – the Four Sisters of the Court of the Center among the vanished Five-Fold Court. Unless I am mistaken, they are returned among your friends. If given time and support, they might again become powerful and wise, but then so could many others."
"I prefer to have them as friends."
"A wise choice. However, please think carefully about what to divulge out from what you have seen. It is easy for a person to believe they understand the dangers of knowing their future; knowing the past with too much certainty can just as easily overshadow their future."
"Like judging a person based on past events after they've learned their lesson and moved on?" Chou looked for up for a confirming nod, while she continued to puzzle out what else Kwan Yin may have meant. "You weren't only referring to Sandra's past, were you?"
Kwan Yin's eyes sparkled with amusement. "That would be telling. Sleep now, and return to your friends."
Kirby Hall, Whateley Academy
Chou Lee was torn between writing everything down, telling her friends everything first, or curling up on the floor and pretending it was all a dream. Sleep lost the coin toss. To head off four-and-twenty inbound questions, she said, "Please allow me to record as much as I can remember before asking anything."
Caitlin and Sandra exchanged a decided and a puzzled look. It was Caitlin who finally said, "Go ahead. A few minutes shouldn't make that much of a difference."
Bladedancer had warned both Outcasts that they wouldn't enjoy what she'd learned. To Caitlin, it reeked of what little they knew about the Center-can-go-get-fucked Court. Gut instinct – more like justified paranoia – warned that they knew far too little about the enemies they'd inherited from the Sisters, enemies who might not take kindly to too many questions being asked about the Carters of Kilgore, Texas. On the other hand, there were already too many gender-bent, over-powered, and heavy GSD kids in the school's freshman and sophomore classes. Even if only the records from one East Texas fertility clinic had been leaked, she knew of a person or two who'd have a vested interest in how far and how ugly that research had gone.
Saturday evening, before curfew,
Room 211, Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
Kayda Franks greeted Chou's return with a cheery, "Welcome back, roomie!" In the answering silence, she realized how exhausted her roommate looked. "Handmaid stuff? Or did you try going ten rounds with Chaka without buying popcorn and selling tickets?" Kayda had seen Chou too many times too beaten down to pull off a Zen stoic act for her not to ask.
"Handmaid stuff. The Tao isn't the only one that asks me for help. It would sure help a whole lot more if said Tao were less standoffish when it isn't the only center of my attention."
"You've got mentors you could ask for help, right?"
"Yes. In cases like this their advice works out to either Look within for the Answers you seek, Don't Worry, Be Happy, or my favorite: Don't you have homework?."
"At least you don't have Coyote messing with your head!" Kayda's laughter sounded hollow to Chou's ears.
Is he still trying to draw Kayda out of her shell, or was she referring to yet another super-secret Lanie and Wyatt thing she doesn't want to talk to me about? Again. Two can play that game!
"That is true. Perhaps it's just as well that some, er, more colorful characters have not visited recently."
Sunday morning, before breakfast,
Room 211, Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
Kayda dreamt of sleeping in warm furs, as had been traditional for the People. Her alarm clock went off far too soon, but late enough to enjoy some morning solitude while her roommate practiced Tai Chi Chuan outside. No help shutting it off from that corner! She rolled toward the nightstand to give the infernal device a good swat, but there was a body in the way. The warm body had small breasts, and it had fur where Debra normally didn't have fur. Fur?
"Ni Hau Xiao Kayda!"
Chou Lee could hear the shouts – and an impressive stream of invective – from the grounds outside the cottage. Nikki looked over and caught her friend biting her lips together, trying vainly to keep a straight face, but she didn't presume the worst until Koehnes came running out to warn her Mistress about that "awful, awful monkey!"
Leanne's "Kitty! No!" was harder to make out.
If the insanity had encompassed Danny and Leanne, then Hank, Lily, and Toni couldn't be far from its simian epicenter. A wall-shuddering thump announced that Evvie, or maybe one of the freshman tanks, maybe Iron Rose or Ribbon, had joined the fun.
Erin Manly pinched the bridge of her nose So much for a peaceful morning!, "Do we need to count our lingerie, again?"
At breakfast, the inexplicably unscalped Monkey Princess explained that she'd begun to miss her Meimei again, and what about Meimei's friends? Wasn't it a duty to come and meet them? She was making new friends, wasn't she? It would be such a sad situation if she weren't. Making new friends, that is! Not making-making them, because that so rarely turns out well that it should be beyond the imagination of even the most excellent of stone monkeys.
The watchphrase of the morning being 'obnoxiously cute', Chou left Sun in Wondercute's clutches. Like they needed the encouragement? She also knew that Sun wouldn't deliberately give them bad advice or cruel suggestions, ever. The Tao agreed that the Monkey King would be a good mentor, able to moderate their enthusiasm without crushing their spirits. Whether the idea that she was turning over in her head was advisable? Magic 8-ball Tao says, "Better not tell you now."
Sun caught up with Chou later in the morning, meditating in the studio space where Becca Stone often taught. Sun smiled to see that her friend was making enough progress to be here, now, and quietly took a place to sit across a softly glowing incense brazier from Chou. A few quiet minutes passed in e silence until Chou stood up, gesturing for her visitor to stay while she made tea for the two of them.
Sun Wu Kong drank tea and watched the Handmaid as the Handmaid did likewise.
"Meimei! Your face and hands are patient and calm, but your chi tells me you are upset. What is it that troubles you?"
"I've been asked to help a friend understand the cause behind her recurring nightmares."
"Does the Tao caution you against this? Or is it that, in this task, you feel that you are being asked to do something against your nature?"
"No. If anything, the Tao feels to me as if it is unsure whether bringing that person to the Temple of the Handmaid would serve or harm the Balance. The Temple, after all, is supposed to be sacred?" Chou stared at imagined clouds in her cup. "If I didn't know better – if I didn't think I know better – I'd wonder if the Tao was looking to me for the answer!"
"I am nothing more a humble stone monkey, so please bear with me! Who is the Temple sacred to?"
"The Handmaid of the Tao. That's what I was told."
"And who is this Handmaid?"
"So, if this Handmaid decides that a visitor should be guided there, is that visitor's presence not sacred as well?"
"I can see that. If what you wish to do is in accord with your nature and not at cross-purposes with the order of things beyond you, why shouldn't you dare it?"
"I don't know. That could be why I feel off-balance."
"Regarding the Tao's lack of direction, haven't there been times in which the Tao held back from lending its power and wisdom so you could learn the consequences of carrying out your own actions or inaction?"
"Yes. Is this one of those times?"
"I believe that it could be. I also believe, to my dismay, that the two of you two must make your way there without my expert and most excellent guidance. I am a very curious Monkey, too easily distracted by new things to learn. There are so many things to learn from your Temple's records that we could stay a hundred years and go no further. Whether you choose to take the risks and the consequences of what you may learn – or may not learn – please know that I believe in you, Meimei."
Sun picked her teacup up, to finish drinking the cooled beverage. Chou did likewise, the better to stall for time and to refill both cups.
Refill obtained, Sun's eyes brightened. "How are things with Molly? Has she shown you the curious toy we ran across while shopping?"
Chou turned beet-red trying to avoid inhaling or spitting out the tea she hadn't yet swallowed in the face of the mental images that the Immortal dredged up from the gutter.
"Ah, Meimei, there are many things you have yet to learn or to experience! By the way: what are D-cell batteries — are they truly more capable than C-cell power supplies?"
Outcast Corner, Tunnels under Hawthorne, Whateley Academy
Sandra Carter could feel silence creeping in from the walls and darkened ceiling of her friends' commandeered hangout somewhere beneath Hawthorne Cottage. She didn't know what Caitlin had found to encourage the other four to make themselves scarce while she heard Chou Lee's idea out, but she hoped someone was filming.
Even for Whateley Academy, the idea of astral travel to a sacred place in the center of a mythical location was a stretch of the imagination. The alternatives she could think of were to get used to years of bad Sunday School Story reruns or to go insane. To be fair, Chou Lee did lay out the risks she knew of. Destiny's Wave contributed her knowledge of the times when previous Handmaids had come to harm while consulting the Tapestry. What am I getting myself into?
A voice in Sandra's head whispered his own question: What if we are already up to our necks in it?
She whispered back, In that case, we need to know whether we're pulling our brothers and sister down with us.
Sandra opened her eyes, holding Chou's gaze fixed on her, "I'm in. No fear, no promises to break, no regrets."
"Caitlin thought that would be your choice. She's at Kirby Hall waiting for us."
"The Monkey King's visits can be as disruptive as the Tao requires or allows. At this moment we have a window of opportunity during which we'd be expected to make ourselves scarce."
"How's that worked out in the past?"
"Every bit as poorly as you'd expect. Ask Ayla about it."
Kirby Hall labs, Whateley Academy
According to the posted lab schedules, a warded working space had been reserved for Eldritch. As much time as she spent working in one space or another, there was nothing unusual about that. Circe's handwritten "Try not to demolish my office while you're at this" carried more weight. Chou Lee and Sandra Carter took note of the lab number and headed down. By the time they arrived, Caitlin Bardue had finished laying out a circle within a circle and three circles between them. That was one more than either of the two had expected.
"You didn't think I would let the two of you go without at least one sitter, did you? Cthulhu Plushie has the school's astral crossing guards on the lookout for anything unusual, but they're not to head off or follow you.
Sandra asked, "Will they be a problem?"
"If they could have followed Chou to her special place, they'd have managed it already. I made some adjustments to the incense blend that Miss Stone and Chou worked out; it should work better for clearing your minds and providing protection. Don't go testing that theory if you don't have to."
"Where's the fun in that?"
"Coming back in as good a condition as you left is more than enough fun for me, ladies. As it is, I expect Carson's going to rip me a new one for this. But, enough talk about my hobbies. Your show."
The Dream Lands of the Celestial Emperor
Somewhere among the ordered realms of meditation and the more chaotic realms of sleep, Sandra's dual minds slipped into another realm altogether. There were similarities to the dream space of Uluru, her and Ryan's first true entry into astral space, but there were differences. This was less primal, more studied. Perception faded out of their grasp, then returned.
When Sandra came to her senses, the five of them were on an island beach. According to her textbooks, a beach could symbolize the interaction of the subconscious' lapping saltwater with consensus reality's beach. However, those textbooks didn't say anything about shark fins breaking the water, nor about how authentic the low tide smelled.
Chou Lee wasn't long behind her in waking up. A positive omen, since she was the one holding this trip's map and airfare. The odd person out was dressed in high American teen fashion: a Green Day American Idiotpromo t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. His blue eyes and scruffy red-brown hair looked very familiar. Someone she'd seen in a mirror.
Sandra had meant to say "What the hell?", but all the sound that came from her mouth was a deep hiss. Her mouth felt weird as she tried to move her lips to get the consonants. So much for good omens. She repeated the question in ASL.
The boy stopped physically inventorying parts he hadn't felt in a while. "Oh, right. I heard you the first time. We're split, but I don't know how. Can you hear me like this?"
Destiny's Wave said, "It is safe to say that we can all hear you, even if Sandra lacks speech in her current form," which boggled the boy that much more. "You may introduce yourself if you wish."
"I'm Ryan Carter, also known as 'Local Child Abducted By Scary Mutant. Kilgore PD Baffled'."
Sandra signed: "I'm Sandra. This is Ryan. Together we are known as Diamondback. "
Words wouldn't come. Who was she – what was she – like this? Her memories of being Ryan before everything went wrong back home didn't make sense with them separated. It was like losing her twin all over again!"
Chou's response cracked like a whip against the panic. "Sandra! Where we're going, there may be those we can ask for help."
Ryan nodded. "Right. One disaster at a time, please. Chou, if you don't mind, you lead and we'll follow."
Way to demonstrate trust, Ryan.
She knows the way. I don't. But we can all tell you're freaking out. We should get moving."
You would be too, if, I guess you are a bit weirded out.
"The path should be," Chou scanned the tree line for the path she knew would be close by, "right over there."
Curiouser and curiouser. I wonder how often the geography changes?
Ryan chuckled at Sandra's question. If I were the DM? Just often enough to trash your maps and drive you all insane!
They followed Chou through old forest, ancient woods, and stately bamboo thickets until they came upon a meticulously-maintained, but different pond to the one before. "We should wait here. I don't know that we'd be unwelcome if we pressed on, but the first time I came here there was a guide for the next part of the journey."
"Of course there is a guide. What poor hosts we would be if we refused to greet our visitors!"
Sandra and Ryan had met several people at school with complicated gender issues, but aside from appearing East Asian and dressing in traditional clothing, the person who'd spoken could have stepped straight out of an Eighties music video or Patrick Nagel poster. They wore a sky-blue off-the-shoulder, oversized tee over a white tank top tee or sports bra and light brown trousers that all hinted at a figure without proving it. Short black hair was swept up and back, framing an equally ambiguous face adorned only with black eyeliner, and matte lip gloss in rose.
They winked at Chou, "While few Immortals concern themselves in earthly affairs, we're not completely unaware of them," before introducing their self as "Lan Caihe Ho. It would be an honor for me to escort the Handmaid and her guests." Even their voice was in a musical register that encompassed both male and female. They added Caihe in ASL, so that Sandra could call him by name.
"Would I be mistaken in the belief that the two of you, Sandra, Ryan, have some questions about this place?"
Ryan began. "Caihe?" The Immortal nodded. "If, when, we leave will we be back as we were, or do we remain this way?"
"It is not unknown for two souls to reside in the same body. Some say there is great merit to such a state. As you are both here in this middle ground between light and shadow, between science and mysticism, a realm of spirit, the two of you are here. When you return to your body this evening, you will be as you were before."
A spike of unease hit Chou in the pit of her stomach. Lan Caihe Ho had told the truth, of that she had no doubts, but Caihe had been very specific in phrasing it.
At the Temple, Ryan asked some questions about its history and the meaning of various symbols while Sandra examined the place from her perspective. The Fu Dogs guarding the nearest entrance made no threatening motions or sounds, but she was certain that trespassers would be harshly dealt with. There was even a carved stone monkey placed as if to keep a watch over the entrance from a shady spot across the courtyard before it. The only thing lacking to make the spot perfect would be a peach tree. She could have sworn the monkey winked at her as Chou led them to a long one-story building set to the side of a three-level – not three-story, as this was constructed to dreaming proportions – circular building that vibrated with power. Its red and gold roof tiles glowed against the blue sky.
Sandra had only thought she'd seen impossible until they were shown what could be seen of the Tapestry. The burns that had been inflicted upon it sickened her. One area through which hundreds of threads must pass together was charred and blurred beyond recognition. Many of the threads themselves also had burn marks.
Ryan spoke for the two of him: "I suppose it's too much to hope that our threads aren't part of the damage?"
"I'm afraid so. Now I need you two to concentrate on finding the thread that is yours so we don't get separated. Like magic, you'll know it when you find it. Once we have that, I will take you to the Garden of Forking Paths. Please keep in mind that many of the future paths do not or should not come to pass."
Like everything else here, "garden" was an inadequate word for what they were led to. It was surrounded by a gracefully curved moat that curved gently into the distance to either side of where they were. Even the red bridge across the moat into the garden proper was a masterpiece. Sandra shared Ryan's anxiety: how could their life story belong amidst such beauty?
They were so very wrong about that.
Midday, Sunday, November 13, 2005,
Pastor's Office, Forest Ridge Freewill Baptist Church, Kilgore, Texas
Ryan was the first to leave the office. Not that there was a contest. There certainly was no winner.
Sandra signed to Chou: "Go to him. This was meant for us, not you."
Feeling like a coward, but glad to get away, Chou found Ryan in the hallway, back against the wall, head down, his arms wrapped tight around his knees. She sat down next to him so he could feel the warmth of human contact without feeling pressured. There had been so many times last year that she'd needed someone to just be with her when her world was spinning out of any control. No hugging, no teasing, no fixing, no demands.
The pastor left the church with then-Ryan. Sandra came out to sprawl on the cold tile next to Chou.
Chou didn't know how to ask, not politely. The question just didn't go away.
"How could he have been so sure that you'd end up with heavy GSD? No one knows that in advance."
The silence of metaphorical elephants tap-dancing around them was deafening.
Ryan lifted his head a couple of inches up from his knees. "Chou, um, Destiny's Wave? Please do not share what I'm about to say to anyone outside of us and the few who already know."
"As long as it doesn't conflict with my responsibilities, I see no reason to betray confidences."
Destiny's Wave affirmed, "As the Handmaid has said."
"Adrienne's burnout was the result of a genetic timebomb written into her and Janine's DNA. There are reasons to believe that they were put there to ensure that if they developed an active mutant gene complex, the manifestation would trigger a lethal burnout. If they survived, the timebomb might be passed along with the mutant genes. To prevent their spread in the population. In their case, there were additional triggers installed as failsafes against other unwanted outcomes. "
"That's..." Chou couldn't find a word awful enough.
"Oh, we haven't even gotten to the 'good parts'. Uh-uh. The piece of trash that did that ran a chain of fertility clinics as a cover for his 'research'. For all we know, Pastor Ferris has or had access to those records."
Thinking back on the science classes she'd had, Chou said, "In the cases where the parents opted for in-vitro twins, a set of identical twins would be perfect for evaluating nature vs. nurture effects. But then you've got one or more kill switches to prevent the test subjects from reproducing in the wild. Oh my god. How many more?"
Ryan said, "We don't know, but GSD and gender swaps have drastically jumped in the past couple of years. It looks like we'll be visiting Jobe again, in case we were also test subjects."
Sandra nodded. She signed: "Not just genes. Ferris preached non-stop about mutant freaks and genderbent perverts preying on the godly."
"Isn't that special? If the burnout doesn't get you, the Church will be glad to oblige."
"It must suck, knowing that their lab rats got away before they could get their 'after' samples."
Chou's blood ran cold at that thought. Thornies didn't talk to many people, but those people they trusted heard things. "Um, guys? During the Halloween invasion last year, some of the soldiers were specifically sent to Hawthorne to collect samples from the high-powered and the GSD kids. They weren't gentle about it either."
"They didn't get away with the samples, did they?"
"I didn't think to ask. Sorry."
Destiny's Wave said, "If unsuccessful, they may try again. If not at the school, then after graduation. Do you not all carry MID cards, and would they not be tracked?"
"It's possible. Hell, my name and codename were leaked from an MCO database, and Matt didn't even notice."
"They might notice a Deadly Force pre-Authorization on our cards."
"The M.C.O.'s chopping list. Yay."
"It is also possible, is it not, that just as Kalrys was waiting for the opportunity to contact Matthew Carter, then someone may have intervened on behalf of Ryan Carter and one of the other Sisters? This would be the time and place for looking into that."
Ryan admitted to himself it was possible, but he would have noticed something like that happening, right? "Lead on! As long as it's not a repeat of what went on in there." He jerked his thumb toward the closed office, concentrating on one of the handful of earworm songs that could drive Pastor Ferris' voice out of his head.
Early Monday morning, November 14, 2005,
Outside the Carter residence, Kilgore, Texas
Ryan and Sandra both flinched at a tenor shriek of fear, followed by more adult-sounding screaming and shouting. From where they were, the teen bolting from the house didn't look so terrifying. The police arrived within a few minutes: faster than usual, even allowing for light traffic. However, this was Kilgore, not Kermit, or even Killeen. The area has honest-to-god farms and woodlands for a panicked ex-Boy Scout in fair shape to disappear into before a posse can be rounded up.
All the police had to do was figure out where the boy was headed from 911 calls, set up a cordon, bring in dogs, call up some volunteers from the local H1 chapter to beat the bushes here and there, and wait for the fugitive to make a mistake. To be honest about it, the boy had already screwed up by going to ground during white-tailed deer season — some hunter could bag him by accident. That's if hypothermia doesn't take him out first. New members of the Heavy Eaters Club had a bad habit of ignoring their caloric needs until starvation dictated their actions. A trail of half-eaten dead animals can take the fun right out of hunting a mutant down for some people. If they'd had enough sense to look up at the circling vultures, more of them might still be alive.
Then-Ryan woke up on the second day of being a wanted fugitive, having crawled under a rock shelter half-hidden by thick brush and passed out the evening before. On top of mounting hunger, the feeling of having failed his parents ate at him. His brother had been terrified out of his mind. Was there anyone else? Right. He should find a way to say his goodbyes to Crazy Joe while he was still recognizable. He could do just that as soon as he figured out how to remove the small deer that had chosen the same hiding place and settled in at the entrance.
Sandra signed: "Why couldn't that have been Trisha? Two birds, one stone, venison for everyone."
If we wanted to eat petty bitch, Sis, I'd volunteer Bloodwolf for the menu.
"Do either of you recall this happening?"
"I feel like I should, but I don't."
"Ditto. Oh, sorry. We don't."
"Riddle me this. Why would a deer be on a lead?"
"Someone out of the goodness of their heart wanted to make sure we didn't starve?"
"Do you believe that?"
Chou cleared her throat to get the mental twins' attention, "Y'all know that I'm from Tennessee, but am I the only one here seeing a conflict of interest in hiding behind a deer at a time of year when every Davy Crockett wannabe in the state is looking for a wall trophy between six-packs?"
"It's not like we go hunting with elephant guns and sawed-off shotguns!"
"Aw, crap. By now, some of the hunting parties in these woods would be armed for mutant. I do not remember thinking about that then."
Late Monday afternoon, November 14, 2005,
Sabine River floodplain, near Kilgore, Texas
"Well, well! Some kids do have some self-control after all. Misplaced, but that's kids for you."
Ryan nearly cracked his head open on the overhanging rock, startled out of afitful, exhausted sleep.
"Shush now. We don't want to be drawing attention, do we?" The middle-aged woman winked at Ryan, then went back to untying her deer. Could he have left the shelter at any time, since the deer couldn't have run off and attracted the attention of every hunter between Kilgore and Longview? "One thing about deer: they don't bark when they get bored. Not around here, anyway. Come along!"
"Why should I? Do I know you? For that matter, shouldn't you be frightened of me?"
"Let's see. You're starving, so you won't be lasting another chilly night dressed like that. We have met. I think you folks called it Sow-en? And finally, I've seen more impressive chompers on one or two of my old exes. The things that man could do with that tongue! By the way, you can call me Coosaponakeesa. You might have known that if you were paying as much attention to my behind as you were that cute senior's."
Ryan's voice broke midway between "I, er, I didn't think it was so obvious?"
"Hanging around that preacher man of yours hasn't done you a lick of good. I bet right now some part of your mind is wondering how to turn this little home of mine into a right messy crime scene, while the other's trying to shove it down a hole."
"What?" Ryan hadn't even seen the old tin-roofed shack (more rust than tin) sitting on its odd foundation until they were right up on it.
"Exactly. Now I might be able to work up some medicine to help you – Don't worry, I do get something out of it too. Nothing free in a white man's world. – However! It's only as permanent as you and yours make it, and you only get two opportunities to change your mind."
Coosaponakeesa stopped Ryan under a persimmon tree before he got to the first step to the porch. "First, I want your word that you'll bring no harm, of mind or body or spirit, to or from my doorstep. I'm not fond of white boys trying to murder me in my sleep."
"On my," Now that he was a mutant, a monster, he didn't have any honor to pledge, did he? What did he have left? "On my name, so mote it be."
The vision ended abruptly. Chou was as confused as the others. Could this woman have warded that place even against the Tao? That couldn't be right. Yet, they were left no choice except to move on.
Early morning, Winter, 2005,
The next decision point they came to in the Garden showed a more-mutated, but still recognizable in the early morning light Ryan Carter sneaking around the suburban maze of landscaping and other shrubs near where Crazy Joe Turner lived. His attempts to convince a caffeine-depleted and half-blind Joe Turner of his identity at a school bus stop was a valiant but ultimately stupid course of action. It would have been charitable to compare the attempts of an untrained empath to calm down another scared and paranoid mutant a trainwreck.
Chou noticed the silent commentary between her Sandra and Ryan, but let it ride. The threads of chi flowing through then-Ryan were now showing that separate but same mixing she was used to seeing. Neither of the now-two showed any sign of noticing that change. They walked further down the Garden’s path.
Carter residence, Kilgore, Texas
The evening news had become another unwanted Family Ritual for Matt Carter to despise. At least the local GNN affiliate had stopped sending camera crews to camp out on their lawn. If H1 would buy a clue and do the same, he might even look forward to going to school (and out of the house) next term.
"... and in other news tonight, Kilgore Intermediate School student Joseph Turner is lucky to be alive after an attempted abduction ..."
"Oh, that poor child! Thank God he's safe." Mrs. Carter barely looked at the black kid wearing dark sunglasses. About the only thing good to come out of their troubles was that Matthew had stopped hanging around with those other delinquents and getting into trouble.
"Whatever. I'm calling it a night."
"But they might have news about Ryan!"
"Sure they might. Good night."
"Don't forget! Tomorrow afternoon you have an appointment with that new doctor!" She shook her head at the thought that anyone in their family needed that kind of help, but the boy simply refused to show up for individual counseling with the Pastor.
Chou Lee didn't catch what Sandra signed. Her hand movements were filled with yang energy, indicative of anger.
"What Sandra's saying, is that there can't be that many black, nearly blind, Joseph Turners who look like Joe and act like Joe at that school."
"Should there be?" It's possible the school could survive, maybe?
"East Texas is still all boom-or-bust over oil. If there were sixty black kids our age in that town, I'd be surprised, and Joe was never one not to stick out."
Sandra signed: "Couldn't Matt have been less of an ass and, I don't know, called Joe to see how he was doing? This is almost as bad as Mrs. Savage ignoring–"
"Almost as bad as Mrs. Savage ignoring us, and the deer-bitch, all through last Fall. However, she had an excuse. Matt? Oh. Crap." Ryan's voice skidded from 'snark' to 'horrible realization' in nothing-flat. "Chou, I don't think we need to see Matt ignoring all the news from Australia."
Sandra signed: "That would be more than I could stand. Sorry."
Chou led the others away, stifling a yawn as they went. There were answers to be heard in a little shack just off a ways from the Sabine River, but the Tao didn't urge her to ask those questions for her friends. It was sufficient that they knew there were questions to be asked.
Courtyard of The Temple of the Handmaids, Penglai Shan
Chou Lee was surprised to see that Lan Caihe Ho and He Xiangu had set up an impromptu picnic on the grounds near the temple entrance. Most stories she knew about the Immortals focused on their drinking... and not as much on eggs. Sun Wu Kong, in her best Whateley Academy uniform, had brought a large basket of various eggs. "Not as good as peaches from the Celestial Emperor's garden, but sometimes one makes sacrifices!" There were lotus tea and other foods set out, lest Sandra be embarrassed.
The three Immortals shared a look over the first cup of tea. Caihe and Xiangu gracefully set down their cups. The Monkey Princess bounded to her feet and reached her hand out to Chou.
"Meimei, let's catch up while our guests get to know each other!"
Chou stood to follow, "What would you like to talk about, Sun? I am but a humble handmaid, stumbling her way through the world."
"Well played! How are you feeling after this journey?"
"I don't understand all that has happened to Sandra. Or Ryan. Both, really. I hope that this has helped, but real problems aren't solved in one day."
Destiny's Wave said, "That is why the Monkey King, your mentors, and your teachers push you to grow into yourself rather than settling for being a 'girl with a sword'."
"Today you've shared some of that growth with your friends. Time will tell if it's a wise investment, or not. Speaking of investments, is Ayla still in need of a good laugh or not?"
"A good laugh? Of course."
The martial sage continued to talk about this and about that, even on the merits of batteries, taking in some of the places neither Chou nor Destiny's Wave had given much attention to before. Sun Wu Kong had stories to tell about each one. It happened that they returned to the others just in time for the private discussion to end. Enough food and tea remained to provide for safe return.
Kirby Hall, Whateley Academy
For a very tense moment after returning, Sandra feared that Ryan hadn't made it back with her. Being separated on a visit to a mystical otherworld, and not being able to speak the entire time had been hard enough. She didn't know what she would do if it continued. Ryan was a part of her, not a psychic appendix!
Ryan's familiar voice in her head was welcome, not happy.
It will be a damned long time before I'm good with what Ferris did, but this is a start on the cleanup. Still partners?
Duh. That boy can be so dense!
This boy heard that! Maybe we can get a useful therapist.
I'm not pushing our luck over that.
Outcast Corner, Tunnels under Hawthorne, Whateley Academy
Sandra was becoming tired of a certain Artificer avoiding any possibility of "sharing and caring": "Caitlin, have you given any more thought to what Circe told us about the Four Sisters?"
Caitlin grabbed a chair. She wished that grabbing a brew or ten would be as useful, but such is life. "As little as possible, why?"
"There's no way it's over for us."
Caitlin thought about the morning that an old forge was finally shut down.
"Does that make you Terra-Sandra, Mother of the Mind, Giver of life, the aspect of the Court from whom all natural life came? If so, when did you go hunting for Bambi, and why didn't you invite me? I would have brought the barbecue sauce if I'd known."
"Do you know how hungry a growing mutant snake-monster gets? Not that hungry! Pass."
"It's not like I'm planning on growing a freaking garden. Earth-Mother would charge admission just for the rubes to come gaze upon the desolation of the field wherein I grow my fucks. What did you guys actually find out?" Fine. I'll stop skating around the issue. For now.
"There are gaps in my memory. Some of them I must have agreed to. Others? I think, no, I know Ferris was responsible for them, and some of them are hiding landmines. I don't know what's been twisted around and hidden, but if it's anything like me almost bringing the wrath of Kilgore PD and H1 down on Joe's parents – and Matt ignoring that too – I can't leave all that sitting."
"Funny thing about that: the eyewitless and other reports depict an uneventful East Texas summer of 2006 in a sleepy town of about thirteen thousand patriotic citizens."
"Do you believe them?"
"Of course not. The fix is in, but we may never know if it's Ferris covering his slimy tracks, Wulfen's asslickers keeping a lid on Dietrich's human experimentation, or some vestige of the Center Court pulling strings to watch us dance."
"What about Dimes? If she'd died with Adrienne, would Fury have found the next-best pair of twins to anchor her?"
"Probably. Maybe. That's what Chou thinks could happen, but the Tao's gone inscrutable and the Five Courts crap has been nothing but a maze of rabbit-holes and trick mirrors from the start. Your point?"
"However, what would have happened if Janine and Adrienne went thermonuclear while joined with Fury?"
A reality-warping Court of the Center Power going off the rails in the middle of a school filled with children was quite the thing to think about. The runes in Caitlin's irises glowed a dull red.
If The Bastard behind those Voodoo Wolves had an inkling of how to make that possibility real — that didn't even bear consideration.
Look, you are this gaping hole in the Tapestry, and I needed to better understand it and you, so I could do my job.
"Before we left, I asked myself," Sandra waited for Caitlin's nod to go on, "I asked myself: what if we were already up to our necks in whatever all this is? What if we've been running blind the whole time?"
"Are you asking me for reassurance? What I do know is that if we waste our lives waiting for the sky to fall, our tombstones might as well read Maybe next year! with nothing to show for the effort."
"If it does fall?"
"Then we do what we always do: try to take over the world."
"I thought we were supposed to kick the world's ass?"
"Nope! We'll just expose it to Joe's wardrobe until it surrenders."
Hearing Sandra's laugh, Caitlin dared hope they'd pull through.