Seeking Depth is Best
A Whateley Academy Story
Seeking Depth is Best
In dwelling, love the earth
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8, Lao Tzu, trans. O’Malley
Chou sat in the back of Mrs. Harrington’s car with Molly heading back to school. She felt so much older than she had at the start of the summer and yet lighter somehow. She had done something amazing, something that shifted the odds in her favor for the upcoming disaster though she had no idea how. The weave looked better leading into the gaping hole, so she had hope that now the event would be survivable. Too often the Handmaid died fixing the issue she was called for, and this one was huge and thus far, far more perilous.
Molly squeezed her hand which made Chou look back over at her and smile. Molly was keeping her from wallowing in self-pity by simply being. Of course, she apparently was keeping Molly from becoming a villain simply by loving her. Chou had to wonder just what would have happened if she didn’t have Chou when the bullying started up again over the summer. The look on that that one girl’s face when she flashed her badge was priceless.
“I’m gonna miss you girls.”
“We’ll miss you too Mom. I’m just sorry Dad had to work today.”
“At least you got to say your goodbyes this morning before he left for work. I know he is sad to miss this but it is a big project.”
Molly frowned slightly, “Yeah.”
Chou squeezed her hand which made Molly look up and smile again. “Thank you for having me Mrs. Harrington.”
“Always a pleasure Chou. I know you and Molly are going to be together a long time so you’re becoming a part of our family. You always have a place at our home.”
“Thank you.” Chou really meant that as the pain of losing her dad was still there, just not as sharp or all consuming. This past year had held enough pain and insanity that she had been able to move on a bit.
“Head’s up girls. I can see the Gargoyles.”
The car entered the school property and both Chou and Molly could feel the mystical barrier slide over them. This place felt safe, familiar. The work protecting the Harrington house after the debacle with the Black Madonna made it a sanctuary as well, another place where the Demon Lord could not find her. It felt good to be coming back, so she could see all her friends.
Chou snerked inside. Friends. Sure she had walked away from Team Kimba because of the upcoming disaster but they were still her friends when all was said and done. And then there was Winnie, and Dorjee, and Kayda, and Chu Lan, and Cait, and many more. More friends than she’d ever had back in Tennessee. The Tao flowed in mysterious ways. Hell, as long as she flowed with it even disasters seemed to turn into positives for her.
Soon they pulled up with all the other cars filed with returning students and their families. It was a red flag day so it looked perfectly normal on the outside until you saw someone carrying more bags than they should be able to. There was the usual collection of staff with clipboards with the dorm names on them signing people in. It would be nice to get back to Poe. Sure it was filled with “crazy” people but those showers… well and some of the crazies. They reached the front and they began unloading. Chou had her bag which held all her things while Molly had several suitcases and a few boxes. The dolly they brought should help with moving that.
Mrs. Harrington hugged and kissed both of them, holding Molly longer naturally. “Call if you need anything. We aren’t very far and can get here if either of you need us.”
“I’ll miss you Cuddlebug.”
“You will never be too old for your nickname sweetie.” With one last hug and kiss, Molly’s mom drove away waving out the window.
Chou smiled. The Harringtons were good people. “You have a great family Molly.”
“Well, they’re yours as well.”
The girls hugged and Chou whispered, “Thanks. Do you need a hand getting your stuff over to your room or getting set up?”
“Nah. I’m good. Lindsey and I talked about what we wanted to do with the room over the summer. We have a plan and are sticking to it. And honestly, do you want to be there when we unleash the Cute? Besides you need to discover who your new roommate is.” The mischievous grin was not helpful.
The room assignments had gone out towards the end of summer when she was still in China and it had apparently had gotten lost in the mail. She was fairly sure that her’s was the only one that happened to. Chou was going into this blind, just like last year when she had walked up to the school from Tennessee. She figured it was either the Tao having fun or Sun Wu Kong was playing again. She really hoped that there wouldn’t be another panty raid this year as she kept getting grief for something he had done for months. Even the Monkey Princess form had done little to assuage some people’s irritation.
The girls hugged, knowing they would be seeing each other again soon, after the Welcome to the School talk. Then it would be officially the beginnings of the new school year. Walking across campus was like a breath of fresh air. The familiar currents of chi that emanated from the dragon lines with the ripples from the students were a balm after her summer. Sure the first part was great, well… all but that one moment, but China… not so much. Thankfully she had gotten some time with Molly after all the debriefings, else she would have arrived here all wound up and that wouldn’t be good for anyone. Last year had taught her the value of stress relief.
She could see Poe in the distance as she neared. The building was changed some after the remodel was sort of forced on it. That was fine. If only other issues were so easily patched. She sighed. Would she ever truly get over losing her father? His body had been destroyed and his soul was in the hands of a Demon Lord. Even if she freed his soul he was gone. Some of the weight she was carrying lessened as she neared the building. In a way it was like coming home and that was nice. So much had happened here, both good and bad, but on the whole it was a place where she had found rest and healing after her father had been killed.
There were various people already there, including some of the Freshmen who had arrived yesterday. She smiled at some of the people she knew and headed over to the room assignment sheet. Might as well get this over with, she grumbled. She really, really hoped that she did not have to room with Crimson Comet again, because that girl was way too over the top. There was only so much of her that Chou could take at any one given time and thus rooming with her had been a nightmare.
Her eyes scanned the Sophomore list before she found her name. She blinked at the name that was there. Really? Was she really going to be her roommate? This was good. She could do this. As her tension dropped some more Chou began to smile. Yes… she could happily room with Kayda.
She headed up to the second floor and found her new room. This would be nice. The door was unlocked when she got there and she realized that she wasn’t the first one there. That would be okay. True, she couldn’t do much room reorganization without Kayda there to have a say, but she started tracking the Feng Shui of the room. While she was certainly no Winnie, she could shift things until it felt the best. Also, knowing Kayda’s energy like she did would make a preliminary arrangement fairly simple. After tossing her bag on one of the beds, the one that wasn’t already made, she grinned and got to work. If Kayda didn’t like it, things would be easier to arrange after the fact.
Once things were set in a way that had the room humming nicely, Chou started pulling things from her bag. She took the unclaimed desk and started unloading some of her stuff. She needed to grab her school laptop, because they wouldn’t let her take it with her to her Internship or China, something she had agreed with as the last thing she had wanted was to give anyone access to the school. Besides, Mrs. Horton might be happy to see her as she had a present for her from her time in China.
Once she had placed her sword stand atop her dresser and unloaded some of her clothes and gear into a closet and said dresser, Chou headed downstairs, humming to herself. Rooming with Kayda would be fun and might be less depressing than rooming alone or the nightmare that was her last roommate. Ayla had certainly spoiled her, in terms of roommates. That girl had all the good things in life. Well, maybe not musical taste but otherwise was pretty nice. She knocked on Mrs. Horton’s door and waited.
When the door opened, Mrs. Horton looked pleased to see her, “Hello Chou. Here for your laptop?”
“I am. I also brought you a gift from China,” pulling free from her bag a ceramic vase that the Immortals said was a lovely Ming vase they had acquired from somewhere. Chou really hadn’t asked for more details.
“You didn’t have to do that Chou.”
“I know, I just wanted to.” She smiled happily. Mrs. Horton was a great dorm mother and had been a great help in getting settled. “I was told that it is a Ming vase.”
Her Dorm mother blinked at her in surprise. “Thank you dear. Let me grab your laptop.”
Mrs. Horton walked off and returned with her laptop in hand. Chou smiled. This was so much easier than lugging school books around, not that carrying things around would bother her, especially given her bag. The fact that it had lots of space inside and barely any weight was lovely. Heading upstairs she wondered when Kayda was going to get in. It would be nice to see her. Their ‘rivalry’ had rather easily turned into friendship. Life was certainly funny.
Chou opened the door and smiled. Speak of the devil. “Kayda!”
Her roommate turned and smiled, “Chou. Good to see you.”
Chou could immediately tell something was wrong. Something in her chi wasn’t quite right. “Kayda… what’s bothering you?”
Kayda started. Looking at her a bit surprised. “Nothing.”
Something in the Tao was niggling at her so Chou pressed, “No really Kayda, the Tao is telling me that something is bothering you. Are you okay?”
“Fine,” she huffed slightly. “I got here yesterday.”
Chou looked at her in confusion, “And?”
“Because my brother is here.”
Chou moved quickly to the girl and hugged her. That would explain what she had felt. No wonder her roommate felt like she was in some turmoil. “I am so sorry Kayda. I know you wouldn’t want that for anyone.”
“Thanks. And what’s worse, is that he’s here in Poe.”
Chou tightened her hug. Now it all made sense. “How’s he doing?”
“How do you think?” snarked Kayda, pulling free of the hug.
“Sorry. Is there anything I can do?”
Kayda started to speak, then she got a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "Yeah, help me tease him to death!"
Chou's mouth dropped open, before she grinned. "Okay. How do we do that?"
"Nah, not really - I kind of had to promise Mom I wouldn't." Kayda shrugged. “But it would be nice. So how was your summer?”
Chou’s mood darkened. “Uhm… difficult. Can I tell you about it later?”
“Sure. But you do seem more chipper.”
Chou chuckled, “You could say that. Lots of things happened and I do feel better about life. We should have dinner together and talk about it.”
“What about Molly?”
“She is probably going to be eating with most of Wondercute tonight. We’ve spent a good bit of time together over the summer so some time apart won’t be bad.”
“Maybe. That could be nice. Check back with me later?”
“Sure. I can do that. Are the slight changes I made good?”
Kayda nodded as she looked around. “It does feel better in here.”
“Feng Shui is a good thing. I only wish I were as good as Winnie. She’s amazing at it.”
“Well, it is her power.” Kayda thought a moment. "Do you think we could talk her into helping arrange things? I'm willing to make it worth her time."
Chou smiled. "I'll ask her. I’m sure she won’t mind.”
“Too true. Well, I have a few places to drop by before the day is over so see you soon?”
Chou set down her bag on the bed and placed an ofuda on it, followed by placing Destiny’s Wave on a sword stand on her desk, also protecting it with an ofuda. Sure the sword could protect itself to a degree but better safe than sorry. With a quick wave to her roommate, she headed out. Feeling some nervous energy, Chou decided to do a few forms in order to burn some of that off. Besides, she had missed doing her Tai Chi on the front lawn of the dorm. And even though it was a Red Flag day, she knew she could do that because nothing super would show. It was something anyone could do. Chou headed down stairs, ready to relax.
More people arrived as she slid through her forms, feeling her calm and centering deepen. Her heart and mind felt calm, at peace. This was what she needed. As she stopped and exhaled slowly after reaching the end of her form, she realized she needed to head to the ranges and security to make sure all her insane changes over the summer were registered.
As she walked towards the range, wanting to get that out of the way first, she was wondering what insanity Caitlin would put her through this year. The training she had gotten in the last half of the year had pretty much ensured her survival in China. Her familiarity with firearms helped her more than once in that craziness as well as the tactics. Besides, letting Caitlin know how grateful she was would be a good thing. That girl was wound way too tight.
The walk was fairly peaceful, since most people were busy moving into their rooms at this point. There were still people moving about lugging their stuff but it wasn’t as congested as it could get. Chou smirked as a thought hit her that was kind of funny. Poe was there to protect the LGBT community but there were a few members of that community who were not in Poe and who made a good test for how the rest of campus dealt with them. She had endured some teasing and stuff. Molly had been getting grief until Wondercute took off and now she was sort of feared, more for the madness that she was a part of than anything else. She and Jade had really taken a lot of oddly powered people and turned them into an effective force that could be stopped but not easily. Chou felt like it was their creativity in combat and how they never stopped moving that did the trick.
She walked into the range and signed her gun into Range 2. She was okay not carrying it for the most part though the people who has issued it to her at the MCO had said that she should keep it handy. Maybe if Chief Delarose okayed it then it would be something she could do, but until then she had no interest in wearing a pistol openly. In her bag was paperwork that would allow for it but there was no way she wanted to go against the Chief. She didn’t want her image as a skilled baseline to go out the window because someone realized just how dangerous she actually was. If she could stay hand to hand that might just happen. Well, maybe not completely but it was a better plan than walking around armed all the time.
Chief Delarose should be in his office when she arrived. That meant that she could quickly go through things. Her new MID was the big thing but maybe she had already told him about that? With how busy her summer had been she couldn’t recall. She pushed into Security and the Desk Sergeant smiled at her, “A little early in the semester for getting in trouble isn’t it?”
Chou stuck her tongue out at the man. “I’m here to see the Chief.”
“Go on back. You know the way.”
Once at the office in question, Chou knocked on the doorframe. “In.”
Chou walked in and smiled at the man she had gotten to know pretty well over the last year thanks to a number of unfortunate issues. “Hey Chief, I just wanted to report in.”
Chief Delarose looked up at her. “Well, if it isn’t my favorite troublemaker. So you want to stay in the Auxiliaries?”
Nodding, Chou answered, “Sure. There are still Voodoo Wolves out there and other stuff, plus there is my new MID to take into consideration.”
“That’s right. You aren’t going to do anything I will have to worry about Junior Agent Lee?”
Chou groaned. “No. You know it was a reward for catching that robber and because I did well in my internship.”
Delarose chuckled. “That report still gets me laughing. What is it with you and villains all but running into you?”
“The Tao?” Chou offered.
Still chuckling he said, “That’s as good an answer as any. So, are you going to help with the MID brief and process this year?”
“Probably. I mostly did this to learn more about them but I’ve only met really nice people with honest concerns. There have been no MCO boogiemen that I’ve encountered.”
Sitting up straighter, Chief Delarose fixed her with a stare, “You do know that they will only let you see the darker parts of their organization after you are in and beholden to them.”
“Yes sir. I know that, but still, I get the feel that the MCO boogiemen are the anomaly. Maybe the inmates trying to run the asylum and that maybe some of the bosses are okay with that?” offered Chou. What she had felt while around the Boston MCO office had been odd and she wasn’t completely sure she had analyzed things correctly.
“Fair enough. That could be what is going on with them. Maybe their more extreme members are the actual problem and not the organization as a whole. I do hope with your presence here that they don’t try to sneak in an agent again. That’s never gone over well for them.”
“Well, I was clear that I had no intention on ratting out friends. They said that the changes to my MID were mostly to give me some authority when things occurred but that it wasn’t really all that much. I’m okay with that,” explained Chou. “Between that and my Boston sort of SWAT license I might have the power of a crossing guard.”
“Alright.” Chief Delarose sat back in his chair, chuckling. “You’ll get an email with your patrol schedule for the forest. And as always, if the Tao warns you of something, please let me know.”
“Yes sir. Can I get a pass to openly carry my firearm while on campus?” asked Chou.
“I wasn’t aware that you weren’t already doing that. Most kids lug around their hardware if they can, so they can be used to its presence. You only have a basic sidearm, right? Not an assault rifle, laser gun, or plasma rifle, or something?”
“Just a pistol with the varied loads, like the one a number of people have on campus. A USP CT.”
“That’s fine. Keep it on you and your status as Security Auxiliary should cover you. I’ll make a note in your file. Right… out. I have actual work to get done.”
Chou took off and headed back to Poe, after stopping to retrieve her side arm. She was hoping that more people would be there so she could talk to some people. She kind of wanted to smack Toni upside the head for messing with Oolong and kicking off the shitstorm that was the end of her China trip. However, she knew that smacking the girl was a lot harder than it should be. Superpowered Chi was just so wrong in so many ways.
She pondered what to have for dinner tonight, probably a pizza from the delivery service that Ayla let her know about. That would be good. Or maybe some Chinese. The thought turned her stomach a little. Maybe not. She needed some more time before she would be okay with eating that again. In a lot of ways she was simply glad to be walking about. If it hadn’t been for the Tao giving her greater access to its power she would have been a smear several times over. Thankfully, most of her training over the last semester had been in not relying on that power boost or she would have died easily.
Dyffud and Caitlin had been clear about the fact that it was better to be over trained than under. And that normal could be just as dangerous if not more so than powered individuals. That had been nearly literally beaten into her head but it was a good and valuable lesson. Now she was focused on moving at the right time, evading combat when she could, and de-escalation if she could manage it. The Tao gave her great power when it wanted her to have it. Destiny’s Wave had granted her a body at the peak of baselines and basic training in fighting arts, magic, herbalism, and more. But those skills and training were simply a start. If she was going to stop the Dark Man and his plot that was drawing ever closer, she really needed to gain more skill.
She was fairly certain that classes would still be good. She knew she was still going to be training with Kayda and Mr. Two Knives, in Martial Arts with Ito and Tolman, all the ‘normal classes’, plus training with Becca. It wouldn’t keep her out of trouble but it would help. Then there was training with her team, trying to arrange more training with Caitlin, patrols… yeah, maybe she would be kept busy. And whenever Dyffud returned that would get folded in as well. She was sure there would be some downtime, because she was positive that it would be needed. And if she couldn’t manage any then there was little doubt that Wukong would show in order to “calm” things. He was a pain in the ass like that.
Memories from her vision drifted through her mind. Visions of smoke, fire, and screams all throughout campus shook her. There was no doubt that this nightmare was the reason for her being here and she wasn’t sure if she could stop it but she was damn sure going to try. Chou closed her eyes and let go of those images. That wouldn’t help her right now. She knew she still had time to train and prepare for whatever the Dark Man was planning. What’s more she knew she couldn’t dwell on that or she would go insane. Apparently, that had happened to a few Handmaids because the weight of the future was too much to hold up under. From what she had gathered, that was part of what happened to Joan of Arc.
Non-Chinese Handmaids were a bit of a surprise but she really couldn’t be that surprised. If the sword could control the sharpness, then why not its own appearance? And really, China was not the center of the Universe. But the expanded history of the sword she had gotten had been mind blowing. Not a complete surprise but still. And with how badly Joan’s life had ended was it a surprise that the sword had all but vanished from history?
Yeah, that was something else she didn’t really need to dwell on. She knew what Molly was doing, probably talking with Lindsey and planning an emergency Wondercute meeting to watch some movie or other. She didn’t mind as she had spent plenty of time with her over the summer and had avoided death by cute. Dorjee on the other hand… Chou sighed. The relationship had ended well and they were still friends. The end of the semester had been rough and she hadn’t had an idea what to do. Thankfully he had been the honorable man she knew and backed out of things, saving their entire training group from the emotional upheaval that it had been heading towards.
So now what? She looked around the campus and decided to grab a few things from the store. While she had some décor in her bag, she knew that she would need a few more items to really make the room her home for the next year.
He growled inside when he saw the Handmaid. From his connections, he had heard she had gone back to China. Why hadn’t she had the good grace to stay there and not put the lives of innocent students at risk? Well, okay, not all of them were innocent but still. Her presence was a direct threat to everyone here at the school. He needed to stop her but he needed to find a way to do it that made him look the hero and not the villain.
There were a couple of fixers who owed him favors so maybe he could have them try to find out what she had been up to over the summer. That information might help him find the leverage he needed to drive her away. Or, if he were really lucky, he could find stuff that might enable him to sanction her without a mess. He had to plan. Nothing he had come up with last year had done anything except distract and annoy her. He really needed to up his game.
Kayda wasn’t in when she returned and that was ok. She had left a note for Ayla, checking in and asking about his summer. Chou knew there would be a clandestine meeting set up soon so all of Kimba and her could catch up and talk about the semester ahead. Part of her knew that leaving Kimba was a good idea, especially with the upcoming whatever but it was hard. They were all the first friends she had made here and she really did care for all of them. They had taken her in and had really helped with her healing.
Thankfully, interactions in classes were no big deal and she didn’t feel any danger from them. It was apparently just being on the team that was the issue. It would bring her too much notoriety and that was something she was trying to avoid. She shook her head, trying to clear it. At this rate all she would be doing would be dwelling on something she really could do nothing about, making her crazy. That was not an appealing thought. Meditation would be a good idea.
She got into position on the floor, making sure the cushions were set right and dropped into meditation. Her thoughts flowed, drifting away, and leaving only silence. It was calm, restful, just what she needed; simply flowing along with the current of the Tao.
Unfortunately, her thoughts caught on a thread that led her back to China, back to the last day, back to the chaos…
The ground shook and there was clearly a flare of something that felt familiar. Chou could tell that whatever set this earthquake off had to be Toni and groaned internally. What the hell had that girl done now? The chi signature was unmistakable. Everyone else around her was focused on their task and Chou worked to maintain that particular façade as she started trying to figure out what to do now. This whole situation made her sick and she was simply waiting for the right moment to act. It wasn’t quite yet but knowing Toni like she did; this situation would be the trigger.
Outside the room, Chou could hear some yelling between a few of the program leaders and one of the regular guests who Chou had figured out worked for the Government. “There are reports of American supers in the south causing havoc. Apparently one got into a fight with Oolong, hence the tremor.”
“What do we need to do?” The voice was tinged with worry.
“Have the students prepare and send their goodbye letters to their parents. We need to move them now to a safer facility.”
“Yes sir!” snapped one of the program leaders.
Crap! A safer facility might make this whole thing more problematic. Chou slipped a hand into her pants, getting a hold of one of the ofuda she had prepared. If this was going to happen then she needed to be ready.
The head of the program came into the room, all eyes drifting to him. “Comrades, students, there is a danger and we must move you to a safer facility. Please gather your belongings from your rooms and return here. When you return, leave the letters for your families on this table.”
The group stood and orderly moved from the room. Thinking quickly, Chou realized that her best bet would be when everyone had returned to the main hall with their things. That way retrieving their belongings would be a matter of moments rather than a production number. A lot of the kids had pictures of their parents and stuffed animals and such. She only hoped that the power in the ofuda worked on a few of the supers that were here.
Going into her room that she shared with three others, Chou packed her suitcase, taking that moment to slip her bag and Destiny’s Wave to an easier to access. The Government was holding what they thought was Destiny’s Wave somewhere in the building. They thought that without her blade that she would be less of an issue. It wasn’t the case but they certainly believed the lie. With the bag over her shoulder and her sword across her back she was as ready for this whole mess to go down as possible. Thankfully, the ofuda that would shift her clothes into her costume worked, having been tested at the end of the year. That had been the biggest issue before her being given the greenlight to take this mission. She also triggered the stone that would alert others that things were going south quickly and that extraction was needed. Once they had all returned to the main hall, suitcases stacked at one end and letters on a table in front of the school leaders Chou acted.
She snapped the sleep spell ofuda out of her pocket and onto the floor with a quick move of her wrist. As the spell flashed into active state, she triggered the uniform shifting ofuda. Her mask, the Robe of Midnight, bag, and Destiny’s Wave all shifted into place, ready to go before the bodies hit the floor. She scanned the room and then growled; it seemed that the spell had not affected the actual powered individuals. The two power armored users were down, so that was a good thing as she didn’t want to face that, but the others…. One of the program leaders was also up, so he was possibly also empowered. “Get HER!”
Of all the times to lament that this project was going after High School and College students, it was this. Only one of the powered individuals was in High School and she was currently asleep on the floor. There were a few Whateley Graduates in there as well as examples from across the powers board. This was going to suck. Destiny’s Wave was out and Bladedancer managed to deflect the thrown chair. It had been the nearest thing on for the Exemplar to throw at her. Having sparred against Hank, she wasn’t exactly worried as this guy was only an Exemplar 3 and from what she had seen, had almost negligible Martial Arts training. From what Bladedancer could tell Wall probably had just done classes for Bricks instead of branching out. That and it was clear that he was better on Defense than Offence.
Huo, the pyrokinetic, let loose with his power. Thankfully it was a controlled stream and thus able to be blocked with a chair kicked into the air, however using a power that could easily injure the others infuriated her. Bladedancer really wanted to smack him for that and would get around to it, when she managed to get close. Right now she had other priorities.
Wanting to protect the unconscious people, she made it out of the building and into the large open area. This should keep the others safe as she smacked down these others. Then once outside, before the supers managed to make it out after her, Bladedancer realized that she had a much larger problem as she spotted Chinese soldiers rushing about as well as a few busses pulling up for the students. Crap!
Not wanting to dwell on the fight, Chou exited the meditation and sighed. Yeah, up until that point the entire mission had been fairly safe for her. She had hoped that the ofuda would have taken out more of the students, due to the fact that the program had been weakening the wills of people with herbs and magic. She had known that people were rather susceptible thanks to that but unfortunately a number of the supers had not been affected. And Caitlin had shown her the dangers of regular soldiers so she hadn’t discounted them.
She stood and shook her limbs out, loosening herself up. A glance at the clock let her know she had been out for about 45 minutes. Not too bad. Despite what had gone through her head as she had drifted along, she did feel refreshed. And she was getting on the hungry side.
A quick trip to the bathroom later and as she was heading to the room, she spotted Kayda walking up the stairs. Chou grinned, “Kayda, just in time. We need to discuss what to eat.”
“I thought it was going to be at Crystal Hall?”
“Nah. I wanted to eat in tonight and that way we can talk without worrying about being overheard. So what do you want? My treat. The food delivery service Ayla told me about will be delivering.” Chou grinned. “And you can even bring your brother if you want. It would be nice to meet him.”
Kayda shook her head, “You say that now.”
Chou snerked, “Honestly, if he is worse than Toni’s older brother I’ll feed you for a month.”
Kayda seemed a bit shocked. “Toni has a brother?”
With a raised eyebrow, Chou replied, “Of course. What do you think, she hatched fully formed? Sun Wukong maybe but not Toni.”
Kayda sighed, “I didn’t mean that. I meant that she seems like an only child. I mean, she has far too much energy for any parent to deal with more than once.”
That got Chou laughing. “Fair enough. Her parents and younger sibs are really nice. Her older brother is a bit of a tool though. So, anyway, what do you want to eat?”
Kayda looked thoughtful for a moment, “There is this nice pizza place that we ordered from back home. Well, from where I’m living now.”
“We can do pizza. Do you want that or something from the best pizza place in New York?”
Kayda looked lost in thought. “Maybe the one from home. I have been feeling a bit out of sorts and that might help.”
Chou grinned, “Fair enough. Call in the order for whatever you want and order me a veggie pizza with extra mushrooms, green olives, and cheese.”
Kayda made a slight face while she picked up her phone and called the delivery service. Chou had no problem charging the fee. Kayda’s brother had declined eating with them and that was okay. Soon enough the two of them were sitting on the floor nomming away. Chou finished a piece and looked over at Kayda, “So how was your summer?”
With a frown, Kayda began her tale of her adventures. As things continued, Chou frowned more and more. Finally she couldn’t take it anymore, “Kayda, I know I might not have said it flat out, but are you aware that hunting demons and devils is something I do? I mean, I still go after the Voodoo Wolves and such with Security’s permission. It’s one of the reasons that I’m on the Security Auxiliaries still. It is one of the things the Handmaid is for.”
Kayda had the good grace to look surprised at that. “I don’t think you ever flat out said that. But really, Unhiguicillia is bad and has done some terrible things to people. His kids have taken over people and made them kill. I… I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
Chou blushed, “Yeah, my bad. I should have told you about my fighting those. I know you have been busy fighting all sorts of demonic like creatures and I have been waiting for you to ask for my help. I should have known better. If you want my help, just ask, please. Between Destiny’s Wave and the banishment spells I’ve been taught I can make a severe impact. And honestly, those various Class X beasties don’t affect me like they do other people, so my mind isn’t at risk because of them. Besides, we have been training together long enough to be able to maximize our skills. And I have worked with Kimba a lot, so I know how to work on a large and crazy team if needed.”
Kayda, feeling a bit cornered for some reason, changed the topic on a dime, “So, why aren’t you spending time with Chain Lightning tonight?”
Turning bright red, Chou looked away and said, “We sort of broke up.”
“You did?” This was news to Kayda.
“Yeah, he got ordained over the summer and thus he can’t really date anymore, what with actually being a monk right now.”
“He’s still going to classes though?”
“Yeah, apparently the monastery’s leadership wants him to have the full range of skills that Whateley can give him. From what I gathered, there aren’t a lot of schools of combat in the Buddhist monastic system outside of Shaolin.” Chou shrugged. “It hurt some but ultimately he was there to kind of hide what was going on with Molly and myself. At this point she and I don’t care, as pretty much everyone knows. Molly isn’t discreet about her feelings a lot of the time.”
With a snicker, Kayda added, “Well, the kiss ninja isn’t very ninja like.”
Chou smiled, “So very true.”
It was nice. Chou felt reconnected to the campus and the dragon lines that lay beneath. That was certainly going to be a help. She was going to be meeting Molly and friends at Crystal Hall for breakfast before the fun and games of school begun. Destiny’s Wave was safe, ready to be summoned to her along with her uniform if necessary. All she had with her was her bag, holding her laptop and other stuff, as well as her pistol holstered at the small of her back. All in all she looked like a regular school girl, not that looks could ever be accurate at this school.
After her summer, she was looking forward to seeing some of her friends. Some of the Wondercute girls did grate on her nerves, but there were others like Caitlin and Winnie who were less grating. That thought made her snicker. If Caitlin had heard that she would never hear the end of it. The Artificer took great pride in being annoying for the most part. She wasn’t as bad as she liked to believe herself to be, but there was also no way Chou would tell her that either. She didn’t need that kind of grief. Caitlin would take it as a personal challenge.
Classes were pretty much going to be par for the course. Since she had gotten a lot better with the ofuda, she was having to sit in on a magic class. Her combat studies were well and truly filled up, with Ito and Tolman, Caitlin, and Two Knives. Of course that would be added to when Dyffud showed back up. There was no telling when that would be. And of course Mrs. Stone would push her in the traditional Taoist arts. She was just hoping that her regular classwork wouldn’t suffer like it had last year. Though she had to admit, she was in a better headspace for classes at the moment compared to start of classes last year.
And classes went as classes usually did. The first day was always a mess of introductions, reconnections, explanations and such. None of it made her brain hurt, which was a happy making thing. Soon enough it was lunch and she got to see some of her favorite people. She waved at Kayda when she walked in and spotted Winnie sitting with Molly. It didn’t look like others from Wondercute were there so Chou had some hope for her sanity. Once she got her tray, she headed to where Molly was. Winnie was talking about how good her mother’s garden was growing as she walked up. The stutter was still there but not as bad as last year, as Winnie wasn’t as nervous about the fact that she stuttered.
Setting down her tray, she kissed her girlfriend on her cheek before sitting down. “Good night last night?”
Molly beamed at her. “Oh yes. We caught up. Watched some anime and talked about potential new members. Someone said that they saw a catboy near Poe. Would you happen to know anything about that?”
Thinking back to Kayda’s notion of screwing with her brother, Chou grinned widely before replying, “I might. Kayda’s brother is an avatar with a female cougar spirit, so does some form changing, but is definitely a cat boy.”
Molly’s eyes lit up and she hugged Chou tightly. “Thank you thank you thank you.”
Chou chuckled and turned to Winnie, “How was your summer?”
“G-good. M-my mmom’s garden is l-looking good.”
“That’s good to hear. I remember you showing us pictures of that garden last year. It looked amazing. Have any new ones?”
Winnie smiled happily and pulled up some photos, telling them about everything. Chou knew better than to mention that her stutter grew less when she was talking about the garden. It apparently made her really happy. Chou was glad for that. That made her realize that of the whole team, she was the only one without parents anymore. Dorjee didn’t really see his, but he got letters from them. Last she knew, they were proud of his achievements and his work for the Tibetan people.
“H-how was y-yours?”
“My summer?” asked Chou.
“Pretty good. I hung out with Molly at her house for the beginning of the summer. Then I had my internship with the MCO where they put me up in housing. That was different. It was so not like the dorms here. Had a villain break into my changing room while I was shopping. That was so not fun. He irritated me trying to take me hostage so I broke his wrist. Went to China, which was problematic then back with Molly. All in all a good time.” Chou glazed over a great deal she knew, but now was neither the time nor place to go into details. Winnie might freak over some of the details.
“M-m-mCO?” The stutter grew worse as her nerves increased.
“I told you about that before the school year ended, right? Apparently my skills, plus being a baseline technically made them want to make the offer. I told them that I had a lot of friends here and wouldn’t turn on any of them, and they said they understood. But despite that they still made me a Junior Officer, which was strange.”
Molly snickered, “You’re just collecting Law Enforcement titles.”
With a blush, Chou replied, “You know I’m not trying to do that.”
“True, but Boston, at least the SWAT department thinks of you as one of their own.”
Chou rolled her eyes, “Yeah, well…”
“Hello everyone.” said Dorjee as he set his tray down. “Did everyone have a good summer?”
“We were just taking about that. And look at you… nice threads,” commented Molly.
Seeing as he was in traditional looking Tibetan Monk Robes, Chou found that statement kind of funny. “Thank you Molly. It was decided that I was ready for ordination. I am very proud to have entered the monastic order.”
Winnie was looking at him oddly. “Y-you c-can still c-come here?”
Dorjee nodded. “Yes. The head of my order wants me to learn all I can while I am here. It is only two more years until I graduate and they are sending a brother to help with my spiritual training. I am very excited.”
“So still doing the whole Buddhist Monk superhero thing?” asked Chou curiously.
“Yes. I am not the first to do so which is some help.”
“There have been others?” Molly was rather surprised by that.
“Oh yes. They were one of the reasons we were able to resist the Chinese for so long. But once they brought their own supers with their army there was little that could be done. A few of them helped his Holiness escape to India. Now most of them work in secret to help our people in Tibet, while a few keep his Holiness safe,” explained Dorjee.
“Any idea what you’ll be doing?” asked Molly.
“Not yet. I shall find out in due time. Right now I need to deal with my Junior year. I won’t need college so I must make the most of this as possible.”
Chou grinned, “So are we all good with continuing to work together?”
Everyone nodded happily. Winnie seeming to be excited over the idea which was a surprise but apparently working with them had helped her self-esteem. Chou was glad that their team had “I still have to see if Caitlin wants to work with us, so that’s up in the air at the moment. But I’m sure I can work on trying to get us simulation time or even time in one of the training rooms.”
“A-any idea wh-when?” asked Winnie.
“Probably in a week or two at the earliest. I mean, we have to get back into the grind and the team tactics classes are going to be starting up.”
Molly grinned, “I found out that Winnie and I are in the same Survival class this year, so we should be working together on that.”
Before Chou had a chance to respond, this short girl with bright green eyes walked up to the table, stood there proudly, like they should know her, and asked, “So, I heard that I can get some really interesting training done with you all. My name’s Gillian Anderson, no relation.”
Everyone at the table stared at her, “What?”
“Well, I wanted to do more than simply be in the Underdogs so I asked around and I just got a nudge that you guys would be the ones to help me become all I can be. I’m a Finder.” She tossed her brown hair behind her.
This really hadn’t helped matters. The four of them all looked at each other in confusion before Chou said, “What?”
The girl sighed, set down her tray next to Winnie and sat. “I’m a Finder, I find things.”
Molly cocked her head, “Wait a minute, aren’t you on the first floor of Whitman?”
“No I’m here in the Crystal Hall,” countered Gillian.
Winnie giggled at that before Molly sighed, “I meant, aren’t you one of the Freshmen in Whitman?”
“Oh… well yes. I’m really excited to be here. I’m from Spring Hill, Tennessee and I’m a vlogger.”
Chou looked even more confused, “What?”
“Video blogging. Duh. I talk about a lot of my ships, especially my love of the Ryans. I really hope that they do a film together because I know that they are destined to be together.”
“Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Gosling. They would be so cute together.”
Chou rubbed her forehead. This girl was nearly as insane as Jade. “Wait, wait, wait… you want to join us so you can become the best superhero you can be despite having a non-combat mutation?”
“Yep. I’m not crazy hot so not an exemplar but I do retain my inherent fabulousness. Oh, here’s your hot fudge Sunday.” Gillian handed it over to Molly whose eyes went wide.
“I had been thinking about getting one. Thank you.”
“It’s a knack. When I pondered what I could do to get an in, that came to mind.” Gillian beamed at them all.
“Oh Chou, this is great, can we keep her?” Molly bounced excitedly in her seat.
Chou lowered her head into her hands and groaned, why her?
The very distinctive bark of the QBZ-95 filled the air as the guards were attempting to take her out. She had already gotten grazed by one of the bullets along her thigh, which burned. Using the Robe of Midnight, she blended into one of the shadows near the building and shifted to a different place, closer to the soldiers. She reached for the Tao, feeling it fill her some, which honestly was of great comfort at the moment. There was also something nudging her and that was disconcerting.
Leaping forward, Bladedancer was preparing to kill the nearest guardsman when Destiny’s Wave shifted and sliced the bullpup rifle in half followed by smacking him in the head with the sword, knocking him out. The next two soldiers had no shift in her attack, so she killed them, scooping up one of the rifles. A step into and out of the shadow allowed Bladedancer to flank the soldiers, who had been turning to face where she had been, before she opened fire. As they dropped, Huo and the others burst out of the building after her.
Dropping to a knee behind cover, Bladedancer unloaded her rifle into the group, aiming for the non-exemplars. Huo launched another gout of flame her direction and she rolled into the shadow, coming up behind another concrete barrier. The weapon she had was empty and so she tossed it aside. She needed to fix this before more soldiers were able to respond. She drew her service weapon and a clip of stun rounds, slamming the clip into place, then letting the bolt slam forward. Another shift through the shadows took her back into the building, and she drove Destiny’s Wave through the chest of the senior program leader. The look of pure surprise and then recognition faded along with his life. Bastard deserved it.
With a crouching spin, Bladedancer put three rounds into Sara, the Package Psychic, who had not expected to be involved in combat yet. That would help. The stun rounds weren’t the best but they were a help and honestly taking out the Package Psychic would make this whole mess easier. Rounds spacked off the wall near her head and she cursed. While some of the targets she wanted to take out were in the building it also worked to make the building a target and thus all the unconscious people targets. Her senses screamed and she dragged Sara along with her.
There was an explosion from where she had been standing but she wasn’t sure from what. Also everything ached from the strain of bringing another person through the shadows with her. The robe was not designed to work that way. It was supposed to be wearer only. “Come on Tao… please. I need more of a boost to get out of here alive.”
Gunfire was her only response.
Chou washed her face in cold water and looked in her eyes. The bathroom was empty this early. She did not need this crap. Why did she have to deal with some lunatic girl wanting to join a team that she was against but had been outvoted. Well, Winnie wasn’t necessarily a fan but Molly and Dorjee just sort of made things happen. There was no doubt that the team had helped her grow and stay alive but there was too much madness.
She scoffed. Madness. Right. She started last year with Jade and Toni as friends. There was no way that this collection of misfits could qualify when those two were running amuck. Jade was a study in Multiple Personality Disorder all on her own. That she made it work was actually rather terrifying. And Toni was beyond nuts. Sure Chi could do basically anything but Toni approached it like she was part of an Anime more than real life.
Granted she didn’t have a leg to stand on. She was the Handmaid of the Tao, something that scared people like Iron Dragon and now the Chinese Government. And if she was going to be honest, it scared her as well. Granted she was used to it by now and the people that she had met thanks to this insanity were pretty cool, but it was pretty scary. When the Tao told her to do something, or moved her to make it happen, that was unnerving at best. This was a touch beyond the whole “God is my Co-pilot” bumper sticker her dad had.
Once back in the room she got dressed. School waited for no calamity or crisis, especially not this school. Well, classes had paused after the invasion of the school on Halloween but that was about it. Chou chuckled mirthlessly. Man, this school sucked sometimes.
One her way to breakfast she ran into Molly, who she hugged and kissed good morning. Lindsay, Gillian, and Winnie were both there as well. “Morning everyone.”
Gillian looked very excited. “I can’t believe I am starting Superhero school. This is awesome.”
Winnie shook her head some. “S-s-supervillans as w-well.”
Gillian paused. “Wait, does this mean that superhero battles are like really violent class reunions?”
Molly chuckled while Chou rolled her eyes. Molly grinned and said, “You bet. A lot of people try to use their codenames all the time because they don’t want to have someone call out their name in the middle of a battle and embarrass them. I mean someone’s name isn’t as terrifying as some of the codenames people have.”
Lindsay nodded. “I sound so much tougher when people call me Dragonrider. Who would be afraid of Super Lindsay?”
Molly grinned at her roommate, “Anyone who met Pern.”
The girls laughed and the small dragon preened. Crystal Hall was up ahead. Breakfast would be nice and in some ways Chou was thinking about the fact that classes would be a chance to get away from these crazy people. It was bad enough that she had to deal with Molly and her whole Wondercute stuff, but if Gillian was just as bad she would basically have a constant migraine. And Dorjee was not nearly going to be as helpful as he was clearly outnumbered on their team. Man they needed another guy on their team, if only to temper Molly and Gillian, who were already thick as thieves. If under 24 hours was enough for this, by Christmas they might decide to take over the world. Then she blinked, had she heard that right? “What?”
Gillian smiled, “I had an idea for another person for the team. A speedster.”
Chou groaned. While it had been clear last year, it was becoming more obvious this one, that she really was just a figurehead on the team designed around her. “Who?”
“There was this boy at orientation who said he was a speedster but was more chill than the other two in the Freshman class. I thought he might be a good fit as he isn’t the kind of ADHD some speedsters are,” explained Gillian.
“How do you know about what kind of ADHD Speedsters are?” asked Molly.
“I read. I wanted to be really prepared for school and so I read a lot and watched a number of vlog posts. I am excited to be on this team because you aren’t as narrowly focused as some people. I think that makes us able to do almost anything.”
Migraines. There were definitely migraines in her future. She needed to talk to Doctor Bellows. “Right.”
Thankfully that argument was disrupted by the demands of breakfast. Thanks to how crazy this was going, she got a simple breakfast that would not sit too heavily in her stomach. And before she reached the table where Molly and company were sitting, Hu Chu Lan waved her over. The Tao was blessing her with a reprieve. As she headed towards where Silver Serpent was sitting, she caught Molly’s eye and made it clear where she was headed. Molly nodded and kept walking with the others
When she sat, Chu Lan asked, “How are you doing?”
Chou shrugged, “Not too bad. Molly found another special case to drag in.”
The girl smiled. “You’re the one dating her.”
“Fair enough.” Chou smiled briefly, “What’s up?”
“There is going to be a meeting of the Asian Students group this weekend. What you discovered over the summer is of concern to some people.”
“Fair enough. I take it your dad told you about that?” At the nod she continued, “I know the MCO, State Department, and the School are all on this but it wouldn’t hurt to talk to everyone else. I just hope China doesn’t try this again,” clarified Chou.
“Personally I am wondering if the Yama Dojo is doing something like that to get some of the new people from the states that don’t come here.”
Chou pondered that for a second. “Yeah, that would be bad. Anyway, how was the rest of your summer?”
She grinned mischievously, “Well, after my Dad intervened and read the Communists the riot act over that crazy program, it was pretty good. He has apparently taken some of your threats to heart and is trying to get better. Still ‘evil’ to most people but did spend more time with me, which was a nice change of pace.”
Chou frowned, thinking about her own father, wondering if she would ever see him again. “I’m glad.”
“Oh, and did you know that the Government had figured out who you are before my Dad talked to them?”
“They did?” This surprised Chou. Maybe it shouldn’t have because there were a lot of obvious markers for her identity, like Destiny’s Wave for one, but it did.
“They did. I was told to tell you that you have induced ‘pants wetting fear’ in some of the Party leadership.” Chu Lan grinned broadly.
Their conversation turned to more chatting about inconsequentials before it was time for classes. Despite the looming darkness and usual nonsense that this school dished out on a regular basis, Chou was actually looking forward to the start of her second year at Whateley.
“You have certainly come a long way Chou.” Becca Stone smiled and handed over a cup of herbal tea.
“Thank you Sifu. I’ve had a lot of help.”
“But you still did the work, some of which wasn’t very easy. Are you looking forward to continuing your training with Kayda?”
Chou smiled. “That would be great. She and Mister Two Knives really push me to try different things, which deepens my Art.”
“That’s what the hope was. Your skill pushes Kayda to become better and the use of the varying weapons certainly makes you work outside the sword, letting you connect to more of the Tai Chi. You have also expanded your magical and herbal skills past the basic information that Destiny’s Wave has given you. All in all you are doing well.”
“So what is the plan for this year?” Chou was interested to see where this would lead. Ms. Stone wasn’t combat trained so there were other teachers that could push her in those arenas, but the magical and healing arts that she taught were not really available from anyone else. Honestly, no one else in the school cast magic like she did, or healed in her fashion. Granted there were some amazing healers at the school and if she got good enough she might even be able to work in the clinic some. That was rather far removed from the killer that her training made her out to be.
“Well since you said that your Call will manifest within a year, I figured that we would work heavily on healing and magic, as well as to help you deepen your connection to the Tao. The deeper you can connect to the Tao the more likely that it won’t fail you at a crucial moment,” explained Becca.
“Well, my meditations have gotten deeper since China and I have been feeling better, more calm and centered.”
“Any idea why?”
Chou shrugged, “I don’t know. Maybe what happened in China was one of the things I needed to do before facing my Call?”
After some thought, Becca nodded, “I can see that. It makes me wonder what the connection is but if you can’t tell with the Tapestry there is no way I could know. Also, there are also some combat uses of the herbalism. You will be busy.”
“I’m okay with that. The last thing I want is to need a skill and not have it when things go down.”
“Has things gotten clearer as to what and when?”
Chou frowned. “No. Based on a lot of the threads leading into the hole, I think it is going to be here at the school, or at least involve a lot of the students. That doesn’t make me feel safe at all. And then there are a lot of threads that go into the hole but don’t come out. It’s going to be ugly. And there is still no lead as to who the Dark Man is. I feel so helpless.”
“All you can do is train and be ready for anything. That is definitely what Dyffud and I have been trying to teach you. I know a lot of the other instructors also emphasize that.” Becca took another sip of her tea.
Thinking about things, Chou sighed. Honestly, that made a lot of sense. It didn’t help a lot but there wasn’t like there was any other option. “Well, if that is the best I can do that is the best I can do.”
With a twist of her wrist, Bladedancer broke the vacuum that tried to hold the sword in her latest victim’s body. Yet another down. Two rounds of stun ammo dropped another couple of soldiers moving to flank her. When everything screamed danger, Bladedancer slipped through the shadows again, this time coming out behind Huo and she unloaded the rest of the magazine of stun ammo into the back of his head. The fire winked out as he was finally unconscious. The rest of the students were down.
Not seeing any other targets, Bladedancer slapped a sleep ofuda on Huo’s forehead, guaranteeing his sleep. She quickly reloaded her pistol, wanting to ensure that she still had rounds. Then she made sure to put out the fires Huo had started, some of which threatened a few of the other students. She just had to keep them safe until her extraction arrived. Reaching out with the Tao, she could tell she had a few minutes to spare so she dragged them all into the main hall, so that all the students were in the same area. That would make getting them out so much easier.
Rushing outside, she could hear the sound of approaching vehicles, some of them tracked. Fuck! Maybe that bastard had gotten a call out to State Security. Just what she needed, more grief.
Lightfoot Kung Fu let her reach the watchtower easily enough and binoculars showed that there were a few trucks and two APCs headed her way. Just fucking great. How the hell was she going to fight against Armored Personal Carriers? There were no RPGs here. Maybe if she could shadow walk close and take out the barrel of the main guns? That might help… maybe. Then an idea hit and she pulled out some blank ofuda and her brush. Caitlin was so going to kick her ass if she survived this for even thinking about doing something this dumb.
Destiny’s Wave asked worriedly, “What plan do you have?”
Grinning down at her sword, resting on the floor of the watchtower, Bladedancer snickered, “Don’t worry, it’ll be a blast.”
Once she had finished her writing, she moved closer to the vehicles, staying under cover. When close she slid through a shadow, leapt up to cut the barrel, and then spun as she dropped to cut the rear tread and axels. Bladedancer immediately slapped an ofuda on the hull and dove into the shadows. The explosion flipped the APC and the concussive wave slammed her forward as she came out, bits of wall peppering her body. Her uniform was mostly torn, and there were several spots leaking blood. Her head rung from the blast and two larger pieces of masonry clocked her upside the head but still she moved for cover, stumbling slightly.
As small arms fire, lit up where she had moved for cover, Bladedancer cursed, wiping some of the blood from her eyes. This was so not her day. Focusing was a lot harder than before. She was outclassed and going to die. Fuck. There was an herbal tincture in her bag and she rubbed it on her head wounds, hissing in pain. Where the hell was her extraction?
“So what exactly did you do with the MCO?” asked Dorjee, after classes.
The two of them were sitting on one of the benches near Crystal Hall. While people were moving about it was mostly calm. It was nice. Chou chuckled, “I learned the laws regarding Mutants, according to them. I also learned basic marksmanship, which I didn’t need as much help with. I got shown the life of an MCO agent for the most part. Oh, and there were also a few incidents.”
With a chuckle, Dorjee said, “Molly told me.”
Blushing, Chou groaned out, “I didn’t hit him hard enough.”
“He really busted in on you changing?”
“I was getting ready to try on a dress and so before I could put it on, boom, the walls fall and there is this idiot empowered thief staring at me.” Her face grew even redder when she said, “I was topless as well. I was this close to using the five fingered death touch!”
Dorjee started some, “Wait… do you actually know that?”
“Well no, but I would have learned just for that moment,” admitted Chou. She had blushed through most of her whole body when that wall came down. When the man leered she had taken her chance. The non-lethal punch to the throat started him coughing and then the real beat down commenced. Since the man had been too busy leering and thinking he had gotten a hostage, Chou’s fighting ability shifted the battle into her favor immediately. She had just been pleased that the man had not been an exemplar. That would have been much harder. And she had to admit, breaking the wrist of the hand that had briefly groped her had been nice.
“I am so glad that my summer was so much less interesting.” Dorjee was grinning from ear to ear.
“Well you got ordained. That had to be interesting.”
“Yes, but I’ve been working towards that my whole life. Apparently I needed to be ordained this summer instead of next. I have no idea why but it wasn’t like I was going to argue.” He gestured down to his robes, “So this is it clothing wise for me.”
Chou snickered, “But Buddhist robes are all the rage these days.”
“Yeah, right.” Dorjee nudged her playfully. “I am trying to find armored versions. That might at least be something.”
After a quiet moment, Chou said, “I like this.”
“The calm before the madness breaks out. I’m sure by this time tomorrow everyone will have their plots back up and running, the bullies will be going to town on the freshmen, all the posturing and nonsense will be back in full force, but right now… right now it’s nice.”
Dorjee gave her a quick hug before they went back to watching the students wandering the quad. Chou looked at her watch and sighed, “Well, gotta go. My first briefing for security is in fifteen minutes.”
“Yeah, right.” Chou waved as she walked towards the security office. She was sure she was going to get tasked with looking out for Voodoo Wolves, or any other thing that might come through the barrier and onto the school grounds. Walking through the woods was nice, even if she did occasionally get teamed up with an idiot.
Killing those otherworldly creatures was a good thing to do and she did enjoy the work. It made her feel like she was actually doing something with her powers. The reason for her call, this Dark Man, was still too vague to do anything with. She knew it was getting close but that wasn’t really all that helpful. She would have to spend more time in Penglai Shan in order to get a better idea of what she was heading into. The Tapestry would have some details and she could try to use the garden to better figure those aspects out. She was honestly not looking forward to that.
Thinking about all that craziness made her wish that Whateley was not so insane. There was so much jockeying for position amongst people that it was sad really. Chou just wanted to learn and hang out with friends, not get dragged into all sorts of plots and stupidity between groups. Leaving Team Kimba had been hard but in the end she was sure it was the correct decision. TK ended up in the spotlight without too much work and that really wasn’t where she wanted to be. She wanted to make it through school in one piece and then maybe find a way to save her dad. Given what had happened, she wasn’t sure if he could be saved or if all she could do was free his soul.
She shook her head to knock that train of thought out. That was something she didn’t need, going back to being as depressed as she was when she first got here. She had been reckless and foolhardy in many ways, putting a big target on her back. There were people she just should have steered clear of, but she had hurt so bad she made bad choices. At least she was trying to learn from them and move on. That was at least a little something in her favor.
The building was up ahead. She set her resolve. Time to get to work.
Chou was sitting on a zafuton, eating a few wasabi peas while she was going over her class schedule. She smiled at the laptop screen. She could definitely do this. It wasn’t as bad as she had feared. The door opened and in walked her roommate, looking a bit tired. “Kayda, rough day?”
“A bit. Life is crazy as usual.”
“Want to just sit and watch a movie?”
Kayda thought about the idea and nodded. “That could be fun. No dates, no little brother, just watching a film.”
Chou chuckled, “Social life burying you already?”
With a blush, Kayda replied, “A bit. Things have been crazy.”
“So you’ve said. I am sorry about that. Maybe relaxing is exactly what you need. We can have some tea and watch something funny.”
“I support this decision.”
Chou stood and started to heat a pot of water. “Want to use one of my tea blends or one of yours?”
“Yours please. Something different will be nice.”
“No problem.” Chou got out a tin of tea and filled the leaf reservoir. That should be enough for a nice pot for the two of them. “Popcorn?”
Kayda meanwhile was looking through the movies they had, looking for something suitably funny and ridiculous, something that would have nothing to do with either of their lives. They ended up with Night at the Museum.
Sitting back down with the teapot and a bowl of popcorn, Chou said, “So any idea if we’re going to be training with Mr. Two Knives again?”
With a slight nod, Kayda said, “That’s what I heard.”
“Any clue what he’s going to be teaching?”
Snorting in a very ladylike manner, Kayda rolled her eyes, “No, but when I saw him, he had the same kind of grin as the evil midget from BMA!”
Chou snickered at this, “So, more of the same but worse?”
“Well, I figure we’ll be okay. I mean, we made it through last year. Though from what I gathered from the Immortals, Guan Yu is going to be coming back to test us.”
Kayda groaned, “That’s just what we need.”
Chou snickered as the opening credits began rolling. Sure, testing with Guan Yu would be hard but that was okay. And honestly this friendship was much nicer than rooming alone. Also, Kayda was so much better a roommate than the Crimson Comet looney.
It was tough moving around with the volume of small arms fire pouring her way. She was going to have to do something about that before this firefight drew the attention of more than just the local soldiers. This place was far too close to Beijing for Bladedancer’s comfort. She spotted a place to move, slid through the shadows and let fly another explosive ofuda.
The whump of the ofuda let her know it struck true on the copula on the remaining APV, taking out the small cannon that was making things worse. Now there was just a hell of a lot of troops. Where the hell was her backup?
The sound of a light machinegun rattling off rounds into her cover made Bladedancer cower even more. If last year’s training had taught her anything it was that it was far too easy to get shot with this many troops and numerical advantages were hard to overcome. The Tao wasn’t filling her with enough power to make her bullet proof. Looking to the sky she spotted something moving against the clouds. She really, really hoped it was the Immortals and not some of the Chinese supers.
Her senses went haywire with danger and she rolled into the shadow just as the masonry exploded. Looking out from the building carefully, Bladedancer noticed that the wall had been hit with a rocket propelled grenade. This started the cursing. Why the hell had they brought a fucking RPG?
She spun about, Destiny’s Wave held ready and spotted Lan Caihe Ho. She sagged a bit in relief. “Thank the gods.”
“We’ll get the students out but you have to buy us the time to do so.”
Sighing, she nodded.
Bladedancer looked about and spotted an assault rifle she hadn’t used yet. Great. She sprinted over and snatched it up before looking outside again. Troops were moving closer, moving from cover to cover as they drew nearer to the main building. She needed a plan. Noticing that there seemed to be an officer and a radioman behind everyone, things fell into place.
Cutting through the radio was the first thing she did when she came out of the shadow nearest the two. Team Tactics had drilled into her the importance of communication on the battle field. The cut also took down the radioman and she continued it on into the officer. She was a touch surprised when Destiny’s Wave didn’t go through the person.
There was a feeling in the Tao that this officer needed to be alive for some reason. She quickly slid forward and hit a few nerve clusters, knocking him out. With a quick yank, she ensured that he was under cover before she opened fire on the exposed backs of the Chinese troops.
With fairly total surprise, the numerical advantage vanished. All the troops were down. Not all of them were dead but that was okay as far as she was concerned. She could kill if she needed to but she seriously was not a fan. She dropped the rifle as she walked back towards the building, no more sounds of fighting, just groans and screams from the wounded. She casually shot them with stun rounds to shut them up. Chou was tired and hungry and she still had to prep the building for destruction. She just wanted to go home.
Dr. Bellows smiled at her as she took a seat, “Thank you for coming in.”
Chou smiled back and settled herself comfortably into the chair. “I needed it. This summer was rough.”
“I read the report. The first part had to be stressful, while the second… how are you doing?” His concern was easy to hear and it warmed her heart. He had grown on her last year as therapy was certainly something she had needed. Like most people she had thought that therapy was about being crazy rather than about working through problem.
“I am still having a few nightmares about China. It was far worse than I had expected. Drugging and using magic on kids to brainwash them into leaving the US was so terrifying. Playing along with everything was not easy. And things are already off to the usual here so I wanted to get started early,” explained Chou.
“That makes sense. You were in a messy situation ending in a huge battle and that can mess with anyone. There are few people who wouldn’t be affected. I am glad that it hasn’t made your PTSD a good bit worse.”
“I think the counseling I got right afterwards really helped. The way the debriefings were set up allowed me to go through things and get some of it worked out. They incorporated the therapy right into the debrief. And Sun Wu Kong wouldn’t leave me alone.”
He made a small notation while chuckling over the last bit. “That is good to hear. I’m sure that he helped. Maybe we should do that for students who get into messy situations during the school year?”
“Couldn’t hurt.” Chou shrugged. “I just know how helpful it was for me.”
“Anything new in your nightmares?”
With a small shake of her head, Chou replied, “No. The ones I have are still more about the Dark Man than China. But that fight still shows occasionally. I’ll be glad when I get over this.”
“Remember Chou, with PTSD, it is more that you can get the symptoms to fade more than get over things,” commented Dr. Bellows.
“That’s true. It’s just… the very end of that fight was worse than any of the other fights I have gotten into. It felt like it went on forever.”
Dr. Bellows nodded, “Why don’t you tell me about it?”
“Okay. After I had gotten all the soldiers down and the Immortals were getting the students out, I laid out the ofuda that were going to destroy the building and then that was when things got worse…
Chou held the QBZ loosely, scanning the area. The extraction was going well but it still would be a bit longer. There was a roaring sound in the distance that was nearing and Chou turned to face it. There was someone in a powered suit heading their way. Shit!
“Student, put down your weapon and surrender. This is your only warning.”
As the figure drew nearer, Chou recognized them from her briefing before she had arrived. The CIA had been very clear at possible ‘complications’ and this certainly qualified. It was one of the state supers, the Fist of Heaven. Granted it was a pompous as hell name but that armor was really powerful and the pilot skilled. And what was worse he was part of a team stationed in Beijing that was extremely balanced. More fun. Bladedancer sighed, centered herself and prepared for a fight. She bounded down from the watchtower, making sure she was in a good area to fight in.
The armored form landed heavily, the ground thudding at impact, weapons at the ready. “Yield!”
Given how tired she was, how much her head hurt, how the slow blood loss over this whole event had been draining her of energy she was very tempted to give up. If she drew it out long enough she might even buy the Immortals more time to get the last of the students out. When more of the Tao filled her, options changed. Bladedancer smiled and replied with an irritatingly perky, “No.”
Fist of Heaven clearly hadn’t been joking about giving her one chance. Fighting Chaka was the reason she was able to dance through the missiles fired at her. The Tao was flowing through her, not full out but enough to augment her making her a bit faster and stronger. As she was almost to him she realized he was making a mistake most people made when they first fought her. He trusted his armor to hold up under the sword. Unless you knew Destiny’s Wave on sight or knew about some of her fights, there was no way he would believe that it could cut through his armor. She sent up a small prayer that this person was underestimating her.
When she was on top of him she swung Destiny’s Wave and the idiot prepared to block with his right forearm. That worked for her. There seemed to be mini missiles in that gauntlet that were rather fast. It went through the powered armor like a hot knife through butter, the protection not doing anything to slow the blade down. The scream as Fist of Heaven blasted his way backwards was a touch satisfying.
The energy blaster in his left gauntlet rose and fired. Trusting the sword that had utterly changed her life, she deflected the blast into one of the trucks. She couldn’t help but grin maniacally at the disbelief filled yell of “What! How!”
The problem was that he was now aware that her sword was dangerous and was attacking her from range, making her dance around attacks or deflect them. A shot towards her feet made her tumble through the air briefly before she righted herself. A quick glance at her surroundings spotted a low flying jet heading her way. Fuck, Fist of Heaven had backup.
While he was a distance away, he was making sure to stay out of sword range but not outside of another attack, something she hoped he wouldn’t expect. The ofuda slapped into his forehead before exploding. Bladedancer had pushed as much chi as she could into the spell sheet before letting it fly and when he slammed bonelessly into the ground she was very pleased. However, figures were dropping from the sky. Fist of Heaven had bought the time for the rest of his team to arrive.
Something burned through her left shoulder before the rifle report sounded. That’s right they had a stupid fucking sniper. Thank the Tao for the Grunts. Fighting against Deadeye was going to be so helpful in the here and now. The warm wet of blood dripped down her arm. If it had been her right arm this could have been worse as she might have lost the best weapon at her disposal. Her swordwork was not as good left handed. As she dove for cover another shot rang out but this one missed, spacking off the ground. That had apparently been enough for the rest of the team to land and start moving into combat position.
When Bladedancer spotted the pair of Fu dogs, she groaned. If the reports she had gotten were accurate, this summoning proved that the primary hero team for China was here. They were good. Really good. Not always able to stop Iron Dragon good, but close. This was so not her day. “Gods fucking damnit Chaka! Did you have to kick this shit off?”
Reaching into her bag, she pulled free a smoke grenade. That would help with the sniper as she knew the Robe of Midnight would keep her clear of infrared scopes. So long as he didn’t have some sort of crazy deviser scope she could do this. One of the Fu Dogs came around her cover but got a sword in its face for its troubles. This was going downhill rapidly. As panic was starting to rise she whispered out a heartfelt, “Please… please help.”
As the wave of power rushed over her, pulling her under the vast current of energy she was tied to the Handmaid of the Tao stood and faced her opponents. She was needed elsewhere and when and they were in the way. Her body almost crackled with the power going through her. Something thumped into her chest, forcing her to take a step back just as the other Fu Dog reached her. Destiny’s Wave flashed out and the dog vanished before its severed head had a chance to hit the ground. She stepped towards the team arrayed before her.
They shifted formation, apparently catching on that something vital had changed. The summoner started chanting, no doubt bringing something else forth to attack her. Her arm snapped out and the speedster clotheslined himself, flipping through the air before slamming into a wall head first. He didn’t move. Ice covered her legs, thickening by the second, slowing her forward movement. Something solid hit her in the forehead, snapping it backwards. The ground erupted around her, flinging her into the air.
The Handmaid flipped over, landing on her feet, Destiny’s Wave lashed out and catching a bullet, deflecting it into the speedster. A man closed with her, his own Dao sword slashing at her stomach. The metal blade rang against jade, each strike blocked as they moved through a martial dance. A frown settled over the Handmaid, as her left hand lashed out but the nerve strikes did not work. The man spun away scowling, recentering his blade.
“Handmaid! It’s time to go!” The voice cut through the din.
Ignoring the call, she flowed towards the swordsman, intent of dropping him. The attempted deflection of Destiny’s Wave did not go as planned, slicing through the blade and catching the barest top of his opposite bicep. He dodged several more strikes, weaving through her attacks before the pommel strike at the man’s temple dropped him like a stone. Her eyes moved up searching for her next target.
The summoner was still chanting and as she walked through the smoke towards the voice another shot rang out, smacking her in the side of the head. With a flick of the wrist an ofuda sped that way, lightning flashing on impact. A blast of sharpened ice flew her way to be deflected by Destiny’s Wave she realized that her distraction from the chanting voice had been just a moment too long.
As the summoner dropped to a knee, gasping loudly, the air rippled just before a dragon moved into existence. The Handmaid faced it calmly, blade at the ready. Reaching into her robes, she pulled forth her pistol, shooting the summoner twice with stun rounds, ignoring the ice spear that shattered on her abdomen. When the dragon did not disappear, she lifted an eyebrow. The woman was far more powerful than she had expected if the summoned creature to continue past the summoner dropping.
The dragon roared at her, sinuously weaving towards her.
“Fuck it!” Something snatched the Handmaid about the waist and they started speeding through the air. Sun Wu Kong growled out, “Damnit Chou, we do not have the time for you to fight a damn dragon!”
“I…” At that the flow of the Tao receded and she slumped into the Monkey King’s arms.
“…and the next thing I knew I woke up on a Navy ship near Taiwan.”
Dr. Bellows nodded, making a few more notes, “The CIA report that accompanied the other notes show that you killed at least two of those supers. Are you okay?”
Chou sighed and nodded, “Honestly, if Caitlin hadn’t pushed me so hard last year I wouldn’t have been. I don’t like killing but I am not stupid enough to believe that it isn’t the only option occasionally. She drove that into my head enough.”
“And you know how that will make you look to the public?”
“Living to get grief from the public is the aim. Caitlin said it was the enemy’s job to die for their cause, not me.” Chou shrugged.
“She is rather pragmatic about that. Some people never really get that.”
With a snort, Chou responded, “Like I have been given that option. I’ve had a steep learning curve.”
“Very true. But you have a good support system in place with a number of people who care for you.”
“I am very grateful for that. I’m not sure I would have made it this far without them.”
As Molly went down the ladder, Chou closed the hatch, ensuring their privacy. She had managed to catch a window of time where the hot tub grotto would be unoccupied. Molly didn’t even blink when told where and when to show, looking more pleased than anything else. In fact she was already disrobing as Chou made her way down the ladder, wasting no time at all.
While Chou took off her clothes, Molly slipped into the hot water and sighed happily. “This is lovely. I am so glad you found that opening.”
“What can I say, the Tao provides.”
Molly folded her hands together in prayer and looked to the ceiling, “Thank you Tao.”
Chou snickered as she lowered herself into the water. Once she was settled, Molly asked, “Is everything okay? You’ve seemed stressed the last day or so.”
“Flashbacks to China mostly.”
Molly scooted over to her girlfriend and gave her a hug. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“At least I saved 47 kids and shut down that program.” There wasn’t a lot of emotion in her words, more a statement of fact.
“That’s far more important than the fact that you had to kill some people. You were a wicked awesome one woman rescue squad. It was like going through and winning a Crash all on your own. I get why it still bothers you but try to focus on the good that you did. There are a lot of families that are whole thanks to you.” This was followed by a soft kiss.
“You’re right, but I didn’t want that fight to happen.”
“Who does? Well, maybe some of the old Alphas and some of the Supervillains and some of the extremists out there but most normal people wouldn’t want to do that.” She turned to face Chou, eyes hungry. “Now do we want to talk about how stressed you are or get to work de-stressing you?”
Chou chuckled, “Oh my God Molly, you are so cheesy.”
With a faint harrumph, Molly retorted, “So what you are saying is that you don’t want to make out with your girlfriend in a romantic hot tub grotto?”
“Uhm… I didn’t say that.” Her face warmed with her blush.
After leaning in and giving her a kiss Molly said, “Good. This time slot wasn’t large so let’s get to smooching!”
They came together, kissing each other with emotion first before passion ignited in them. The water jostled more as their lips moved over check, necks, shoulders. Molly’s hands cupped Chou’s breasts and moved around them. Chou leaned her head back and groaned, “I love you.”
Molly kissed her way back to Chou’s lips, murmuring against them, “I love you, now and forever.”
“Now and forever.”
Chou looked over the framed picture of the spring vacation she had spent with two of the Immortals and Sun Wu Kong looking like the Monkey Princess. It had been taken at EuroDisney, all four of them wearing mouse ears, grinning like fools. While it wasn’t her father they had become a rather dysfunctional family of sorts over the past year. She had lost her father but she had gained so much more than she ever thought she would. Her heart was filled with love thanks to Team Kimba, Molly and the Harringtons, Kayda, Dorjee, Winnie, Becca, Dyffud, the Immortals, and even the idiot Monkey King. Guan Yu was even a sort of grumpy uncle. It took a while but thankfully that love and caring had cut through her pain.
There was a calm in her that she hadn’t had since her mother died. While her trip to the school had gotten her over some of the pain of her father’s death it had taken her longer than she had thought to get to a point where she was okay with being an orphan, with him being gone. She would free her father’s soul from the Demon Lord of the Hell of Fiery Immersion, allowing him to be fully set to rest when she was able to after facing her Call. It would hurt and she would cry but she knew it was for the best. There was simply no way to return him to life.
She chuckled. In the year she had been Chou Lee so much of her life had changed so dramatically. Back when she had been Alex there had been a lot of daydreaming of his future. Nothing in her life reflected those dreams, except for having found love. Life sucked at times but if she just trusted to the Tao she would get where she needed to.
With a sigh, she grabbed the picture of her father and Alex, looking down at her past. Memories both good and ill flashed through her mind. Wonderful times spent together, growing tighter after her mother’s passing. She was sure that he would tease her over her transformation and more so, be very proud of all she had done so far. With a kiss, she said her goodbyes and set it down.