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Disclaimer

This is a work of fiction. There should be no way that these characters are like anyone else, but if that isn’t the case, it has definitely been unintentional. The pictures used are those of Ziyi Zhang, used without express permission. Quotes from the Tao Te Ching are from the Stephen Mitchell translation. Also, if you happen to find that your life is represented in these pages, I’ll be impressed.

Aftermath

By Heather O’Malley

assisted by the rest of the Whateley Gang

Whateley Academy Universe

When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you - Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8

Friday, 15 December 2006

Chou stared up at the ceiling of her room and tried to calm down. She was still upset with what the Immortals did to her. She understood that sometimes people had to die and that death was not as final as she used to think, but to lie to her like that. That still upset her.

The room was quite a bit quieter without Ayla and lonelier. Ayla had been a great roommate, with the exception of Brass Monkey. The two of them had talked a lot and Chou knew more about the Goodkinds than she really wanted. Ayla also know all about her life before the sword. Besides Molly, Ayla knew more about her than any of her teammates.

She missed Ayla. She didn’t miss seeing her naked or waking up with her in the bed but she missed the conversation. That and Ayla really did have a nice stereo.

Chou turned and looked at Destiny’s Wave sitting in its stand on her desk. It all began with the sword. She wondered what would have happened if she had chosen any of the other items? Would her life be different? Would her father be alive?

She frowned again. In a way her father was alive. The Demon Lord of Fiery Immersion had him. What was happening to him she really had no clue. He could be undergoing torture as far as she knew. She was aware that she had gotten stronger and that her connection to the Tao was greater but was she strong enough to fight the demon?

The not knowing was the hard part. She beat Nex, not easily but thoroughly. The Voodoo Wolves had been a challenge but not like her fight with the Demon Lord. He had batted her with ease. She was supposed to be able to defeat even Gods, so why couldn’t she beat the Demon Lord?

She looked over at the sword again. Destiny’s Wave was good for advice and this might be something she could deal with. And what should Chou do about Caitlin?

The Artificer was potentially in danger and a danger to those around her. That couldn’t be argued with, but there was no urge from the Tao to kill. There was, however, an urge to protect her similar to the urge she felt about Sara.

Her life had gotten far too complicated. She was a transformed fourteen year old boy for Christ’s sake. What business did she have dealing with issues like this? High School and hormones were confusing enough.

Chou shook her head slowly. What were her old friends doing now? Almost halfway through their Freshman year. She would never know as they would never know her, or believe her. So much had changed. What did she even have in common with them any more? As if any of her old friends meditated, did Tai Chi, or even hung out with girls this amazingly hot.

Before this he had been a social pariah and only hung out with others of his ilk. Now, she was friends with some incredibly hot women. Well, hot fourteen and fifteen year olds. And she was considered hot as well. Being attractive was almost as tough to deal with as everything else.

There was a knock at the door. Chou rolled onto her stomach, which didn’t hurt as much as before and looked at it. Ayla’s voice called out, “Chou, dinner time.”

“Coming.” She kipped to her feet, grabbed her jacket and sword. She hustled out of her room and caught up to Ayla. “Ayla, can I talk to you real quick?”

Ayla nodded and slowed down, allowing the other Kimba girls to pull away. She glanced over at the Asian girl who was biting her lip nervously. “What’s wrong?”

“I…I am having a problem with my mentor, sponsors and well…just life in general.” replied Chou.

Ayla nodded again, knowing a lot of what Bladedancer was dealing with. Both of them wanted to get back to being boys and neither was happy with the situation they found themselves thrust into. “So you’re upset with them over something?”

“Yeah. I caught them lying to me. I don’t quite know how to deal with that. I mean, look at you Ayla, how do you deal with all of this?”

“That was kind of an abrupt subject change. That was almost as bad as Jade. How do I deal with all of this? What else can I do? Like I've said a few hundred times, Goodkinds don't complain, we fix problems. It’s not easy, but I keep busy, especially trying to find a way back. Having friends helps. You have been opening up more in the last two weeks, which has been nice. That should help. And aren’t you going with Toni to her house for Christmas?” Ayla smiled gently at her.

“Yeah. That should be fun and just a bit odd. Do you think Toni is the kind to get up early at Christmas?” They both laughed at the idea of Toni getting even bouncier for Christmas.

“Come on Chou, we can catch up. As for your mentor, have you told her how you feel?” The two of them were walking faster now, trying to catch up with the other girls.

“I did, but it doesn’t change the way I feel.” Chou frowned as the pain of the betrayal hit her again. “I just can’t forget it.”

“Don’t forget but let it go at the moment. That may be the best you can do right now. A Jewish friend of mine - well, a Jewish friend Trevor had - used to say 'forgive, but never forget'.  Of course, that's a lot easier to say than to do.”

“Thank you.” Chou hugged Ayla tight. She looked up at Ayla and gave her the puppy dog eyes that she had been practicing, getting tips from Jade. The technique was far harder than it looked. “Are you sure you can’t stay in the room?”

Ayla threw her hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay. Holy crow, its like you’ve been taking lessons from Jade or something. Okay, I’ll let the school know that if I don’t have a problem through Winter Break, I’ll come back. Is that okay?”

Chou hugged her again and nodded. Ayla smiled and said, “Now let’s go eat. I was told that Chef Marcel has a special treat made and I got him to prepare you a plate as well. Share the dessert with Molly. I’m sure that will make her happy.”

Chou smiled as they headed off for dinner.

The food was as good as Ayla had mentioned. Chou had gotten a few meals from the Chefs and they had all been incredible. Molly’s eyelids fluttered wonderfully as she had eaten a couple of the spoonfuls of chocolate Mouse, which made Chou happy.

Things were actually going well between the two of them. All the misunderstandings that had happened had gotten resolved. Chou told her almost everything, except for the murder. What could she say about that? How could she really explain it?

The whole table was just chatting happily about all sorts of inconsequential things, which was a nice change from the usual things that were discussed. Chou suddenly felt a pull from the Tao. She closed her eyes and sighed. Toni caught the look and asked, “The Tao?”

“The Tao. Sorry guys, I gotta go. I will see you all back at Poe as soon as I can get this taken care of.” She hugged Molly and headed out of Crystal Hall.

Ayla chimed back with, “Don’t forget the meeting!”

The tug was pulling her towards Eastman. It didn’t feel like Becca, so Chou was at a loss as to why she would be headed there. When she entered the dojo area she stopped in the doorway as Sensei Ito was going through a kata.

It was mesmerizing how one move flowed naturally into the next. It was beautiful. She had never seen anyone move like that, not Toni, not Becca, no one. It was as if everything occurred in one slow controlled breath. If only she could move like that.

Once the kata was finished the teacher turned and looked over at Chou. “Can I help you Miss Lee?”

“I…uhm…I’m not sure. Is there anything I can do for you?” Chou blushed as she asked that. It felt odd asking Sensei Ito if he needed any help from her.

He smiled politely at her and began to walk towards her saying, “I suppose, as you are here and there is no class to work with. Could you perhaps answer a question for me?”

She nodded, still blushing.

“I have noticed that you seem troubled. Not as bad as you were around Thanksgiving but still not centered. Is it something you can talk about?” He stopped in front of her, still on the practice floor.

Chou bit her lip, worried. She was sure that she could tell Sensei Ito what was going on, but what would he do? Should she really say everything? She knew that Ito was wise and had a great deal more experience than her but was she really willing to take that risk? “I have had to do something that I thought was wrong and I am still trying to deal with it.”

Sensei Ito stood there quietly for a bit, obviously thinking. Finally he broke the silence and asked, “Does this have to do with being the Handmaid?”

Chou nodded.

“And you cannot talk to your Mentor about this matter?”

She nodded.

“Would you like some tea?” Chou blinked in surprise. Tea?

She followed Sensei Ito into the office. He immediately began to busy himself with making the tea. Chou made herself comfortable, or at least as comfortable as she could be in a teacher’s office. After a few minutes he handed her a decorated Japanese teacup and the two drank. The quiet was nice and it helped Chou to relax even more. Finally Sensei Ito sat down his mug and looked right at her. It definitely felt like he was looking at more than just her body. “What can I do for you Handmaid?”

Chou swallowed heavily. It was now or never. “I…I killed some one.”

Sensei Ito’s gaze intensified. Chou could see him inhale and slowly exhale a few times. “To my understanding you have killed a number of creatures, specifically various demonic beings.”

“It…wasn’t a demon, it was a….”

“Chou, I am neither a priest nor a lawyer so I would have to inform Security and Ms. Carson if you have broken any laws, so shall we assume that this was a demon of some sort?” Ito knew what was really being spoken of but he wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt in this matter. If she never said it then he would not have to turn her in.

Chou was surprised and worried at his sudden interruption. Was this really a good idea after all? Maybe if she spoke around the idea…? Maybe she should have done that in the first place? “Uhm…sure.”

Ito nodded and relaxed some. “And you feel guilty about this action?”

“Yes.”

“That happens the first time something of this nature occurs. However, if it was the will of the Tao…” Ito let his words die off, hoping Chou would catch his implied meaning.

“It was the will of the Tao but I was raised knowing that something like this was wrong. Kwan Yin helped a lot with this but it still upsets me.”

“I am glad to hear that. That…action is not something you should not care about. That you care is good and a sign that you can be trusted with the power you wield.”

“So being upset is good?” asked Chou, rather surprised by the statement. How could that possibly be what Sensei Ito was saying?

“Yes. If the action is the will of the Tao, the so be it. Feel bad about it but do not let it paralyze you in the present. Life is filled with death and death is not an ending. It is simply a moving on to the next phase of existence. Trust to that. Does that help any?” Sensei Ito was trying to say what needed to be said without stating the obvious. If she had killed someone at the will of the Tao who was he to try and counter it. He could only fight the battles presented.

Chou sighed. “It helps. I was raised to be a good Christian and have been thrust into Taoism because of all of this. My faith was shaken utterly at the same time my body was changed utterly. That gives me issues when the different beliefs conflict, which the seem to do a lot.”

Sensei Ito nodded, staring down into his tea. “I do not envy what you have gone through. It is like you are being pulled by many different worlds and that cannot help but hurt. The only advice I can offer is to breathe and always strive to stay centered in yourself.”

“Thank you Sensei. That really does help. Oh…another thing. How can you move like that? That form was beautiful, like it was one fluid move. I wish I could move like that.” Chou looked in his eyes shyly and shrugged.

“Thank you. It is merely the result of long practice and moving from the truth of myself. Both are needed to fully make the Art part of who you are.” Ito bowed in response to the compliment. “This is something you can learn.”

Chou smiled, clearly at a loss. How could she learn that? “If only I knew that. I really am not sure who I am any more. Thank you Sensei for the tea and the talk.”

Ito returned the bow Chou gave him as she rose to her feet. “Thank you again. I will see you in class. Have a good night Miss Lee.”

Chou bowed again and headed out. Her heels squeaked on the floor. The lightweight sneakers were not all that sneaky.

When Sensei Ito was fairly sure that Chou had left he closed the office door and grabbed the telephone. It was clear that the girl needed some guidance and that she wasn’t getting what she needed from either him or Tolman Sensei. That girl wielded so much power but had no idea who she really was. The idea that Bladedancer might have a psychological breakdown was a real possibility. She had done it once and it might happen again. And if she were wielding much of the power…?

He called the number from memory, waiting for the voice mail to pick up. He was ready when the beep came. This really could be the only way to help Chou get past some problems. “Hello Dyffud, if it is possible, could you please come back to the school for a short while. I have a student who needs your help. There are a few others who might benefit from your presence as well. I will hopefully see you soon.”

Out in the hall, Chou pulled on her jacket, leaning Destiny’s Wave against the wall. The sword spoke up, “Chou, you are aware that this is something I can help you with. I have helped hundreds of girls in their trials as wielder of Tao. I can help you through this.”

Chou sighed and zipped up the jacket. “I know and I plan on getting your opinion as well. Part of the problem is that I have been resenting the hell out of you. You are the one who did this to me and thrust me into a world where I feel utterly out of place. I am still coming to terms with that. Kwan Yin helped a great deal but it will still take time.”

The sword had no answer for that.

Chou picked up the sword and stepped outside into the cold. She was eternally glad that the Tao taught her how not to be cold. Since all she had was the one lightweight jacket it really was a good thing. Maybe she should have let Ayla buy her some stuff? She had some of the money needed for some of the things her roomie…or ex-roomie mentioned.

The issue really wasn’t money, as the Immortals had ensured that the school had enough gold and gems to make her draft account huge. But what to buy was always difficult. Shopping as a girl was odd and she still felt like an interloper in the stores. The first salon hadn’t been that bad but when all those women were coming in and out of the changing rooms in various stages of undress it made her feel…like a lecher.

Ayla and Nikki had offered to take her shopping and Tennyo recommended her seamstress but it all came down to the fact that she had no clue about these clothes.

Right now she had a great deal tied into having presents made for her friends. She really hoped that they would like them. Ayla’s phase proof nightgown might help the girl move back in. It couldn’t be fun sleeping in that extra room coming back to get clothes and stuff. Maybe they both had simply freaked out?

A familiar ripple in the Tao took her out of her thoughts. When she figured out who it was she sighed in frustration and quickly slipped in the earplugs Bunny had designed. She really didn’t need this right now. Ayla was going to be starting the meeting in about thirty or forty minutes.

Dressed in a suit of winter urban camouflage, Thunderdrake stepped around the corner with his palms up. “I come in peace.”

Chou just stared at him, not moving but utterly ready to fight.

Thunderdrake bowed formally. His words were tight with frustration. It was obvious that he would rather have been anywhere else on the planet. “Bladedancer, I am here to formally invite you to visit the Dragons. The Master of Dragons kindly asks that you join him for a short discussion.”

“When?” Chou hadn’t relaxed any, still ready to start beating on the idiot who had been plaguing her all semester. Beating Nex down was for class, beating this asshat down would be for pleasure. All he had to do was move.

“Would now be okay?” Chou could hear worry in his voice, which did feel nice. She felt bad about that just a little but not too much.

Chou thought about the proposition. The only plan was to hang out in the dayroom after the meeting, maybe watch a movie or two. There had even been discussion of pizza. Nothing major. Her watch let her know that she still had about an hour or so before things really got started. It shouldn’t take all that long to talk to the leader of the Dragons. She had a few things to say to this, Master of Dragons. And if it got ugly, she always had DW and a few pre-made prayer sheets. “Let’s go.”

Thunderdrake lead her around the building and to one of the entrances to the Dragons meeting hall. The two of them entered a hidden elevator and once the secret panel was closed it began to descend.

It opened into an underground corridor, like every other tunnel at the school. After a short walk the two of them came to an open area where three other tunnels joined up. On one wall with no passageways was a set of double doors that looked quite plain. So much for the ‘Dragons’ Lair.

When the doors opened, Chou gasped at what opened up before her. This was something she was sure she had seen before. The feeling of déjà vu only grew as she walked in. Bits of an old memory filtered in, from another Handmaid...

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She entered the Palace of the Emperor into the Chamber of Heaven. The Imperial red pillars glowed in the reflected light of the sun and from the candles set about the room. She had been made up to look like a Princess. She, a farm girl dressed in the finest silks, to actually meet the Emperor.

It had taken all of her cunning to get to this place at this time. The Tao truly provided for her. Once she was finished here life could go on.

Her smile was faint and full of the foreknowledge of her death. Tonight the Emperor would die.

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Chou stopped and blinked a few times, returning to the present. The room was different, but in only subtle ways. The light did not glow the same way. She sighed and breathed out the memory. Once she felt centered again she continued on.

Up by what looked a throne, there was a group of students in their hero garb. On the throne there was a Chinese boy in Imperial style robes. She adjusted her grip on the sword, flipping it behind her back. Was this the Master of Dragons?

It made her nervous to walk between the students, well aware that they could attack. Seeing Dorjee or rather Chain Lightning helped her to relax some. Since their date was tomorrow it was very unlikely that he would attack her. Butterflies fluttered about her stomach at the thought, so she refocused on the task at hand.

The person on the throne stood and bowed to Chou. She returned the bow almost automatically. The voice was very cultured and had only a slight Chinese accent. “Please feel welcome Bladedancer. My name is Zhong Lau and I am the current Master of Dragons.”

“Thank you. May I ask why you have invited me here?” She asked cautiously.

“After your combat final, there is little doubt about your skill as a Martial Artist. The general consensus was to offer you entry into the Dragons.” Zhong Lau inclined his head slightly.

“If Thunderdrake is any indication of what the group is like, no thanks.” Chou was getting tired of this already. Why did this guy have so much pomp? Why was he special? Was he mental?

“If you would, please step onto the dais so we might speak privately.” The Master of Dragons turned and returned to the throne.

Chou sighed and walked up the dais. She felt a tingle against her skin as if there had been some sort of magical barrier there. She tightened her grip on her blade and got to the top.

The Asian boy smiled at her. “Please relax. I am no fool Handmaid. I know who you are and some of what that means. The dragon within can see you for who you are. I would prefer a relationship of friends rather than to stand against the Tao.”

Chou was surprise at his words. There were not a lot of people who knew who she really was. How had he known? “Okay? But why would I want to join a group that includes such idiots as Thunderdrake?”

“Yet we also have some like Chain Lightning who is truly dedicated to the Art. I would prefer that the group would be only those who searched for the Arts truth, yet people who see that Art as a tool have their uses. Fools also walk the Jiang Hu path as well.” returned Zhong Lau.

“The Jiang Hu path is that of the knight errant. Can you say that all of us here at Whateley are not on that path, one way or another?” Zhong Lau’s eyes glittered as he continued and Chou could see the Dragon looking out.

“I guess you’re right. So you try to help those dedicated to the Art?”

“Certainly. You yourself practice both Lightfoot Gung Fu as well as true Wudan. I would be honored and humbled if I could train with you, but I digress. That style, true Wudan, has not been seen since the death of Li Mu Bai in the seventeenth century. The last blade of renown, the Green Destiny, also disappeared around then. The world changed and moved on but not for the better.” Zhong Lau looked off into the air, into the past. He sighed and turned back to Chou. The Dragon was gone from his eyes. “Sorry. Some times he get’s a bit maudlin. We are interested in both you and your friend Chaka.”

He held out two envelopes of Imperial Red. Their names were written on them in a rich black ink. She reached out and took them. He bowed to her again. “Please consider this. The two of you would be welcome here at any time. Chain Lightning will show you out.”

Chou followed Dorjee from the room. Once the double doors closed behind them both relaxed. The two of them smiled shyly at each other, amused by the similar reaction to leaving the room.

Dorjee lead Chou into another tunnel. “This passageway should take you out closer to Poe than any of the others. I…I guess I’ll see you tomorrow?”

Chou wasn’t sure why his blush affected her so. It made her pleased and nervous all at the same time. She really hoped it didn’t mean what she was afraid it meant. She was utterly in love with Molly and she wasn’t sure if she could deal with being attracted to a guy.

She joined the others in the dayroom. Everyone was in their corner discussing film choices. Tennyo was floating; several people were lounging in the hammocks Ayla had brought. The white lion doll was dancing around. Since the mythic lion chase Jade enjoyed bringing Kimba to life and goofing off. It looked like it was going to be one of those nights.

“What’s wrong with Kung Fu Hustle or Shaolin Soccer? They’re comedies.” complained Toni.

Ayla sighed and said with infinite patience. “Not everything revolves around Martial Arts. Can’t we watch something decent? Please?”

“But Ayla, nobody but you understands those French films, even though Amelie was funny.” said Jade. “What about one of the Tenchi Muyo OVA’s?”

Tennyo grimaced. “How about not? Chou, what do you want to watch?”

Chou smiled, feeling mischievous. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Toni threw a fist in the air and yelled “Yes!”

The others groaned and Nikki lamented, “Could we not get any Chinese Historical Dramas?”

“Well, you asked.” chuckled Chou. “And by the way, this is for you Toni.”

Toni looked confused as Chou handed her the red envelope. “Wha?”

“It’s from the Dragons. They want to Rush both of us.” explained Chou.

“Is that what the Tao wanted?” Molly looked as confused as Toni, which was cute.

“No, but Thunderdrake intercepted me on my way home. No fight but an invite to talk with the head of the Dragons. Interesting talk. It seems more a social club and training thing more than anything else.” Chou said as she took a seat next to Molly.

“Aren’t they as annoying as those tigers?” asked Hank.

“Only some of them. They mostly come off as dedicated Martial Artists.” answered Chou.

A quick glance at the clock broke things up for the moment. The meeting would be fast as would the pizza delivery. Then they could relax, watch a movie when they finally settled on one and just have fun. They all hadn’t had enough of that lately.

Molly took the money for the ‘za and walked downstairs with them to the lobby. She smiled and dialed. The meeting would probably last as long as it took to get food. She didn’t know what it was about anyway.

The argument over films continued with Ayla chiming in about The Third Man. No one wanted film noir so things continued.

Chou smiled in thanks for her friends. The argument over film choice broke out again. Jade kept chiming in for anime and Chou occasionally offered up something crazy like Gandhi or Little House on the Prairie. They all laughed as Ayla made retching noises over that film and finally settled on something about the time the pizza arrived. It was a good night.

16 December 2006

Tai Chi practice was fun. The Push Hands exercises were great, even though Boudacia looked like she was getting frustrated with the whole trying to use no strength thing. As an Exemplar she had the strength, but was finding that her strength could be used against her. After Push Hands it was time for swordplay. All three girls laughed as they fought.

It was in the shower that Chou began to get nervous. She had to stop shaving her legs to let her hands stop trembling. A date with a boy, why did she even agree to this?

Dorjee was a nice guy and all, but he was a guy. Granted that Chou was no longer Alex yet she had been a guy. She wasn’t gay.

The thought made her snort. Technically, she was gay, a lesbian as a matter of fact. She sighed and centered herself. They were just going out to a movie and late lunch early dinner. This wasn’t anything crazy. And he was interesting. Dorjee was the closest thing to a Buddhist monk at this crazy school. His inner calm helped her inner calm. And he blushed so nicely.

Chou finished shaving her legs and ended her shower. If she was going to do this she needed to get ready. She was drying her hair as she walked into the room and bumped into someone. She eeped and started, surprised. The door closed behind her suddenly and she let out a short scream. Anyone outside would have heard the maniacal laughter.

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Chou fidgeted as she tried to pull the hem of the skirt down. The image that looked back from the mirror was of a very fashionable teenager. Her hair had been done as had her makeup. Nikki had even given her a very minor glamour to enhance that. The denim skirt came to the middle of her thigh and the blouse and bolero jacket looked cute. Ayla had grabbed some jewelry and finished making her beautiful. Toni had taken a few pictures through the process while Chou stared at the hot Asian girl in the mirror. She could barely believe what she saw. It had been a huge shock to see herself as female the first time and this was almost as bad.

Toni crowed, “You look so cute. Dorjee will not have a clue what hit him.”

Ayla whistled. “Very nice. You’re sure Molly is okay with this?”

“Molly said it was okay and she agrees that this would give us some camouflage. But it’s a guy and I look like this.” Chou never took her eyes off the mirror.

Nikki took Chou’s hands and pulled her over to sit on the bed. She smiled at the Handmaid of the Tao gently. “Chou, I know its tough to cope with but you aren’t a guy anymore. You’re a girl.”

Chou sighed. Nikki hugged her, Chou’s head on her shoulder. “I know that in my head but it still hasn’t gotten to my heart. I’m scared.”

Toni chuckled at that and stopped at the hard glance Nikki gave her. Chaka asked, “What? This is the girl who tore into Voodoo Wolves without blinking and she’s afraid of a date?”

Ayla rested a hand on Chaka’s shoulder. “Toni, they’re not the same kind of courage. And not everyone shares your particular point of view of the matter.”

“Chou, if you can’t do this we can have Toni or Tennyo break it to him.” said Nikki.

“I can do this, I think. It’s just a movie and food. I can do that.” Chou didn’t look as sure as she sounded. “And did the skirt have to be this short?”

“You look good girl. Just relax, have fun and don’t freak if he tries to take your hand.” Toni seemed to be brimming with advice.

Chou swallowed hard and told herself that she would survive this. There was a soft knock at the door. “Chou? Mrs. Horton said that…Oh My God, you look beautiful!”

The other girls chuckled as Jade was all agog. Chou just smiled nervously. She stood up, grabbed her purse and smiled at the others. “Wish me luck.”

The other girls wished her well and Jade hugged her tight. At the top of the stairs she took a deep breath and started down. She was worried about everything, if Dorjee would be able to tell that she hadn’t been born a girl. The stunned look on the boy’s face erased that worry.”

“You, uh, you look awesome.” stammered the Tibetan boy.

Chou looked down some and blushed a little. “Thank you.”

Dorjee looked very well put together in slacks and what looked like a handmade coat. He did look quite handsome. It made her pleased for some reason she couldn’t pin point.

Mrs. Horton stood off to the side and watched this little scene with a faint smile. Dorjee adjusted his quilted coat and smiled nervously. “Shall we go?”

The two of them walked into the snowy day. Chou could faintly feel familiar touches on her chi, so she looked up at the second floor windows and smiled at Team Kimba, who were crowded around two windows.

“So how are we getting to the theater?” asked Chou.

“I got us a ride to the theater and we can take the bus back. This way we can go, eat and catch the film.” explained Dorjee as the two of them crunched through the snow.

It turned out their ride was one of the Security officers who was currently off duty and making some extra cash. The two teenagers rode in the back, too nervous and embarrassed to talk. They kept stealing glances at each other, blushing when they met each others eyes. The two were extremely thankful when they were dropped off, away from chaperones.

“Uhm…there are a couple of places we could eat. Burgers, Chicken, Mexican, Sandwiches and Chinese.”

“Where do you want to go?” asked Chou, not wanting to make any misstep.

“I…actually like Mexican,” Dorjee looked embarrassed to admit it. “And besides, the Chinese isn’t very good.”

“That works for me. Tacos are a great goodness.” stated Chou definitively.

Dorjee laughed. “Tacos are indeed a great goodness. The world can be saved by tacos.”

The two walked to the Mexican restaurant, talking about music. Dorjee was a traditionalist, liking a great deal of Tibetan music and only some of the more common forms of music in the US. The conversation continued into the place, where Chou admitted her shame of enjoying Hannah Montana and several of the other Disney sponsored bands. Dorjee didn’t tease her too much.

Chou ordered some Carne Asada Tacos while Dorjee ordered the cheese enchilada and chilie relleno. Their conversation continued and slowly they were losing their nervousness. Favorite bands moved to favorite movies, all the typical mindless chatter of two people struggling to understand each other. Towards the end of the meal things turned deeper.

“So, you are thinking about being a monk?’ asked Chou, as she put pico de gallo on her last taco.

“I have seriously considered it. The Bodhisattva Vow is important and I can help people in that way as well. This way…often leads only to meaningless violence. I am to talk to his Holiness about it on his next visit to the US.” replied Dorjee, scooping up his mix of rice and beans with a chip.

“His Holiness?” Chou wasn’t sure who Dorjee was talking about.

“The Dalai Lama, his Holiness Tenzin Gyatso.” Replied Dorjee with a smile.

“Oh.” Chou blushed, because it really had been rather obvious. After all, who else would Dorjee call ‘His Holiness’.

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“The agent of the Separatist is unguarded. He is not at the training facility. He is alone except for some girl who is with him.”

“If she is a student at that facility, she may be of some trouble. Did we run a facial recognition through the MCO link?”

“Yes. The file says that she is simply a very talented and highly trained normal.”

“Then we can move against the Separatist’s tool. This will weaken his position, since with no empowered back up he is just a lone voice.”

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The movie was good. The film was a decent mix of drama and action. At about the halfway point Dorjee reached and touched her hand. He just put it down close enough that the sides of their hands touched. Chou didn’t freak, but it was close.

His hand was warm and covered most of hers, as it slid over finding no resistance. She wanted to pull away, but there was something about his hand that was comforting. And the way their fingers intertwined…she felt…safe.

In many ways Chou hadn’t felt safe since the appearance of the Demon Lord of Fiery Immersion. While holding Molly’s hand made her feel complete, Dorjee’s hand made her feel protected. It was almost as if a blanket had been draped over her shoulders. As she sighed and relaxed, Chou realized that the feeling was kind of like when either or father had held her. It made her head spin.

She was in love with Molly, as if the Summoner were a part of her, but something about Dorjee made her feel all…fluttery.

Chou was aware that this fluttery thing was a girl thing. What it meant eluded her, since it could possibly mean several things. If she was falling in love with a guy she might just freak out. She was a guy, or rather was a guy. Chou let the thoughts go and tried to simply be in the moment, watching the film, her hand in his.

After the film she went to the restroom and relieved the pressure from the Orange soda she had shared with Dorjee. She looked at her face in the mirror. Her face still glowed, the make up still not needing repair. And besides, if it had needed repair she would have been at a loss what to do.

She met her eyes. What was going on with her? Chou sighed, closed her eyes and prayed briefly to Kwan Yin for the strength to deal with this confusion. Her shoulders loosened and dropped ad she met her eyes again. She smiled lightly.

Dorjee was standing there patiently when she walked out. He bowed slightly, his hands together. He smiled shyly at her. “Do you want to go for a bit of a walk?”

“Sure.” The two of them walked out of the theater and Chou took Dorjee’s hand when it bumped into hers ‘accidentally’. They both blushed a little but didn’t let go.

The trees spread over the walking trail, skeletons against the pale blue sky. The snow was lightly packed, with a few orangey-brown leaves poking through. It was soft and quiet, their feet crunching the snow.

They both ended up walking almost next to each other, arms touching. Chou fought the impulse to grab his arm and practically hug it. The whole situation had her conflicted, but she just let her worries go and lived in the moment. For now she was happy.

When the power of the Tao rushed up her body like an electric current she immediately reacted. She shoved Dorjee to the left and she rolled to the right, spinning on her back to face behind her. The blast of plasma melted the snow and some of the asphalt trail underneath.

Four figures in a sort of winter camouflage were arrayed in a battle formation. Chou figured out the Brick and the Devisor quickly, the other two were complete unknowns. The devisor raised his weapon again as the Brick moved in a straight line towards Dorjee. She couldn’t worry about that now as she spun behind a tree for cover. Plasma burst the ground behind her.

Chou centered herself and let the battlefield fill her. The Devisor was providing cover fire and one of the two questionable ones hung back. The Brick just landed a powerful sidekick into Dorjee, who flew back along the trail, making a slight grove in the snow. Chou ducked as a flicker of movement caught the corner of her eye.

The kick slammed into the tree, knocking loose some snow piled on the branches. Chou cursed under her breath, a speedster.

Time seemed to slow as Chou spun towards her opponent. The Tao let her feel the chi of the attacks prior to their reaching her. She was barely able to avoid hits by letting her chi respond. Even so, a kick caught her in the head, flipping her head over heels.

As she shook her head to clear it she felt something settle onto her, making her thoughts like cotton candy, sticking and tangling. A series of punches landed onto her torso and she stumbled backwards into a tree.

One hand fumbled in her purse as the crackle of lightning filled the air. The air tingled with the ozone. Another punch connected with Chou’s face. As she spun from the force of the blow, taking away most of its power, her hand flung out and slapped into the speedster. Chou could feel the flare of her Chi as the prayer sheet activated.

Suddenly, the speedster was moving at regular speed. Chou grinned and started her attack. The fog over her head was keeping her body from reacting with everything she had. When the speedster threw a punch at her face, she rolled to the side and caught his arm in a scissors block. The sudden snap of her arms made the joint hyperextend and make a wet pop, as it broke. She rolled back to the front and launched a palm strike to his Dantien, where her chi threw his out of whack. He staggered and looked dazed after the hit.

The itch between her shoulder blades warned her of another attack. Chou rolled to her left and a blast of plasma nailed the speedster in the chest. He was flung back into a tree, cracking the trunk, the smell of burnt flesh in the air.

With a snap her mind cleared. She took a quick glance and noticed that the Brick was down, twitching, and Dorjee was spinning his nine-ring chain whip made out of lightning. He was moving towards the remaining two when he suddenly stumbled and his weapon flickered out of existence.

The other person, obviously some sort of PDP, seemed to be focused intently at Dorjee. The Devisor was aiming at him with his plasma rifle and it looked clear that Dorjee would not be able to dodge.

Chou grabbed a fallen branch and flung it into the line of fire, trusting in the Tao to let her time it right. The stick exploded and burned, pieces falling on Dorjee. Chain Lightning spun to put the fire out and to take cover behind a tree. He called out, “Chou?! Are you okay?”

“Yeah. You?” She was worried about him, but obviously the Brick hadn’t been overly a challenge.

“Flank?”

“Sure.” The two rolled away from each other and around their cover. They rushed the other two, dodging the rapid fire blasts from the plasma rifle. The PDP yelled, in Mandarin, “Let’s go.”

The Devisor slapped a device at his waist and then with a shimmer the four of them were gone. Dorjee spun, standing back to back, scanning the forest. After a few minutes Dorjee asked, “Clear?”

Chou scanned on more time, feeling the Tao retreat like a wave from the shore. “Clear.”

Dorjee turned and they both saw how beat up they were. At the same time they asked, “Are you okay?”

“Just really sore. I hurt, but I’ll live. You?” Chou kept scanning the woods wishing she had Destiny’s Wave with her.

Dorjee held his side. “I think I may have a few cracked ribs. That kick hurt.”

“How did you drop him?” asked Chou curiously.

“I can use the chain as a taser. I just put a lot of energy into that. Now I’m hungry again.”

Chou laughed and hugged Dorjee. It was spontaneous and made both pf them blush. “Uhm…uh…we…uh…should go.”

She nodded in agreement, not able to meet his eyes. They walked quickly down the trail to the bus stop. The two actively searched the area for threats, worried about another attack. Between that and their ragged appearance, the other people at the bus stop edged away from them.

Once on the bus and they were seated, the two martial artists breathed a sigh of relief. The emotional stress, the fight and her injuries rolled up on Chou and she sagged exhausted. Dorjee noticed this and put his arm over her, pulling her to his shoulder. Chou closed her eyes and snuggled into place. It was comfortable and warm and she drifted to sleep.

She blinked up at him blearily when he shook her awake. “Chou, we’re here.”

She looked around, realizing that she had fallen asleep on him. She was at a loss for words. Thankfully there were no other kids from the school on the bus or she would have been even more embarrassed. Thankfully, she hadn’t drooled.

The walk up the drive towards the school was quiet and slow, as both were stiffening up from the fight. Chou’s eye kept from swelling shut due to her use of chi, but it did hurt for her to have it opened too wide. That speedster really pummeled her.

The uphill walk was brief or at least the two didn’t notice as their thoughts alternated between the fight, each other or the warmth of their entwined hands. It kept them from really noticing a lot of anything. When they reached Poe Hall, the two stopped and looked at each other. “Thank you for walking me home.”

“You’re welcome.” Dorjee blushed and smiled slightly. “I had a great time.”

“Me too, even with the fight.” admitted Chou.

“Can…can we do this again?” asked Dorjee, blushing some more.

Chou thought about it. Dorjee was fun to hang out with. Then there was the fact hat she liked the way he hugged her and the way he held her hand. Chou nodded and said, “That would be nice.”

Dorjee smiled, hugged her and kissed her on the cheek. She could tell he was blushing, his face almost on fire, as he turned and walked off.

Chou touched her face gently where his lips had touched her cheek. His lips had been firmer, his touch more forceful than the kisses that Molly gave. This made Chou wonder what it would be like to kiss him for real and not just a peck on the cheek. This image tangled her thoughts and she watched him walk away. He turned back after a number of steps and smiled at her.

She smiled back and then went into Poe. She made it up the stairs and was heading towards her room. Chou realized that she needed some Dit Da Jou on her bruises and to work through the events of the day.

Ayla walked out of the restroom and almost bumped into Chou. Ayla started slightly and then noticed the look on Chou’s face and her condition. “You okay? Come on.”

Ayla led her into their room or rather the room they once shared. She locked the door quickly and sat Chou down. “What’s wrong?”

“He…he kissed me.” Chou sounded stunned. “We hugged good night and he kissed me.”

“How about you start at the beginning?” said Ayla. Chou looked shaken and there were obvious signs of a fight.

“We went, had Mexican, saw a movie, got jumped…”

“What!?” interrupted Ayla. “You guys got attacked?”

Chou nodded. “There were four of them. Dorjee took out the Brick and I took out the Speedster. As we moved in the PDP tried a mind fog but both of us beat it. Then the Devisor teleported them all away before we could get them.”

“Any idea who they were?”

“Not a clue. They spoke Chinese, at least some. We took the bus back and then he kissed me on the cheek.” concluded Chou.

“Why would he do that? Did you lead him on?’ Ayla was amused and indignant at this situation.

“I don’t think I did. We held hands, that’s it.”

The sigh of long suffering was the only sound in the room. Ayla rubbed her temples. Chou seemed so oblivious at times. “Don’t you remember being a boy, Chou? What would that have done to you?”

Chou blanched as she realized how all that would have been taken. Alex would have been thrilled and positive that the girl liked him. All of her actions were telling Dorjee that she really liked him.

“Looks like you have a boyfriend now.” dryly quipped Ayla.

“Oh Gods…what am I going to tell Molly?”

“How about the truth? You like Dorjee a lot but you are in love with her. If Dorjee is so clearly your boyfriend, you and Molly will be covered. Wasn’t that the plan going in?” asked Ayla, pointing out the obvious.

“It was. I’ll tell her tomorrow. My thoughts are too jumbled right now. It…it just felt so good to hold his hand. Gods, Ayla, why is my life so fucked up?” Chou looked close to tears.

Ayla hugged her roommate. “All of our lives are fucked up. I only wish there was a way to turn back into who I was, same as you. I guess we both wish that. Chou, you are doing your best. We can get through the. Together. Honest.”

Chou nodded. Ayla continued. “Now, everyone is going to want to know all about the date. Do you want to be honest with them or lie?”

“I’ll tell them. It’s not Dorjee’s fault I have issues.” Both of them chuckled over that. “I’ll get the Dit Da Jow and then I’ll tell everybody what happened. The wheel turns, life goes on.”

Ayla walked to the door and unlocked it as Chou got out her herbal mixture and rubbed some on her face. Chou lifted her shirt to rub the balm on her other sore spots.

As the others entered Hank commented, “Thanks for the view.”

Toni whirled and smacked him, using her chi to make it through his PK field. “Ow. What was that for?”

Nikki sighed. “Hank, you are such a guy.”

Chou gave everyone the rundown. Jade seemed a bit wide eyed by things and the others only shook their heads.

“I’m not sure Molly is going to like this.” commented Tennyo.

“You did say that you’re spending the New Year with her, right? That time and a great present should help.” quipped Toni.

“I did.” Chou went to her closet and pulled out a small jewelry box. She opened it and the others gasped.

Inside the black box was a ring of Mithril that had been made in the shape of a knot work heart. The surface glistened in the way that only mithril did. Nikki started to reach out to touch it. Chou pulled the ring back and closed the ring box. “Where did you get that?”

Chou smiled. “Same place Toni got her knife. Since it was such a small amount she let me have it as thanks for Boston. She said it would help Molly with her spells.”

Nikki nodded. “It will at that.”

Jade gushed. “That’s beautiful.”

“Yeah,” said Chou softly. “I put all of my love into it as it was being formed.”

Toni chuckled. “Girl, you win at life.”

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Dorjee was smiling happily as he walked towards his room. He felt like he was floating on air, which he couldn’t as he had no flight abilities. True, he had been attacked, probably by Chinese agents, but everything else had been glorious. When Chou had fallen asleep on him, he had been elated.

The Handmaid of the Tao was so much more than he had been told. Chou was amazing and not just for her skills. He was just impressed by who she was. It was also a plus that she was beautiful.

He lay on his back and stared at the ceiling. His hand still tingled from where he had been holding hers. His heart beat quickly. Maybe…maybe he was in Love?

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