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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.

Five Elements Dancing

By Heather O’Malley

assisted by the rest of the Whateley Gang

Whateley Academy Universe

All things have their backs to the female and stand facing the male. When male and female combine, all things achieve harmony. - Tao Te Ching, Chapter 42

Book of the Metal
Thursday, 11 January 2007

“And how exactly are we supposed to have known about this?” replied Miss Carson with some iron in her voice. She refused to take any sort of blame for this incident. “This plan by the Chinese has apparently been done as low key as possible to avoid any sort of detection. If Miss Lee had not brought this plan to our attention would we have ever known about it?”

The conference call with members of the Board of Directors was not going well. Carson just managed to avoid rubbing her temples in outright frustration. After over a half an hour of talking and bickering and debating, it was getting down towards the end of things.

Lord Paramount spoke up; finally, after having listened to all the arguments, “I assume Headmistress Carson, that you have a plan for how to deal with this?”

“There are the beginnings of a plan in the works, but it isn’t pretty. You are aware of who Bladedancer is?” asked Carson.

“You are referring to the mystical aspects of her identity?” was the reply.

“Yes.”

“I am.”

“Then you are aware that she has the best chance of going in there and getting out alive. Any other operative we could send there would be caught and dealt with, and you know how ruthless the Chinese are. Since the compulsion spell did not work on her but she was able to figure out what the spell did, she could go to China, undercover, to find out what is up and then manage to escape.” Mrs. Carson was not a big fan of this plan either but it was all they had. Chief Delarose had worked with her on this and while sound, it was disturbing.

“So you would trust this all to a fifteen year old baseline girl?” asked one of the other Board members, clearly someone who had not read the entirety of the file.

“This particular fifteen year old girl… yes. If she needs to escape, she will be able to escape. There is something about her that even Chief Delarose admits is extraordinary and reminds him a bit of Fey. She can be a very strong presence when needed and has a power that no one here has ever seen. There is no knowing what she has. Delarose backs her completely and so do I. She can do this if we ask.” This conversation was beginning to grate on her last nerves.

“So the rough plan is to send her to China to figure out what is going on and then she will break out if they try to restrain her? You have no doubt in your mind that she can do this?” asked Lord Paramount, just wanting to clarify the issue.

“That is correct.”

“Do you have any other plans?”

“Maybe. There is really no viable option that we have found. I have had Chief Delarose work on the planning, and he and Hive have been attempting to find a decent replacement. Since the spell works on the individual we can’t think of a way for an agent to infiltrate China who hadn’t already been ensnared by the spell.” Carson’s face was set and she really didn’t want to blow up at the Board, even if they were acting like idiots, with the usual exceptions.

“Have you contacted her sponsors?” asked yet another Board member.

“I have no practical means to get a hold of them. The Immortals don’t really have a phone number,” returned Carson with a sigh.

Things were quiet for a moment as that information sunk in.

“Then I believe that we should table this matter until there is more to this plan of yours. We also need to have contact with one of her sponsors. Sending a teenager into this mess without that is irresponsible. Once that has happened, then we can see if the schools resources would be best spent that way,” Lord Paramount stated definitively.

None of the other Board members chose to argue with him on this issue. Miss Carson just sighed. She now had even more time to get stressed over this whole event. Maybe she should just run off and change her name. She just might be able to hide from all of this. Maybe.

No, she would work to find a way for Miss Lee to go to China and actually have backup that she could count on, even if it meant that she had to go there herself. She simply hated board meetings. Fewer things got done that way.

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When Chou entered the classroom in Eastman where she was supposed to go, she saw Dyffud moving through an odd series of steps and weaving his arms. She had never seen anything like it before and it was clear it was some sort of Martial Art. He danced on and when he noticed her he slowed and came to a stop, exhaling slowly and relaxing the muscular tension. He smiled at the girl and said, “Afternoon Chou.”

“Good Afternoon Mr. Harraz.”

“Call me Dyffud, please. I’ve never really been a fan of Mister.”

“Okay…Dyffud.” It did feel odd calling a teacher by the first name and Chou wasn’t sure if she could do that. Her father had taught her to respect adults and this almost felt disrespectful. It was hard enough calling Miss Stone Becca.

“Just so you know, we’re going to talk about gender and self-identity today while we do some other stuff.” He stretched upwards, rising onto his toes.

“My shrink has talked about that issue,” replied Chou a bit disdainfully. “It hasn’t helped.”

“Yes, but the good doctor wasn’t speaking your language. That will make all of the difference, trust me. I will do what I can to put all of this in terms you can understand so that you can move from your center and not be as out of balance as you are,” stated Dyffud.

Chou put down her bag and stood in front of Dyffud. “Okay. What do I need to do?”

“Okay, now I want you to center yourself and feel your own energy,” said Dyffud, watching the girl intently.

Chou closed her eyes and focused on the movement of the Chi within her. She slowly differentiated the chi from the jing, the base energy of her body, from the shen or spiritual energy of her self. She let herself feel the currents of her chi, deep within her lower dan tien. The currents of energy were moving smoothly. Dyffud spoke again, “Now, I want you to go through your Tai Chi form and pay attention to your energies.”

This was a bit more difficult as it sort of kept her from just flowing through the movements as she was used to, but she did notice something, something that looked like a hiccup within her jing. With every movement she made it sort of bounced within her, interrupting the flow of her chi. This stopped her and she turned a very confused face towards Dyffud. “Wha?”

“Good, you see it. That, my dear Chou, is why you are not moving, fighting, or living to your fullest potential at the moment. Your energy is going all over the place as Yang energy pulls you one way and Yin another. Now just stand quietly and feel your energy.” Dyffud smiled and stood there, as immovable as a mountain.

Chou stood in a neutral stance, hands at her side, relaxed. She deepened her internal perception again and felt the energy. Just standing there, quiet and relaxed, there was no hiccup in her energy and it flowed like a river. It was moving clearly and cleanly. “It feels different.”

“Good. Now I want you to think about being Alex.”

Chou started at her male name and could feel her chi roil within her in conflict with her jing, losing the calm that pervaded her energy. It felt really similar to when she moved and how her energy sort of jiggled. She frowned as she felt that. She looked up at Dyffud questioningly.

Dyffud smiled, knowing that her had her undivided attention. “You want to move from your truth, as it makes your movements stronger. Sensei Ito is a little Asian man who I have seen tossing Bricks around easily. That is because he is moving from his truth and his chi flows cleanly and clearly. That is true strength. Part of what is screwing you up is that you have no idea who you are. Are you Alex or Chou? Are you male or female? Are you Baptist like you were raised or are you Taoist? Are you an Angel of Death or an Angel of Mercy? These questions are fundamental to your conception of truth and your ability to move strongly.”

“But how do I figure out the answers to those questions? I have no idea how to even begin to even come up with questions,” Chou replied, feeling her emotions build and tighten her chest.

“Well, from what I know about your role from a few sources the answer to the last question is yes. You will need to kill and to save and probably to create. It isn’t pretty but it is true.” Dyffud gave a little shrug.

Chou stood there quietly for a moment, her thoughts a whirl. This wasn’t what she thought class was going to be. “But isn’t killing wrong?”

Dyffud got this look on his face that Chou could not interpret. “There are a couple of different stances on that issue. From a Buddhist stance, killing is something you should not do but from the Taoist, sometimes it is unavoidable. For some, death can be a blessing and for others… it is a mercy. And if someone were threatening Molly, a knife to her throat, what would you do?”

Chou wasn’t that surprised that Dyffud knew about Molly. If he knew several different people in the Administration it wouldn’t be difficult to find out pretty much everything about her. And as for the question… her answer was really easy. “I would kill them.”

“And your friends? Say… Jade?”

Chou nodded. “Yeah.”

“And what about your father?” he asked quietly.

Chou felt a great sadness and tears began to trickle down her face, remembering what had happened to her dad back at the beginning of this nightmare/ dream that she was living. “Yes. I would kill them.”

“Then is killing really that wrong?”

“In the right context… no,” Chou replied, still a bit surprised by her answer.

“So in terms of that issue, you are just the Handmaid. As for the more fundamental question, male or female… what is your chi and jing telling you?” Dyffud was trying to lead the girl in her discovery, asking questions she was sure Dr. Bellows hadn’t thought of. He wanted to stay within the world of experience rather than deal in abstractions.

“When I am at rest my jing is saying that I am female.”

“And when you move?”

“I’m not so sure.” Chou remembered the odd sensation that he had pointed out and made visible. “It’s like part of my chi says it’s male and the jing doesn’t like that.”

Dyffud was quiet a moment and then came up, resting a hand on her shoulder comfortingly. “Have you ever done Push Hands?”

Chou blinked at the sudden topic change. “Uhm… a little.”

“Let’s go.” Dyffud moved and put one foot against hers, one hand coming up to rest against her hand. The touch was light.

Chou nodded and they began. They rocked back and forth, trying to avoid strength and just letting the fluidity of motion and the movement of chi do all the work. It was a gentle sway, which occasionally burst into faster movement. Chou relaxed into things and felt the movements become easier, could almost feel how to defeat Dyffud. As she was moving to accomplish that by bringing her arm down and across to his stomach he said, “So Alex…”

Chou’s energy faltered and she found herself stepping back, losing the match. She gritted her teeth in frustration. She had almost had him. “Let’s do that again.”

Dyffud nodded and they began again. And again when she almost made him lose his balance he called out her old name and that broke her flow of chi. She growled in frustration, wanting to go again and again until she won. Dyffud apparently had other ideas.

“You do know why you lost… right?”

She nodded. It was really clear to her the why. It majorly irritated her, but she did know why it had happened. “Yes. My energies caused issues.”

“So what is wrong with accepting the fact that you are a girl now?”

“I… I don’t know. This face that I see in the mirror looking back at me isn’t me. I am still trying to figure out who it is, but I know it isn’t me. I don’t want to forget that I am really a boy.” Chou knew that fundamentally she was Alex and not Chou, that this body was just a shape that was overlaid on his own. Maybe she should go back to using Alex? She didn’t know.

“What is a boy?”

This threw Chou again, and she really wished that she were in weapons class smacking Nightbane about rather than here with her head hurting. It would have been so much easier and fun. “Uh…”

“Is that face you see looking back at you really you? Are you defined only by your body or by something else?”

“Uh…”

“Are you, deep in the core of your being, really male or female?” Dyffud smiled at her.

Blinking was the only thing Chou could bring herself to do at that point. Things were flying way too fast in her head and it was making her a bit dizzy.

“Will you lose who you are because you have accepted this body?”

Her head was beginning to hurt. These questions were making her body feel odd as well, as her internal energies felt like they were in turmoil.

“This is your body, right here, right now. You need to make it your own and you need to accept that your energy is Yin at the moment and not Yang. Your jing is attuned to your body and your chi is fighting yourself. Remember, it is easier to walk with the current than against it, and you are most definitely moving against it,” Dyffud smiled at her.

“But how am I supposed to do that? How am I supposed to just accept this? I didn’t want this!” Chou’s volume rose as she spoke, the anger at her situation beginning to come back out.

“So what? You didn’t want this? You have this, Chou. Right now, this is your life and unless you accept that you are currently a girl you will only put yourself and others in danger.” His voice was calm and reasonable and it was beginning to make her crazy.

“God damn it, I am a BOY!!!” screamed Chou, wanting to kick the shit out of Dyffud.

“How many boys have breasts, periods, vaginas?” Dyffud looked her in the eyes, his gaze unwavering. Sure he knew there were guys like that but Chou did not feel that way.

“Fuck you! Just fuck you! What the fuck do you know?” Her hands clenched and her muscles tensed, ready to move. She wanted to launch herself at her teacher.

“I know that you are a girl that just happened to be a boy when this whole thing started, that there was a box that would break the connection between you and Destiny’s Wave and return you to being a boy. That your father died horribly and his spirit is currently trapped in the Hell of Fiery Immersion. That you are a girl and will remain a girl until your task is done. That’s who you are so just accept that.” His words had the weight of finality in them.

Chou screamed and launched herself at him. He smiled and stood there, not even defending himself from her attack. Chou’s punches were mostly wild, and only anger and despair fueled her. Dyffud stood there, immovable as a mountain, and the Tao was silent.

As her punches grew weaker, she slumped to the floor, crying. He knelt down and took her in his arms comfortingly. She just mumbled over and over, “Why? Why me?”

“Chou, you accepted this change when you accepted the sword. You may not have known all the details of this transformation but you did accept this tremendous duty. You told Dr. Bellows that Lan Caihe Ho actually gave you an out and you did not take it, correct?” Dyffud’s voice was soft and soothing. She could feel the seeds on his mala slightly digging into her.

Chou remembered back to that conversation where Caihe had told him of the dangers of wielding Destiny’s Wave. He had told Alex, “… you need to become this you forever. I am not sure the other you can keep with the shocks of the change. Eventually the Chi will spiral out of balance and you will die.”

He had given her a chance, saying that he would have taken the blade back to Penglai Shan and Alex would have been able to live his life as it had been. Her energies were starting to spiral out of control because of her failure to accept what she had chosen. She had done this to herself; she had accepted the sword for what it was, dangers and all. She had known that to not be female all the time would eventually kill her. This was all her fault.

Dyffud rocked her slightly as she cried. Slowly the sobbing stopped and Chou raised her head, looking up at the dark haired man. He reached over with one hand and wiped her tears from her face. He had the calluses of an experienced martial artist and they felt rough against her skin. In some way she couldn’t really figure, it made the gesture more comforting.

“I… I think I understand.” Chou stumbled over the words slightly, that realization still shaking her.

“So, who are you?” he asked gently.

“I am Chou Lee, a girl and the Handmaid of the Tao.” She replied shakily.

“So Chou Lee, shall we dance?” He stood up and set her on her feet, his muscles not even straining under her weight.

Chou smiled weakly and nodded. She moved into stance and settled herself, breathing in slowly and deeply, centering herself into her dan tien, into her chi. Then, after that moment of stillness, the fight began.

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Chou walked out of Eastman and started back towards Poe, a little sore from some of the hits. The class with Dyffud had been… well… different might be the best way to put that. It had been interesting, traumatic, unsettling, revelatory, and unlike anything she had ever done before. She had the good body aches that let her know she had gone through a good workout, and that made her smile. Her internal energy had settled more and more as the fight went on, which gave her hope that Dyffud’s plan would succeed.

There were more of those damn shoulder angels evident as she walked around. She shook her head. This thing was getting out of hand, as she could feel the build up of tension on campus. She took out a pair of nearly naked Fey angels, just as a matter of course, looking out for her friend. As she walked away from the cursing student as she was putting Destiny’s Wave back into it’s sheath, she felt a presence begin to move up alongside her. She sighed when she recognized the energy signature of who it was. She didn’t need this as she just wanted to get back to her dorm room and veg until it was time for dinner. She didn’t slow down. There was no need to make this easy for him.

Zhong Lau sidled up to her and the leader of the Dragons matched her pace step by step. His voice was pleasant, as if he had merely encountered her on a afternoon stroll. With a slight bow of his head, he said, “<Greetings Handmaid.>”

“<What do you want Zhong Lau?>” replied Chou brusquely, irritated by the interruption of her day.

“<I just wished to see if you had given thought to the invitation we had sent you and your friend.>” His voice was smooth and Chou could feel the undercurrent of the Dragon’s power within it. It seemed ready to burst out at any second.

“<I haven’t come to a decision.>” Honestly, she hadn’t even thought about it much. Too many things had happened to distract her from trying to work out the details on what the Dragons wanted from her and Toni. It was complex in its own ways, especially due to Chaka’s run-in with the Tigers.

“<Ah, well, if you come to some sort of decision please let me know.>”

“<Certainly, but stop sending Colin to me or I will kill him.>” Chou stopped and looked up at the older student.

“<I will ensure that never happens again. Would you prefer Dorjee be sent?>” asked Zhong Lau, as if he had just given a major concession.

Chou stared at him for a moment and felt a trickle of the Tao fill her. If she exploded into motion, she could overwhelm him easily and that let her relax even more. It lent her voice strength when she said, “<I am not yours to call, Zhong Lau. That you have even considered it is disrespectful to who I am and you know that. And should I deign to join your group I would still not be at your beck and call. The Handmaid is no one’s to command.>”

Zhong Lau swallowed at that, feeling the power moving through the slight girl and he bowed a bit deeper than before. “<It shall be as you asked.>”

Chou stormed off, grumbling after she commanded, “<See that it is.>”

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Chou had managed to avoid getting dragged into any of the Shoulder Angel madness that was filling the campus. There were lots of fights going on, all apparently fueled by the damn things. When she spotted some of the Tigers and Dragons fighting over them, she just changed direction. There was no way she was going to let herself get dragged into that whole mess. She had enough problems without borrowing some from other people. That really wasn’t her fight.

She was back by Crystal Hall contemplating a hot chocolate when Dorjee caught up to her. “Chou, wait up!”

She stopped and turned to face the Tibetan boy, trying to ignore the fact that her heart had just sped up and there was a weird tightness in her chest. “Yes?”

“I wanted to ask you something.”

Chou looked at him expectantly, afraid of what was going to be asked but hoping it was what she thought it might be. If it was going to be what she thought it was going to be, she was going to just scream. Maybe she should just leave the school, find a mountain top and become a hermit?

“Would you like to go out with me Saturday?” He grinned at her in that slightly nervous way of his and her brains turned into some sort of mush. She was all trembly inside and flocks of butterflies danced in her stomach. She just nodded her head not trusting whatever words she might say.

“Great. I can pick you up at six and we can get some Mexican and then maybe catch a movie?”

She nodded her head, still at a loss for words. How exactly did you tell the boy you liked that you were really a boy and in a relationship with a girl? That you wanted to date them and stay with your soulmate?

“Well, I will see you later.” He turned and hustled in the direction of the fight, wanting to provide backup to his friends before security got there.

Chou stood there in the snow, looking up at the grey clouds and wished that she had a wall to beat her head against. Things were moving too fast and she had to get things worked out with Molly before things simply exploded in her face. Somehow, she needed to find a way to get the girl to stand still long enough for them to talk about this whole crazy situation and come to a resolution. What they hell was she going to do? She opened her senses up to the Tao and felt for Molly. There was a tugging at her finger as well. Once she had an idea which way to go she took off. This issue needed to get solved before it got worse.

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Chou grabbed Molly’s upper arm and turned the girl to face her, not letting her walk away from her in the library. She hissed out, “Damn it Molly, we have to talk about this whole situation right now?”

“Why? I don’t like anyone taking up any of your time that could be spent with me. So what is there to talk about? I don’t like this whole thing one bit,” stated Molly, staring at the Asian girl and all but radiating her displeasure.

“Look, I thought I was following the plan. Didn’t we agree that this would be a good cover for us, that way no one would know we were a couple and we would be safe? Didn’t we think a beard would work well for us?” countered Chou, going over sadly well trod ground.

“Yeah, well, I didn’t know at that point that he would be stealing you from me.” Molly’s voice was getting louder and harder. She pulled her arm free and glared at her girlfriend.

Chou took a few breaths to try and calm down more. She looked at her girlfriend lovingly and replied, “You know that isn’t true. I love you completely.”

“Then why the hell are you interested in him?!” Molly all but yelled that at her.

Chou gaped at her and then sighed. This was not going well and she had chosen a bad place to be having this discussion. It felt like everything was crumbling under her feet. She felt so tired, so drained. “I don’t know. I know that there is nothing he could do under heaven or earth that would allow him to take me from you, but I do feel a draw towards him. I have no idea why and it is making me crazy. I just want to talk to you about things, so we can both understand where we are coming from because I love you and don’t want to hurt you.”

“Well, it does hurt me. It hurts to know the girl that I love wants to see some guy and go out on dates with him. It hurts to know that you like kissing him,” growled Molly, her eyes narrowing, though she had been quieter this time. She harrumphed and turned away from Chou.

Chou came up behind the Summoner and hugged the girl. Molly slowly calmed down in Chou’s arms, feeling content to be there. They held her so firmly and made her feel safe. It was one of the things she cherished about her girlfriend. Chou kissed her head. “I just want us to talk about this and come to some sort of decision. Look, Dorjee asked me out on a date and I said yes.”

Molly tensed again. Chou continued though, not giving Molly a chance to stop her words. “I can promise you that I will never go as far with him as I do with you. You are my first love and my soulmate and I just want us to be safe and happy. That I like the person we have chosen as a beard is a good thing.”

Chou felt the warm wetness of tears falling onto her arms. Molly’s voice shook when she said, “I just don’t want to lose you.”

Chou could still hear the pain in her voice and could tell that this was not an end to this issue and that things had remained unsaid. “Molly, honey, you are never going to lose me. We’ll be two old women together puttering around and we’ll die together in each others arms. I’m not going to leave you for the world. I promise.”

Molly sniffled and wiped her face with one hand to clear away the few tears that had burned down her face. “Okay. However, at the least, I need to be matched date for date, with extras on the side. Anything else and I will throw a fit. Are we clear?”

“Absolutely.” Chou turned her girlfriend and kissed her. Molly opened her mouth and drew Chou’s tongue in. They held each other and kissed for a while. Maybe things were going to actually work out.

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“Am I a little too blunt, too ‘in your face’?”

Ito smiled in amusement and asked, “I beg your pardon?”

Dyffud and Ito were in his office sharing a cup of tea. Dyffud had come there straight after working with Chou and was a bit concerned over something he had picked up in class. There were several clues to how the girl had been dealing with his teaching methodology. After having listened to Dyffud, Ito had suggested tea.

“Miss Lee broke down and cried today and that almost broke my heart. Do I come across too hard or something?” Dyffud did sound like this issue mattered a great deal to him.

“Dyffud, relax. You are just used to dealing with adults, who are often a lot harder to get through to than kids. Teenagers tend to be both more and less flexible than adults are and thus you need to switch between hard and soft approaches. Their thinking patterns haven’t solidified so you can mold them, even if they think they can’t be changed.” Ito took another sip of his tea and sighed, content.

“So what should I do?”

“Picture teaching teenagers like practicing Tai Chi. You need to know that there are times when you need to be swift and others where you need to be slow. There are times where you need to be hard, others soft. Read their ki to better understand them. That’s what I do.” Ito chuckled some.

“That makes sense. I just don’t want to push so hard that she alienates me. That would make this a whole lot harder,” worried Dyffud.

“Dyffud, that is always a chance when you work with teens. They are overly sensitive as a rule. Between hormones, powers and social interactions it is like working in a library full of ticking time bombs.”

The laughter filled the room. “I can see that. Some days I wonder how I made it through that time alive myself.”

The grin Ito gave was familiar to all the students that met him. “I think that sentiment is shared with a lot of others.”

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Nex was looking over the information that he had gathered on the freshman who had humiliated him in the arena and had the effrontery to be a baseline at this school for the truly special. He was going to show her what a difference there was between a baseline and one of the near divine mutants. Nex knew that they were the future of this planet and little meddlesome pests like her were nothing against that tide.

From what he had gotten, it seemed as if that baseline whore had a tendency to wander about all alone, oftentimes she went into the woods that surrounded the school like that. It would be perfect. He could kill her and leave the body in a snowdrift. The girl’s body wouldn’t be discovered until the spring thaw. He smirked and looked over her schedule again. He wanted to have everything he could about her for when he struck. He was not going to be so cocky this time.

In the arena, he had forgotten some of the most important lessons he had learned in his training, of stealth, of hitting as hard and as fast as he could, not the pussyfooting that he had done when facing her. He had screwed up then but he wasn’t going to screw up now. When he attacked that whore, he was going to kill her as quickly and as brutally as possibly. He wanted the attack to be so vicious that there would be no doubt in any one’s minds who had done it so it got blamed on one of the Ultraviolents. He didn’t care which one either as they were all bastards.

He also needed someone to run the tech side of things, to make sure that no one saw anything. Being caught because of the stupid surveillance cameras would be really annoying. All he had to do was put feelers out and find one of the Gearheads who were not so keen on the girl, who would have personal reason to get involved, but would also be enough of a patsy to frame if necessary. That shouldn’t be too difficult.

When he caught her in the right time and in the right place Chou Lee would die. Ugly.

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The two girls sat at their desks, working on their classwork, the sound of keyboard clicks from their laptops the only sound in the room. Molly reached the end of her reading for the night, paused and closed her book. The amount of detail that went into a Summoning contract was immense. It was making her head hurt and she needed a break. She pushed away from the desk and stood, stretching.

Pern watched quietly from the bed, not even lifting his head.

“Hey, Lindsay, I need a break. Want to watch a movie or something?”

Lindsay looked up from her textbook and smiled. “Sure. That sounds good. What do you have in mind?”

Molly thought about it for a moment and then smiled. “I haven’t seen Princess Bride or The Last Unicorn for a while now, one of those?”

“I have Flight of Dragons. It cracks me up when Peter becomes a dragon and has to be taught everything.” Lindsay was growing more animated.

Molly bit her lip. This was a tough choice. “They’re all good. I can’t figure out which to watch.”

“Well, Pern likes Flight of Dragons, but I haven’t seen Last Unicorn for a while. How about that one?”

Molly smiled. “That sounds great. I’ll make the popcorn if you grab the drinks.”

Molly grabbed the DVD and put it in the player. She then grabbed one of her packs of microwave popcorn and tossed it in the microwave. Once they had munchies, the two girls sat down on the bed and started the film. A short while in Molly nervously asked, “So, do you really like hanging out with the Bad Seeds?”

“No, not really. Jadis and a few others are pretty nice but there are a number of jerks in there,” replied Lindsay, idly stroking Pern as she watched the action on the screen.

“You like Jadis?” Molly was rather surprised at that.

“Well, yeah. Jadis is a good friend. She’s not evil or anything like that, just hampered with an idiot brother that she looks out for. Nacht is pretty cool as well, though really sarcastic. Thrasher is also pretty nice. The others… well some of them scare me.” admitted Lindsay. “But Jadis really looks out for me. She is my best friend in the Bad Seeds.”

Molly nodded. “So not all the Bad Seeds are bad?”

“No,” Lindsay huffed as if this was an argument she had before. “I’m a Bad Seed all because my dad is the scariest guy I’ve heard of.”

Molly hugged her roommate. She didn’t want Lindsay to be unhappy. “I guess you all get a bad deal because of your parents.”

Lindsay nodded and then took some popcorn. “I just hate being judged for who my Dad is. I freaked out when he told me. I ran and hid in my closet and it took him a while before he got me to understand and come out. It still scares me.”

“I can imagine. If my parents had told me something like that I would’ve freaked,” admitted Molly, taking a drink of her Hawaiian Punch.

They fell quiet and watched more of the movie giggling at all of the craziness going on at the castle, worried about the Unicorn fighting the Bull in the end.

“Lindsay?”

“Yes?”

“I’m glad you’re my roommate.”

“Me too.”

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Chou was pretty damn nervous about asking this of Ayla. She had respected her roommate in all manner of ways and tried to not take advantage of Ayla’s connections, despite how tempting it had been. But now she really needed the help and Ayla was the only person she could think of to help in this situation. She swallowed heavily and decided to do it.

“Ayla?”

Her roommate looked up from her laptop and over at her. “Yes?”

Chou stared at the ground and twisted one foot nervously. “I need your help.”

“What do you need?” Ayla turned to face Chou, wondering what was up.

“Uhm… well… things haven’t gone so well this week between Molly and me and I kind of wanted to take her on a date to make up for it but I can’t really take her out on the town because we’ll get caught. Is there anything you can do?”

Ayla smiled, clearly amused at the girl’s behavior. “Okay, so you want my help to set up a date. Why exactly do you need my help? I can think of a lot of things you can do.”

“Well, I want it to be special, but there really isn’t anything special here except the Chefs you know. Do you think that maybe that you can get a special dinner set up for the two of us?”

Ayla chuckled. Was that really all her friend wanted? “Chou, you’re my roommate, of course I can set something up. What do you want?”

Chou looked rather blank. She thought and nothing she thought of really registered with her. Ayla was really going to help her? “Uhm…you know, tasty food?”

“Let me try to make this easier…what kind of cuisine?”

“Well, I guess American would be fine, or Italian or maybe even Chinese.”

“Okay. Can you narrow that down some?” asked Ayla patiently. She was trying so hard to get Chou’s palette to expand and it was painfully slow going. There was still way too much southerner in her for her tastes. Thankfully there was no Jones Soda and Moon Pies in the room.

“Well, what can they cook?”

Ayla sighed. “They can cook anything you want. You let me know what you are looking for and they will be able to cook it.”

“How about Italian?” Chou asked nervously.

“Okay. Are you still eating vegetarian?”

“Well, more and more. Meat just doesn’t taste right anymore.”

Ayla cocked her head. That sounded a bit strange. “Doesn’t taste right?”

Chou shook her head. “Nope. The texture is all wrong and the flavor gets all screwed up.”

“So, not even tasty at all?”

“Not really. But there are a huge number of vegetarian options in most things from what I have seen,” commented Chou.

“Fair enough. So… Italian. Do you want to know what is being served?” asked Ayla, making notes in her head about this ‘date’. She wanted to make this perfect for the two girls as she liked them both and this wasn’t really going to put her out much at all.

“I’m okay with being surprised,” stated Chou, sure that Ayla would know food better than she did.

“Okay. I can easily get this set up for tomorrow evening. Let me make some calls and you two can have a nice romantic meal. Does that work?”

Chou hugged Ayla. “Thank you. I just want to make her happy and this should really help.”

“How do you feel about a meat-free putanesca sauce? It’s spicy, tangy, and really good, maybe over linguini, some vegetarian antipasti, a crisp Italian bread with real butter, possibly a salad.” Ayla seemed lost in his world of food again. It was like living with her very own Food Network star.

“Uhm… I don’t really know about all of that Ayla. How about you surprise me?”

Ayla gave her a smile that was not really all that reassuring. Chou reminded herself that she did trust her roommate.

Friday, 12 January 2007

Sayyid ibn Assim ibn Thaqib al Hajj, also known as Saladin, lay back on his bed, sighing, still troubled by the events that had occurred on his break. He had seen his family briefly in Detroit, where they were guests of the Arabic community there, which had been pleasant. Ever since he had come into his power after going on Hajj, when he had touched the Kab’bah, his family had been basking in the reflected glory that he had brought them. It was somewhat annoying, but family was family and you had to endure. It was nice that they had traveled from Tikrit over to the States to be closer to him but there were times he wished they would just leave him alone.

It had been a fairly pleasant break, he had to admit, despite familial issues. There had been no attempts from idiots trying to recruit him for some sort of “terror” action for a change, probably fallout from his capture of a cell and turning them over to the United States government. Maybe they were getting the idea that he really did despise those idiots who perverted the message of the Prophet, praise be upon him, and taking a message of peace and turning it to one of war. The truth of Allah revealed in the Qur’an was far more powerful than the angry words of some Wahabi Imam stirring up trouble. Those damnable fools who focused on the Lesser Jihad forgot that the true duty of any Muslim was the Greater Jihad, that of true submission to the will of Allah. Killing people, whatever the reason, was never proof of true submission.

Sayyid shook off those thoughts, looked at his pile of mail and noticed that one package looked different from the others. It was a manila envelope with his codename on it and this worried him. That sort of thing never came through the regular postal system so this had to be something of a questionable nature. He finished going through the rest of his pile before he picked up this envelope.

He looked all over the outside of the envelope and noticed nothing out of the ordinary about it. His name was written in English in block letters and from the looks of it, it had been written in sharpie. The seal had been taped closed.

When Sayyid opened it, he gasped in surprise. Inside was a photograph of two men standing together. There was a red heart drawn around them and the image of them holding hands and gazing at each lovingly pulled at his heart. He had been so careful, doing what he could to keep the two of them safe from this sort of thing. If this picture was released it could ruin both his and Richard’s life. He couldn’t have that.

He needed to do something so that no one could take action against his boyfriend. He did not care about himself as he was really hard to hurt but Richard was an easier target to go after by far. Not that he was defenseless but certainly not as tough as he was. What could he do in order to keep the man he loved safe?

The back of the picture, in more block letters said, ‘Two hundred thousand dollars for a start or the world knows everything.’ He didn’t recognize the handwriting.

Of all the stupid things that could have happened to him, why this? He ran a hand through his dark hair, frustrated. Sayyid put down the picture and sighed. He really didn’t need this.

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“Do you have any idea why I got the note to come along with you?” asked Nikki, confused over this turn of events. No one had told her about any ‘supplemental training’.

“Got me. Dyffud is strange and different, and this should either be fun and strange or a complete pain in the ass,” stated Chou.

“Thank you. You are so good at instilling confidence,” grumbled the Sidhe Queen.

“You want me to tell you that everything will be all right and that this will magically change your life for the better?” retorted Chou with a smirk.

“Yes,” replied Nikki. The two of them stuck their tongues out at each other and then giggled as they entered the building.

They changed into their workout clothes in the dressing rooms and made sure they had what they needed before heading off for the room that the teacher was using. They reached it fairly quickly and there inside was Dyffud in a headstand, his body still. Nikki was surprised by how attractive the man was, even knowing that he was an Exemplar, and she blushed slightly. He opened his iridescent eyes and smiled back at the two of them. “Thank you for coming Miss Reilly. I am sorry to have taken you away from your other class. I did get permission from Mrs. Hagarty first however.”

“Uhm… that’s alright.” Nikki’s heart was beating a little faster as she looked at him. Why did he have to be this attractive?

Dyffud lowered his legs slowly and he got back to his feet, standing in front of them. “So this particular class is about moving from your truth.”

“Mr. Harraz…”

“Dyffud. Please.” He said, trying to set the mood.

“Dyffud, I already move from there,” countered Nikki, confused.

“Ah, then perhaps your Mentor got it wrong. Could you just humor me for a little bit?” asked Dyffud politely.

“Sure. What would you like to do?” Nikki was wondering just what he had in mind and Chou was wondering as well. This Moving from Truth stuff sounded weird.

“Could you please pull free Malachim’s Feather? I want to spar briefly with you using weapons, that is all. I understand that Chou and Ms. Hagarty have been teaching you and you have some actual combat experience with the sword. Is this correct?” Dyffud seemed to know far more about her than Nikki had expected. It made her feel a bit uncomfortable and off balance.

Chou moved against the wall, really wanting to give them the room to move. Staying out of the way of a weapons fight was a good idea. Nikki asked, “What are you going to fight with?”

Dyffud smiled with a secret in mind, “With me. Don’t worry, you won’t cut me.”

Both Chou and Nikki were a bit surprised at that, knowing just how sharp Malachim’s Feather was. “Uhm… Dyffud, this sword is very sharp and can cut through most things.”

“Don’t worry about it Nikki, this is my choice, so just come at me, for real, as if I were one of the Voodoo Wolves,” replied Dyffud calmly.

The two teens started at that. Nikki shrugged, “If that’s what you want.”

The two bowed and the match started. Chou’s eyes widened as she watched Dyffud’s Chi flow. Something had shifted deeply inside of him and she had no idea what it was. She had never seen anything like this. It was like his chi had expanded and was now flowing into two different patterns. Nikki moved in to attack with an upward diagonal slash. He just moved off to the side and let the blade move by his body, with less than an inch clearance. Nikki changed its direction, coming for a near scooping horizontal cut and Dyffud dove over the blade tumbling away. “Is that really all you have? Come at me seriously.”

Nikki focused and went after Dyffud with a passion, driving him backwards as he continued to taunt her. Finally he said something that had an immediate response from Fey. “You’re the Queen of the West? What a fucking joke?”

Chou could see the change from Nikki to Aungdhadhail in Nikki’s energy and Dyffud slid forward, deceptively slow, blocked the sword with a forearm and drove his elbow into Fey’s diaphragm. Fey dropped to the ground gasping, her sword clattering on the floor as he had knocked the wind out of her. Dyffud just stood there over her, looking down at her.

Chou watched his energy change again and become more of what she was used to and looked at him questioningly. He ignored Chou’s questions, knelt down and hit a few acupressure spots on Nikki. Her breathing stabilized. He looked her in the eyes and smiled. “You weren’t moving from your truth and that gave me an opening. That is what we need to work on.”

Chou came over and helped Nikki to her feet, since the girl was still a bit wobbly. The Sidhe girl looked over at Dyffud and asked, “How did you stop the sword?”

His smile turned into a mischievous grin, “A forearm block.”

“The sword should have gone through your arm,” replied Nikki, unsure why or how anything could have stopped that cut.

“Perhaps.” He turned away, shrugging, leaving it at that. “So… what do I mean by moving from your truth?”

Chou and Nikki looked at each other as if the other might have had the answer. When neither answered, they looked back at Dyffud in some confusion. He just chuckled at them.

“Both of you have an extra bit of trouble with your abilities, since Chou has the Handmaid stuff and Nikki has Aungdhadhail. The transition time between one and the other makes you pause briefly in combat as neither of you is truly connected to your Truth. That pause is a huge opportunity for an attacker.”

Aungdhadhail glowered briefly at the impertinence this man was showing. How dare this mortal presume to know about her in this fashion. She replied challengingly, “Well then what is my truth?”

Dyffud smiled broadly, glad to have engaged both of them. Therefore, he naturally changed the subject. “Your sword didn’t cut me… why?”

“Obviously you have some sort of armor, a TK shield, something like that,” replied Aungdhadhail, as if it were obvious.

“But I thought that your sword could go through anything?” His knowing smile was really starting to grate on her.

Aungdhadhail pursed her lips. “Malachim’s Feather is not Destiny’s Wave. There are limits to what it can cut.”

“So backed by your irritation and strength, it can damage mutants with those sorts of powers? Am I correct in understanding this?”

“Yes.” The reply was curt.

“So again I ask, why didn’t your sword cut me? You were irritated and swung with really decent strength,” re-asked Dyffud calmly, well aware just how irritating that could be.

“I don’t know but I assume that there is something pithy about your Truth that you have in store for us,” replied Aungdhadhail primly.

Dyffud started laughing. The two teens stared at this in confusion, not sure what was so funny and feeling like this was completely unexpected. Having a teacher laugh at you was not the norm.

As Dyffud wiped the tears from his iridescent eyes, he said, “Pithy. Oh… merciful Havens, that was good.”

Nikki had taken control again and was staring at this strange teacher, which for this school was saying something. “So?”

“Oh… yeah. Pithy… heh. Right, part of the issue you both face is that even though separated, your extras are causing you some combat issues since, in effect, you are sharing a body. Both of you are weaker because of it as you sometimes struggle with who is driving. That problem keeps you from moving from your truth.”

Chou blinked in surprise and said, “Wait, you are saying that if we come to terms with these things, we will be stronger than we already are?”

Dyffud nodded, impressed with how fast the Asian girl’s mind worked.

Nikki and Chou goggled, each for a different reason. That particular notion was a bit radical for them. Nikki replied worriedly, “But if I do this won’t Aungdhadhail be absorbed into me?”

“I see no reason why that would happen. Basically, you need to work with the transition, make it smoother and less likely to have you paused in your actions. It makes you stutter in your movement and disrupts your chi for a short while afterward. A clever opponent will strike at that exact moment and take advantage.”

“So what you are saying is that if we come up with a better time sharing process between drivers we should be able to avoid that opening?” asked Nikki, trying to follow the particulars.

He shook his head. They were so close but not there yet. “Look. What you need to do is realize that this is who you are and stop trying to compartmentalize things. You are both of these things. Fey, you are both Nikki Reilly and Aungdhadhail. Chou Lee, you are both Alexander Farshine and The Handmaid of the Tao. So you share your life with some other thing, big deal. Does that fact make you any less you? Is either part any more or less true than the others? When you get a handle on who you really are this problem will disappear.”

Chou thought that over, turning the issue over in her mind. It seemed as if the whole Alex/Chou issue was getting more problematic as time went on and she missed being a boy. True, this body wasn’t always hers but at this point she was clearly a girl and not a boy. She had to accept that at least. True, there was a great deal of cognitive dissonance involved in the issue and she did want to get past it but it wasn’t all that easy. This was clearly tied into her internal energy issues as well. “How?”

Dyffud’s grin got even larger. “You need to realize that there is not a Chou box and an Alex box and a Handmaid box, or a Nikki box and an Aungdhadhail box. There is only one box, you. Alex is still you, despite you now being a girl. The Handmaid is still you, despite everything. And Nikki, Aungdhadhail is your past and to a degree, your future, but you are still Nikki Reilly when all is said and done. Without merging these things, you will leave openings that a good fighter will be able to exploit. I want to help you both fix these holes.”

The two teens stood there in thought, not even seeing things in the room since they were so inwardly focused. Dyffud had gone over to one side of the room and grabbed three zabutons, bringing the teens back by clearing his throat. He handed them one each and gestured to the floor, in what passed as guidance. “Let’s meditate.”

Once the girls were comfortably seated, Dyffud looked at them. “What I want you to do during this meditation is to picture your self, all parts of it. They will not be in a cohesive whole and that is alright at this stage of things. During the meditation, I want you to try to bring them together into one. It isn’t all that easy and you will have to figure out some of the various interconnections in the process that are causing you some issues. Once you can figure those out you might be able to get past this and integrate fairly easily. Shall we?”

As the two girls nodded their agreement, he rang a small bell that had a deep rich tone that seemed to fill the room. The two teens closed their eyes and lost themselves to their meditation for a while, struggling to make themselves whole.

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Sayyid laid his prayer rug out on his bedroom floor, facing Mecca and began his prayers. “Allah huah akbar! Allah huah akbar!”

He had found a nice safe place to say his prayers and get the privacy to do so, as his roommate generally cleared out when it was prayer time. Once he had finished his proscribed prayer, he remained prostrated and began to ask Allah for guidance in this issue. He needed all the help he could get to solve this particular issue. “Ya Allah, Al-Rachman Al-Racheem, please share with me some guidance on this matter. I have read through the most Holy Qur’an and the Hadith of the Prophet, praise be upon him, yet I lack the guidance I need at this moment. As I have no wisdom gleaned, I turn to you, Oh Most Compassionate. Ya Rahb, sahedni!”

Facing Mecca, Sayyid remained bowed and breathing slowly, letting his mind remain clear. He knew what the Holy Qur’an said about homosexuality, he knew what the Hadith said as well on the issue. He had read the fatwas on the issue and all to no avail. The crux of the problem however, was that he had come into his power and his sexuality while he was praying at the Kab’bah on his Hajj. Surely, he would not have been given this power if Allah had disapproved of his life, his love, especially since that love became realized there, at the most holy spot in all the Islamic world.

There were several groups out there, fighting the good fight to protect Islamic homosexuals from the death sentence that their love carried. It was a travesty against Allah to kill someone who was a devout Believer in his most Holy name and yet it was happening all the time throughout the Middle East. Perhaps if he came out he could do something about that, that he could do something to show that one could be both gay and a devout Muslim. Sayyid wasn’t sure what to do exactly in this matter and he wanted more guidance. Prayer had only made this truth about himself more clear rather than less. Surely, Allah the Compassionate and Merciful would not make someone this way just to punish them in their life. Where was the sense of that?

Paying the blackmail would get him nowhere. He was well aware of that. To give whoever did this money was to put a slave collar around his own neck and hand the leash to them. Sayyid would not do that. If he paid, it only assured Richard’s safety until the next attempt to get money, which would be a short while after the first payment. There would be no permanent solution to this problem if he gave in. Maybe he needed to take a page from the Americans and not deal with this terrorist, for surely blackmail was a form of terror. The power of blackmail rested solely on shame and guilt, on the fear of being exposed. What if he had no shame in his actions? What could they do to him if he didn’t hide but rather stood forth proudly?

Sayyid finished his prayer, reached for his phone and called Richard. What he was contemplating would have very far reaching effects and that did scare him a little. It was huge and could shake his world to the very core but he was sure it was the right choice. This was not something he was going to do without warning his love about the avalanche that could very well fall atop both of them.

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Chou headed for Caitlin’s usual haunts to try to catch the Artificer. She really needed to speak to the girl and get some help and advice on several different issues. When she wasn’t in her room, the girl tended to head for the Range, the only place left where she could be at this point. Chou opened her senses to the Tao and checked, looking for that very distinct signature. There, at Range 4, near the Armory, was that void in the current that could only be Caitlin. For all the fact that she felt weird to Chou, Caitlin was easy to find.

Chou entered the range area and headed straight for the void she felt. When she got to the massive gun safe type thing with the open door, Chou called out, “Knock, knock!”

She heard the sounds of someone stirring inside and a familiar voice called out, “What?”

Chou ignored the somewhat angry tone that was Caitlin’s normal speaking voice and continued on. “Caitlin, I need to speak to you.”

Footsteps neared and the door opened more, showing the tattooed face of her friend. “What is it?”

“Can we speak in private?” Chou replied.

Caitlin nodded and let the Asian girl pass. Eldritch closed the door to the Armory and locked it. Once everything clicked into place, Caitlin turned to face her. “We’re in private now.”

“Caitlin, is… is there any way that you can teach me how to use a gun without anybody finding out?” Chou looked down, a bit embarrassed to be asking her this. In a lot of ways Caitlin was her only hope at true stealth in this issue. Any other instructor would have the training be a bit more public and that was not what she wanted.

“Trying to broaden your horizons?” asked Caitlin.

Chou shook her head slightly. “Not so much that as I think that having a gun as a holdout would really freak out an opponent. It would be completely unexpected and might help me.”

Caitlin smiled, noting the perfect opening for this quote, “You know hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”

Chou groaned at the Star Wars reference. She had walked right into that one. “Gods Caitlin, that was terrible.”

A grin was her only response. After some chuckling Caitlin said, “I think I can help you with a little quid pro quo. I can teach you about firearms and firearm combat and you help me with teaching fighting in close.”

Chou stuck out her hand. This wasn’t as hard a sell as she had thought it would be. “Deal.”

They shook to seal the deal and then Caitlin took hold of the girl’s hand and turned it, trying to get an idea for what might fit the girl’s smallish hand. She bit her bottom lip in thought, running through the huge number of firearms out there. “I think a holdout sized weapon would fit your hand better. Maybe the USP CT Compact would work. It should fit nicely in your hand, can be fired one handed, can be fitted with a silencer if need be and is a good all around gun and very durable.”

Chou nodded. “Okay. You’re the expert. If you think that is the best pistol for me, I’ll go for it.”

Caitlin smiled. “Okay, shall we have your first lesson?”

Chou looked down. “Sorry, I can’t right now as I have a date later that I have to get ready for.”

“Don’t worry about it then. Just be ready to work when it comes time for the training.” Caitlin gave her a lopsided smile.

“Oh, I will. I am looking forward to this. Adding to my options would be a good thing. Destiny’s Wave thought it was a great idea as well, which should tell you something. Oh… do you think I can get some relationship help from you as well?” asked Chou nervously.

Caitlin scratched her head, a few sparks flying from that which looked kind of cute. “Honestly, I may not be the best choice for that.”

Chou shrugged. “I just need to talk to someone and you worked out better than anyone else. Your perspective is less romantic and more pragmatic and I kind of need that right now.”

“Ok, shoot.”

“Well, I am in a kind of confusing situation. Molly is acting more possessive of me and then there is this whole strange thing with Dorjee.”

“Wait, you and Molly and Dorjee?” Caitlin was a bit surprised, as she had been expecting the lesbian thing but certainly not the poly thing. What the hell was this kid in to?

“What? No… no…. seriously no. The plan was to kind of hide the fact that Molly and I were dating by my seeing Dorjee on the side, but the problem is that I kind of have feelings for him now. Molly doesn’t really want to sit down and talk about it for the most part and I have no idea what to tell Dorjee. This thing has me ready to tear my hair out. Can you help me?”

Caitlin grumbled. Teenagers and their relationship drama, thinking it was always the end of the world. It was always such a pain and at this school hormones and powers fueled it, which only made things even more screwed up. She knew that this might need more than she had and she might need someone else to step in and take this topic, but Chou had come to her and Caitlin had never run from problems, well at least not when it wasn’t part of the combat plan. She sighed, resigned to her fate, and said, “What’s going on?”

Chou explained the current insanity that was her love life to her Artificer friend, adding in all the details she could think of. Once she had finished, there was a short pause while things processed and then Caitlin Gibbs-slapped Chou upside her head. “Look, Chou, you're fucking up. One: You're using Dorjee and he doesn't deserve that. Two: You need to figure out the first relationship before you start piling on extras. Three: Lying about one to the other is going to bite you in the ass... hard. This is just off the top. Do I need to really keep going?”

“Fine, but what do I do? Molly won't talk to me about this, not for real and I want to get things straight with her before I talk to Dorjee.” complained Chou.

Caitlin gave a very long suffering sigh. “First, you need to step back and make a choice. Do you want to try and juggle both of them and risk them both, or would you prefer to keep one at the very least as a friend? And NOT lose the other.”

Chou put her head in her hands and tightened them. “Gah! I don’t know!”

“Then why are you diving head-first into something you don't have time to consider? You're fourteen years old. You have time on your side for now. You don't have to lock into something like this. You're running around like a forty-year-old spinster afraid she's gonna die alone and all you're doing is making your head hurt, and hurting the feelings of the ones you care about.”

Chou’s frustration was quite clear in her voice and body language. “I KNOW! I know... but Molly won't talk and I get tongue tied around Dorjee.”

“Welcome to life, Chou! It happens to all of us! Seriously, I've been there.” Caitlin chuckled after that. “In a way, you're lucky that this is the most pressing of your problems.”

Continuing to hold her head in her hands, Chou lamented, “Why me?”

“Because you're alive, you breathe, and relationships are tricky,” Caitlin chuckled. “Look, you're trying to do too much at once. I know that you feel like someone dropped the weight of the world on your shoulders, but you need to learn to slow down.”

Chou raised her head and looked at Caitlin and chuckled humorlessly, "They did drop the weight of the world on my shoulders.”

“So shoulder the weight at your pace.” Caitlin gave her a wry look. “You aren't born Taoist. Quit trying to take everything head-on and start looking at the other angles.”

Chou pondered the issue and said, “Head on isn't even Taoist... I am thinking too much like a southern boy.”

“Great, I have to educate a redneck...” Caitlin smirked evilly at the Asian girl.

Chou took the dignified response route and stuck her tongue out. “I'll have you know I don't even like banjo music.”

Caitlin shook her head and sighed, “Let's look at the Molly angle. I understand that you're both antsy about people's reactions to the two of you. But when you are looking at dating a boy, and having that be your public cover... Regardless of your intentions, or her knowing better, Molly's going to be thinking somewhere that you're embarrassed by her.”

“But it was her idea,” whined Chou.

“Just because it was her idea doesn't make it a good idea,” countered Caitlin logically.

Chou smirked at that and said, “I'm getting that. I love her completely but I have no idea why Dorjee affects me so.”

“She's just as much a teenager as you are. Twenty bucks says she didn't think the whole thing through anymore than you did. I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's because Dorjee is a nice guy? They're rare you know,” commented the Artificer, raising an eyebrow.

With a shake of the head, Chou ignored the bet and countered it, “I'm not going to bet on that. I could use that money myself but you’re right, that could be it. It's just that we... I don't know... click and that scares me a little and makes me want to be around him more.”

“Huh. Maybe there's hope for you after all.”

Chou looked at the girl as if she were a bit crazy.

“Think about it. You're adapting some to what you are and who you're growing into if you can admit that much, Chou.”

Chou sighed and conceded the point. “Well, okay... it just doesn't feel like it.”

“You're a teenager. It's not like... we have a real clear idea who we are, or what we're becoming in the future. How many times have you said you wanted to be an astronaut, then a cop, then whatever else piqued your interest at the moment?” Caitlin actually felt glad to know that someone trusted her enough to come to her with personal problems. Maybe it was a sign that she was doing something right.

“All the time, but right now my prospects are kind of narrow. This gig is pretty specific.” Chou was feeling somewhat better but this issue bugged her. “All I have to look forward to is fighting the good fight and dying for the cause.”

“Says you. Just how often does this almighty Tao say Ohmyfuckinggawdthisneedstobefixedwithasentientsword???”

“Okay, you have a point.”

Caitlin got comfortable; hopefully this wouldn’t take too long. “Unless you decide to be some kind of balance crusader there's room in there for a life. It's like being a super in an apartment. You don't get paid, but you get a free room, and occasionally you have to fix a leaky faucet. And collect the rent at the end of the month. That leaves a lot open, now doesn't it?”

“That makes sense, the Tao makes me nudge things as needed but it isn't my whole life. I hope it is really like that.” Chou sat back, with her hands clasped together in her lap.

“I'm pretty sure noisy sword would have commented if I was wrong.”

Destiny’s Wave joined the conversation, “Noisy Sword is not amused.”

“Mouthy Artificer is less than sympathetic,” jibed Caitlin, enjoying herself some.

The sword replied, “If I had a tongue I would be sticking it out at you right now, MeiMei.”

“It's so nice to know the voice of serene wisdom resorts to kindergarten retaliation,” Caitlin smirked, quite pleased by the lack of decorum the sword was showing.

“I figured it to be appropriate given your usual level of discourse,” snarked the magical sword right back at the girl.

“All right, I'm done tormenting my voice-clone,” The Artificer smirked and shook her head slightly. She turned to Chou and said, “Point is, become friends with Dorjee first rather than public significant others, alright? That way, if something does develop, at least Molly won't feel threatened. And she just might develop some kind of friendship, or at least understanding with him, rather than having a rival. Believe me, there's nothing worse than a fourteen-year-old girl in a jealous snit.”

“So I’ve noticed. I might be able to work with that. Thank you Caitlin.”

“Yeah, no problem. But do yourself a favor and quit biting off more than you can chew. You have enough on your plate just between school, and asking me to show you how to play with bangers. Never mind the psychological hazards of hanging out with the Kimbas.”

“I think I am actually one of the psychological hazards,” grumbled Chou, well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of her friends.

“Chaka.” One word was all that was needed to change Chou’s mind on the subject.

Chou had to concede that one. “Okay... good point.”

“I'll warn you though, don’t bring the trauma to training with you. I agreed to teach you to shoot and fight effectively. I'm not gonna let up because you're in a rough spot once we get rolling,” chided Caitlin, hoping to get that through the girl’s head.

“I understand. I am more than willing to eat bitter.”

Caitlin smirked at the Asian girl, pointing at her red Ultraviolent armband. “Bitter? I don't do bitter. I do psychotic. See?”

Chou grinned mischievously, “But you taste like candy.”

“Candy huh? Maybe a poison-pop,” countered Caitlin.

Chou snickered at that.

“Go get your girl to talk to you. If you fail I'm going to make you run laps around Arena ‘99 with Razorback chasing you.”

Chou smiled at the metallic tattooed Artificer. “Thanks. That helped.”

“Don't thank me yet, Chou, you're the one who needs to figure out how to do it without making things worse.”

“Great.”

“We'll be starting tonight in the holo sims at seven. Make sure you don't eat anything after six. I don't want you barfing in the simulator helmet.”

“Okay...” Chou realized something and smiled sheepishly. “Can we start tomorrow? I have a date with Molly tonight.”

Caitlin nodded to her and the girl ran out. Caitlin sighed and watched the girl fade out of sight. Would this be worth it? Would the girl stick with the training? They were valid questions as the Artificer who used to be Mahren pondered the issue.

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Sayyid used his laptop to find the name he wanted from the school directory. Since he wanted the blackmailer found, he knew he would have to go to someone for help. And given the nature of this particular case he wanted to do turn to someone he felt like would help him without outing him. There was only one person for the job as far as he knew. He dialed his phone.

“Hello? Harley speaking.” The feminine voice was calm and some muttering in French could be heard in the background, apparently upset over something or another.

“Reach? This is Saladin. I need your help.” He wanted to keep things short and sweet.

“My help or the Spy Kidz help?” Harley’s drawl was slow but easily understandable. The French voice was now asking who it was. Sayyid just ignored it.

“Yours, as I have heard that you are a bit more successful than some of the others. Let us say that you also are somewhat… akin to family after your recent adventures. You and your girlfriend have the skills I need right now to fix a problem that has arisen. Do not worry, I can happily provide you both with sufficient compensation for your assistance. Interested?”

The line was quiet a moment and Saladin could almost hear the gears turning inside Reach’s head. “I think we may be able to do business.”

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Chou looked at herself in the mirror and fiddled with her outfit. She was willingly wearing a skirt and blouse that was not part of the school uniform, which was a major feat. The brown skirt and cream blouse looked really good on her and the girl was even wearing jewelry. Ayla was just smiling at her, “You look really cute.”

Chou grumbled some and turned the skirt again, just a little, as if trying to get it to sit straighter.

“Relax Chou, you look fine.” Ayla dragged Chou away from the mirror to keep her roommate from stressing out.

“I just want to look good for her.”

“Chou, Molly would think you looked good in a burlap sack. As it is, you look like a perfectly normal girl getting ready to go on a perfectly normal date. You’ll be fine.” Ayla did what she could to calm the girl down, as Chou was completely a bundle of nerves.

Chou sighed and muttered to herself a mantra she had started using after her first real class with Dyffud, “I am a girl… I am a girl.”

Her chi stabilized and she calmed down. She sighed, letting her deep breath out. “Okay. Wish me luck.”

Ayla chuckled and he said, “You don’t need any, but good luck.”

Chou slid on Destiny’s Wave, pulling her coat over the sword. She slung her bag on and took a deep calming breath. Ayla added one more thing as the girl left, “Take care.”

When she walked out, several others were in the hall, waiting for this particular unveiling. Jade looked really excited to see Chou in a skirt and gushed, “You look nice.”

“Thanks Jade.”

“Have fun, girlfriend,” said Toni. Chou just rolled her eyes.

Chou was not going to pick Molly up at her room but rather they were meeting in a room that Ayla had prepared for them. This was a nice treat and Chou was certain that Molly was going to enjoy this. She was looking forward to it as well.

She got down into the tunnels and made her way towards the tunnel section under Crystal Hall. She was looking forward to this, as they would be basically alone for the majority of the meal, with the exception of the wait staff. That hadn’t happened since Boston and doing this would be a good thing. She missed just spending alone time with her girlfriend, as she had gotten used to that over the break.

Chou reached the area and entered the code Ayla had given her into the door’s electronic lock. Once it opened, she slipped inside and sighed in relief. Sometimes this cloak and dagger stuff was more trouble than it was worth.

“Hi.”

Chou turned and there stood Molly, wearing a nice dress, looking absolutely adorable. Chou thought she looked beautiful. “Uh… you look wonderful.”

Molly smiled cutely. “Thank you.”

The room was fairly plain but there was a table in the center of it that was set nicely with a white table cloth, actual silver silverware, crystal water glasses and a few candles. There was even a vase with some cut flowers inside it as well. There was some classical music playing overhead that set a somewhat romantic mood. Chou was impressed and the two girls took a seat and waited.

“So what are we having?” asked Molly, curious about this mystery meal.

“Italian. I asked Ayla to get something together for us as I know that he has really good food connections. I figured you were worth using him to make this happen,” said Chou.

Molly seemed excited by the revelation as one of the kitchen staff brought out the cart with their meals on it. First was the antipasti course, where there was a selection of meats, cheeses and vegetables, as well as some garlic bread and marinated Tuscan peppers. They both nibbled at that, with Chou focusing more on the cheese and less on the meat, both really pleased by the garlic bread which was a fresh Italian loaf with rough cut garlic and unsalted Danish butter throughout. It was tender and tasty.

“This is really good.” commented Molly between bites.

“Well, Ayla does have the hook-up for food and I thought this would be special. This is the kind of food that Ayla usually has, the same quality, so we are eating the best food in the area,” replied Chou, trying to help mend things, since Molly was clearly upset over the whole Dorjee thing. “I wanted to spoil you with the best. So what did you think of Rythax’s shoulder angels?”

Molly snickered, remembering the dignity that the Ambassador had tried to project. It hadn’t worked all that well. “They were really cute and I liked them. He suffered through it all, as usual. Sometimes I think he is tired of hanging out with a teenager.”

The salad course was next, and the field green salad had a delicate mushroom and pepper balsamic vinaigrette atop it. They seemed pleased by that course as well, as dialogue faded in importance compared to eating.

Before the main dish was brought out, a small bowl with a tiny scoop of lime sorbet was given to each of them. She and Molly both looked surprised and the Summoner asked, “Ice cream in the middle of a meal?”

Chou shrugged. She had no idea either. This was yet another strange thing that probably served some sort of purpose that she had no clue about. “Want me to ask Ayla after this to find out?”

Molly thought about that for a moment, then shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. It’s just one of those different weird things about high dining I suppose.”

Chou had to agree, as Ayla was the only person she had ever known that had eaten food like this. Back in Knoxville, the big treat they had done was a few of the amazing barbecue places and this was so unlike barbecue.

The main dish was eggplant parmesan with a Puttanesca sauce minus the anchovies atop it, stacked on top of some linguine. There were also some steamed Italian green beans with red and green peppers on the side that smelled faintly of butter and fresh herbs. More garlic bread came with it. Their mouths began to water just at the sight of it.

The moans of gustatory pleasure that filled the room were testament enough of how the meal had gone over. Again, there was more eating and less talking. The interplay of flavors was great and occasionally one of them would flutter their eyes open long enough to smile at the other. It was a true epicurean experience for them.

Their forks came down and they both sat back, blissfully pleased by the meal. “You have got to thank Ayla for this and make sure we can do this again. This was incredible.”

Chou nodded. She had to agree with her girlfriend. “This was… wow.”

“Chou?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry I have been a bit crazy lately. It’s just that the whole issue with Dorjee makes me crazy and you keep bringing it up. I know why we are doing it but that doesn’t help how I feel.”

“Molly, I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you. I like Dorjee, but what I feel for him is nowhere close to what I feel and have with you. If I ever had to choose between the two of you, he would always lose.” Chou really hoped that her words would get through to Molly this time as repeating herself was getting old. This issue had to be settled before it consumed both of them.

“I know, but it is so hard to remember that when I see you two head off on a date.”

Before Chou could get up to comfort the girl she loved, the door opened and more food came in, this time it seemed to be a cake. The lemon cream cake was light and flavorful and was the perfect contrast to what they had just eaten. More moans of happiness filled the room.

Once they were done, the chef came out to greet them. Chou couldn’t recognize him, but she hadn’t really had a chance to get to know the cooks. Maybe this was something she needed to fix.

“I hope everything was to your liking?”

“The food was incredible,” gushed Molly, still riding on a food high.

“It was fabulous. Thank you very much,” commented Chou.

“It was my pleasure. Thank you ladies for allowing me the pleasure of cooking for you,” he smiled and inclined his head slightly.

“The pleasure was ours. Trust me on that,” added Molly honestly.

When the chef left, they sat there briefly, just staring at each other and smiling. Chou was kind of hoping that Ayla wasn’t going to be in the room, as this definitely seemed to be calling for some alone time. It also looked like Molly was on the same wavelength as her.

Before the girls left the room, the two kissed passionately by the door. Chou cupped Molly’s face in her hands and said, “I love you. Never doubt that.”

Saturday, 13 January 2007

Gunny Bardue’s voice blared throughout the sim. “Team Kimba! We’re extracting you now! Don’t worry! Hold on for just a few more seconds!”

“Yeah, yeah, where were you a minute ago, when we really need you?” complained Ayla over the comms.

“Okay, disengaging holos… now! Open your helmets!”

Chou groaned. The pain was bad. Her ribs hurt, where several were either severely bruised if not broken. Her left leg still burned and felt like the skin was crispy. It didn’t feel as if everything were broken, but her shins and arms hurt quite painfully from all the blocking against Counterpoint and Judicator. It had not been pretty. She lay there in the chair, wincing in pain with every breath. All she wanted right now was to get the hell out of the chair. Maybe she was still feeling the feedback from the system?

With a groan of extreme effort, she pulled herself out of the chair, the pain in her leg and rib flaring and she almost whited out due to the pain. Holding onto the arm of the chair, Chou took a few breaths to center herself as she battled the pain that consumed her. Maybe once she got out of the suit she would feel better?

It felt like it was a long way to the door and she slowly pushed it open with her shoulder as she was holding her ribs, trying to reduce their movement as each step jarred them. She limped out of the room and saw some of the others in the corridor.

“Uh-oh,” Toni muttered as she spotted Chou.

“Not good,” Lancer said as the Asian girl grimaced as she moved closer to the group.

Fey stepped over to her and said, “Chou. Stop walking. Let me see what I can do.”

Chou managed to give a pained smile, her breathing labored. “That would be good. It feels like I have bruises from my face down to my knees, and a bad burn on my left leg from Counterpoint. I don’t understand how the sim suit is still sending those signals when I’m not hooked up anymore.”

Fey concentrated for a few seconds, letting her magic read the girl and the damage to her body. Her response was one of surprise,“It’s because your injuries are real. You really are bruised and burned.”

Chaka gasped, “Shit! You mean these suits can really hurt us? Whose crazy idea was that?”

Lancer thought aloud, “I don’t think it’s supposed to happen. You know Phase. There’s no way she’d just put on a suit like that without warning all of us, and then trying something to minimize the effects.”

Chaka added, “And you know she read the whole frigging binder, whether she’s gonna admit it or not.”

Everyone nodded, as it was so true. If they needed to know any of that data all they had to do was ask Phase who wasn’t out there yet.

Fey’s hands were warm as she sent her magic into Chou. It sort of tingled in a funny sort of way. As Chaka walked away, she began to speak, letting Chou know of the damage. “You have a third degree burn on your left knee and you almost have a punctured lung. More bruises and contusions cover you than you can shake a stick at. Let me take care of this.”

Chou nodded and felt the magic roll through her. It was not instantaneous but it took a while and the burn itched so badly that it took effort not to scratch it. Her breathing slowly got easier and that made her life a bit better. A scream took her attention elsewhere. “FEY!”

That was Toni’s voice. The magic that rolled through her never wavered. She yelled back to Toni, “Almost done with Chou! Hold on!”

Lancer hustled over and looked into the sim room that Ayla had used. “Oh Christ, Ayla!”

Once the warmth energy faded from her, she followed Nikki into the room. Lancer was not looking in there. In fact, he was pointedly not looking in there. Chou groaned in pain, as Fey had only taken care of the larger injuries and not all the contusions. She wasn’t in any danger but she wasn’t completely better either. Once she could see into the room her eyes went wide is surprise and concern, “Ayla!”

Fey was busy using the same spell to try and heal the majority of Ayla’s burns. Chou came over to her roommate and took over from Toni. Ayla gasped out, “My clothes.”

Chou shook her head, “You know better than that. Lancer, could you find a blanket for Ayla?”

The young man happily left to collect the blanket.

The burns were extensive and the spell was working fairly well, but things did not look all that good. “Hang on Ayla, we’ll be to ready to take you to the hospital as soon as we can get you covered up.”

“Toni, could you grab my clothes, so I can change into them after were done?”

Chaka nodded and sprinted off. Chou helped to support her friend while they were waiting to get help to go to the Infirmary. This practice run had not gone so well for them.

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“Dorjee? Yeah this is Chou.”

“How are you?” he asked casually.

“Not well. Someone screwed with our run this morning and a bunch of us are injured. I just wanted to let you know we can’t go out tonight. I hurt way too much so I’m gonna stay in the dorm if that’s alright.” Chou was kind of sad about that. She had been looking forward to the date but with how she felt it would not be pleasant.

“Are you hurt badly? I can come over there.” Dorjee did seem a bit ruffled by the news and she thought it was sweet.

“No, just dinged up. My guess is that after the debriefing we are all going to head back to the dorm and fall over. No need to come over and watch us lie around.” Chou really didn’t want him to come over because Molly was going to be there and that meeting would certainly end in fire. She hurt too much to do that kind of damage control.

“Okay then. I will catch you later.” Dorjee sounded a bit down but there wasn’t really anything she could do about that.

“Take care. Talk to you later and we can reschedule. Bye.” Chou hung up the phone and sighed in frustration.

Toni chuckled at her. “Two timing Molly already?”

“No.”

“So what are you doing?”

“This is just part of the plan to keep us under the radar.”

“Ah, so it is a camouflage thing?”

“Yes.”

“With someone that you like and are interested in?”

“Yes.”

“Someone who you have kissed?”

“Yes.”

“So, two timing,” stated Toni with great certainty.

“You’re one to talk,” countered Chou.

“I know, that’s why I know what it looks like. Duh! That and my highly tuned Ki relationship sensor,” smugly stated Toni.

Chou groaned. Sometimes Chaka was almost as strange as Jade. Almost.

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“I need to kill the damn baseline bitch. I have heard that you have a personal issue with her as well. This should be low risk to you, as you won’t have to get your hands dirty at all, just a few keystrokes. So, will you help?” asked Nex, once he had been assured that their conversation was private.

“What exactly did you want me to do?” asked Nephandus, looking forward to the opportunity to get the girl back for her part in the ‘duct taping to the toilet’ incident before Christmas break. He was still hearing about that from various students, and occasionally found a photo of him and the golem.

“All I will need you to do is kill the surveillance feeds in a given area at a given time when I signal you. That’s it. Can you manage that?” Nex hated asking for help as they rarely came through. Trusting his safety to anyone other than himself was a big risk and he knew it. However, he did not have the particular skill set needed for this part of the task.

“I can. It will be a bit tricky because Security’s computer security has been upgraded something fierce. It can be done but it will cost you a pretty penny.”

Nex chuckled. That was what he had wanted to hear. As long as it could be done, he was fine with it. “I just want to remove this blot on my permanent record. That’s worth almost any cost.”

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Chou didn’t want to feel smug, but she did anyway, as she had managed to avoid the craze that had led the whole school to this. The Headmistress was not pleased and was doing her best to make sure that everybody in the school was on the same page. The power she had literally pouring off her certainly helped as she talked to the assembled student body. All of this insanity that had consumed the campus existed just because Jade had decided to prank Ayla. It was staggering to think of how far the Munchkin’s reach was.

Honestly, this was almost was as bad as the noodle incident in a lot of ways. The innocent little girl had once again wrought chaos around her, chaos that had expanded to almost envelop the whole student body. For someone so small, her ability to start avalanches of chaos was off the chart. Chou had to wonder if the school had a way to check on that as an ability, because it sounded seriously like Probability Warping or something akin to that. Maybe Jade actually had a degree of probability warping in her that helped made these things explode? It was a decent question but one that would probably never be asked.

Innocence and chaos. It was a really potent combination and one that the almost-girl abused all the time.

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The two of them stood next to each other in the foyer as they waited for a table. They had met here, as Amelia had been kept busy with the final aspects of dealing with the plague of shoulder puppets that had consumed the school. Amelia had bustled in a touch late, as she had often done back when she had been in college. When she saw him, she was impressed that he had actually worn slacks and a dress shirt for the occasion. This was a definite improvement over college.

“So how have things been Amelia? I heard a rumor that there is supposed to be more trouble with…” Dyffud held out his hand palm up, not wanting to utter the name aloud.

Amelia nodded grimly, “It looks that way. I’m safe in and around campus, but off campus things can get a bit… complicated.”

“I also heard that you are the liaison to the Alphas and I have heard stories about this year’s fine batch,” Dyffud snickered, remembering the Alphas of his day.

She frowned, “Freya was over the top but bearable. She knew what being an Alpha was all about. The Don and Hekate were not so blessed. I have hopes for Kodiak, if he can get his act together. Solange just… I don’t really have words for her.”

“Sounds like a fine bunch of kids you got there,” he smirked.

She swatted him on the arm. “Dork. You know, I still can’t believe that you turned down membership.”

“Well, you know how I feel about Travis. Sometimes I think I should have just punched him and have been over it,” Dyffud shrugged. “So it goes.”

Amelia chuckled some. “You know, that would have been hysterical. I think a lot of people would have cheered if you had done that.”

“I don’t know about that. At least college was better.”

“You know, you were the only graduate to choose philosophy and religion as your majors in our class,” teased Amelia.

“What can I say Melli, I had very different priorities from everyone else,” he shrugged.

“I never got that whole spiritual thing you have going on.”

“Well, not everybody is there and there is no need for them to be there, dealing with these things if they aren’t ready for it. I am pretty hopeless in terms of computers but they’ll do anything you want. I don’t get that either.”

Amelia hmmed for a bit and then said, “Well, that is clearly a sign showing just how different everybody else is from you.”

Dyffud chuckled, “And doesn’t that just bug the crap out of you.”

Amelia glowered at him as a response.

“Please don’t try to tell me that your worldview isn’t still caught up into boxes of what’s right and what’s not. I know you Melli, you always had to have things nice and orderly.” His smile was friendly and that helped temper things.

“I like order, is that so bad?” countered Amelia with a huff.

“Only when your love of order makes you go after people who don’t fit into your nice little boxes. Then it is bad. Sometimes you just have to relax and let the world be messy.”

Amelia thought about Dr. Palm and all the things he had done. For someone so computerized he was completely outside of order, well except for his alone. Maybe Dyffud had a point, like he usually did. “I’ll consider it.”

“That, Amelia, is the best that anyone can hope for.”

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Chou was sure that she didn’t need her pillow fluffed. It had been a long day and she hurt basically everywhere and a fluffy pillow wasn’t going to help all that much. However, Molly refused to listen to her and fluffed it anyway.

The room smelled heavily of the salve she had learned to make, the healing salve that the whole team seemed to cherish. Molly, Bunny and Rip had helped slather everyone with the stuff and this much usage meant that a new batch had to be made as soon as possible. It had actually become a staple of the Team Kimba members and that made Chou feel kind of proud.

Both Ayla and she were pretty much bed bound, with Ayla lying on his stomach to relieve the pressure on the healing burns on his back. Between Counterpoint, Knick-Knack, Prism, and Judicator they were both pretty seriously messed up, even after the healing they had gotten. Molly made sure that Chou was nice and warm.

Vox came in and checked on Ayla, worried about him still, despite having seen him a few other times that evening. Bunny and Rip were not as bad with their patients and Jade and all of her various selves were hovering around Tennyo to make sure the traumatized girl was okay. Given their current disposition, you would have thought that they had been the losers of this particular exercise instead of somehow managing to pull out a win.

Chou realized something else and activated her Spot. <Everybody?>

There was a chorus of responses, letting her know she had their attention.

<Remember that we have the tea party tomorrow. I really want to make sure you are all there.> said Chou a bit nervously.

<We will be there. Don’t worry girl.> chided Toni, amused that her friend was so stressed about a little get together where they were going to suck down the juice of soaked leaves. It was cute.

<Sorry, but I just keep getting the feeling that the tea party is important.>

Several people chuckled and the lines went dead.

Molly sat on the edge of the bed and looked at her. “A tea party?”

Chou nodded. “With some of the tea that the Immortals gave me. It should be a good thing for all of us.”

Vox looked over, suddenly interested, “Tea? Can I come?”

Chou was about to answer when Ayla jumped in and said, “Sure. That should be fine. Right Chou?”

“Absolutely. It should be a lot of fun.”

“How is tea fun?” asked Vox.

Chou smiled mischievously, “You’ll see.”

Molly gushed, “That tea is so tasty. You just have to try it.”

Vox nodded, “Then I’ll see you there.”

Molly climbed onto the bunk and lay down next to Chou, snuggling against her. The Asian girl began to run her hand through the girl’s brown hair. She heard Molly sniffle a little and so she hugged her. “Molly, what’s wrong?”

“I was so scared when I was called from the hospital. I was worried all day until you all came back to the dorms. I was almost frantic as they wouldn’t tell me anything other than you had been hurt.” It sounded like the girl was getting ready to cry more.

“I’m okay love, just sore. Fey took care of the bad things right off the bat so I am good.” Chou tried to sooth her worried girlfriend. It seemed to be working.

“Promise me you won’t die without me,” asked Molly, turning her tear filled brown eyes on her girlfriend.

“What?” The request surprised Chou.

“I just don’t want you to die alone. I want to be there for you and if you promise me that, I am fairly sure that will be true. Please.”

Chou was well aware of just how many holes that request had in it. There were way too many variables involved in the request for her to like it. But if it made her happy… “I promise.”

“Good.”

The two of them drifted off and despite the pain she was in, Chou fell asleep with a smile on her face.

Sunday 14 January 2007

The Kimba girls all came into the dayroom where Chou was waiting for them. She had gotten everything she had needed for this, coached by Destiny’s Wave. She had the cups, the tea, the hot water, everything. She had even managed to get the dayroom for just them, which had not been an easy task. It was nice and peaceful at the moment, which was the purpose.

Hank was the last one to arrive. “Sorry everybody.”

“That was the most chick like thing I have seen you do,” commented Toni tactlessly.

“What?” Hank stopped abruptly, surprised by the accusation.

“Usually you are waiting for the woman to be ready.” She stuck her tongue out at him and Hank just rolled his eyes.

Chou just shook her head. She opened the bag of tea that the Immortals gave her for Christmas and dumped a measured amount into the pot. She added the water, and the steam brought forth a tremendous fragrance that slowly filled the room. Chou smiled as she could see several of the others perk up with just the smell of the tea. Fey’s response was the most dramatic, rising up almost like a flower reaching for the sun.

Everyone respected the silence as they were waiting for the tea to steep. Chou sighed, feeling her muscles relax as she breathed in the steam. This act felt familiar, as if it were a part of who she was. She had no idea why, but it did feel that way. It was a mix between deja vu and remembering and felt strange.

After the required time, Chou poured the tea, filling the cups with the special herb blend. Toni was practically quivering from the effort to remain still even though it had been only about nine and a half minutes since this had started. Chou smirked as she handed out the cups. When everyone had one, she raised her cup for a toast, “Long life.”

There were several responses, only a few of which were what she had said. Fey had muttered something in Sidhe that no one but her really knew. With the first few sips, several of the others eyes went wide in surprise. Ayla was looking at her cup as if it had suddenly just appeared there. “This… this…”

“Spit it out Ayla,” said Toni.

“This is really, really good. This is better than any other tea I have ever had.” The look of surprise on the Goodkind’s face made all of this worth it.

This only added to the surprise on several other girl’s faces. Chou smiled and took another sip of her own tea before she said, “Did you really think that the Immortals would give me something that was of poor quality?”

There were some laughs at that. Jade cautiously asked, “Uhm… Chou?”

“Yes Jade?”

“What are we supposed to do now?” Jade looked down nervously, as if she had made a huge faux pas by talking.

“Well, talk, relax, have more tea, tell stories, whatever you like,” replied Chou. “I just thought we should get all our friends together and have some of this tea. Tennyo, how are you feeling?”

The anime character replica replied a bit morosely, “Better I guess. The tea does make me feel less depressed.”

Chou sighed. One of her goals had been met and that was really important. Tennyo was quite possibly the strongest member of their team and what had occurred in the sim had affected her greatly.

Toni grinned broadly, “Well, if that’s the case… drink up!”

Several of the others groaned and rolled their eyes.

“So let me get this straight… the Immortals just gave you this tea?” asked Nikki.

“Yep. It seems like it is a healing draught of some sort combined with an enhancement of some sort. I’m not exactly sure. Very potent herbs are in this and on top of that it’s tasty. Another cup?” Chou picked up the teapot and used it to gesture to the Sidhe.

Nikki smiled and nodded. “I am just fine with any positive thing I can get. You know if it weren’t for bad luck, I’m not sure we would have any luck at all.”

Hank groaned, “Come on Nikki, we do have good luck. We succeed more often than not and have managed to pull off things that some of the adults haven’t managed.”

Chou said, “But a lot of these things just seem to fall on us. That’s not a good thing.”

“We go to Boston to have some fun and run right into a massive brawl, not once but twice. I have to agree, we have some bad luck, girlfriend,” agreed Toni.

Chou refilled a few more cups and then noted that she needed to refill the pot. She went about that while the discussion continued around her. She sighed. Never in her entire life had she been surrounded by so many friends. As Alex, he had only three friends, almost all of whom were school friends and not really the hanging out sort of friends. This was certainly a positive change in her life from accepting the sword.

The scent filled the air again, conversation paused, and people took in deep breaths of the fragrance. Chou smiled. This seemed to be just what everyone needed after yesterday and the overly exciting holidays that several of them had. All too often they were too busy to slow down and just relax. The third round of tea filled cups and produced a few more smiles, even some weak ones from Tennyo. “So, do you all want to keep doing this every Sunday?”

The responses left no doubt as to their choice.

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Chou was wandering aimlessly around the campus. There were people here and there but she was basically ignored. That was a nice thing as far as she was concerned. There were too many other things going on in her life to have to stress about other people. Besides, after her Combat Final, she got bumped into less than before. It seemed as if beating Nex had been something that had gone over well with the rest of the school.

She was debating going out for a walk in the woods but was not sure as she was meeting Molly later for lunch. If she went out into the woods, she might meet a voodoo wolf or some other fun creature from beyond that wanted to tussle and she didn’t want to get her clothes torn or blood stained. That would just suck and she liked what she was wearing.

Ahead she spotted a familiar witch hat bobbing through the snow. With a hat like that, it had to be Clover, but didn’t she usually travel with two other friends? Chou wasn’t entirely sure. Chou changed her direction and headed on an intercept course for the young girl. When she got closer she called out, “Hello there Clover.”

Clover looked at her, a bit confused as to who this older girl was, then it registered and she smiled brightly. “You were the girl that helped the other girl inside the circle?”

“Yep, that was me. I recognized you because of your excellent witch hat. How are you doing?” asked Chou, a bit curious actually.

“I’m doing great but I am still looking for quintessence. Do you have any I can have? ‘cause if I get some before Pally she’ll be so jealous,” replied Clover a bit spaced out.

Chou thought a moment and then grinned. This could be fun and getting more friends might be a good idea. You never knew when you might need an ally. “You know… I can give you some power you can do stuff with. That is, if you want.”

Clover’s eyes got really wide and she asked excitedly, “Really?”

“Sure. You have a way to hold it?” asked Chou, already centering herself and opening herself up to the energy that surrounded her.

At the nod, Chou began to draw in some of the Universal Chi that surrounded them and shaped it into a sphere about the size of a soccer ball. She could feel the energy get heavier and stronger as she shaped it with her hands. Running her hands around it, she stopped feeding it and made sure that it was contained. She had made it as safe as possible. “Here you go.”

Clover seemed giddy when she took the energy. “Thanks.”

Before Chou could say anything back, Clover scampered off for parts unknown and mischievous giggling filled the air behind her. “You know…” thought Chou. “I hope I didn’t do anything bad by doing that.”

Chou had enough of wandering about and figured that Molly might be in the library working, as that was her habit. Miss Henderson stared at her as she walked in and Chou could feel the woman’s eyes track her until the stacks blocked her from view. That woman bothered her, the way she stared all the time. She found Molly at her favorite desk, digging through some tome on the History of Summoning, making notes.

“Hey Molly.”

“Hey.” Molly didn’t look up, still working.

“Is that for the paper?”

Molly nodded. “Yeah. It’s due tomorrow and I am almost done. I can see how he thinks that this will help. It does help put things into perspective, which is nice.”

“Cool. Been able to get anything else?” Chou was curious, as the pixies that Molly had summoned back in Boston had turned out to be useful, at least somewhat.

“Nothing yet. We have been working on preparatory stuff first. You have to know what sort of deal you are offering even before the spell is cast or you are likely to have the creature turn on you. We have been trying to figure out what we want, what we are willing to accept, and what we are willing to offer. It’s been pretty intense.” Molly was clearly excited by this. “But once this is done I can start summoning larger things.”

“Awesome. I am so excited for you. So, I felt like I just had to ask, are you going to be okay with me going out with Dorjee tonight?” Chou’s voice was nervous and it was clear that she was trying to ask this without irritating the other girl. She failed.

“I said I was fine with it,” snapped Molly, looking up angrily from her book.

Chou put her hands up, “Sorry. I just wanted to make sure.”

“Christ Chou, why can’t you just drop it?” grumbled Molly, clearly frustrated by the never ending conversation. “I said I was fine with things. So just leave it alone.”

Chou flinched back slightly, surprised by the vehemence of the response, “Sorry. I just want us to come to some sort of resolution.”

“I thought we had. Can we just not talk about this anymore? I need to get some studying done,” Molly huffed and turned her attention back to the book in front of her and ignored Chou, as the girl was irritating her.

The girl stood there and watched her girlfriend ignore her and it hurt. Her chest grew tight and she started to tear up. Chou turned away and headed back outside, where it felt less cold, trying to fight off the threatening tears.

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The good thing about his skills was that he could follow someone without being seen by pretty much anyone around him. Nex just did what he could to follow the girl in order to get a better idea of how she moved and any of her personal patterns. With the lovely distractions provided by the occasional bickering still caused by those stupid shoulder angels, he had very little trouble following in her wake without causing a disturbance.

A few times the girl stopped and looked behind her, but Nex made sure to keep from having his focus waver. There were too many witnesses about so he would have to wait for just the right opportunity to show up and take her out. He was sure one would, if not on a weekend than on some other day. Stalking her after classes would be well worth the aggravation when he cut her throat, snapped her spine, and split her skull. He might even put out her eyes and cut out her tongue while he was at it.

Desecrating her body would be more for amusement than anything else. It wouldn’t give him any particular thrill, except for the fact that the fucking slope would be dead and he could hold his head up again. There were a lot of people who kept giving him shit over his loss to the chink bitch. He would correct this injustice and get her out of there.

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Once she made it into the holographic simulator section, Chou took off the Robe of Midnight. She headed for the lockers, as that was where Caitlin had told her to meet. Once in there she found the girl awaiting her, already in her sim suit. “Come on Chou. Hurry up. We don’t have all night.”

Chou quickly changed and rushed down to the sim chairs. This was going to be her first class in firearms and she was pretty excited. She wasn’t sure what the girl had in mind and was looking forward to it. The last time she learned anything about firearms had been when her dad had bought her a rifle for Christmas back when she had been eleven. When she reached a seat she paused, thinking about the last time she had been there. She frowned and climbed in, clicking her helmet in place.

Once she did, things flashed into a mockup of the Range. Caitlin was standing there calmly. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah. And you’re sure that this will teach me correctly, so I can use these skills in the real world?” asked Chou a bit worriedly.

“Trust me, you’ll be fine. Now, you said that your Dad taught you some basics?”

Chou nodded.

“Okay. Your weapon is in the lane here. First things first, what do you know of Range safety laws?” asked Caitlin, falling into the training patter that was familiar to her from the Marines. If it was good enough for the Corp it was good enough for everyone else.

“Nothing,” admitted Chou.

“Okay, first off, whenever you’re carrying your weapon, it always has to be pointing downrange. Always.”

Chou nodded.

“Second, obey all orders given to you by the Tower or the Range Master.”

“Once you’re done, put the weapon down, and take a step back. This is to let the Range Master know that you have stopped firing. Are we clear so far?” Caitlin looked at her intently.

“Yes.”

“Okay. Step up to the firing line.”

Chou stepped up to the wooden barrier. She looked down at the somewhat small matte black handgun. Caitlin continued. “This is a Heckler and Koch USP Compact Tactical pistol. It is a popular handgun for Special Forces units. This weapon is a .40 caliber weapon, with a 12 round magazine. The weapon weighs 1.53 pounds unloaded, with a barrel length of 3.58 inches and an overall length of 6.81 inches. It has three dot sights on the back and can be equipped with laser sights, flashlights and a few other things. Any questions?”

Chou’s head was spinning at all the information that the Artificer had just rattled off. “Uh… not right now.”

“Pick up the weapon.”

Chou picked up the weapon and held it in her hand. It felt foreign and strange. Caitlin came up and took hold of Chou’s hand and positioned it correctly. She then lifted Chou’s arm until the weapon was pointing downrange. “We’ll start with a two handed grip, like this.”

Again Caitlin helped her to get her hands set right. “This can help you have better aim and control of the weapon. So let’s try a few rounds. Lock and load.”

Chou picked up the loaded magazine and slid it into the hollow of the grip. It slid in and sort of clicked into place. “Okay now lean into the shot a little and let’s go.”

Since she had fired a weapon before, she was somewhat ready for the noise and the kick. It did rock her back some but not too badly. It got easier the more she fired as she became accustomed to how the gun felt. The weapon sat nicely in her hand.

Caitlin had her fire four magazines worth of rounds to simply get her used to the feel of the pistol and roughly how to aim it. Chou was smiling as she fired. This would certainly be a big surprise for someone, seeing a sword user with a handgun. Maybe she needed at least two pistols, one for her bag and one to wear? That might guarantee that she always had access to one firearm. When the bolt slammed back after the last magazine, Chou was certain that she had made a good choice. This was what she needed, as it felt right.

The lesson continued, as Caitlin showed her how to aim and support her shots using a modern Weaver stance to emphasize mobility. That was all going fine until Caitlin stopped her and said, “Okay, time for a bit of the real world.”

“What?” This surprised Chou, who had just been getting quite used to the stance and was hitting where she was aiming more often than not.

“I have a little scenario planned out for you. It will be you, with your pistol and bare hands versus a fresh out of training Infantry soldier. You start at 400 meters apart and all you have to do is take them out. That’s it.” Caitlin smiled and that made Chou even more nervous.

That smile told her that Caitlin knew something she didn’t. Maybe she needed to be a bit cautious? “Why did you want me to do this?”

“Perspective. You are constantly put up against supers here so why not try yourself against a soldier? They’re a baseline, fresh out of Basic greenhorn soldier.”

Chou nodded, “That makes sense.”

“Okay, the scene will change and you will have your pistol and two extra clips. I’ll be watching from outside the simulation so there will be no chance of hitting me. Here we go.”

The scene changed and the area was a partially destroyed urban area. Chou headed towards the soldier, as the starting position of the soldier had been noted. Chou looked at the terrain and smiled, thinking, ‘This is going to be easy. I mean after taking out Nex this should be a snap.’

After she had covered a few hundred meters, a shot rang out and just missed her. Chou dove for cover and shook in surprise. What the hell? Where the hell had the shot come from.

She sped up, trying to close faster and was barely up for a little bit before the next shot hit her and she fell backwards, tumbling in the debris. Things blurred and then reset.

“That’s one. Try to use your cover more effectively this time,” advised Caitlin, not really helping.

Chou got closer the second time and had even fired a few rounds at him, in fact she had gotten close enough to watch the soldier visibly pause before shooting her. Things blurred and then reset. Chou was shaking in surprise. “What the hell was that?”

“What? He reacted normally. Soldiers don’t like shooting kids and you’re a kid. How would you feel about attacking Clover, or the other little pests with intent?”

Chou shook at that, her stomach roiling a little. That wouldn’t be fair at all. “Uhm… I don’t like that idea.”

“Well neither do soldiers, but they will fight if they have to. Ready for a third run?” Caitlin had to admit she was enjoying this. At least she was sure Chou would get the lesson before so many other kids did.

Chou’s response to another go wasn’t very enthused. When things started, she began using lightfoot in order to move faster and get close to the soldier. Unfortunately, when she got to almost twenty meters from him she landed right on top of a tossed grenade. Things blurred and then reset.

“Damnit. Why the hell can’t I get to him?” Chou was getting irritated and starting to growl.

“That was better. You need to have more battle awareness to keep track of your opponent but all in all, pretty good.” Caitlin wasn’t being condescending, as Chou really was doing better than she thought she would. Usually students didn’t even get as close as she had.

“One more time. I’ll get him this time.”

Caitlin smirked and watched what Chou did. The girl pulled out all the stops this time, using her robe and her bouncy stuff to close the distance and engaged in hand to hand. Caitlin was actually surprised when Chou flung him to the ground, using his own weapon as the lever to throw him and put the pistol to his head. As the Artificer faded into view and the Range came back, Caitlin applauded. “Nicely done. So what did you learn?”

“That baselines are still dangerous,” grumbled Chou, thinking immediately of Nex and the combat final she had won. The irony was not lost on her.

“You were also not taking it serious until the very last run. Chou, fights like this are dangerous and could result in you being dead quickly and finally. Any fight you are in should be approached seriously. Don’t mess around, just get the fight over with hard and fast. The longer it goes on the greater the danger to you.”

Chou nodded and seriously thought about that. It made sense and would change how she fought, if she remembered. Caitlin added, “Now think about this… that was a soldier who had just graduated from training without any practical experience to draw off of. Now just imagine going up against someone like Gunny, with all of those years of experience?”

Chou shuddered at the thought. She would fall over dead before she even got a glimpse of the man. “I got the point.”

“Had enough fun for today?”

Chou nodded. “Yeah. This gave me a lot to think about. Thanks.”

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Sayyid answered the phone on the first ring. “Salaam Allekum.”

“Saladin?” The accent was pure Kentucky.

“Reach? Did you figure out who it was?” Saladin had been hoping for a resolution.

“Sorry. We don’t have any solid leads yet. So far, we haven’t gotten any closer to finding out who is blackmailing you, just more questions. Since you guys were in Chicago, there are too many possible students to check quickly. We are still trying to access the Security footage of your hallway, but have had no luck so far.”

Sayyid sighed. Well, if he couldn’t stop this by confronting the bastard who was doing this, then he had to steal back the power from whoever it was. “Thanks Reach. Could you both keep looking? No matter what happens I want to catch this guy.”

“No problem. We’ll keep up the search. Jenny is having fun with this and has actually gotten a few ideas thanks to this.” It was clear that Reach was proud of her girlfriend.

“Oh, that reminds me; let Spark know that I was really impressed by the way she took out Iron Star in her combat final. It was a great final and she certainly exceeded expectations.” Saladin smirked at the memory of the little Devisor tromping Iron Star. Served the dork right.

Harley’s voice changed some, sounding even more proud of her as well, if that were humanly possible. “Yeah that was awesome. I’ll let her know and we’ll call back when we have any news.”

“I’ll send your first payment tomorrow. You guys are really helping me out here. Take care.”

Sayyid hung up and stared at his room. So much was going to change with this act he was planning, and it was possible that a number of people would be upset by this, including members of the staff, but he had to be true to his life. Allah demanded the truth and he was going to live it in True Submission to the Will of Allah.

He glanced over at his copy of the Holy Qur’ran and thought about the passages denouncing his life. However, he knew his history and was aware that this was a practice that had never faded from history. To have such a prohibition against something natural seemed amazingly wrong. Did not Allah create human beings, with all of their urges and desires? Surely, the most Compassionate and High would not create something only then to say that it was wrong. Sayyid realized that it was probably more a prohibition based off the beliefs of the time, rather than the true message of Allah.

He called Richard to let him know what was going on and the results of the search so far. His world was going to end at breakfast and there was nothing neither Sayyid nor Richard really could do in order to stop the fallout.

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They were dropped off at the Mexican place by the mall again. The two of them went inside and were seated fairly quickly, which was nice. Once their orders had been taken, Chou nervously asked Dorjee, “So how was your winter break?”

“Not too bad. I met with his Holiness at the Namgyal Monastery in New York and we spoke about many things.” replied Dorjee. “I also did a lot of meditation work with my guru. It was wonderful.”

Chou blinked. He was actually excited about getting meditation training? “What kind of meditation training?”

“Well, I do practice Dzogchen and I was helped with that, as well as more work with the Heart Sutra and other, deeper techniques.” Chou could tell he was trying to avoid giving too many details on some of the meditation techniques and she wasn’t exactly sure why that was. Was there something going on with the Dalai Lama?

“So a good break?”

“Absolutely. It was very tranquil.”

“Any closer to an answer on the monk question?” asked Chou, honestly wondering if he was going to take the vows.

Dorjee shook his head. “Unfortunately no. His Holiness told me just to wait and that the answer would come to me on its own.”

“That’s all the guidance he gave you?” Chou did feel a degree of familiarity with that, since Becca wanted to have her decide about everything as well. Sometimes she just wanted to be told what to do, but then she remembered November and how she had that lesson ground into her soul.

“Well, becoming a monk is a personal choice that no one can make for you. It is a question as to where I can help my people more, as a monk or as a hero.”

Chou blinked a few times. Did that really make any kind of sense? “How exactly can a monk help your people more than you being a hero?”

Dorjee sat back and took a sip of his water. “A hero can save lives, be a symbol, right wrongs and such but it is all very temporal, very impermanent. All very much in this realm and cannot really help anyone to Nirvana. A monk can help people in their quest for enlightenment by awakening himself. That act adds to the number of awakened souls on the planet and that helps all beings advance towards Nirvana and not just help a small number of people for a short period of time.”

Chou wasn’t sure how to take that. The idea that meditating would help more people than being a hero would just seemed wrong to her somehow, as if it were almost a cop out. It didn’t make any sense but there was no doubting Dorjee’s conviction. “As long as you are happy with the choice.”

Dorjee smiled. “Yeah, I have no idea if that will happen. I am being pulled in different directions and have no idea what to do.”

Their food arrived and both of them dove in hungrily. Chou enjoyed her spinach and cheese enchiladas immensely, as they had a good mix of spinach, cheese, and spices. Thanks to Ayla, she was starting to get more and more into food. Granted her life BS - Before Sword – was a good bit different than this and she was happy enough to get barbecue or what passed as Chinese, but things had changed. Now, Ayla was getting her into all sorts of things that she had thought she had already known about. It just went to show that she was learning all sorts of things that she hadn’t expected just by being here at the school. That escarole had been tasty and she had really liked it.

They had decided against the movie, as Chou was still a bit tired and they headed home after they had eaten. The two teenagers had held hands as they waited for the bus, both of them not even feeling the cold thanks to the breathing techniques they used. Once they had gotten onto the bus and seated, Dorjee put his arm around her and pulled her close. She lowered her head onto his shoulder, sighing, relaxing into his strength and warm musky smell.

When they had gotten back and had walked the distance to Poe, he stopped her. He looked over to her and smiled, saying, “I just wanted you to know that I had a great time tonight. Would you like to do this again?”

Chou nodded, unable to speak because so much of her wanted to say no. He pulled her closer and the two of them kissed. She opened her lips and invited him to deepen the kiss, enjoying the different feel of the rougher lips. Time seemed to vanish and she was lost in the wonderful sensations that were filling her body. Her nipples tightened and she could feel herself begin to grow damp. Finally, things ended and they said their good byes. She felt like someone had turned on a light bulb inside of her, and a soft smile covered her face.

The giddiness of the kiss lasted until she had her foot on the first step. Each step closer to her room, her feeling of doom grew and she trudged up the stairs as if she were the condemned heading to the gallows. What the hell was going on with her? She loved Molly and yet she had been out there sucking face with someone else and it got her excited. It was not reassuring her on anything about her and Molly, only adding to her confusion.

Thankfully, no one mugged her as she went to the bathroom and then back to the room. Ayla was sitting at his desk reading something when she came in. One look was all it took for her roommate to figure out that something was wrong. “What happened?”

“Uhm… he kissed me again.” Chou took off her coat and dropped it into her chair, following that with her sword.

“He kissed you?” Ayla wanted to get a clarification before saying anything else.

Chou nodded. “We were making out near the doors for about ten minutes.”

Ayla sat back. It was clear that ten minutes of necking weren’t as pleasant as they usually were. “And you feel bad because of Molly?”

Chou nodded again.

“Have you talked to Destiny’s Wave about this issue?” Ayla knew that the sword had a great deal more advice and experience than he did. Besides, did he really want to get involved in Chou’s relationship issues?

Chou reached over to the chair and drew the blade. “Destiny’s Wave?”

“Ni hao. What is wrong?”

“Uhm… I have been having some issues with Molly and Dorjee and I was wondering if you had any advice for me.” Chou almost pleaded to the jade sword.

“You heard what Caitlin said about things, correct?” asked the sword.

“I know. But I am worried about this. Help?”

If a sword could have sighed, it would have. “What are you worried about? Specifically.”

“Do you have any idea what I can do to not lose either one of them?”

The sword paused. “I have no idea. There are different options available to you. You can choose one over another or you can choose to be with both.”

“Both?” Chou’s eyes were huge in surprise. She had never thought about this particular way of dealing with this issue.

“Yes. It would be a relationship where you would be together with both Molly and Dorjee. If you and they could handle it, it might prove to be stronger than any other relationship. It is just an option.” The sword said that plainly without any trace of emotion.

“Both?” squeaked Chou now that she knew what Destiny’s Wave was talking abut. This whole idea was more than she could imagine.

Ayla chuckled at this, wondering how the Asian girl got herself into these situations. “Poor Chou. You have to live a polyamorous life with your soulmate and a hot Tibetan boy. Oh the agony, the pain!”

“Shut up!” Chou half yelled at her roommate. “I… uh… I…”

“That is an option, as I said. You can do whatever you want Chou. It is your love life.” Chou wanted to pound her head into the wall. Destiny’s Wave was not helping at all, only making things even more confusing in her opinion.

Chou groaned unhappily, holding her head in her hands, “What am I going to do?”