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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 Stephan Mitchell translation. Also, if you happen to find that your life is represented in these pages, I’ll be impressed.

Gong Hai Fat Choy

a Whateley Universe tale

by Heather O’Malley

assisted by the rest of the Whateley Gang

Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course? Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things? – Chapter 10, Tao Te Ching

CHAPTER 2

Chou and Molly glanced at the directions they had gotten in the email from Dorjee. They didn’t seem all that difficult and they followed them easily, holding hands and giving each other quick looks and smiles. Apparently, he had something special planned for the three of them and it was under Crystal Hall. That made it clearly a meal of some sort, as there were several smaller dining rooms down there. Chou had no idea how Dorjee could have arranged that, as usually upperclassmen would have first access.

The two of them were dressed up, with Molly in a really cute blue and white dress with a full skirt and Chou wearing a dark green skirt and nice cream colored blouse. Molly’s outfit made her look wonderful and Chou felt a little frumpy and underdressed next to her. Chou tried not to think about it, as it made her feel weird. The couple of times they had neared a darker corner, the Smoochy Ninja struck. After a few times of that, it took her mind off her discomfort completely. She had a dazed, happy smile on her face. They reached the room, both quite pleased with themselves and Molly knocked.

Dorjee came over and opened the door, smiling broadly when he saw the two of them. He was dressed casually in a nice pair of brown slacks, a mustard colored dress shirt, and a brown sport coat. He looked good, despite the slightly strange color choice. He hugged them, pulling first Chou into his arms and then Molly. “Thank you for showing up. I was a little worried when it was starting to get late.”

Chou cut her eyes over to an unrepentant Molly, “Ninja Kisser here decided to exploit a few different corners.”

Dorjee grinned, “Well, I can’t fault her that.”

Chou blushed, as did Molly, though for different reasons.

The room was fairly basic in shape, but what did not look standard were the several rugs on the floor and the several pillows there as well as the short table. Molly looked quite pleased at all of this and asked, “That’s where we’re eating? Great.”

Dorjee gestured that way and said, “Please be seated. Would you like some po cha to drink?”

The two girls looked a little confused at this, neither familiar with the words. Molly asked interestedly, “What is it?”

“Butter tea. It is not as bad as a lot of Americans think. Please try some?”

Chou nodded, having the notion that it really was okay. She wasn’t sure why she felt this way and hoped it might be an upside to the Handmaid thing. Molly looked hesitant, and then nodded, biting her bottom lip nervously. “I’m willing to try it.”

Dorjee walked over and grabbed a teapot with some teacups. The cups were very nice, with no handles and some interesting patterns painted on them. He poured three glasses, handed them out and raised his own glass in toast. “To all of us. May we be happy and content as long as may be.”

The three drank theirs, with Molly a touch behind, still a bit wary of the taste. It was surprising, the salt tangy but not overpowering, and the butter actually rather tasty. She smiled and had a little more.

“So what do you have for us tonight?” asked Chou, wondering just what food was in store for them.

“I wanted to share Tibetan food with you both. We are growing closer and I wanted you to have a taste of my culture. Just so you know, the food should be safe as I didn’t cook it. One of the Chefs has some experience with different types of Asian food and was willing to try to fix this for me,” replied Dorjee.

“Surely your cooking isn’t that bad,” said Molly, trying to be fair.

“After the first two times I was cooking in the Monastery I was relieved of that duty. Now I just clean the place and do repairs.”

“So you actually live there?” asked Molly curiously.

“Yes. I was told to delay taking my vows until I graduated, as clearly being a mutant changed things. His Holiness backed that decision and so now I have two and a half years until I am allowed to make that decision. But I do know that if I had taken my vows I wouldn’t be here,” replied Dorjee.

“Here with us or here at the school?” Chou was mostly sure what the answer was but wanted to check to make sure. She was still a little self-conscious about the issue.

Dorjee’s voice softened some when he replied, saying, “Here, with you two.”

Molly and Chou smiled. They both leaned in and hugged Dorjee, kissing him on the cheek. Molly’s stomach gurgled loudly, ruining the tenderness of the moment some. Dorjee grinned and Chou giggled a little. Looking down at the floor, her face red, Molly asked, “So… uhm… when do we eat?”

Dorjee stood, walked over to the warmer that was set next to the wall, slid open the metal door, and pulled out a tray holding a plate and three bowls. He set it down between them and sat as well. There were dumplings on a plate, surrounding a dipping sauce. The bowls had a soup in them that smelled interesting. It had tomatoes and onions in it. “These are momos. There is both a dipping sauce and you can dip them in the soup if you want. They are good either way.”

Molly snagged one, dipped it in the soup, and ate it. The sounds she made clearly showed her appreciation. “Ummmm… these are so good.”

“Thank you. I got the recipe from His Holiness. Apparently these are one of his favorites.”

Chou enjoyed them as well. Molly seemed surprised that she was eating something that the Dalai Lama liked and was goggling slightly over the idea. Because of that, it was not long until the plate of dumplings was finished, all conversation put aside for food. Dorjee stood and took one tray away and grabbed another from the warming area, this time from a pass-through that seemed to lead to the kitchens. He came back with three bowls and handed those out. “This is Tukpa, a noodle soup.”

As the girls took their first bites, Dorjee was busy refilling their glasses of po cha. Molly commented between bites, “I like how spicy this is. The flavors are different but I like it.”

Chou nodded her head in agreement, too busy having more of the soup. Thankfully, the bowls were not large as Chou figured she could easily fill up on the soup. The po cha was going quite well with the Tukpa and given how tasty it was, Chou had to wonder just how filling it all was together. She knew she didn’t have to watch her weight that much as she was so active that she easily could eat most anything and not gain any weight. Molly was not as active, but she was better this semester over last. She had lost some of her pudge and she looked much more fit. Chou had to agree that she looked good both ways and so long as she had Molly everything would be all right. But a trimmer Molly made her start to feel a little aroused.

Having Dorjee on the other hand was different. He made her feel like a girl. Made her feel more like Chou and far less like Alex, even though Molly didn’t make her feel very much like Alex either. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing but she did know that she liked being held by him and kissing him. She smiled happily and had another spoonful of soup. No reason to think when tasty food was present.

Molly looked over at Chou and noticed the smile. “What are you thinking about?”

Chou blushed a little, looked down at her bowl in embarrassment, and said, “Nothing.”

“Yeah… with a response like that I am really going to believe that,” commented Molly, snickering a little.

Dorjee chuckled as Chou’s color deepened. Chou bit her bottom lip nervously and said, “I was thinking about both of you and how happy you both make me, but in different ways.”

“Why does that embarrass you?” asked Molly, enjoying Chou’s discomfiture. The girl squirmed prettily.

“I… it’s… uh… well… it’s just that I had never had a girlfriend or anything until I got here. And then I met you and you shook my world even before we kissed the first time. And then there was Dorjee and how that made things get even more messed up. Being happy in this way is new and amazing and almost makes me want to write poetry or something.” Chou could feel her cheeks burning. It almost felt like her heart was up in her throat.

Molly’s hand was cool against her cheek and helped cool her face. “I love you Chou, and you make me happy. I have never been in love either, and it blows me away as well.”

The two girls leaned close and kissed deeply. Dorjee kept grinning, enjoying the show in front of him. He might be nearly a Buddhist monk but he was still a teenage boy. Dorjee spoke as the two of them broke apart to breathe, “Thank you for caring for me. I know that I am not as deeply in your heart as Molly but I am honored that we are together.”

Chou felt her chest growing tighter, as her emotions ran over her. With some effort, she fought back tears, partially by kissing him. She leaned back, smiled lovingly at her two partners, and had some more soup. That seemed to help her calm down a little bit more.

Dorjee got up and brought back the actual main meal. He began explaining as he handed the plates over. “This is Potato curry. It’s quite good. This slice that looks like meatloaf is a sort of mushroom loaf and is tasty. I like putting some of the momo dipping sauce on it. Then there is greens with tofu. The greens are Swiss chard and those are good too. They have a good flavor and are better than spinach.”

Molly cocked her head and asked, “So there is no meat in this meal at all?”

Dorjee shook his head, “Nope. Monks are vegetarian, as harming another creature, even to eat, is forbidden.”

Chou was quite okay with not having to have any meat. She still had some occasionally, like once a week or so, but overall her digestive tract was happy to go without. The meal was quite good and soon she was leaning back, happily filled with tastiness. “Ah… that was nice.”

“I’m glad you liked it. I am glad you like Tibetan food. I was a little worried there,” stated Dorjee, some nervousness in his tone.

“No need. This was good,” said Molly, finishing off the last of her curry. “I am still surprised that I liked that Swiss chard stuff. It was tasty.”

“Good. If you are done, let me take the plates.” He tidied up quite quickly, moving the tray with the plates off to the side. He sat back down, reached into the interior pocket of his jacket, and pulled out a small box. “Uhm… I got us something.”

Molly looked excited and leaned forward. It was clear that she loved gifts. “Oohh… what is it?”

He opened the box and pulled out three silver necklaces. Hanging from them were these triangle charms in what looked like some sort of knotwork pattern similar to a triquetra. “I… uh… hope you like them.”

Chou reached over and lifted up the charm, enjoying how the silver caught the light. It didn’t glow as much as her moonsilver ring did, but it was still nice. “This is really lovely, Dorjee. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” He returned with a smile. “Here let me put them on you.”

Chou turned and he attached the necklace round her neck. Then he did the same for Molly. “Happy Valentines Day, ladies.”

Molly took the other necklace from his hand and hooked it around his neck, then kissed him on the cheek. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Sparky.”

The three of them hugged and then found a new use for the pillows.

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He closed the book and tossed it onto the pile of library books with a scowl that did little to mar his attractiveness. Every mention he had been able to find about the damnable Handmaiden spoke of nothing but death and destruction. One story after another of carnage and pain, with the Handmaid clearly the cause of it all. It was clear, there in black and white, for all to read that the Handmaid was a menace, a threat to everyone and everything he held dear. She was possibly worse than any villain he had heard about.

This situation was clearly untenable and something needed to be done, some sort of action had to be taken. This was too large of a threat to everyone, not just at Whateley but the rest of the world. No, action was called for and so he would do his duty as a Martial Artist and a Hero to defend those who could not defend themselves. This was what he had been born to do. He was sure of it.

People needed to be informed about this and the menace had to be fought. Given what he had seen he wasn’t sure that direct action would be the best course. Maybe he needed to tell Ms. Carson… or did she already know? If she knew, why hadn’t she done anything? There were far more questions than answers. All he truly knew was that she needed to be stopped. He stood, pushing his desk chair back with his muscular legs, a fist clenched and vowed to the heavens, “I swear to God that I will stop the Handmaiden and keep her from destroying this school!”

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The night had gone well and Dorjee had been very romantic. It had actually impressed both Chou and Molly, more so Molly as she had never gone out on a date alone with him. That had come a bit out of left field to her and she admitted that she liked it. The making out had been nice and Molly had to admit that kissing Dorjee was not that bad, all things considered. It wasn’t as great as kissing Chou but that was the way things were. He did seem to have a bit of a clue and it had been lovely. He had even curled her toes once or twice. The Tibetan boy sure knew how to kiss for a supposed Monk-in-Training.

For a while, they had just sat there, holding each other, on either side of Chou. But then they had ended up fooling around, lying on the pillows, necking. The sound of the pass-through being cleaned had put a stop to their activities, making them snap upright ready to defend themselves from accusation. They had all blushed in embarrassment and then laughed. It had been a good night and had ended well. They had hugged one last time, kissed, and said their goodnights, Dorjee heading off to his own dorm with a smile.

Molly had come home with Chou, planning on staying the night. They changed and climbed into bed, holding each other close. There was no making out as Ayla was already in the room, but that was fine. They each slept deeply, as the closeness of their love chased all the nightmares away.

Thursday, 15 February

The words Jericho spoke to the girls were innocuous, simple teasing, pointing out that Molly and Lindsay were tremendously cute and that the level of cute that they spawned could very well reach toxic levels. It wasn’t meant to be mean, it wasn’t overly malicious but it began a chain of events that the medically focused Devisor would never forget. Nor would anyone else for that matter…

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“Dyffud?” asked Chou as she was stretching her thigh, since the muscle was a bit tight. Another hard run in Team Tactics class left her needing to stretch more.

“Yes?”

“Do you have any ideas as to what I can do in order to stay hidden?”

“Hidden how?” he asked, wanting to be clear on what his student was asking. There were lots of ways to hide and some were even doable by those without mutant powers.

“I have been thinking lately that I need to… well… hide my level of skill, so people underestimate me more. I am afraid that if people were fully aware of all my skills that I would be a target for other people and that would be bad,” explained Chou.

Dyffud turned and faced her clearly, somewhat confused by where this conversation seemed to be going. “What do you mean?”

Chou bit her lower lip in thought and then said, “Well, I think something terrible is going to happen, like the school may be attacked, or my friends get jumped again on another trip, or something involving my friends somehow that eludes me and bad things happen, or it is going to occur when my friends and I are away from here, or I have no idea how. Hell I don’t know. All I know is that people might die and others might probably get turned into slaves if I am not able to stop it. I realized that if I am so open with my skills that the enemy might be able to figure out how to counter me before hand and I can’t allow that.”

Dyffud sat down and poured himself a cup of tea from a pot, clearly needing the time to think this through, as it was a bit off the wall. He sipped from it a few times and then set it down. “You do know that hiding your skill is going to be difficult. I have seen your sparring and your final against Nex as I am sure other people have, and how may sparring matches have you had in Martial Arts and in the Weapon class? So playing down your skills might arouse more suspicion rather than less.”

“Then what can I do?”

“Well, how many people know about your magic use, your herbalism, stuff like that?”

Chou thought a moment, trying to think of the different times she had used those skills in public. “Not too many. I have used spell sheets a few times but not all that often. I have never really used my herbal skills in a sim or combat and the most I’ve really done is straight combat stuff, only a few of the crazier skills.”

“Then what you do is simply fight in the sims, using things like spells sheets and any special skills as little as possible, if at all. Teenagers tend to forget things if they don’t see them all that often, which is in your favor. So just use basic combat skills and very little extra. Lose some because of that and pretend to be upset by that. If you can arrange private sim runs, you can work out with your full training away from prying eyes.”

Chou thought about that and then nodded. That made a lot of sense and was really practical information. “I might be able to do that. Is there something I can do to mask my Chi signature?”

Dyffud rolled his eyes upward in thought. “Uhm… probably. I can’t think of anything in particular but you might be able to do it if you sort of do the opposite of Zanshin. There are also invisibility techniques that involve pulling in your chi, which might help as well. But Chou, your chi has already filled this area. Pulling it in might draw attention to you as well, namely by its absence.”

Chou sighed, “I’m not sure what else to do. Something is coming and I have no idea how to prepare for it.”

“Have you told Carson yet?”

Chou paused, thinking about that. “No. But even if I do tell her, what good would it do?”

“Delarose might be a good person to tell then. That way he can maybe be a little more on guard.”

“I don’t have a timeline, I don’t have a place, I don’t even have a context and it isn’t a good thing to be on guard all the time. But I suppose it couldn’t hurt to at least tell him about my dreams,” admitted Chou, shrugging some.

“That’s a good idea. He is a great guy and does work hard to keep this place safe. If you let him know and let him know that you have no idea when, he might be able to do something with that.” added Dyffud.

“Yeah… I guess you’re right. I just don’t want to have him laugh at me again.”

“What?” This seemed to confuse Dyffud a bit as it seemed so out of character for Delarose, to just laugh at a student.

“He seems amused by the kind of problems I run into, especially all the crazy stuff that happened to me over Christmas break.”

“Well after hearing about that, it is kind of funny. You just stumble into things sometimes.”

“I think it is the Tao driving me into those things. I just wish I didn’t get in trouble when things like that happen,” grumbled Chou halfheartedly.

“So are you going to talk to him?” prodded Dyffud.

“Yeah, I better. Anything to make that nightmare not happen would be great,” sighed Chou despondently.

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He returned the books to the Library and went to the girl who had helped him earlier. She had been helpful in his search though he doubted if she had any clue at all as to the nature of his efforts. He smiled politely and asked, “I am looking for a few mystical texts to fill in some holes in my research. Can you help me again?”

Tennyo smiled back, happy to be of service. She really did like this job and no one really bothered her here. “Sure. Tell me the titles and I can look them up from here.”

With a smile, he began telling her the names of the books he had looked up. This was ironic, he thought, that one of the cursed Handmaid’s friends was helping find what he needed in order to destroy her. Surely, this was justice. Killing the Handmaid would save them all, including the girl’s deluded friends. He had wondered if there was another way to deal with this issue but the books all spoke of how tough the Handmaid was and how killing her seemed to be the only way to stop her.

This had to be done for the good of all, and he would see it through.

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Chou felt like she needed some time away from other people and headed out to the woods. Things had been too crazy for too long and she was tired of putting up with people. Even her friends were making her a bit crazy but that could also have something to do with the stress she was under. Her sleep was broken as well, just not as badly as it had been back in November. She was just tired of people though, and longed for the quiet she had on the trail up here.

Out here in the woods was nice and she didn’t feel threatened, scrutinized, or bothered. Here she could be at peace. She stretched out her senses and felt the natural flow of the forest. She could feel the power of the Grove and it made her smile. That was a safe haven as well, old, and powerful. Practically a remnant of a long gone world. Just knowing something that deeply connected to the Tao was nearby made her happy.

The oddness of the forest was there as well, an undercurrent of something dark and chthonic, something that didn’t like anyone or anything but its own unnatural kind. It was the source of the things that occasionally attacked her, but in all honesty, she didn’t mind. There was something soothing about destroying evil things, things that had no business in this realm, things that were not a part of the Tao. In a way, she wished she would be attacked now just so she could release some stress. Her morale would improve if those beatings were allowed to continue.

As she was pondering this and how she might hunt them down, another presence intruded upon her, coming down from the sky. The energy signature was unmistakable and made her sigh. It was Sun Wu Kong in his regular form riding towards her on his cloud. “Afternoon Meimei.”

“You wanted to talk?”

“Absolutely. Why not call your cloud and have a seat. This is going to take a while and I figured that you would want to be comfortable.” The seriousness in his voice startled Chou, who whistled for the little cloud she had been given but never used, not really trusting in it. There was just something wrong about riding a cloud about. The whole thing made her feel like she was some sort of anime character or in some sort of comic book. Once it arrived, she sat upon it and waited.

Sun Wu Kong stood there, looking solid and immovable, his chiseled muscles tight against his clothes. Around his head was the gold crown that he had been given that would have allowed someone to control him back in the day. He took a breath and let it out slowly as she got comfortable. When he spoke, it was not what she had expected. “Do you know why you were chosen, Meimei?”

“Chosen to be the Handmaid? No.”

Sun Wu Kong nodded as if he had expected this answer. “I looked into this, as your being the Handmaid seems to have been causing you some issues. This happened to you because you needed this more than anyone else in order to become more fully yourself, as well as the blade needing to be here in order to fix some major issues that might destroy the world. I have seen things about you as Alex. You were corpulent, isolated from others, bored and boring, no drive and no ambition to becoming anything but what you already were. The only interesting thing about you was your sword collection, which I must admit was pretty. You are not that now. Even if you got the box back and were able to change back to Alex, you could never really go back to being that person. You have changed far too much… and for the good, I might add.”

Chou blinked a few times as her mind was trying to process what she was hearing. He had seen her swords? She had needed this?

“You were chosen because you would work with the Tao instead of against it. The Tao does not really need you for most things, but it seems to prefer the surgical tool to the bigger tools when it can. You are the scalpel and the weaver. There was something about you Alex that allowed you to see Destiny’s Wave, something that called to you. However, you… you are all stressed, and that needs to stop.”

The Monkey King was pacing in the snow, his eyes, burning with intensity and honesty, never leaving Chou’s. It was a bit unnerving and out of character from what she had seen so far. Words continued to fail her as he continued. “The problem isn’t all these other people or these situations you find yourself in. The problem in no uncertain terms Chou is you. You want someone to tell you what to do, what to be, but you don’t see what is plainly there. As the Handmaid, there is NO ONE who can tell you what to do. NO ONE! Other Immortals will take advantage of that and ask you to do things that fit their idea of the pattern, to work towards their agenda but not necessarily get you to follow the true Pattern. You are on your own in this Meimei, with only the Tao as your superior. Asking someone to tell you what to do is to give up your fate to them instead of holding onto it yourself. It is to become a slave to them, a puppet.”

“What the hell? I am not some fucking puppet!” countered Chou, confusion trickling over into anger.

“Then stop acting like one. You need to remember that you are something special. And while we are the life energy of the universe given manual dexterity and thus our duty to try to keep the world in Balance, you are the Force to make that Balance happen. You are able to have a better idea of what that Balance is and how to fix it than anyone else. If you act like a puppet, letting people tell you what to do, then the Balance is not being cared for properly.”

Chou’s anger grew and she stood up from her cloud and stalked towards the Monkey King, fists clenched. “I am a fucking puppet for the goddamned Tao and in addition, I have no idea what the fucking Tao is. So don’t stand there and tell me not to be a puppet while some unknown force has me dancing to its strings.”

Sun smiled at her, showing plenty of teeth. It wasn’t a pleasant smile. He cocked an eyebrow and said, “Do you want to know what the Tao is? Fine… I can tell you that. That Tao which you so have issues with, is the original Energy pattern of this… well, realm will work as well as anything else. Its whole purpose is to have things move in harmony with each other and for each thing to be true to themselves. That was fine until three forces, each tipped far in a given direction, intruded upon this realm. Once that happened, all sorts of things broke loose and chaos entered. Right now, as best I can figure it, the Tao is trying to Balance out the effects of those forces and get back to the original Harmony. This is not to say there was no conflict before them, but rather there was a harmony between the energies of the world. Things made sense. Now… not so much.”

“The Tao is an energy that runs through all things in this realm, save those empowered by those other forces. It keeps life and death in harmony. It is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the people we talk to, and the stars that shine down on us. The Tao is everything and nothing. It is the gate to mystery. The Tao is why we live today and why we die tomorrow. So by fighting against the Tao, you are fighting the essence of this realm, this Universe that you live in. That’s the Tao, Meimei.”

Chou stumbled and fell back onto the cloud, the wind taken from her sails. This was so much bigger than she had ever imagined. “That’s the Tao? But I thought…”

“What, that it was some random force that chose you, like a simple Avatar spirit, just on a larger scale? Hah! The Tao chose you because it knew there was something inside you that would merge well with it, to accomplish its goals on this planet. Why use a flood, an earthquake, or a storm when a simple person, moving with purpose and focus, empowered by the source of all things, could deal with the issue on a scale of far smaller destruction? The Tao empowers you, not just when it fills you to overflowing, but everyday, making you stronger in who you are. These children here and the power they wield know nothing of true power. They are lost in the idea that these little tricks make them powerful. You have a task ahead of you, a task that requires the power of the Handmaid to accomplish. That is not a comforting feeling. You are here, in this place, with these people, for a good reason and Meimei… that scares me. This place clearly needs the power that you can use as the Handmaid in order to fix whatever is going on if you have been called here. You would think that the power of those here would be sufficient to face anything but that would be false.”

Chou looked up at him, trying to say something, anything. Words eluded her. Sun Wu Kong continued on, driving his point home. “You can learn to use that power, to become one with the Tao and to wield it, if you get your head out of your ass and stop moping about because of things that have happened, and you move into the future, head held high, mistress of your own fate.”

“But… I… I thought you had an agenda with me? That you were trying to get me to do something? Why are you helping me?” Chou was not sure how to respond as the information was near overload. And what the fuck was the Monkey King doing? Wasn’t he trying to fool her? This had the uncomfortable ring of truth and that only made things worse.

Sun’s facial features softened some and he smiled, resting a hand on her shoulder kindly, “I am not just a Taoist Immortal but I am also a Bodhisattva. I want you to have something a number of other Handmaids never got.”

“What’s that?” she replied, worried.

“A life. The sense of duty in old China was amazing. These girls would take up the sword and go do what had to be done, without question, often times walking to their deaths. I am all about being an individual, about being true to your dreams and desires. Why would I be pleased with girls going to their death without actually living? Too many of them allowed the Tao or some proxy to dictate their actions, or rather did nothing save what the Tao directed. You Americans are all about free will and maybe, just maybe, this time there will be a Handmaid that isn’t on a slow march into death.” Sun knelt down, looking at Chou with his warm brown eyes. “I tease you and mess with you and your friends in the hopes that you would emerge and not simply the Handmaid. You may be the Handmaid, but the Handmaid is not all you are. You are a young woman as well with friends and dreams of your own. Be her. Be both.”

Chou nodded. Tears were trickling down her face and she sniffled a few times. Sun hugged her, a warm paternal hug that Chou had missed greatly in the months since her father died. He kissed her forehead, let her loose, and stepped back. “I have to go Meimei, trouble to cause, people to see. I will see you at the party. Be safe and above all, be yourself.”

Sun Wu Kong leapt onto his cloud and swiftly faded from sight. Chou sat there on her cloud in the cold, letting the words sink in, shaking to her core.

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Chou sat in the corner of the sunroom, where Team Kimba held most of their meetings when absolute privacy wasn’t imperative. This was where they studied and no one was here right now. It had been several hours since she had said anything, avoiding Molly and Dorjee in order to work through what Sun had said to her, to make sense of what it implied. This, along with the thoughts she had been having before, were leading her to someplace that she wasn’t sure she wanted to be. This was not something she wanted to do, but it felt like the right thing. She hated it, but would do what would be best in the long run.

She looked up and noticed that Jade was watching her. She had felt the girl’s presence checking on her several times over the last hour or so. Chou gave a little half smile at this. Having friends that really cared about her was new and awesome and only made this more difficult, rather than less. In one fluid motion, she got to her feet and headed towards her room, activating her spot as she walked. <(Bladedancer) Can I talk to everyone in my room please?>

The various answers made her happy, and she hoped that this would not end poorly. In all honesty, she couldn’t see how it would, but things had a way of changing when TK was around. By the time she reached the room, half of Team Kimba was already assembled. Nothing was said as the faux Chinese girl made tea, filling the room with the wonderful scent of the special tea that the Immortals brought Chou. Chou looked at Fey and asked softly, “Could you please make sure the room is secure?”

Fae nodded and cast a spell while Ayla threw a switch, activating the anti-surveillance gear he had bought. Chou waited until she could feel that strange hollow echo sensation that both the spell and the technology gave her before continuing. “Thank you all for being patient. This afternoon I had a chat with Sun Wu Kong out in the forest.”

That started some murmuring but Chou continued on, “He told me some interesting things and they have merged with some ideas that have been bouncing around in my head for a while now. I don’t want to do this but I think it might be for the best if, at the end of this session, I was no longer a member of Team Kimba.”

Several voices clamored at that, Jade began to tear up some, as if she had done something wrong, and Hank raised his voice, cutting through everyone else, “Quiet! Chou, why?”

She gave him a fairly bittersweet smile. Hank really was developing into a good leader. “You guys are my friends, and you are the best friends I have ever had. The problem is that I have something I need to do which might put the team at risk.”

“You know that we can deal with that,” protested Toni.

“I know that, so please hear me out. I think I have been too successful lately,” stated Chou.

“What the hell?” blurted Toni in response, clearly thinking that her sparring partner was high on something.

“I have been thinking about the fact that there is this Dark Man who has been haunting my dreams for a while now. It isn’t a simple dream but some kind of foretelling. I have no details about any of it all so I can’t help you there. I know that have to fight him, hard and with everything in me, in order to save all of you and quite probably the world. I have a suspicion that this is the guy who was teaching Hekate her really dark magic. Because of this, I have to assume that he is keeping tabs on the school somehow.” She explained carefully, making sure that she was not missing any of the important facts.

Hank nodded and said slowly, “Okay… I’m following you. I think.”

“If I leave the team and we make it look like I have… I don’t know… topped out in terms of skill and am now becoming a liability to the team, then it might work. I can focus working with Molly, Dorjee, and Winnie on that team, but basically, I play into the idea that baselines are not as big a threat as they actually can be. I let myself get beat on occasion, and make it seem like people are catching up and passing me.”

Hank smiled, finally getting a better idea what she was talking about. “Okay… I get it. You basically get that Dark Man to underestimate you, making your attack, when it is needed, all the more powerful and unexpected. He won’t really try to defend that hard against something he doesn’t consider a threat.”

Chou sighed, relieved that Hank seemed to get it. She was glad he had. “That’s exactly it. I love you guys, and I want to be there for you as you are my friends, but I think I have to do this so when this… whatever the hell it is, happens, I can be there to stop it.”

Ayla nodded as well, seeing the strategic move for what it was. Long term thinking instead of short. “That makes sense, like you being friendly with the Goobers in order to get intel on them. Classic misdirection. So stay friends, but not teammates? Is that what you are thinking?”

“Yes. And even if I end up feeling like I need to get even more distance from you guys I will always be your friend.”

“Unless the Tao wants us taken out,” quipped Toni, making light of a very real concern that several of the others had.

Chou rolled her eyes. Sometimes Toni just didn’t get when certain jokes were not appropriate.

“So what did Sun have to tell you?” asked Ayla.

“Oh… the usual, the origins of the Universe, my role as the Handmaid, crap like that. Basically she told me to get my head out of my ass,” replied Chou playfully.

“The Monkey King told you all that?” The disbelief was clear in Ayla’s voice. This was after all the being that tormented him on a regular basis.

“Yep. And apparently, according to him, you are a special project.” Chou tossed off that fact lightly.

“GAH!!!!” screamed Ayla in frustration, making several of the others snicker in amusement. “What have I ever done to that chimp?”

“Anyway…” said Hank, trying to bring the conversation back to the topic at hand, which was far more important than who teased Ayla. “So Sun told you more about being the Handmaid?”

Chou snorted in amusement, “No, he told me I was making my own trouble and to pull my head out of my ass. That is one reason I am doing this as I think I rely on you guys for too much. This… this way I rely on myself and will thus be able to keep you all safe. When this, whatever the hell it is, with the Dark Man happens, if I am too clearly skilled, this might be harder and I might fail. If I can make myself look the fool to better be able to save everyone, then I am going to do just that.”

“How come you never told us about the Dark Man before?” asked Nikki, looking worried. New developments of this nature were not good for anyone. “You didn’t mention it at Ayla’s post-Boston debriefing thing. Is it the Necromancer?”

“These dreams are really just specific enough since Boston. And I don’t think it is the Necromancer for a fairly simple reason. We have faced him several times and I know what he looks like. Because of that, if it were him I am sure I would have recognized him in the dream. No, if anything, this Dark Man is worse than Darrow. I have no idea what the plan is, where it happens, or anything, as all I ever see and experience is fighting and knowing you all are trapped and that I am your only hope.” There was tension in her voice, fear even and Chou’s voice softened when she said, “I have even died in these dreams, knowing I have failed you all and that your lives were nothing but torment because of it. I have to do this. I have to lose now to save you all then. I can’t let my friends suffer if I can stop it.”

The room was silent for a few moments, the seriousness of what Chou was saying settling onto every one of them. Jade moved and came over, hugging Chou, hoping to comfort the girl. Toni asked, “The Tao is telling you this?”

Chou nodded. “All it is doing in this case is to show me the Dark Man, and give me a rough idea of what is happening. I realized that if someone is watching, that if I am too skilled, I can’t be a wild card. They would be able to anticipate things and stop me. If I sort of scrape by, occasionally get lucky, then the focus will be off me. At least, that is what I hope.”

“Okay. I can see that,” stated Hank. “But we need to find a good reason for you to not be on our team any longer. If we boot you off for no valid reason, that’ll draw attention.”

Nikki looked thoughtful for a moment. “What if Ayla lets drop that we are ‘cutting the dead wood’ from our team and that we don’t need two Martial Artists, especially a baseline who fails as much as she succeeds?”

“What?! Why am I supposed to say that shit? I like Chou,” griped Ayla, clearly displeased with this particular development.

“You’re the team fixer,” countered Hank. “It’s your job.”

“Yeah, it’s more like everybody expects that kind of evil shit from me. So if I do this, how are we supposed to be roommates, because if I say this, you know it would get back to you and cause us issues.”

Chou looked thoughtful and something tickled at the back of her mind. “I don’t know but I am sure the Tao will provide an answer.”

“That is fundamentally sound and I think we can do that. But how will you ensure that you get the training you need to be at your best?” asked Hank.

“Uh… there is something else I should probably tell you guys,” admitted Chou, a bit sheepishly.

“You’re a time traveler from the future?” asked Toni.

“No.”

“You are a Jedi Master from the past who survived to bring hope to our troubled galaxy?”

“What?”

Hank grinned and deepened his voice, “Chaka, I am your Father!”

Toni took this and ran with it, mimicking Luke when she lamented, “Noooooo!”

“Anyway…” started Chou, trying to ignore Toni, which may not have been the best move.

“Oh… oh… I know. You have taken up juggling geese?”

“Toni,” warned Chou, her voice flat.

“Wait! I got it! Uhm… Jade is really your love child?”

“What?” Chou looked really confused at that one and looked over at Jade, who was also looking at her with some confusion.

Jade winked at Chou, hugged her tightly and said in a very cute voice, “Okaasan!”

Chou groaned and shook her head. Why was she friends with these people?

“Wait! It’s…”

“Toni, could you let her just tell us?” said Tennyo with some exasperation.

“Fine. Ruin all my fun,” grumped Toni, crossing her arms and sticking her tongue out at Tennyo.

“Uh… I am training with Caitlin,” said Chou.

“In secret?” Hank was a bit surprised by this.

“Yes. I think she can make sure I get all the training I need to do this,” stated Chou. “I think I have to do this, but I don’t want you guys to think I am abandoning you or don’t like you.”

“Thanks Chou. We will do what we can to support you, you know that. After all, haven’t we had part of this conversation before?” said Nikki.

“Thanks Nikki. I… I…” Chou started crying and the hugging began. Hank and Ayla managed to get out of the way, as the girls descended to start the hug fest. They shared a look that was timeless and very male: girls.

Friday, 16 February

Chou was talking to Winnie, when Molly came over and hugged her. Chou smiled and hugged back. Molly stole a quick kiss and grinned at the lightly blushing Chou. “Oh, Chou, Winnie, I wanted to let you know that I am having some friends over tonight.”

“A get together?” asked Chou, wondering what her girlfriend was up to and why it felt like there was a slight tremor in the Tao. It bothered her when she felt something like that.

“Well, yeah. Lindsay and I are having a Cute Party, you know a ‘get some others together’ to talk about all things cute. I just wanted to let you both know so you didn’t think that I was excluding either of you. It’s not that I don’t like you or even want you there, but neither of you is really all that into cute stuff. This is for all of the girls into cute stuff that get grief from others,” stated Molly, trying to explain her reasoning.

Chou shook her head, amused by Molly’s protest. “That’s fine sweetie. We can hang out tomorrow night instead. Are you going to be coming to the New Year’s Feast, Winnie?”

“I…I…I w…want t…to,” replied the girl nervously.

“Great. Well Molly, have your fun, and I will see you tomorrow.” Chou hugged and kissed her girlfriend before she headed off, as she had class to get to and needed to change into her gi.

“Are you okay Winnie? I didn’t want to make you feel left out, but I didn’t think you were a fan of the same sorts of cute stuff.” Molly really was worried about her teammate and really was concerned. Winnie was a nice person and Molly wanted to be her friend. She hoped this wasn’t being interpreted as pushing her away. She was just a bit afraid that this wasn’t up the girl’s alley.

“I…I’m f…f…fine. Th…th…thanks M…molly.” Winnie smiled at Molly, who grinned back.

“Okay. I just didn’t want to upset you, since you are my friend.”

Winnie grinned herself and said, “If Ch…Chou isn’t g…going to b…be th…there, then I…I’m fine.”

Molly hugged her, “Thanks Winnie. You’re the best.”

Molly smiled at her and then headed off to Summoning class, where she would have to turn in her paper.

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Sensei Ito stood in front of the class and said, “I would like to see Miss Chandler against Miss Lee. To the mat.”

Chou and Toni looked at each other and smiled. It had been a while since they had gone after each other in class, and now they would have weapons. They stood on the mat and waited after bowing to Sensei Ito. “I would like you both to fight with whatever weapon or weapons you most feel comfortable with. Get ready.”

Chou grabbed some of her throwing knives, to supplement her sword and got back to the mat. Toni had a meteor hammer and several other weapons ready to be used. The two of them grinned at each other, as they settled into their ready stances, Toni spinning the meteor hammer steadily, and Chou holding Destiny’s Wave behind her back. Chou knew that this fight was going to be a lot of fun however it turned out.

“Hajime!” shouted Sensei Tolman.

The two girls just stood there, feeling out an opening in the others Ki. Several other students seemed confused by their lack of motion and were not sure what was happening. The two combatants were so focused on the other that the world had fallen away and the noises outside the ring became nothing. A number of opening moves were run through and the counters flew past in a blurry chain of action and reaction. The spin of the meteors on each end of the meteor hammer was a slow counterpoint to the speed of thought and the action of their Chi. Suddenly, something changed and Chaka exploded into action, leaping forward and swinging one of the meteors in a deadly arc.

Bladedancer rolled sideways, away from the swing and threw a knife at Chaka. The blade flew towards the girl as Bladedancer slide-stepped her way closer. One of the meteors intercepted the throwing knife and the two meteors spun toward the sword wielder from different directions. With a twisting wrench of her body, Bladedancer managed to avoid both meteors, and as she fell towards the mat, swiped at Chaka’s legs with Destiny’s Wave.

A nimble leap took Chaka away from the blade and the meteors came racing back toward Bladedancer. The Asian girl rolled backwards and pushed herself up by her hands to a standing position. She looked again at her opponent and tried to figure out which element Chaka was favoring. The flowing movements of the Meteor Hammer suggested Water, but the direct attacks said Fire. She needed to find the accurate thread in order to match her and counter.

Chaka boosted her speed with her ki, and the spinning weapons were a blur. They gave her a great range advantage over the jian, and she was taking advantage of that. Bladedancer boosted her own speed to try to match the other girl, and moved into the path of the weapons. Destiny’s Wave went cleanly through the chains, and the meteors flew through the air, slamming into the walls.

The remaining chains came at her like whips, but Destiny’s Wave made short work of them as well. Chaka did a series of back handsprings away from Bladedancer, to the edge of the ring where a collection of weapons awaited her. She turned, her new selection of weapons ready before Bladedancer was able to get there.

With the fighting claws on, Chaka took the battle in closer, hoping to steal the jian’s range advantage. She weaved the claws back and forth, driving Bladedancer backward towards the edge of the ring. Seeing how Chaka was clearly using Fire at this point, she shifted to Water and harmonized with the movements, turning the series of attacks into a dance, where blade and claw met, repeatedly. Chaka, realizing what Bladedancer was doing, shifted her attack to Earth, letting the redirection catch Destiny’s Wave and twist it out of Bladedancer’s hand before the other girl could counter.

The sword flew through the air and slid, almost going outside the ring. Bladedancer look shocked for a moment but her body responded, using Wood to sway out of the way of the follow-up strikes. Chaka pressed the attack, returning to her preferred Fire. Bladedancer used her Lightfoot Kung Fu to move herself back far enough to give her the opening to make her move towards her sword.

Anticipating such a move, Chaka bounded there first, letting her Ki-enhanced muscles give her the extra strength and speed needed to cut the other girl off. Bladedancer slowed her approach, and the two fighters again stood silent and unmoving. Bladedancer looked over her opponent and realized that the claws had a fatal flaw that could be exploited if she did this right. They had no thrusting tips, cutting by slashes or drawbacks alone, save for the piercing tines on the backs of the hands. That would limit the range of attacks that Chaka would be able to do. She looked at Destiny’s Wave there, lying on the mat and readied herself.

Bladedancer exploded into movement, heading straight for Chaka. Following the movement, Chaka began her attacks with both hands, slashing inwards.

Bladedancer stutter-stepped, breaking her rhythm and throwing off Chaka’s attack, causing it to miss. With a roll along the girl’s arm, Bladedancer made it past Chaka and dove for her sword.

Chaka spun, changing her attack and now slashing downward with one claw. Coming up out of the roll, Bladedancer barely managed to get her sword up with both hands in time to block the attack. The two girls were grinning with fierce joy.

Chaka’s roundhouse kick caught her on her unprotected left side, landing solidly, driving the air out of Bladedancer’s lungs, forcing her to grimace in pain.

With a lift and a twist, Bladedancer freed her sword and made a strike for Chaka’s waist. An awkwardly placed claw, Chaka feeling the shudder of the hit up her arm, as the steel intercepted the jade blade and stopped the attack cold.

A powerful front snap kick, moving faster than Bladedancer could respond to, thrust the Asian girl backward and out of the ring. She landed hard, still out of breath and trying to suck some in, especially after a second powerful blow to the chest in such a short period of time.

Toni came over and stretched out her hand to give Chou a hand up. Chou gasped for air and realized that she had gotten no energy from the Tao during that fight. She and she alone had managed to match Toni in a fight. Granted, she lost, but that wasn’t what mattered. She grinned some and then winced, a deep breath causing a sharp pain. Toni looked concerned, “Chou, are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” She replied with a gasp. She winced again at the next breath. “I think you banged up my ribs pretty good. Good hit.”

“Sorry, they were the only holes in your defense and I had to take them,” admitted Toni.

Sensei Tolman came over and knelt down next to Chou, asking, “Are you all right?”

“I got the wind knocked out of me some and my ribs hurt. I don’t think anything is broken,” replied Chou, knowing that lying to Sensei Tolman would not end well.

“Very well. The match is called. Do you need to see the nurse?”

Chou shook her head. “I don’t think so. I should be okay.”

Sensei Tolman then rose to her feet looking down at Chou intently. “Do I have your word that if it starts to bother you that you will go to the clinic?”

“Yes, Sensei.” Chou winced some as she bowed awkwardly.

“Very well. That was a good match. You almost had her a few times, Miss Lee.”

“Thank you Sensei.”

“Now bow out and rest a bit,” ordered Tolman, turning back to the other students.

Toni helped Chou up, which had Chou groaning as her abused ribs protested the movement. Toni said, “That was a fun match. We totally need to do that again. I thought I got you when I disarmed you.”

Chou snickered slightly. “I did too, until I realized that you could only slash with the claws. You had no thrusting tips.”

Toni grinned. “Thanks. I can watch for that now.”

Chou walked to the edge of the training area and bowed out, once to Sensei Ito and once to the dojo itself. She moved over to a bench and sat down. She had fought with no support, nothing but her skill and abilities and had almost gotten Toni. Maybe Dyffud was right and that she did not need the powers of the Tao to be a force to be reckoned with in most fights. The statements both Dyffud and Caitlin had been making to her finally made sense and she accepted them as truth. She grinned happily, as she watched the other students spar.

She could fight without powers and still make a difference. It was certainly something good to know.

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Upon leaving the locker room in Eastman, Chou spotted Cascade leaning against the wall, clearly waiting for her to show. She was wearing a long skirt, fuzzy boots, and had her blue-black hair up in pig tails with bright blue ribbons tied around each of them. She had clearly gotten out of class early enough to change out of her uniform and get back here to meet her. Chou sighed, not wanting to have to deal with any of the Dragons at the moment but clearly not seeing any out.

Phillipa was about six inches shorter than her, despite the fact that she was two years older. She looked fragile, as if a gust of wind could knock her over; however Chou had seen her fight, and that had disabused her of any idea that the tiny girl was anything but all business. Between guns and martial arts skills, Cascade was a dangerous opponent. She was the most hardcore healer that Chou had met so far at the school, and another Poesie as well. Chou did think that the girl was a far better choice as a go-between compared to Thunderdrake, after all Chou actually liked her. The girl brightened when she spotted her, calling out, “Hey Chou.”

Chou walked over after waving off Toni’s offer of accompaniment. She knew that Phillipa would not attack her or lead her into a trap. “What’s up, Phillipa?”

“Zhong Lau said he wanted to talk to you and you know how he is about having someone go and ‘get’ them.” Phillipa rolled her eyes, which were strange even for Whateley. They were like a kaleidoscope, constantly changing, with odd flecks of differing colors. It was almost hypnotic.

“I don’t have anything to do at the moment. Why not?” said Chou, thinking of the million other things she would rather be doing rather than dealing with the head of the Dragons.

“Great! Let’s go!” Cascade was about as chipper as a cheerleader, and sounded that way as well. Being fairly girly seemed to be a good way for people to forget just how intense the junior was in combat. If it weren’t for the fact that even the idea of acting that girly turned her stomach, it just might be a plan to help make her look helpless-ish. Phillipa led the way towards the entrance to the Dragon’s Lair, where the group met, her pigtails bouncing with each step.

After a few short steps, Cascade frowned and bit her bottom lip. The older girl looked nervous and hesitant about something. “Uhm… Chou? Are you aware that you have two ribs with hairline fractures and some cartilage bruising?”

Chou stopped and turned to the girl, surprised. “You can feel that without your power active?”

Phillipa looked a bit anxious when she replied, “Yeah. That scan never shuts up and lets me know who is hurt and in what way. Can… can I take care of that for you? It is really bothering me.”

Chou nodded. There was no need to ask her twice. Free healing that didn’t force her to walk through the cold to the clinic? That was an easy one. “Sure. Thanks.”

Phillipa laid hands on Chou, one hand over the injured area and one hand on her neck. Chou felt a warmth enter her. It moved through her body, pooling around where her ribs were injured. The pain and tightness that were constricting her breathing faded. Phillipa smiled and said, “There. All better. Oh, I am so looking forward to the party tomorrow.”

Chou started a little, surprised by that non sequitur. “Really?”

“Oh yeah. Gareth and I have been really excited about it.” She bounced a little as she talked, which added to the cheerleader image.

“Gareth?”

“Oh, that’s right, you may not know him as he isn’t a Poe kid and you don’t really hang out with the Dragons. Uhm… let’s see… do you know the big, huge, light blue guy with the cobalt blue hair, practices Cai Li Fo?”

Chou could mostly remember the really tall blue guy, as that sort of thing stood out even here. That and no one who was that tall needed to practice a fighting art devoted to stretching out attacks. It was just obnoxious as he could hit opponents from far too far away. “Yeah, I do.”

“That’s Gareth. Code name is Cobalt. He’s pretty mellow. You’d probably like him. But anyway, we’re pretty excited about the party. It’ll be the first Chinese New Year party that I have ever gone to and I am kind of excited about that.” Phillipa rattled that all off without a breath.

“I am glad you are coming then. It should be fun. Ayla planned it, hiring some Chinese catering company from San Francisco to put it on for us. I am looking forward to what they have come up with as well.” The two chatted about the party until they walked through the ornate doors to the Lair.

A number of groups were sparring, working more on technique rather than the pure combat that Sensei Ito preached. These were students working to perfect their Arts, to find Nirvana through the movement of their bodies and souls. Chou was certainly impressed by that. She only wished that she truly had that kind of devotion. She fought for combat and not spiritual development or artistry.

Zhong Lau rose and bowed slightly to Chou, “Greetings honored Handmaid. Thank you for coming.”

Chou sighed. This whole situation would be so much easier if the dragon inside Zhong Lau didn’t annoy her so much. She wasn’t sure what it was about him but she wanted to smack that reptile. “What is it you want, Zhong Lau?”

“I have a question. What do you intend to do with the group now that it is under your purview?”

“My what?” replied Chou confused.

“Purview. It means control.” The smile that was sent her way was quite condescending. Chou struggled to keep from choking him. While it would be satisfying, it would not help in the long run.

“I have no plans. This group, from what I learned from Journeyman, was for people who wanted to learn the deeper truths of the martial arts, not to be the private fiefdom of some dragon with a modicum of power. I want the group to go back to being that, and I want the stupid bickering to stop between the Tigers and you. There are common interests between the groups and those should be encouraged,” replied Chou curtly.

“I see. So you have no intention to lay claim to the leadership of the group?”

Chou narrowed her eyes and it took some force of will to keep from drawing her blade to help punctuate her points. She growled out, “I am not looking to run the Dragons, nor do I think you should run the Dragons. You have turned this into some sort of winner-takes-all slugfest for power and made the people in here your subjects. They are not your property, dragon. And if you care to dispute that fact, I would be happy to oblige you.”

Zhong Lau bowed. “I see. Did you have someone in mind to take over?”

“Doing that gives me power over the group, which I don’t want. Why not do what other clubs in the real world do, vote for it. No fighting, no bickering, just run for the position and have a vote,” stated Chou, trying to figure out some way to stop the Machiavellian scheming that Zhong Lau was up to.

“Ah… yes… a vote. I suppose that could be done,” conceded the Dragon.

“Then do that. This group does not need the reputation that it has. Being a martial artist is a thing of honor, not a thing for simple self-aggrandizement,” snapped Chou.

“Spoken like a true monk.”

Chou paused, her eyes narrowing, irritated. “And what do you mean by that?”

“Monks always blather on about spirit and soul, about a martial artist’s humility. They are more worried about the development of the soul than the purity of the Art. They think that their way is the only right way to practice.” replied Zhong Lau, sounding reasonable but with an undercurrent of contempt that Chou barely caught.

“Better a monk than a puffed up fool looking to make himself more important than he actually is.”

“What?” Zhong Lau rose up in his seat, glaring at the younger girl in growing anger.

“You heard me lizard. I’m done talking to you. If you want to talk to me again, you come yourself. Don’t send someone like they were your lackey. These people are free and you have no right to demand their obedience!” Chou turned and began to stride off. She could feel the energy of the dragon roiling behind her with a slight itch between her shoulder blades. The Zanshin she had been taught gave her a rough feel for what was going on, but no one moved. She left the Dragon’s Lair and returned to her room.

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He glared at the Handmaid as she spoke with the Dragon. The girl had to be controlling him somehow, but he was at a loss as to how that could have come about. Zhong Lau had a strong will and from everything he had learned, breaking someone’s will left signs.

Unfortunately, Zhong Lau seemed pretty much the same as he always had, thwarting his attempts at catching her subterfuge. If he went to Security without evidence, or at least a good idea how it was done, he would lose all credibility and give himself away.

No, he had to be subtle and bide his time if he was going to stop her from doing anything to the campus. Perhaps what he needed was to get allies, people who would believe in what he was trying to do and help with watching her. Thunderdrake was an easy choice, but he had hounded her at the beginning of the school year and that had all come to naught. He would have to think about this and see what people he could come up with. She had to be stopped and he needed more people on his side if he had any hope of doing that. However, who could he ask?

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Chou fumed as she left the underground lair of the Dragons. The nerve of that lizard, thinking that these people were his, part of his hoard. The idea was ludicrous. However, the fool persisted with his delusion. He made it clear that if she was not going to take power over the others that he would. She only hoped that a vote would actually occur.

Once she was back out into the snow, she walked along the walkways heading towards Kane Hall. Lost in her own thoughts she barely avoided some of the others walking towards their own destinations. The cold was refreshing after the incense-filled hall where the Dragons met. Honestly, Shaolin monks never used that much incense and they were some of the worst. It bugged the crap out of her. True, her connection to the Art came from Destiny’s Wave but she had always wanted to be able to move this way. People more concerned with the trappings of the Art rather than the core aspects of it just irritated her. She kicked a small pile of snow.

Several girls squealed as the snow hit them. Chou looked up and blushed in embarrassment. Bowing politely she said, “I am so sorry for hitting you with snow. I did not see you there.”

The girls just glared at her and walked on. Chou was fine with that; it did get her to pay more attention to her surroundings. She neared Kane Hall and walked on in. The desk sergeant looked up a bit surprised at her presence and asked, “What can we do for you, Miss Lee?”

“Could I please speak with Chief Delarose? It is sort of urgent.” Chou was not comfortable about saying it that way but it would guarantee that the busy head of Security would talk to her.

Sure enough, after a quick call, Delarose came out to see what was going on. He just looked at Chou and raised an eyebrow. Chou blushed under the scrutiny, thinking about all the terrible ways she had interacted with the Security Chief so far. Seeing no other option she cleared her throat and asked, “Can we speak privately?”

Chief Delarose nodded. “Come on back. What is going on this time?”

Quickly, Chou made her way to the office, well aware of where it was, thanks to being there more than once. It was not a pleasant reminder of her first half of the year. “I needed to tell you something… about one of my dreams.”

Chief Delarose took a seat and gestured for her to continue. “Ever since the end of November I have been getting a series of dreams, each one getting more specific and more horrible.”

“So why have you come to me about your dreams? That generally isn’t my jurisdiction.” He was leaned forward, his elbows on the blotter pad somewhat confused by this conversation.

“You see… I don’t think what I have been having is just a dream. I think I was having a prophetic vision of some sort.”

Chief Delarose rocked back in his chair, feeling the weight of the pronouncement. He knew that she believed what she was saying, believed it fully. What trouble was he going to learn about now? “So what did you see?”

“I’m not sure. It’s hard to explain.”

“Well try.”

“What I see is a huge battle with a lot of people involved, though most of them seem to be enemy. A Dark Man led them and he was really evil. He was taking my friends away and they looked drugged or something. I am always fighting, trying to save any of them but I never get closer.” Chou closed her eyes and echoes of the dreams rolled through her, images of Molly being dragged away from her, of her friends in Team Kimba being forced into vehicles to be taken away. Her voice broke as she said, “They are horrible and scare me. We have to stop this. I think this is why I am here.”

“Whoa, slow down now. What are you talking about?” Franklin Delarose was faced with a slightly hysterical teenaged girl – a Whateley girl - in a confined space and did not want things to get too far out of hand.

“What part?” asked Chou, confused by the request. She was sure she had been clear.

“Let’s start with the fight you are talking about and work from there. Now tell me what you saw in your dreams.” He started a recorder and took some notes, pausing Chou in her recitation of dreams to get bits and pieces of detail. “Now do you have anything on the Dark Man, anything that will help us find him?”

Chou shuddered just thinking about him. His malevolence and sense of wrongness was beyond comprehension. “He’s evil, like really evil. He laughs as I kill. He makes the Necromancer look like a kindergartener.”

“What about height, weight, anything like that? Any physical details at all?”

“He is cloaked in darkness and I am unable to see him clearly. I am sorry,” replied Chou, starting to feel drained from saying all of this yet again. If she never had a nightmare like this again it would be too soon.

“That’s okay. Now what is this about you being here, that this fight is why you are here?” asked Delarose directly, his eyes locked with her.

With a sigh of relief that she would not need to talk about her nightmares anymore, Chou said, “You know that the file says I am the Handmaid of the Tao?”

“Yeah. I read that,” he replied noncommittally.

“Are you aware of what that means?” Chou raised an eyebrow in question, feeling better to be on less emotional ground.

“Not quite. Like you are a destined warrior or something like that?” It was clear that he thought the claim was incredulous.

“I was chosen by the Tao to wield the sword and to try to stop this event that was going to forever mar the face of the tapestry.”

Now Delarose was confused. Somewhere he had gotten lost between ‘warrior’ and ‘tapestry’. “What tapestry?”

“The Tapestry of Life in the Temple of the Handmaids in Penglai Shan.” explained Chou, thinking that the answer would clarify everything.

Chief Delarose closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his temple with one hand. “Okay… So this Tapestry… it shows all life?”

“Yes and this event will forever mar history unless I am able to stop it.”

“If you are the one that needs to stop it then why come to me?” he asked, trying to hide his exasperation.

Chou paused and thought about that. “Uhm… I thought you might want to know.”

“That I would want to know about a nebulous fight that you and your friends get into and have no idea when or where it will occur caused by this mystery man and his army of thugs? I’m not sure this is something for me to know about. For all I know, you could be going back to Boston to take out the other half of the city. Chou, telling me has been the responsible thing to do. But what can I do about this? There is nothing in what you have said that I can do anything about. But if you have more dreams and get more information that can give me something to work with, just send me an email on a secured line. Okay?”

Chief Delarose leaned forward and the look on his face was not scowling or irritated but compassionate. The girl had been worried the entire time she had been here. “Chou, I know you are scared by these dreams, and I will see what I can get from some other clairvoyants. Your record states that I really should listen to you when you talk, even if I have no clue what you are saying. I’m not sure if this is something serious or even something in my purview, but I will investigate.”

Chou blushed. “I just needed to do this.”

He turned off the recorder and said, “Thank you for coming to me with this. I have no idea what to do with this now, but I will try to see what I can figure out. You get some rest. This didn’t look all that easy for you.”

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The hot water pounded into the muscles of her back in pulsing waves, almost kneading them in relaxing waves to help work out any tension she was feeling. She needed to thank Ayla again for the shower systems. Chou groaned and rested her forehead against the shower wall. Maybe Sun Wu Kong was right and she was letting her life control her rather than the other way around. She just had no idea how to accomplish that. Maybe if she made a New Year pledge to stop being such an idiot, to stop making her own life worse? Hell, at this point it couldn’t hurt.

She leaned back, letting the water massage her scalp, water trickling down her face. Telling Chief Delarose about her prescient dreams did not make her feel any better. Had she made a mistake? Had she done something that only added to the chaos? Had she told him only to condemn more people to death and slavery? Had she completely wasted her time?

With a sigh, Chou moved so that the water pounded against her neck, trying to loosen the overly tight muscles that were starting to make her head hurt. The heat and the pressure were soon working the developing knots out of her trapezius and scalenes. She rolled her head some, to stretch things and work out some of the lactic acid. It was a slow process, but gradually Chou began to relax and with relaxation came sleepiness.

She shut off the water, dried herself, and headed into her room, yawning as she walked across the hallway. It did not take long until she was fast asleep in a dreamless sleep.

Saturday, 17 February

Chou opened her mailbox, because it looked as if there just might be something in there. She pretty much never got any mail, because who would write her? With her father dead and no relatives even knowing she was alive or a girl, who could send her a letter? When she grabbed the envelope and looked at the return address she almost dropped it. Who the hell did she know in San Francisco?

“What’s that?” asked Toni, sidling up to her as she stood there a bit confused.

“A letter.”

“Mail? You have mail?” Now Toni was confused. She was also aware that her friend never got any mail and was trying to get her siblings to fix that.

“I have mail,” muttered Chou, trying to figure this out.

“You never have mail,” returned Toni, sharing her friends confusion.

“Nope.” Chou turned the envelope over and opened it up. She pulled out a piece of paper that had Chinese calligraphy on it. She scanned the letter, with her eyes widening in surprise the more she read. What the hell was this?

“What are you reading?” asked Toni, clearly wondering if Chou’s rising eyebrows would end up in her hairline. That would look fairly funny if they did.

“I got a Happy New Year letter from the Golden Mandarin.” Chou sounded a bit stunned by that. “Why the hell would I get a letter from the Golden Mandarin?”

“Isn’t he like a famous hero in California?” asked Toni, balancing a letter from her family upright on one finger by the corner.

“Uh-huh. Fought Dr. Diabolik one or two times, I think. Why send something to me? How the hell does he know me?” asked Chou, still staring at the letter as if that would help make it make sense.

“Because you are the Badass Tao Babe?”

“What kind of reason is that to send me a letter?”

Toni started chuckling. “Maybe he is just welcoming a new Asian hero to the mix?

“I kind of doubt that.”

“Well, maybe he wants to make nice so you don’t kill him?”

Chou’s stomach turned some, realizing that just might be a reason. “Ugh… I don’t think I like that.”

“Don’t worry about it. So long as he doesn’t show and ask for anything, just treat it like a Publishers Clearinghouse letter.”

“You mean mail it back so I can possibly win millions?”

“Sure!”

Chou shook her head and walked away from the Ki Mistress. Toni looked at her and asked somewhat confused, “What?”

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Lunch had been epic, and the girls were laughing as they headed through the snow back towards Poe. Even Hank was chuckling over what had happened. Even with all of this school’s strange and unusual occurrences, this was different. It had been the scene of something right out of a Sanrio nightmare.

Toni snorted again and said, “The bows in his hair… that was so awesome.”

Nikki snickered and said, “He actually matched, and it wasn’t eye bleeding. But so much pink…”

Tennyo shook her head, still chuckling as she said, “You do all notice who is missing… right?”

Hank nodded, the vision of Jericho still clearly in his mind. The horror. “Oh yeah, and this is totally her style. And where is Molly?”

Chou sighed, “Probably with Jade, and my guess is Lindsay as well. They had a party for girls into cute stuff last night and this looks like the results.”

“Dear Gods… I wonder if this is only the beginning of a reign of cute terror,” mused Nikki.

Everyone shuddered at that thought.

“Dear God I hope not,” commented Hank. “I’m not sure I could deal with that.”

“Surely Hannah liked cute stuff?” asked Toni, teasing the team’s token male.

“Sure, cute stuff like helicopters, rifles, explosions… That kind of cute? No way. That was like an explosion of Barbie and pepto onto the world.” He shuddered at the thought.

“Toni… don’t tease Hank. It’s not his fault he had some flaws in his upbringing,” giggled Nikki.

Hank growled, “If I wake up with some sort of cute glamour on me we are going to have words, Princess.”

Toni’s eyes widened excitedly, enlivened by the idea. “Yes! That would be awesome!! We totally have to do that!”

Chou patted Hank on the shoulder in commiseration. “You know, you did this to yourself.”

Hank nodded. He put his face in his hands, muttering, “Why can’t I keep my big mouth shut?”

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Chou shivered slightly as she turned off the sound dampening field. The extras that came with this shower were so worth it, if only for the fact that it helped her stay calm and happy. The only downside she had discovered was that the more she masturbated or had sex, the more she kind of wanted it. She wasn’t sure if that was normal or not, but she hoped so, as she really had no desire to be any stranger than she already was. Of course, masturbation was very different in this body and affected far more than the few times she had done it as a guy. Her thinking now was that it helped calm her down… and she hoped the effect would last through dinner.

She grabbed her towel and dried herself off, wrapping it around her. She then wrapped her hair up, thankful for someone showing her how to do that. It helped to get her hair dry, despite its length. Until this had happened, she had no idea just how much work taking care of long hair was. Now she knew too much about it.

Chou was nervous about tonight, partially because what the party meant, and partially for what she was planning on wearing. It was something she had seen online and had felt like she had needed to get it. That was strange enough, but the dress itself was worlds more feminine than Chou was okay with in her normal wear. Why she bought it for tonight was beyond her.

Ayla was apparently ready, as he was not in the room when she got there. That made her a bit more comfortable, as she would have to focus and get past some things in order to wear what she had chosen. She grinned though at the idea of Molly and Dorjee’s reaction to the dress. She was sure that her significant others would approve even if she was shaky on it. That was worth something… right?

She dried her hair and began to blow-dry it, knowing that it would be the longest part of getting ready. Long, thick hair soaked up water and unless she used the blow dryer it would still be wet hours later. She first used a wide toothed comb to work out any tangles, and then a brush. Her hair practically gleamed when she was done. It was pretty, and Chou had to admit that for all of its pain in the ass, it looked great.

Once that was done, Chou swallowed heavily. Now was the moment of truth. This outfit screamed girl and that was something that Chou generally tried to avoid. She was getting better with the fact that she was utterly female but she still had some issues with it. Of course she would, since her life had not prepared her for that. Dyffud and Dr. Bellows had helped her immensely with her self-image, and this outfit was sort of a proof that she was getting better with the body she had been wearing now for over eight months. It was her body now, and she accepted that.

After she pulled on a pair of nice white silk panties, she got out the dress. She was not wearing a bra, as the first part of the dress was a shiny white silk slip dress that had spaghetti straps and would show any of her bras quite clearly. The material slithered over her and Chou had to shudder at the sensual feel of the material. It felt good, cool against her skin. Then she grabbed the overdress which was a transparent cheongsam with red flowers on it. Looking at herself in the mirror, she had to admit that she was impressed with the overall effect. She looked smoking hot.

A little lip gloss later and she was ready to go. The shoes she had chosen to buy were these red strappy sandals with a two-inch heel that should look great with the dress. The outfit was as awesome as she thought it would be. She was holding Destiny’s Wave, trying to figure out how to carry the jian with her when there was a knock at the door. “Chou? Can I come in?”

Before Chou could answer, Toni strolled in, not even bothering to wait for an answer.

The girl froze for a moment as she took in Chou’s outfit. Chou started blushing a little as she could feel Toni’s gaze roll from her feet to her face and back again. Just before the silence could get too uncomfortable, the girl wolf whistled and remarked, quite loudly, “Look out Terry, it's the Dragon Lady!”

Nikki was the first to investigate, wondering what chaos her whirlwind of a roommate was up to. Her eyebrows nearly hit her hairline when she caught sight of the slight Asian girl. “Wow! Who are you and what have you done with our friend?”

“What’s up?” Hank came in asking. When he saw her, his response was all guy, freezing in place, eyes popping and reverently uttering an appreciative “Dayum!”

Chou’s blush grew redder, and she struggled to keep from covering up. She felt almost naked and had to remind herself that Hank did not have x-ray vision. “Thank you.”

The ever helpful Toni kept going, “Did you know that your outfit looks like some flowery netting over your nightgown?”

Chou began to get a little more self-conscious about the outfit, “I… I thought it looked good.”

Hank murmured, “Looks real good.”

At that, Chou grabbed a towel to cover herself up. Nikki turned to the others, gesturing emphatically, “Out. Out!”

Once the door was closed and only Nikki remained, Chou said in a shaky voice, “Let me change. I think I have something else that is appropriate.”

“Don’t you dare. You look great in that outfit and it would be a shame for your boyfriend and girlfriend to miss it. Ignore the rude comments. You know how Toni is. As for Hank… it just shows how far he has come from being Hannah. So relax, remain calm, and know that you might very well be the best dressed person at this party.” Nikki hugged her and that helped Chou to lower the towel.

“I… I just feel so self-conscious in this outfit. I look like a girl.”

Nikki snickered and then sobered up, “I hate to break it to you Chou, but you have looked like a girl this whole time.”

“I know, I know, but I have a hard time dealing with that. Dyffud is helping me and I am okay with being a girl but this dress… I may have gone too far.”

“No, you didn’t. The dress is wonderful and appropriate. You look cute. This is your party and you chose that dress. Please wear it. Not for anyone else but for you.”

Chou nodded. That made sense and she had wanted to wear this dress right up to the point that others had seen her in it. “Okay. Let me grab my coat and we can go. I want to get there early to make sure that everything is okay. Dorjee and Molly should be meeting me there.”

“No problem. Shall we?” Nikki turned and started for the door.

Chou began to follow and then paused. She looked behind her at Destiny’s Wave sitting there on the sword stand. She sighed and picked up the blade. It made her uncomfortable to be away from the sword for any real length of time and despite the charm on it, people with a strong enough mystical sense would be able to sense the charm and maybe even see the sword itself. She placed it into her bag, almost expecting that to make her change back to Alex.

She actually sighed in relief, which confused her for a second. She banished that thought as she had other things to deal with. “Let’s go.”

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The doors to the dining hall were thrown open in order to allow guests in. Chou was already there with both Molly and Dorjee standing next to her, the two of them helping to relax. Molly was also wearing a Cheongsam, except hers was more traditional, in blue silk decorated with embroidered butterflies. Dorjee was wearing his trainee monk robes, cut in a slightly different style from the traditional Monk pattern. They fit him quite well. It amused Chou to kiss him while he was dressed like that and it made Molly giggle as well. Molly apparently though it was funny to grab his ass when no one was looking. Dorjee took this stoically.

She was nervous and unsure what to do. This was a fancy party and she was the hostess. She had no idea how to be a hostess. She was only fifteen and had never done anything like this before. She looked toward Ayla who smiled back at her, looking quite pleased with himself, dressed sharply in a tailored suit that still looked masculine despite his obviously feminine shape. He said confidently, “Don’t worry. Be yourself. Say hi to people, introduce yourself to the people you don’t really know, and relax. I have it all taken care of. Dinner should be ready in thirty minutes and then we can deal with that. You’ll be fine.”

The first people to come up to Chou and her significant others were Dyffud and Ms. Hartford. She was dressed in a nice dress with her hair down while he was actually wearing a suit and tie. This startled Chou who looked at her teacher with some confusion on her face. Why the hell was he here with her? Dyffud grinned at her confusion and said, “What? It said I could bring a plus one.”

Chou sighed and extended her hand, trying to be polite to someone who had caused her friends nothing but grief. “Ms. Hartford, welcome to my New Years party. Gong Hai Fat Choy.”

Ms. Hartford smiled slightly, one corner of her mouth turning up into a smile. It was the friendliest anyone had ever seen her. “Thank you Miss Lee. I am looking forward to this. Gong Hai Fat Choy.”

Chou bowed respectfully and turned as Dyffud cleared his throat. “I… uh… have a present for you.”

Chou blushed happily, “There was no need to give me a present.”

“I know. I just figured that this might be a nice gift, to help you with your training. Monday we are going to the range.”

“My present is at the range?” Chou was confused now, and turned to look at Molly as if she had an answer.

“Remember the spetsdots that I wear?” asked Dyffud.

Chou nodded. She had seen them a few times and had watched how he used them.

“I am giving a pair to you. You could use something like that I think. They have been made to your size and I will give you the name of the gunsmith before I leave, for any maintenance or ammo needs. We will practice with them a while, so you don’t shoot yourself in the foot.” Dyffud grinned, basking in his student’s reaction.

“Thank you very much!” gushed Chou, touched by the gift. “I thought those were so cool when you showed them to me.”

“Have you read the books yet?” asked her teacher, with a grin.

“Oh yeah. I love The 97th Step and Black Steel the best. Pen is pretty awesome.”

Ms. Hartford rolled her eyes, shaking her head. It was clear that she was slightly amused by Dyffud’s action and by extension Chou’s. She turned her attention from them and faced Molly. She smiled faintly and said, “It is good to see you Miss Harrington. How have you been?”

Molly was stunned by the conversation starting to include her and stammered, “Uhm… fine. Just fine. You?”

“Not too bad.” She glanced at Dyffud who was still talking about a series of books with Miss Lee. She looked around and spotted her escape. “I would love to stay and chat but I think someone else wants to talk to Miss Lee.”

Dyffud nodded and backed away. “We’ll talk more later. Remember, the range on Monday.”

As they walked away, Molly turned to Chou and said, “That was so weird.”

“I know. What is up with that?” replied Chou, watching those two walk away.

“Perhaps we should split up and say our hellos.” suggested Dorjee, as he looked at the growing crowd. “We can make sure more people are greeted that way.”

“That sounds good.” As the others turned and left, another teacher came up to Chou. It was Sifu Wong, one of the martial arts instructors. The compact Chinese woman had her hands held in front of her like a martial bow. Chou bowed right back.

“This is a lovely treat, Miss Lee. Thank you for inviting me.”

“Gan Xie Sifu Wong. I just wanted to celebrate, as too many people overlook this particular holiday, at least in the West.” Chou smiled with much amusement evident in the way she was trying not to snicker.

Wong Ah Lam smiled at the remark, as she knew Chou’s history quite well. That she sounded like she was from mainland China was an interesting joke when she knew the girl was from Knoxville, Tennessee. The girl was a bundle of contradictions. “That is very true. I do not get to celebrate the New Year much here. Too many other things going on to really devote any time to it. This party is a welcome surprise.”

“I am glad I could help, Sifu.” Chou gave her a respectful bow.

The teacher moved along and Chou managed to snag a drink that the waiters were offering guests. She drank down some of the hot green tea with jasmine and sighed, happy that the green tea was the good stuff. Ayla was certainly taking care of the party details. Talking to teachers at this was bad enough but she knew at some point Sun Wu Kong would show up and that would be the end of things. His good behavior on Thursday had to have been a fluke. She was not looking forward to that.

She could see Dorjee and Molly talking with people around the room. Dorjee was busy talking with the members of the Dragons who had showed. She was sure that Zhong Lau would show and try to make it look important. Both Thuban and Zhong Lau irritated her, mostly due to the Dragon thing, but while Thuban was just annoying she just wanted to slap Zhong Lau, repeatedly, until she got tired. Thankfully, Thuban had entered with Jade and it was a no fuss entrance. Even members of Pan-Asia showed without making a commotion.

A voice from behind her caused Chou to turn in some surprise. It was Hua Chu Lan in a lovely silver cheongsam. Chou raised an eyebrow at the girl who addressed her formally, “<Greetings Handmaid. I brought the book you requested.>”

“<Thank you Hua Chu Lan. That was very kind of you.>” replied Chou, her Chinese far more old fashioned that Chu Lan’s. She was working on sounding more modern but it was taking work. She took the book carefully and bowed in thanks.

“<You are most welcome Handmaid.>” Silver Serpent fidgeted slightly, unsettled by this task and unsure how to proceed. She wanted to do what her father asked, but this act seemed terribly foolhardy.

Chou again raised an eyebrow, because what she saw of Chu Lan from a distance was that she was well put together and full of decorum. This uncomfortableness was new. Something had to be bothering the girl in order to elicit this particular response. “<Is there something else you wanted to speak of Hua Chu Lan?>”

“<Yes. I would like to invite you for tea on Tuesday afternoon. I just wanted to get to know you better.>” There was a sense of relief around her when she finished. She had at least done her duty and the ball was in the Handmaid’s court. She hoped that she would never have to do anything this difficult ever again.

Chou thought about it. This was an interesting overture and if Ayla was closer she would flag him down and ask his opinion. Yet, since he was on the other side of the room with his girlfriend, that was clearly not an option. So she would have to trust her gut. She took a deep breath, let it out and said what felt most right, “<That would be lovely. Thank you. I will certainly look forward to it.>”

“<You honor me Handmaid.>” Hua Chu Lan bowed respectfully to her and wandered off.

Phillipa came over to express her thanks for the invite to the party, as did a few other members of the Dragons. None of the Tigers who had been invited and actually showed did, keeping their distance from the girl. It was understandable, as she had gone to town on them when filled with the power of the Tao. She could spot Winnie and Anna hanging out with Molly, which made her smile. Both girls were really nice and quite down to earth. That was a nice change of pace for this school, since she had noted that having power tended to make people very self-important.

As Chou was wondering when in hell the food was going to be ready, Hatamoto, the nominal head of Pan-Asia, came up to her, bowed formally and said, “Greetings Miss Lee. Thank you for inviting the members of our humble training team to your party. It was a lovely gesture.”

“I thought it was high time that we were introduced. I have heard much about your group but was unsure how to approach you,” responded Chou, feigning confidence. She was not sure what to say to him, as he moved in Ayla’s circles and certainly not hers. When was the food going to be served and thus provide her with a great exit?

“Ah… that happens. We usually stay with members who have come from Asia but you would be a valid exception,” said Hatamoto smoothly. “You would be quite welcome.”

At the same time as Chou having an interesting talk with Hatamoto over his group, Ayla was over in another area of the room. He was doing his best to make friends with as many of the new people he was meeting as he could. After all, you never knew when you might need a helping hand in any particular area. However, a familiar voice called out lightly and chilled him to the bone. “Good evening, Ayla.”

He turned and saw Sun Wu Kong standing there, dressed in an expensive Hong Kong tailored suit. His tie was imperial red and looked properly expensive. This was not even a remotely cheap suit and might just cost more than Ayla’s suit. The craftsmanship was impeccable. Despite what Ayla thought of the evil monkey, he could certainly wear a suit with a great deal of style. “Good evening, Sun Wu Kong. And who is your lovely companion?”

And the woman in question was lovely. She had beautiful porcelain skin, long luxuriant black hair and was wearing a lovely light blue cocktail dress that was probably the most expensive outfit in the room. Her face was serene, with deep eyes filled with tranquility. Sun smiled wickedly and said off-handedly, “My companion this evening is the Resplendent Radiance, Lady Kwan Yin.”

Ayla started slightly, only sort of expecting to meet a character out of myth this evening. His knowledge of the Monkey King helped, but this was not something he had prepared himself for in the slightest. “It is an honor to meet you.”

The woman bowed in response, inclining her slender neck elegantly. Ayla figured everything the woman did was elegant.

“Oh and Ayla?” asked Sun casually.

“Yes?” he replied cautiously.

“You dropped these.” Sun held up a pair of lacy panties.

Ayla’s eyes went wide and his hands automatically went to check that he was still wearing his underwear. When he realized that he still did and that those were not his, he frowned at Sun. “That wasn’t funny.”

“Yes, yes it was. Talk to you later.” Sun waved and walked off with his date.

A waiter hustled up to Ayla while he was still trying to wrap his head around what had just happened. After a brief statement, he hustled back into the back. Ayla raised his voice saying, “If I may have everyone’s attention! Dinner is ready. Please find your place card and have a seat.”

The doors to the dining room opened, and the crowd moved on in. The room was decorated with red and gold, with characters for luck on each table. There was soft music playing, sounding like something out of ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.’ Once everyone took their seats, the meal began in earnest.

The meal was filled with a number of dishes. There were long uncut noodles that had been cooked to bring about luck, there were several whole fish with at least one per table, various types of dumplings, Dim Sum, Buddha’s Delight, and many other things. The smell was wonderful. Chou smiled when she looked out over everything. It looked and smelled incredible.

Molly happily began dishing up food and that made Chou chuckle some. The girl really enjoyed eating Chinese. While they ate, a team of Dragon dancers performed for them on a stage that elevated them up just enough so everyone could see them from wherever they sat. The Niangao cake was served, and people relaxed in their seats as they drank tea, luxuriating after a great meal.

Ayla walked up to the stage, taking a microphone with him. He smiled at the crowd and said, “Thank you all for coming to the New Year party. Gong Hai Fat Choy. Let me bring up our hostess and she can say a few words.”

Chou swallowed heavily, nervous about doing this. Was she crazy for doing this, talking in front of a crowd of people? Molly tightened her grip on Chou’s hand and that helped center her more. With a brief smile she let free the hand, walked up onto the stage, and took the microphone from Ayla. “Thank you, Ayla. And thank you all for coming. Thank you to all my friends as well as to the new friends I have made tonight. Thank you as well to the faculty members who showed. See, we didn’t destroy anything.”

There were a few laughs from that comment, mostly from students. She continued, “What I had in mind for tonight was to have a big party with all of you to celebrate the start of the New Year. We are moving into the year of the Fire Pig and I do hope that it is an auspicious year for us all.”

Chou scanned the room, noting that most faces were smiling or at least showing a mild interest. That was helping her confidence. “This time of year is for family and friends to get together and move forward as one into the New Year. It is my hope that we can all do the same. The wait staff is handing out the red envelopes. These are gifts to you to help you have a sweet year. Please take them and enjoy them.”

The wait staff was handing out the envelopes and it made her feel good to see some people smiling as they opened them up. Hopefully the chocolate coins and spirit money would be a nice gesture. “Well, this is all I have planned. The Lion and Dragon dancers are going to perform again, and that will be it. Thank you all again for coming and Gong Hai Fat Choy.”

Chou descended from the stage to some applause and moved back over to Dorjee and Molly. The dancers came on and started their performance. Chou headed back into the crowd to let people say their goodbyes and to talk some more with several others. She was pleased by how well things had gone. Ayla had certainly managed to make this a party to remember.

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Back in the safety of their room, Chou walked up to her roommate and gave him a hug. She let loose and said, “Thank you so much Ayla. I don’t know how I could have managed this without you. I wanted to reach out to the other Asian kids and you helped make that happen.”

Ayla shrugged, “I didn’t do anything special. I just organized the party. That is the easy part. You were the one who really made things happen.”

“I don’t see how.” replied Chou a bit confused.

“Look at the various people that ended up talking together because of you? One of Pan-Asia’s biggest issues is the fact that they are so insular. You chatted with a number of them. I was finally able to have a good chat with a few of them as well. You opened up lines of communication between various people. And that is not even touching what you did with Silver Serpent,” commented Ayla as he began to change for bed.

“She came up to talk to me, so what did I do?” asked Chou, a touch bewildered by the importance Ayla was putting on the event.

“She is usually very aloof and superior, and that was not at all in evidence tonight. If Jadis had seen this she would still not have believed it.”

“We’re going to have tea Tuesday. That’s pretty much it,” clarified Chou.

“Well, she doesn’t do that. I have no idea what is going on with her but something has changed and I bet it’s your fault.”

Chou shrugged and stated, “Regardless, I am kind of interested in going. She’s nice.”

“That’s because you are the Handmaid and upsetting you can be bad,” countered Ayla, teasing lightly.

“Great… now I sound like a psycho who enjoys killing people,” grumbled Chou as she put on her pajamas. “Thanks a lot.”

“It’s not that. Look, from what you have said, most people have no idea that the Handmaid does anything other than kill people. So, to people who do not bother to learn the truth about what the Handmaid really is, you can come across as the Harbinger of Death in a way that only a few A+ supervillains can. If people only see the sword, they are not going to see anything else. She probably does know better, but is being cautious because of who you are and what you can do when the Tao backs you,” explained Ayla, trying to lay it out clearly enough for his roommate.

“Okay… I can see that. Do you think I should try to focus on the other parts of the job, at least visibly?” Chou looked concerned, as if she were trying to figure something out.

“Couldn’t hurt. Going pacifist won’t work because people have seen you whoop up on people, but wasn’t Li Mu Bai really mellow and stuff, almost like Dorjee to a degree?” Ayla wrinkled his brow in thought. It was clear that he was going somewhere with this.

“Yeah…?” answered Chou, unsure where this was heading. With Ayla no one ever knew.

“What if you emulate that? What if you work on that Buddhist, Taoist, calm attitude, and approaches like that? That makes you look less aggressive. At least it should.”

Chou smiled and nodded. She could see where this was going and it felt good, it felt right. “Yes… be the River and not the Rock. I can do that. Come across like that and people won’t know exactly what to make of me.”

Ayla grinned, “Glad I could help.”

“You did. You really did.”

linebreak shadow

Chou lay there in the dark, listening to Ayla’s gentle snores. The sound was not keeping her awake, her thoughts were. She had really been through a lot, and her life just kept changing. This New Year was going to bring new challenges and more than likely new enemies into her life. That wasn’t appealing but what was, was the fact that she was planning on living.

Dyffud, Caitlin, and Sun Wu Kong were all correct: she was making more trouble for herself than anyone else. She had to get out of her own way and just be. By letting other people dictate her movements she was not living, she was just being a puppet for others. It was clear now that she wasn’t struggling against the idea. No, if she was the Handmaid of the Tao then it was on her to live her life and not be stopped by anyone, including herself.

That worried her some as she was not sure how she could do that. It really was outside her experience. She was going to become someone worthy of being the Handmaid, but where that journey was going to take her no one knew. She was going to be free. It was scary and she was not sure she could do it, but it was better than waiting for someone else to tell her what to do or to keep herself tied in knots over one thing or the other. The burden of being the Handmaid was heavy, but there was no need to make it worse.

She smiled, thinking about how she had already changed her life by actually managing to be in a relationship with Molly and Dorjee. Each thing she did that made her life more hers made her happy and filled some hole inside her. This was certainly part of why she was here. Living with constant worry and stress had only led to her crashing at the end of November. She was going to try to stop getting so tied up over everything. Well… unless Molly had something naughty in mind.

Chou snickered quietly at that image and snuggled under her bed sheets. Tonight had been a lot of fun and her life was looking up. What could be wrong with that?

Sunday, 18 February

Perhaps a long range attack would work, trying to attack her from well outside her range or perception? It did not seem fair but it might be the only way. Whatever he decided on would have to be a swift surprise attack with no mercy, because if her gave her the chance then he might not be able to kill her.

Would poison work? If the Handmaid had a normal human metabolism then the odds were that poison would be able to do the job. The problem there was how to ensure that she consumed the poison and no one else. Yet poison was a coward’s weapon. A weapon without honor. Doing that would mean he would sacrifice his honor for her death. However, was it not worth it if others lived?

This would certainly require much more thought because what did heroes know about killing someone?

finis