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.
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
Tuesday, 20 February 2007
Chou groaned as she woke up and looked at the empty bed above her. This just sucked. How long was it going to be until she got over the room switching thing and stopped missing Ayla’s presence? She knew it was a good and important thing that she had done. She could feel that it was the right choice when she connected to the flow of the Tao… but when she was not linked, all she felt was doubt.
With a sigh, she sat up and stretched, trying to push those thoughts out of her mind. She quickly ran through the Eight Pieces of Brocade, like she did every morning, to stretch the kinks out and start the furnace of her chi. That helped her energy feel better but she still felt down emotionally. She made a cup of tea and sat down on her rug, her legs crossed. Unsheathing Destiny’s Wave, she laid the blade across her legs. She smiled slightly, it had been a while since they had talked. “I need your help.”
“And what help is it that I can provide you?” replied the sword. Chou could almost hear the pleasure in its voice.
“There is something wrong with me and I don’t know how to deal with it,” stated Chou, wanting to at least get this conversation started.
“What is it that is plaguing you?” Destiny’s Wave sounded concerned.
“I am just feeling really sad, with having to leave Ayla’s room and everything. This is just… I am not sure if I can take it anymore,” admitted Chou a bit sheepishly. “This is so overwhelming. I just feel like I am always losing things that I cherish.”
“I understand. You have gone through quite a lot in a very short span of time. Your father died, you had to leave your home, you have been terrorized by demons, you have had to kill someone, you have almost died more than once, and you have had to lose your friends in order to succeed at your mission. This cannot be easy.”
Chou nodded. “Yeah. I hate it, all of this. What am I supposed to do? I have to do something. I hate feeling this way. All I do is hurt inside despite having Molly and Dorjee. Dr. Bellows is helping me but it still doesn’t seem to be enough.”
“Loss is a serious thing to deal with. It is heavy and weighs down the soul. Lately you have been letting the weight control you.”
“What else am I supposed to do? I hurt. My dad is dead and his soul is being tortured in the Hell of Fiery Immersion. Until I am stronger I can do nothing about it. I can’t even consider trying to fix anything like that until this damn problem that I don’t even know the specifics of is resolved because it is so huge and affects so much of the tapestry. My life has to be given over to dealing with that because what else can I do? I may be the only one standing between life and death for so many people when that event occurs. That scares me so badly that I can’t even make sense of that. This is a heavy burden and I am not sure I am the one to do it.” Chou shook a little as she said that, tears forming in the corners of her eyes.
There was a pause then the sword replied, “Then instead of letting the mission consume you, perhaps what you need to do is take a page from the old masters and laugh at it.”
“What?” Chou stared at the sword is disbelief.
“Chuang Tzu talks about how the old masters laughed about a great many of the stresses they faced, were able to do what had to be done with a smile on their face and humor in their hearts. Sun Wu Kong is always filled with merriment and even he does serious work once in a while, sometimes deadly serious work. Perhaps what you need is to train hard for this mission, but play the fool on the outside,” offered up the sword.
Chou was silent when she heard this, letting the idea sink in. It sounded strange and even a bit contradictory, but there was something to it that sort of appealed to her at the same time. “You mean, just act like nothing is bothering me, and act like I am happy and carefree, like Jade?”
“Well maybe not that far, but certainly like a regular girl your age who is not plagued with as many issues as you are. Molly has a good idea with Wondercute, simply having a good time with her friends and not worrying about a lot of other issues.”
“Do… do you think I need to join Wondercute?” asked Chou, a bit worried by the idea. She shuddered slightly with the thought.
“Certainly not. What a terrible idea. You just need to find happiness within yourself. In time we will rescue your father’s spirit. In time a lot of these issues will no longer be a problem. Once the tangle is dealt with, you can openly be friends with all of Team Kimba again. Until then, this stealth friendship works in your favor to a degree. You also have the love of your soulmate and your boyfriend. You also have your growing circle of friends beyond the confines of Team Kimba. This is a good thing for you. You were using Team Kimba as a hiding place, a refuge where you did not have to really live, to thrive. It was your cave to hide from the world.”
Chou blushed some, sipped her tea as she thought of how to answer that. “There is some truth to that. I… I hurt and TK took care of me. They kept me safe.”
“Now you have to leave that nest and fly on your own. This is a good thing. That cave is only limiting you now.”
Shaking her head slightly, Chou said, “If you insist. I am not sure. I am scared and lonely.”
“Well, if you make friends with Hua Chu Lan that should help with the lonely, as you will have another person to be friends with. Then you will have Winnie and Chu Lan as friends and Molly and Dorjee as significant others. If you also gain friendship with Chu Lan’s roommate that expands your friends even more. There are also the Underdogs. They all seem to like you. Caitlin can be counted as a friend. Perhaps more members of the Outcasts might fall into that category as well if you really thought about it. There are Hawthorne students who like you, and others. You are not as alone as you think. As for feeling scared, that is your choice to feel that way. I know the task before you is daunting, and is one of the larger tasks that have ever been set before a Handmaid, but it is not the biggest, nor the only time it has been so open-ended. This is a task you can accomplish, and you have the time and the resources to ensure that you can make it through,” said the sword calmly.
“But it is so huge and I am just a fifteen year old girl,” whined Chou.
“And Mulan was not much older when she took her father’s place. And she accomplished great things. You are the one who is limiting yourself. You are arguing for your weaknesses, making them into reality where they did not exist before. You are a skilled young warrior with great potential,” pressed Destiny’s Wave, clearly trying to get these thoughts through her head.
“I was an overweight guy before you made me into that.”
“Perhaps you misunderstand the magics that have been involved in this. What they did was to give you a proper shape to be a wielder, and that seems to have been laid on from the outside, which means it was magic not done by me. I merely bring the person to the best they could be once the sword is first drawn and I determine that they are a valid wielder. Your skills now are what you could have done had you been in shape and trained, that is all. I did not turn you into a girl. If it was indeed Lao Tzu who sold me to you, than it was his magics laid upon the box that did this to you, not mine.”
“So you did not turn me into a girl? Really?” Chou gaped at the sword.
“Really. If you had to sheath me and return me into the box in order to transform back, then clearly the box was the source of the transformation. I merely was the source of bringing your body to its peak and instilling skills that you could build upon,” Destiny’s Wave explained. “I was never made to change someone in that manner. I was made to serve a woman in her tasks, as women are often overlooked by men as harmless and of no consequence, especially back in the past.”
Chou was a bit stunned. All this time she had thought that Destiny’s Wave had transformed her, when it looked like it was someone else. That shook her and made her need to rethink things she ‘knew’ about her life. But it was too early for really deep thinky thoughts. “So… you said something about my being happy?”
“Yes I did. I think a good first step would be to start with trying to get your energies to become more positive. They have a bit of a negative spin on them. Once you get that done then we can work on you smiling, joking, having fun and being less glum. You are a child and being a child while you can is good. When you train, you should focus with the intensity of the Handmaid, but when you are not, then you should let that all go. If your aim is to appear less of a threat, I believe that will certainly help you accomplish that goal.”
Chou drank some more tea, thinking about all of that. It really did sound tempting. “So I just relax and have fun?”
“Yes. Yes have fun and enjoy life, until it’s time to work. That is how the old masters did it. Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu were both excellent masters at it, though to be honest, Chuang Tzu was a bit better. Lao Tzu did like to work. You just drink deep of life and deal with issues when you have to. You really try to keep things from hanging over your head. I think that approach will help you through this. Even though you will not be able to be with your friends as easily as you once did, they are close and you can find a way to make conversations happen. Relax into the Tao; trust that it will protect you.”
“Don’t worry, be happy?”
“Yes, that is it.”
Chou shook her head. She could already hear the song playing in her head. She would have to be careful to not let anyone else hear about this or she would literally never hear the end of it. With a sigh she said, “Thank you. That helps a lot. Well, we should get outside before the others wonder what’s going on. I will start trying to make this work.”
“Good. You have been sad for too long. It would be nice to see more smiles on your face.”
* * * * *
As Chou was heading into the breakfast line, Caitlin sidled up to her and said, “Hey, is there a way that you can get your team together later? I have some ideas and stuff for you.”
“Really? That’s good. Meet at the usual place?”
“Yes.” With that, Caitlin headed off and left Chou alone in the line. She grabbed some hard boiled eggs, fruit and rice, as there were enough Asian students in the school that it was an available option at every meal.
It did kind of freak her out that she was now an Asian girl culturally even though she had been raised a good southern boy. Thanks to the sword, she had gotten a huge dump of cultural background as well as language and such, and it basically overrode everything else. It made her a bit crazy at times. Being Asian when she wasn’t was a very strange experience. When she did not think about it, it was easy to fall into patterns; it just got worse when she realized the strangeness. Like now. She sighed and tried to ignore the cacophony in her head.
Dorjee was already at a table with Molly and where he had chosen was fairly close to the Dragons. Chou was mostly okay with that. She had issues with a lot of the members of that group, most notably the head of the club, because of the way they approached things. There were a couple of members that she really did like, such as Cascade and obviously Dorjee, but Zhong Lau’s iron grip on the group sort of tainted a lot of members. Normally she would want to join up in a group that was focused on both the physical and spiritual sides of the martial arts, but between Thunderdrake’s asshattery and some of the other asinine crap that Zhong Lau had pulled she just did not want to deal with any of them.
She came up and sat down next to Dorjee and across from Molly, smiling happily at each of them. “Morning.”
Molly quirked an eyebrow at Chou, clearly trying to figure out what was different, “Someone woke up all chipper. What’s up?”
“I had a good talk with DW and she gave me some advice I am trying to follow.” Chou smiled at her girlfriend as she replied.
“Okay…” replied Molly, drawing things out slowly.
“What? I am trying to be less glum,” said Chou. “Is that okay?”
“I think that is an excellent idea,” stated Dorjee, as he paused after a bite of rice. “If you act as if you are happy then over time it will no longer be an act.”
Chou grinned and bumped shoulders with him, “See?”
Molly shook her head, rolling her eyes. “Okay, okay. I can tell when I am outvoted, but then again my vote is for a less glum Chou as well, so it is u-nanny-moose.”
“Good. Now that that’s settled, we need to get Winnie and have a meeting tonight as a team,” stated Chou as she stabbed a piece of fruit with her fork.
“Okay, but we still have no team name,” said Molly, with a bit of a teasing tone.
“That’s fine, but we have stuff to talk about and tonight will be a good time for it. We need to plan stuff for the spring and beyond and that means we kind of need to do it soon,” explained Chou.
“That sounds like a sensible plan,” said Dorjee. “However, will we be able to have some alone time before Break?”
“What about Thursday night? The three of us could go to a movie or dinner or something?”
“That might be good,” replied Molly. “My final in Movement is Thursday and my Summoning final is Friday. I am only worried about the Movement final. I can Summon pretty much anything the teacher has asked me to. The gate I have makes everything so easy and it helps strengthen the contract, making it much more in my favor. I like that.”
“From what I remember ‘The Bridge to Terabithia’ is still playing. We can go see that. There is also ‘Night at the Museum’ or ‘Music and Lyrics’. So we have some options in terms of films,” said Dorjee, sipping a little of his tea.
Chou smiled, “Those sound like some good options.”
“I can talk to Winnie. She is usually in her room after lunch until her afternoon class starts, so I can talk to her there,” said Molly. “And I still think we need a team name.”
“Fine, we need a team name. Happy now?”
Chou rolled her eyes and had some more of her breakfast. She wanted to keep it light just in case today was their final sim run. All of TK was nervous about this, as they were sure that Gunny Bardue and Sam were going to design something basically impossible for them. They had learned a hell of a lot in the class and when supplemented with their real world experience it had made their team really good in the sims, but was that any reason to set up complex deathtraps for them to face? No one thought so but when did that ever stop a teacher from torturing them?
Dorjee touched her shoulder, noticing the slight frown on her face. “Worried about class?”
Chou looked up at him, the worry a bit clear in her face. “Does it show?”
“Yes. Don’t worry. I am sure you will all do great. You guys are all very good at this. I don’t think any team in that class has any degree of real world experience to draw on like you all do.”
“Well, so are Gunny and Sam,” muttered Chou. “They are going to murderize us.”
“Just remember what you have been taught and I am sure you will do fine.” His voice was very soothing and he rubbed her back in gentle circles.
“Why did we let a certain someone talk us into this damn class?” groaned Chou.
Molly snickered, “Because Ayla is the evil mastermind who secretly controls all of TK as her personal army?”
Chou looked up and gave her soulmate a wounded look. Molly grinned happily and had another bite of her breakfast. Chou shook her head, “Why does everyone think she is an evil mastermind? Ayla’s a nice girl and likes to help people.”
“And yet she has garnered a reputation that is nearly as daunting as that of Jobe Wilkins,” said Dorjee.
“That’s just because of her last name. People are giving her shit for no reason just because she is a Goodkind,” countered Chou.
“You know you are her biggest defender, right? No one protects her like you. I haven’t even heard Vox protect her like you have. Everyone in this damn school is jumping all over her ass for dumping you off of Team Kimba and you are willing to fight us tooth and nail over slights to her character,” stated Molly. “You really are her best friend.”
“And yet we still ended up in Team Tactics,” complained Chou. “Although that was really Hank and Toni.”
“But it helped, didn’t it?” asked Dorjee.
“So…what you are saying is that it did help then?” asked Molly.
* * * * *
Just as Hua Chu Lan was sitting down for lunch with Phan Thi Linh, Hatamoto walked up looking at her intently, as if he had some sort of purpose. He stopped by the table and bowed slightly as he asked, “May I have a seat?”
She narrowed her eyes and then inclined her head slightly, to allow this. She did not like having her meals disturbed, so she hoped that the Japanese fool had a decent reason to bother her. This was one of the times where she did not want to eat with either the Bad Seeds or Pan-Asia. She desired a fairly peaceful and quiet meal, as she was rather nervous about the impending meeting with the Handmaid. This much-needed peace seemed to be eluding her now.
Once he sat, Hatamoto went right to business, dispensing with the pleasantries. “I heard that you are having tea with the Handmaid this afternoon?”
“That is correct.” Chu Lan’s reply was terse, hoping that the boy would get the hint and leave her alone.
“I have a request.”
“What?” she snapped. She was already stressed over this meeting and did not need anything else to add to her stress. Why couldn’t this fool realize this and leave her be?
“I think it is in the best interests of Pan-Asia if you manage to get Bladedancer to join our team rather than to remain with Team Kimba. Do you think you can manage that?” He stared at her intently, as if trying to drive this idea into her head through sheer force of will. It was a shame that she had endured more intense looks over breakfast when she had been in China than this son of a businessman could manage on the best of days. And those looks had been merely from servants, not even her father. This boy had much to learn before his gaze would intimidate anyone.
“I take it you want me to proffer her membership with us?”
“I will see what I can do. I promise nothing. You are aware of what they are saying, about Team Kimba kicking her off the team for being too weak. That the Goodkind removed her both from her team and from her room. You do know that if we offer her membership now that it look as if we are going after the scraps from Team Kimba’s table,” replied Chu Lan, her voice devoid of all warmth.
“I understand. But I do not believe any such tales of her weakness. She is the Handmaid after all, and thus she is powerful. If you could manage to interest her, I believe we would be able to make better use of her more… unique talents than those fools in Poe. Obtaining her services would be beneficial to our team,” Hatamoto drove his point home, his eyes focused on hers, almost challenging her to defy him.
She narrowed her eyes at Hatamoto. Sometimes she really wanted to slap the Japanese fool until her hand broke, but he had too much use, and developing strong contacts was one of the reasons that her father had sent her to the United States in the first place. This was not the time for such a challenge. No, it would be best to bide her time. “I know that. I do hope that she and I will spend more time together and that it will lead to her possibly joining our team. It will be broached but I will not rush the process. The time for tea will dictate the movement of conversation.”
Hatamoto thought about that for a moment and then nodded his head in understanding. “Very well. Thank you for your time.”
The head of Pan-Asia stood and walked away, Chu Lan’s eyes followed him the whole way, as if he were going to turn with another barb to throw at her. When it was clear that he was clearly far enough away, Thi Linh muttered, “What a prick.”
“Why did I ever join that damn team?” grumbled Chu Lan, lowering her head to her hands.
“Because you thought Asian solidarity was a good thing when you first got here, since that is your father’s eventual goal?” answered Thi Linh with a smirk.
“Okay… you have a good point,” conceded Chu Lan. “So what are we going to do for tea?”
“We?” Thi Linh was clearly surprised by this.
“Yes, ‘we’. I kind of want you there for support. I am worried about this. My father seems to think that this is all going to be nice and easy but I doubt it. I feel like I am about to put my hand in a scorpion’s nest and that does not make me feel very at ease. I want someone there to watch my back,” said Chu Lan.
“The girl is very nice and polite. I do not think she is going to do something crazy like kill you,” replied Thi Linh, clearly thinking that her roommate was acting a bit on the crazy side.
“She showed up where she should not have been and talked directly to me about things no one knew, knowing things no one should even be able to know. That was really unnerving. Even at this school that was a bit over the top. And she is the Handmaid. The Handmaid! How can that not scare you?” Chu Lan leaned forward hissing this, trying to keep other students from hearing how she felt about the matter. It would not do for the public face of the Silver Serpent to be tarnished.
Thi Linh sighed, looked at her friend calmly and said, “So we have tea, and a nice conversation. You have arranged for dim sum and drink in a nice room that is already decorated by the staff. There is nothing else really that we can do to prepare except be ready to talk to her. It is all going to be all right.”
Chu Lan took a deep breath and letting it all out slowly, the worried face that only her roommate had seen replaced with the more familiar face of the Silver Serpent. “You are right. I am acting foolishly. I have other things to do and other people to talk to before the day is out. I do not have the time to stress over this. There is no time to be the fool.”
* * * * *
Molly knocked on Geomancer and Charmer’s door, glancing around, making sure no one was going to take advantage of her exposed back. There were some bitches on the floor, though thankfully the worst ones in the dorm were all upperclassmen and higher up in the building. Simple precautions were plenty in the hallways. It was in the common room that you really had to watch out for things. It did not take long before a voice called out, “W-who i-is it?”
“Winnie, it’s me, Molly. I wanted to talk to you.”
The door opened a crack and Winnie peeked out. When she saw that Molly was alone she opened the door and let her in. She then shut the door behind her. Molly sighed and contemplated going after Tansy and her bitchy friends for picking on Winnie so much. Something really evil just might be in order.
“W-what’s u-up?” asked Winnie, as she went over and sat on her bed. It looked like she had been doing some knitting, since there were a set of needles and a ball of yarn on the bed.
“A couple of things,” said Molly, taking a seat in the desk chair. “First off, Chou wanted me to pass on that there is a team meeting tonight after dinner. I’ll come get you and lead you to where it is supposed to be. I have no idea how long it is going to take and since Chou mentioned stuff about next semester you might as well bring your class schedule stuff so we can figure out what will be best.”
“Wh-wh-why?” Winnie was a bit wide eyed at this. Clearly this aspect of being on a team had never entered into her mind.
“One of the things Team Kimba did was kind of coordinate their schedules as best as they could to ensure that they could always cover each other’s backs. That is probably part of it. The other is probably something she learned in Team Tactics. Who knows? It could even be something she learned from Ayla,” Molly shrugged.
“I-I th-thought th-that Chou a-and Ayl-la w-weren’t f-friends a-anymore?” asked Winnie, curious about how casual Molly was about the whole thing compared to what she had heard through the grapevine. She had been curious and maybe she might find out more that she could pass on to Anna and the rest of them.
Molly sighed heavily. “Ayla is Chou’s best friend. She would never purposely hurt her and this situation is actually upsetting both of them. I mean, Chou never complained about Ayla’s freaky taste in music or her weird habits or anything and they were close friends. They understood each other. Chou left Team Kimba for safety reasons and that’s it. She almost died on their last trip to Boston and had to be saved by Generator. Apparently she was really close to death as well. That scares me and it scared her. The two of them talked and the whole team decided that the smart thing was to get her out of the line of fire. So Chou is no longer in Team Kimba.”
“But-t th-the room th-thing?” protested Winnie. That had been the thing that had really set off the rumors, as it had really shown how the Goodkind was throwing around her power to get her way.
“That was the administration. Chou and Ayla actually protested it and were denied. Apparently a new freshman is coming to Poe and they think Ayla can deal better with her than anyone else. So Chou is alone right now and Ayla is stuck with a stuck-up, irritating supervillain that Team Kimba has fought before. So that is extra suck for the two of them. They both hate this. Really, Chou and Ayla are okay and this wasn’t a mean thing, it really wasn’t,” explained Molly, with a sigh of long suffering. “Chou is really sad about all of this and Dorjee and I have been trying to cheer her up.”
“Sh-she’s r-really not m-mad?” Winnie seemed really incredulous on this point.
“No. She’s just mad that she feels like a wimp who can’t hang out with her friends. Why? What did you hear?” asked Molly.
“I-I h-heard th-that A-ayla g-got m-m-mad at Ch-chou a-and k-k-kick-ked h-her of-f-f th-the t-team and out o-of th-the r-room f-for b-b-being a l-l-l-loser.”
“Mad at her for what? Being a loser? That doesn’t make any sense. Man, so many people at this school really hate Ayla and don’t trust her, if this is the kind of stuff people are saying. She’s a nice girl, just a bit stuffy. Really everything is fine between them. Honest and true. Trust me, I have a front row seat for all of this.”
Winnie nodded. “G-good p-point.”
“So tonight, team meeting. Think up names. I really want us to have something cool sounding instead of being just ‘oh hey guys let’s go’.” Molly’s surfer accent at the end made Winnie laugh because of how terrible it was. “See what I mean. Well, I’ll see you tonight. I don’t want to be late for Summoning. Take care Winnie. Bye!”
* * * * *
Once he was alone in his room he got out the special phone he was supposed to use for these calls. He was not even sure why he needed a special phone, as the call almost always went to one of the main phones in the monastery. It seemed like a strange way to be secret in his mind.
The phone rang three times before it was picked up. He started speaking immediately, as he had been told to do, “Tashi dele. Khenpo Tenzin.”
There was no response but after a minute or so a familiar voice got onto the phone. “Khenpo Tenzin.”
“<Hello Teacher. I have a slight issue I need guidance on.>”
“<Ah, Dorjee, how are you?>”
“<I am fine Teacher.>
“<Good. You need to slow down some. There is no need to live your life so frantically.>” There was a slight chuckle in his teacher’s voice as he said this.
“<Yes Teacher.>” Dorjee rolled his eyes. This was a familiar teasing point that he was getting tired of. Apparently his teacher thought it was funny. It had stopped being funny a year ago. “<As to my issue?>”
“<What is it?>” asked Khenpo Tenzin.
“<The Handmaid is going to be talking with Silver Serpent, daughter of Iron Dragon this afternoon. I am not sure the reason.>”
“<The Handmaid is her own person and has her own ways. You can either bow to them and go with the flow of the ocean or be pounded flat by the waves. Is it not just as likely that the Handmaid will change the Silver Serpent as the Silver Serpent change the Handmaid?>”
“<Yes Teacher, but I am worried. If she is a truly a villain like her father then she may turn the Handmaid to evil.>” Dorjee was really worried about this and was not sure what he could do to stop this from happening. It had been bothering him ever since Silver Serpent had come up and asked to have tea at the party. He just had not been able to figure out a good way to approach Chou with his concerns.
“<The Path will be revealed in time. Have patience and faith Dorjee. Find your center and hold true to yourself.>”
“<Yes teacher. I will do what I can.>” Dorjee sighed heavily, not really content with the answer. “<I am just worried. She means a great deal to me.>”
“<I understand. Holding to your purpose should help you take care of her. Is that so wrong?>”
“<No teacher, it is not wrong.>”
“<Meditate on this task more and that should help quiet this turmoil.>”
“<Thank you teacher. I want what is best for her.>”
“<And remember what is best for her is best for the people of Tibet.>”
“<Of course teacher. I will always remember that.>”
“<Take care of yourself. May the light of the Buddha protect you.>”
* * * * *
“Did that make you feel better sweetie?” asked Molly as she pulled back from the kiss. They were hidden from view in a tiny alcove that Molly had dragged them into.
Chou nodded with a stupid grin on her face as she blinked slowly. “Uhhunh.”
Molly giggled at the stunned Chou as she pulled a hand away from a breast. She loved getting that sort of response from the love of her life. “Are you calmer now?”
Chou nodded her head, her eyes not quite focused yet, “Yes… calmer…”
“Can you walk?” Molly tried to keep the snicker out of her voice. She was mostly successful.
Chou lifted first one leg and then another and then nodded yes. Molly grinned, took her girlfriend’s hand and led her on, “Good, we don’t want to be late for tea.”
Chou just nodded, the words still forming with difficulty. She followed along. As they got closer to the room that had been set aside for this tea party, coherence began to return and she started to get anxious again, though not nearly as nervous as she had been before the Kissing Ninja had struck. Just thinking about that kiss made her feel all warm and tingly and fuzzy, and took her mind entirely off the upcoming meeting. Molly cut her eyes over to Chou and smiled, seeing Chou had calmed down again with a slightly goofy grin on her face.
They reached the door and Chou took a deep breath, held it and let it out slowly, centering herself, hoping her nerves would fade. She did that a second time, tightening the grip she had on Molly’s hand before she knocked. The door opened, with Quyèn Nũ at the door. Silver Serpent stood further in the room, with a smile on her face and said in Chinese. “Welcome, please come in.”
The room was decorated in a very Asian fashion with a low table and four very comfortable looking cushions around it. The reds, golds and yellows were very warm and inviting next to the dark cherry stain of the wood. There were some covered bamboo steamers off to the side as well as other covered trays. There was also a lovely teapot in a light jade color with delicate branches painted on it with what looked like cherry blossoms. The room looked very calm and soothing. Chou heartily approved. This was as nice as something that Ayla might throw together.
Chou asked, “Could we continue this in English as Molly’s knowledge of Chinese is not very good yet?”
Molly bowed slightly and said, “I only understood part of your greeting. Wo hun baochen.”
Silver Serpent blinked at the very rough Chinese with the slight Bostonian accent and then said in reply, “Certainly, if it would put you more at ease. I am most comfortable with English.”
Chou reached into her bag and pulled out a bag, bowing and handing it over. “I have brought tea to share. It is a special blend given to me by my sponsors. I believe it will be a tea unlike anything you have ever tasted.”
Silver Serpents’ eyes widened in surprise as she processed what Chou had just said. She was holding a bag of tea given to Chou by one of the Eight Immortals! Her breath caught and she could tell that Quyèn Nũ was also a bit stunned by that revelation. She bowed and then said, “Uhm… thank you. Please, sit.”
Chou sat across from Silver Serpent and Molly from Quyèn Nũ. Molly looked between everybody and said, “I am sure I am breaking some sort of sacred tea rule or something but I really don’t want to call you by your codename. That just seems rude and kind of strange. You guys know Chou and I’m Molly.”
“Yes, I am sorry. My name is Chu Lan, or you can call me by my American name, Laurel.”
“Which do you prefer?” asked Molly.
“I am good with Laurel, I really am. It helps to remind me that I am not in China and that things are different over here.” Chu Lan smiled at the girl, reminding herself that this was the Handmaid’s chosen and to irritate her was to irritate the Handmaid.
“If you are sure. I mean, I have been working with Dorjee and Chou to get better at pronouncing Asian names and learning Chinese,” said Molly, making sure to give Laurel a way out.
“That is very kind of you but I am okay with Laurel.”
“Okay. And you? Your codename was Quyen Nu? Did I get that right?”
“I am impressed, you almost said it correctly. You must really have been working with them. My name is Thi Linh, but over here I go by Lynn.”
“Okay. Well, I am sure I won’t slaughter Laurel and Lynn all that much but I promise that I will work on Chu Lan and Thi Linh so that I can actually call you by your real names someday and not mispronounce them when I do and call you something else by mistake.” Molly grinned broadly at them and the two girls looked at each other as if unsure what had just happened. This seemed to be playful teasing and nothing more.
While that had been going on, Chou had taken their distraction to pull Destiny’s Wave out of the bag and lay it next to her, alongside her leg. She doubted she was going to need it for combat but it might be interesting for the girls to meet her. She was not sure of anything at this point as Molly was busy baffling them with bullshit.
Laurel centered herself and said, with a slight bow, “Welcome to this tea. I hope both you and Molly enjoy these refreshments.”
“You are too kind.” Chou bowed again, politely, remembering the ceremony involved in a formal tea. Hopefully it was a lot less formal than a full tea, as that would just make her crazy and Molly would simply climb the walls. Thankfully no one here was Japanese with their rules for tea drinking.
Lynn picked up the tea set and brought it to the center of the table. Laurel opened the bag of tea and the aroma filled the room with its rich herbal scent. She took one of the tools off of the tray, measured out the tea, placed it in the pot and added the water. The aroma grew stronger until the lid was placed on top of the tea pot. They all sat there quietly, with only Molly fidgeting in the silence. Finally after several minutes waiting while it steeped, Laurel poured the tea, first for Chou, then to Molly, then Lynn and lastly herself.
Molly remembered what Chou had told her about the first cup, how it was drunk in silence, to savor the tea, to take in the tea’s essence and to show respect and honor for the host. It sounded strange to Molly but Chou knew a lot more about this than Molly did, even though that information came from the sword rather than growing up with it. And she certainly knew that the sword knew this stuff far better than anyone else here.
Chou sipped the tea, savoring the wonderful flavor of this tea. It was her favorite blend and she was so glad that He Xiangu said she would be able to get it for her whenever she needed a refill. It was obvious by the looks on the faces of Chu Lan and Thi Linh that the tea was hitting them really hard, with a taste and an essence they had never been exposed to before. Since it was a tea designed to help make you a better you, Chou had a subtle reason for using it as well. The idea of a non-evil Silver Serpent was terribly interesting to her, even though she had heard nothing from Ayla that indicated that the girl was evil. No, she was aware that she just wanted something from the girl but was still unsure what. All she had was a vague feeling so she needed to tread carefully.
Once the first cup was done, and the cups returned to the table, conversation began.
“Where did you get that tea?” exclaimed Lynn, her cheeks flushed.
“One of my sponsors, He Xiangu gave it to me. I really love it. It has an absolutely delightful flavor.”
“I have never tasted anything like it. Thank you so much for the privilege of sharing it with us.” Lynn shifted so she could bow low, lowering her forehead to the floor.
Chou blushed and waved it all off. “Please, don’t. I was just glad to share it with someone who could truly appreciate how special a tea it is.”
“It really is an amazing tea, Chou. I have never tasted its equal and I doubt my father has as well,” admitted Laurel. Her cheeks were flushed as well and she looked equally as dazed by the drink as well.
“Uhm… thanks. So… why did you want to invite me to tea?” asked Chou, hoping to turn the topic to something that would make her less embarrassed. Getting down to business might help with that or it might make it worse. She was betting on it helping.
Lynn brought over some of the dim sum for everyone, and the cups were refilled. Laurel looked a bit uncomfortable and then said in a somewhat tight voice, “Well, let me tell you the ‘official’ reason and then we can go from there. I want to be upfront with you because unlike my father I believe that trying to lie to the Handmaid is a very bad plan.”
Chou and Molly shared a look, while one of Chou’s hands drifted down to touch the hilt of the sword. Where exactly was this conversation going?
“My father commanded me to become your friend so that if it ever came down to it you might defer to friendship and not destroy him. I think that makes him an idiot but I cannot say that to him. He is trying to factor you into his plots and find a way to turn you to his side, to make you a tool in his machinations. To make things clear, I am not with him on this. I have extended this tea as he asked and I will lie to him as need be in order to cover this up but I would like to be your friend, not for him but for me,” continued Laurel, clearly fighting some internal urge. Chou could tell her Chi was jangled but there was no clear cause.
“Then why?” Chou’s voice was a little colder and harder than she had intended, and both Lynn and Laurel flinched slightly at it. Even Molly turned and looked at Chou with some concern.
“Because honestly, you scare me more than all of the hells combined. Sitting across from you and trying to remain calm is like sitting across from a hurricane. I am well aware that if the Tao willed it there is no chance I could stand against you nor could Lynn. I do not want you as enemy, Chou Lee. To have you as an enemy is to ask for death. However, I would like to have you as a friend. My father can go hang for all I care.” There was a waver in Laurel’s voice that no one in the Bad Seeds or Pan Asia would have ever heard before. In fact Laurel herself had never heard that waver in her voice before.
Chou sat there and stared at Hua Chu Lan, Silver Serpent, daughter of Iron Dragon, one of the most feared people in all of China. Iron Dragon was so feared that the government itself was unsure how to deal with him, as assault by the military had not worked nor had their supers. This was a villain so powerful in Asia that dread of his name had spread far beyond his reach. Chou took a deep breath and connected to the Tao, to see if what the girl sitting before her had said was the truth. She could feel the truth and could feel the presence of a juncture. This was surely an important part of the weave of the Tapestry, even if she couldn’t see why. Letting the Tao guide her she exhaled slowly and said, “I believe you. I am not overly pleased with your father and his presumption, but I am not going to hold you responsible for his stupidity.”
Laurel let out a huge sigh of relief and sagged a little. She then gestured to the table, “Please eat. The food is good and I swear to you that is the last really awful part of this meeting.”
There were shumai, various types of dumplings, all sorts of tasty treats that they could all dine on. Molly had a little difficulty with the chopsticks but not too much as she had been practicing. Between bites she asked, “So you really do want to become friends?”
“Yes. It would be nice,” replied Laurel.
“You are aware that she is crazy,” stated Molly.
“Hey!” protested Chou.
Lynn snickered behind her hand. Laurel raised an eyebrow appraisingly at Chou and said, “Really now?”
“Absolutely. She is a total and complete basket case. Utterly loony tunes. That’s why she is in Poe.”
“Then why do you hang out with her?” asked Lynn curiously.
“Because I love her,” replied Molly with a shrug.
Lynn looked a bit surprised at how casual the response was, “You guys really are in a relationship?”
“Well, yeah, we got together in the fall and before Christmas break Chou was thinking about dating Dorjee, to kind of give us some sort of cover, so people would think that she was straight. But she ended up liking him. So we talked about it and because I hate to see the all-powerful Handmaid of the Tao make pouty faces at me, we invited him to join our relationship.” Molly said this rather matter-of-factly.
Chou buried her face in her hands and groaned, “Molly…”
“Do you have to always overshare?”
“That’s not oversharing. Oversharing is talking about that squeaky noi…” Chou clamped a hand over Molly’s mouth.
Lynn asked, “Squeaky noise?”
Chou blushed again and hid her face in her hands.
Molly grinned, puffed her chest out and said proudly, “And that, ladies, is how you take down the all-powerful Handmaid of the Tao without a single blow.”
“Bitch!” was the somewhat muffled response from Chou. The tips of her ears were clearly a blushing red.
Laurel and Lynn started giggling and that turned into full-on laughter at the absurdity of the whole situation. Of all the things they had expected at this tea, this had certainly not been a part of it. Molly happily joined in. Eventually things quieted down when the blush faded from Chou’s face. In an attempt at helping, Laurel asked, “So, Chou, to change the topic, what did you need that book for?”
Chou shrugged. “I have no idea yet. I figure at some point it will become the perfect thing for me to have, but until then it’s just sitting in my room collecting dust.”
“Does that happen often?”
“Often enough that I am starting to get used to it. It was really strange at first but the more it occurs the less strange it gets. The Tao leads me around by the nose every once in a while and I have given up fighting against it when it does.”
“What exactly is your power Laurel?” asked Molly.
“I am a high end Avatar. I am very good at destroying power armor or manifested metal just by touching it. That gives me a great advantage in fights. All that’s on my MID.”
“And you Lynn?”
“I’m your basic PK Brick. Nothing really special.”
“Oh, so like Hank,” replied Chou.
“Yes. So, what is the truth about your being kicked out of Team Kimba?”
Chou groaned, “Gah! I have been hearing about this topic non-stop. People have stopped me in the halls, in the lunch line, all over, to rant about what a terrible person Ayla is and how unfair it was that she kicked me off the team. I mean, before I made it to breakfast this morning I got stopped six times… six! And they all want to just bitch about Ayla. Forget asking me what happened, they already know! I left the team because I was worried about getting hurt. I almost died on our last trip to Boston and Generator had to save me. Basically I am on a team where I am being targeted by the Children of the Night and whoever else we happened to blindly stumble upon, and none of them were fights the Tao really cared about. Not a good plan.”
“I didn’t like her getting hurt all the time when she didn’t have the power right out of the gate like the others. And being on TK got her into a fight with the New Olympians and others, and I ended up sitting by her bedside, nursing her to health more times than I care to count,” said Molly, reaching over to cover Chou’s hand with her own. “It was really bad for her health. If it wasn’t for Fey healing her, or Cascade or her mentor helping to accelerate her healing, she would probably still be in bed.”
“Given all that, how could I not leave?”
“So you weren’t kicked out?” prodded Lynn.
“What about getting kicked out of your room?”
Chou rolled her eyes. “Just how powerful do people think Ayla is? The administration did that. Ayla does not have the power to do that, no one does. Besides, she’s my friend and she would not do that.”
“Okay. Sore point.” Lynn held her hands up, leaning back slightly from the clearly distraught Handmaid. “Sorry.”
With a sigh, Chou took another sip of her tea and then replied, “I have just had to put up with this conversation a lot and I am sure that Ayla is getting more of it as the supposed bad guy in this scenario. It is already old and I know it has barely started. I suppose I need to find out who is giving her the most shit and get them to shut up about it. That’s what friends do.”
Laurel was looking rather intently at Chou and the mood shifted in the room. Everyone’s eyes turned to face the daughter of Iron Dragon who seemed to be having some difficulty with something. Her back was erect and she seemed to be building herself up to something. Lynn nervously reached out to Laurel, in an attempt to head off potential danger but it was too late. “Wait… you… YOU… had trouble fighting with them? You who can bring down nations by yourself? You got so injured fighting with them that you almost died? What are you talking about? What lunacy is this?”
Chou felt the tickle of energy move up her spine that was a clear indication of the presence of the Tao. It was empowering her but nothing more than that, no urges, no controlling her, which had her a bit confused. She was so used to the Tao coming in and fixing these things that she was left for a moment with a loss for words. Then something came to her, something she had seen in a movie that just might work. Maybe all the Kung Fu movies she had watched back when she had been Alex had not gone to waste.
With one smooth motion Chou rose to her feet, Destiny’s Wave still sheathed but in her hand. Lynn and Laurel scooted back, eyes wide, practically glued to the blade. Molly slid behind Chou’s forward line of motion, unsure of what the hell was going on and a little too scared to interrupt things at the moment. “Hua Chu Lan and Phan Thi Linh, you wish to know much about the Handmaid of the Tao. What are you prepared to do for that wisdom, what are you prepared to offer? Hua Chu Lan, you said you would not put yourself counter to my wishes even should they go against the will of your own father. So what would you do, Daughter of the Dragon?”
The two young women gaped at Chou, eyes wide, completely unsure of what to do or say. That this was unexpected was an understatement, as evident by the shocked and confused look on Molly’s face. Laurel stammered out, “Wh-what would you have from us?”
“If you are serious about this endeavor, then I would have your vow on this sacred blade.” Chou was hoping that if she kept it vague enough they would make a stronger vow than she was kind of willing to make them do. She drew the blade slowly, exposing the jade blade.
The girls audibly swallowed and their eyes widened even more. Molly was looking even more worried, “Uhm… Chou… what’s going on…?”
Chou knelt again at the table and laid the sword down in front of her. “This is the sacred blade Destiny’s Wave.”
Lynn nodded and reached out a bit nervously, touching the blade reverently, “I vow upon this sacred blade that I will not betray the Handmaid of the Tao by word or thought or deed or failure to act lest my soul be forfeit and harm come down upon me.”
Laurel watched Lynn closely. When nothing happened to the girl, she reached over and made the same vow and sat back. Both girls looked a bit stunned and shaken. Chou sheathed Destiny’s Wave and looked a bit sheepish. “Uhm… sorry about that. You asked a question and I wanted to answer but the answer kind of gives away something big, so now you two are bound by your promises to not reveal it. Sorry.”
Lynn said, “You could have just not told us.”
“But that would have made it clear that there was something there of importance that I was not telling you. No, this wasn’t a great way to deal with it but now I can talk to you both about it freely, as I know you will not betray me.” Chou smiled awkwardly.
“So… uhm… uh… what did you have to say?” asked Laurel, a bit worried, since her question started that whole thing off.
“Well, what I was going to say was that while I am the power the power is not me.”
“Meaning what exactly?” asked Lynn.
“It means that the Tao determines when the Tao empowers me and not the other way around. If I am working towards its goals I get empowered, if not, I am nothing but a highly trained baseline,” stated Chou.
“So in Boston you were…” started Laurel a touch horrified.
“…a highly trained baseline with a magic sword against far more powerful enemies. I was way outside of my fight class. Right now I need to stop goofing off with all these other things and getting into fights that serve no purpose in the larger scheme of things. Being on Team Kimba was getting me hurt with no benefits for the overall goals of the Tao, so I had to leave. I need to work on figuring out why I was called and why here? And to do that I need to kind of be out of the spotlight that is fixed on Team Kimba,” replied Chou.
“So if I were to say that Hatamoto wanted you to join Pan-Asia?”
“I would turn you down because in all honesty that is not much better. You guys are a really good team with a decent success rate in the sims, which ends up keeping me in view. Not helpful.”
“Okay. I can at least say I made the offer. That will get him to shut up.”
“Him who?” asked Molly.
“Hatamoto,” replied Lynn.
“He really was bugging you about it?” asked Chou.
“Absolutely. He thinks getting you on the team will be some sort of major coup and that you will spill all of the Goodkind secrets or something. That is not to mention the tactical and technological secrets of Team Kimba. He also seems to think that you will also be more effective on an all Asian team than anywhere else. His idea of a greater Asian superiority and more specifically Japanese superiority is right out of my father’s playbook. They would get along great together,” said Laurel.
“Why would you even want someone like me?” asked Chou with some degree of disbelief in her voice.
“Believe it or not, we don’t have a pure martial artist in the group. Kimba had you and Chaka. You would be our very own martial artist, very Asian with a magical Asian sword. The PR is good, the intel you could have is good, the dig against Team Kimba is good, there are a lot of reasons behind the move but yeah, when it comes down to it we wanted a martial artist,” explained Laurel.
That got Lynn laughing. Laurel looked at her and asked, “Tell me I’m wrong?”
“You’re not. No one would believe that the Asian team had Martial Artist envy.”
Chou shook her head and even Molly laughed at that one.
“So we are good?” asked Chou.
Laurel smiled. “Yes, we are good.”
Molly snickered. “This has been a very strange tea.”
Lynn nodded. “Yes it has. But the tea is so very good.”
“We should do this again,” said Molly.
“I agree,” said Laurel. “This was an interesting afternoon.”
“Yes it was. Oh… are there any more shumai?” said Chou.
“We have some of those, a few Ha Gow, a few of the three mushroom, some of the tofu roll…” said Lynn as she looked in the steamers.
“I could eat just a little bit more as this has been so good. I didn’t know that the chefs could do really tasty dim sum,” said Chou.
“They didn’t. I ordered it from a place in New York and had it shipped up. I wanted to ensure that this tea was just right,” replied Laurel.
Chou shook her head slowly in disbelief. “Even after spending that time with Ayla I am not used to such casual gestures of wealth.”
“Well, I am from a family in Knoxville that did not have a lot of money. We cut coupons, and stuff. So being around Ayla was kind of… different. She never rubbed my face in it or anything, but to her money was a very different thing. I am much more used to simpler things, but I have to admit Ayla had lovely snacks.”
“I can imagine. Was this too much?” asked Laurel a bit worried.
“No, it’s fine. The food was incredible. It’s just that if I host something, don’t expect it to be this extravagant,” explained Chou.
Molly jumped in, saying, “Well, you do have that money you got from the Immortals that you rarely use. I suppose you could splurge now and again.”
“That’s for school stuff Molly and you know it,” protested Chou.
“I bet if we asked Sun really nicely, he would get you something,” said Molly in a singsong sort of voice, clearly teasing Chou.
Chou almost choked on her tea and glared at Molly. “Don’t bring him into this. I don’t think that these girls need to be plagued by him. And please, please don’t say his full name.”
“Him who?” asked Lynn, looking confused again.
Chou sighed fatalistically as Molly replied, “Do you recall the monkey-looking girl with the green key on her tail that has occasionally been seen at the Team Kimba table? Or that really hot Asian guy with the simple gold crown at the New Year’s party?”
Laurel and Lynn looked at each other and answered nervously, “Yes.”
“That was Sun Wu Kong.”
The reaction was immediate. Both girls sort of recoiled and looked shocked… and then intrigued… and then a bit terrified. Chou winced. Lynn quietly asked, “Really?”
Molly nodded. “Yeah. I like the monkey princess form. It’s really cute. She’s been giving me really helpful advice in how to deal with Chou.”
Chou blushed and looked down at her tea, not wanting to meet anyone’s eyes.
“You actually talked to the Monkey King?” Lynn seemed to be in awe.
“Do you remember the panty thief in the fall?” asked Chou sadly.
“It was him. He was doing that for fun before he first met me. And he hasn’t left me alone since. If you are lucky he will leave you guys alone. He is one of the dangers of being my friend.”
“That is very strange,” replied Laurel. “You travel in some strange circles.”
Molly snickered and said, “Kwan Yin was Sun’s date for New Year, and her sponsors were there as well.”
Again Laurel and Lynn looked a bit stunned. “What?”
“Yeah, Chou knows some interesting people,” added Molly.
“Knowing me does mean you meet some interesting people, but then there is the fact that the Tong of the Black Madonna is after me, as well as the Demon Lord of the Hell of Fiery Immersion. So that is not good,” said Chou.
“I can’t say anything about the Demon Lord, but the Tong is not one of the stronger ones in Asia even if they are feared,” said Lynn. “They do many black rites in the attempt to summon some foul spirit or other or to bind something. For a while they were making blood sacrifices to keep the Handmaid from returning, sacrificing hundreds and hundreds of lives in the attempt. The heads of the Tong do not value life, only the eventual aims of their foul mistress.”
Laurel added, “I do know that they have tried to make an ally of my father, but he spurned their advances. He called them lesser people with twisted goals, corruptions of the true Chinese spirit.”
“Well, they went after me, Molly’s family, and Chaka’s family all because they wanted Destiny’s Wave,” said Chou, a touch of anger coloring her voice.
Lynn nodded, “The sword would be a great prize for them. If they could get the sacred blade and sacrifice it to their dark lady then she would be able to come forth bodily onto the Earth. At least, that is what I have heard in the various rumors about their aims. They have been around a very long time and have tried for the sword for most of that time.”
“Well, they paid the price. I was told that they got severely beat down for their trouble.”
Laurel shook her head. “No doubt many members died but I doubt that the core of the organization is worried over that, in fact they may have been counting on that, sacrificing their members to their dark Goddess for some specific goal. It would be just like them.”
Chou groaned. “That’s just what I need, more worries about those guys. Why is this stuff never that easy?”
“They will bide their time with you now. Seeing that you are well protected here at the school and that your friends and their families are well protected will no doubt slow them down,” replied Laurel, trying to be helpful.
“I wonder if this means that they will try for me this summer,” mused Chou.
“What do you mean?” asked Laurel.
“Chou’s got some sort of cultural exchange trip that the Chinese Government is paying for. It is supposedly part of this evil plan on behalf of the Chinese Government to entrap Westerners or something. I think I heard Ayla mention the movie the Manchurian Candidate or something when it was explained to her,” explained Molly helpfully.
Laurel rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Those damn Maoist fools. Aren’t they aware that a ploy like this is tantamount to a declaration of war, a war that they really do not have the superpowers to survive? This is the kind of war that would pull in a number of the supervillains and make allies of enemies. Even my father would join in on this one, and he detests the West.”
“Then why would he?” asked Chou, curious as to why such a Sinophile would fight against the Chinese government.
“Because this plot can only lead to suffering for the people of the Middle Kingdom. My father wants to glorify China with its own strength, not see the puppets of an imported philosophy grow in strength, entrenching their power and engaging in activities that will lead to war.”
“Well, I am sure it is not going to go so well once I join,” replied Chou, with a faint smile. “At least, I hope not.”
“You are actually going?” Lynn clearly could not believe what she was hearing.
“If I can help stop something bad, isn’t that my job? This does not feel right and I feel like I need to do this, so I am,” said Chou, with a slight air of finality.
Laurel nodded. “Well, at least I will be back home and can provide you with some sort of support. I know you won’t have anyone else there for you and it is the least I can do.”
Chou blinked. “But we are just getting to know each other!”
With a slightly sad shake of her head, Laurel replied, “One, I want to do this for you, because you will be alone in a land where you are completely cut off from all of your support. Dorjee will be unable to get to you and neither will Molly. Two, once my father hears of this he would order me to assist you in anyway, so this way I don’t have to deal with that. It will look to him like I am taking initiative. Three, you will need help and I can provide it. The Chinese Powers Program is very strong and very effective. They have the best mental reprogrammers in the nation working for them. They are subtle and devious and unless you have contact with the outside you might start to buy into their plans. That would not be good for anyone.”
Chou thought about it and could not really find any fault with what Laurel was saying. “Okay, you have me there. I had not thought about that part.”
Molly nodded as well, seeing the logic of what Laurel was saying. “They might even drug your food and stuff to make you more docile. I saw it in a movie once. There isn’t a lot you can do about that.”
Chou looked over at her girlfriend with a raised eyebrow, “Come on, Molly.”
“It is true,” nodded Lynn. “They will doubtless try to weaken your resistance with drugs and a hectic schedule, thus depriving you of some sleep. Then the reprogramming begins, subtle at first and then more overt. They are masters of this. None in the world are better at this than they.”
Chou looked a little worried. She was clearly thinking, her brow furrowed in thought. She then looked up at Laurel, bowed her head and said, “Hua Chu Lan, I would happily accept your assistance while I am in China. It is clear that I am going to need it.”
Laurel bowed and said, “You honor me, Handmaid.”
“There, will that satisfy your father?” Chou gave her a smirk.
“I think he might call that a successful first meeting. More tea?”
* * * * *
Chou sat there wondering what Caitlin was going to say. She had managed to get everyone. She was not sure how Molly had found a way to get Winnie here, as she knew that the girl really had not wanted to come. Apparently being on a team frightened her. Chou had to admit she understood. Team Kimba was a walking target, a point where chaos spun and for a while she had an urge to stay with them, but now the urge was telling her to step away from TK. That was scary, as having backup like Fey or Tennyo, let alone Ayla, was amazing and very freeing. Now she would have to face the school with these people at her back and make new friends, like she had with Laurel and Lynn. So, Chou could understand Winnie’s apprehension, especially for one of the Underdogs.
“So, you are the rest of Chou’s team?” said Caitlin, as she paced back and forth in front of them. “I know Chain Lightning well enough by reputation, Gateway here by the fact that Bladedancer won’t shut up about her and Parkour. You, Geomancer, I don’t know. If your group is to be a team then you need to train as a team, and individually you have to work hard to become the best you can with your powers and your own bodies.”
Sitting there wide eyed, Winnie nervously watched Caitlin pace back and forth. She almost looked like a trapped rabbit under a fox’s gaze.
“I went over the records ‘Dancer here provided, and Winnie, you really need to be in Survival training. There really is no excuse for you not taking it right away. The class can help you get in better shape and learn some skills that will help you stay alive in all sorts of situations. Since your particular power is more information-based and not very combat-oriented, the class is ideal for you. I also suggest that you become a spotter.”
“A wh-wh-what?” asked Winnie.
“A spotter. What you would do is to provide overwatch for the group, see what is going on and pass information on to the rest of your team. It will hopefully keep you out of the worst of the danger. How close do you need to be in order to manipulate the ley lines?” asked Caitlin, standing in front of the girl.
“I-I-I-I d-d-don’t-t kn-kn-know,” replied Winnie, unsure of the answer.
“I think you also need to take the magic lab or the powers lab so you can work on your power and figure out what it can really do and what its limitations are. The fact that you were able to take power out of that mystical seal is impressive. It seems to me as if your power is very flexible, and that can be exploited in many different ways. That makes you powerful.” Winnie blushed at that and looked down.
Chou smiled. Maybe hearing this from yet another person would help the girl with her self-confidence.
“So your Spring needs to have Survival and one of those two labs. I can talk to Mister Anderson and tell him you need ‘Observer’ training, which is code for hiding and providing intel.”
“You also probably need to learn how to use some sort of firearm. Since your power is not defensive, it puts you at a major disadvantage. So, I think pistol training at a minimum is important and perhaps you learning how to use a Cobra 250, which can use many different types of non-lethal rounds capable of stopping a lot of your common threats. If you don’t want people to know about the fact that you are learning to shoot a gun, you can come train with Chou here.”
Winnie was wide eyed and clearly a bit overwhelmed by all of this. Caitlin crouched down next to the slightly trembling girl and said in a calming voice, “Look, you are a very nice girl with an incredible power, and you need to be able to protect yourself, that’s why the pistol and the Survival class. You already took some of it so you know that. The Spotter job can let you help your friends out in the thick of things without you having to get involved up close and personal. All you do is to keep an eye out for any dangers, for people sneaking up on them and stuff. If you can manipulate the ley lines, that can also help against magical dangers. But that’s a training thing. Chou can help you guys with the Team Tactics stuff, as she just finished that class, but hopefully you won’t ever need that stuff outside of sim rooms.”
“I-I-I… Th-thank y-you.” Winnie blushed and looked down at the floor.
“You’ll be fine, Winnie. You don’t have to be a badass, just strong enough to keep yourself safe. Between Survival and Parkour you should be able to escape most danger and evade it. The other training I will give you will help you stay safe as well. Any team would be lucky to have someone like you.”
The blush deepened and Winnie couldn’t even speak. Caitlin turned to Molly. “You… Pink Ranger. More Parkour. Get that down and it should help. You also need to get in better shape. I know you don’t have the luxury of being an Exemplar but that just means you have to work harder. Since you are getting better with your summoning, having some critters on hand through some of the ways Devilmaster does it might be a good plan as well. Was Chou lying when she said that you can now travel with your Gate thing?”
“Nope. If I can see the place in my head I can go there,” Molly beamed, rather excited about this new ability.
“That is really useful. Play around with that and see if you can call it up on the move. If you can manage that you will be amazingly helpful for your team, as you can extract everybody very quickly on the fly. Remember you are more of a support person as well and not a front line person. If you don’t keep that in mind you could get squished as well.”
“I know. I am working on that,” grumbled Molly.
“Chou, I think you need to learn Parkour as well, just so you can move better over rough terrain. The jumps you make with Lightfoot Kung Fu make you too easy a target. It’s just something to think about.”
Chou nodded. “I can see that. Should I come play with the Hooligans or should we keep this under wraps?”
Caitlin shrugged. “You’re the one with the issue about having people know what you can do. Being able to move tells people that you can run away. It kind of goes hand-in-hand with your ability to fight. That is already a known thing. People know that you are a great fighter, they just apparently need to know that you aren’t much else. Besides, if you play with the Hooligans people might think you are doing it to play with your girlfriend.”
“Okay. That makes a lot of sense. So is it okay if I come play with the Hooligans?”
“You gotta ask Zenith. She’s the head of the club. I’m just the coach.” Caitlin just grinned at Chou who just shook her head.
“Fine. I see how you are.”
“Yep. Gotta love it.”
“Any suggestions for me?” asked Dorjee softly.
“I had to watch some tapes of your sim runs and such, since I basically knew nothing about you. You need to develop greater flexibility with your power. You use it in pretty much the same few ways every time. That is a great way to get yourself beaten. Think outside the box a lot more and then you should be able to deal with most everything that gets thrown at you. Also, don’t take the Exemplar package for granted. Sensei Ito shows how that can be dealt with if done correctly, and correct use of firepower can also fix the problem. So that is no reason not to be smart.”
Dorjee just nodded.
“Overall I am sure you need team training as you worked together, what, the once? So, that should be a bit of a priority. You could use some more members, but overall, you guys are in pretty good shape for a team starting out. Winnie, once you take those courses you should be pretty good to go. Also, you need more gear, like body armor and crap.”
They all grinned at each other. This was a lot better than they had expected.
“And now for the good news.” Caitlin pulled out a slip of paper and waved it in the air. “What I have here is the position and access code of a small, unused room that was once used by a training team several years ago and then was never passed on, so it reverted back to the school. This can give you all a safe, secure place to meet, store gear, plan, goof off, what have you, basically whatever you want. I checked it out and it was in pretty good shape and just needed a good cleaning to be ready. So, what do you say, are you guys interested?”
Chou looked at the others, to gage their interest. Everyone seemed intrigued by this prospect, even Winnie, which was a bit of a surprise. That pretty much clinched it right there for Chou. “Absolutely.”
She took the paper and looked at it. It said that the room was in prime territory between Beck Library and Kirby Hall, making it convenient for end of semester testing, but it was also outside of the usual student routes, making it a bit more private during the rest of the school year. Caitlin smirked and said, “Have fun with that.”
Chou was positive that they would.
Molly chimed in with, “So, now that we did the important stuff, can we work on team names again? I have been working on some new ones. How about Taoforce?”
Chou groaned and rolled her eyes.
“Tao and Zen?”
Dorjee groaned at that one.
“The Taoist Jihad?”
“What does that even mean?”
Caitlin snerked at that one.
Winnie spoke up a bit timidly with, “Wh-what ab-bout H-handm-maid’s O-own?”
Dorjee smiled, “I kind of like that one.”
Chou gave him a very et tu Brute sort of look and sighed in resignation, “Do you guys really want to go with the Handmaid’s Own as the Team name? It makes it sound like you are all my sidekicks.”
Molly snickered, “Well, aren’t we? After all, you are the almighty Handmaid of the Tao, here to right a great cosmic wrong. That clearly makes us the sidekicks.”
Caitlin started chuckling at that. “You know the name works and sounds fine, almost like a military unit. You can always change it later if it really bugs you. At least it is not as bad as Team Kimba.”
Chou bristled a little. Molly laughed, “They don’t even have a real white lion as a mascot.”
Not knowing what else to do, Chou just shook her head. There really was not a thing she could do with these people.
* * * * *
It was quiet at the moment and peaceful. There were occasional rectangles of light breaking the dark snow covered landscape, but not many. Her thoughts did not match the placid scene outside and she closed her eyes, shook her head and turned away from the simple wintery scene. She drew Destiny’s Wave and laid the sword on the bed, sitting down next to it. She sighed heavily.
“What is wrong Chou?”
“I’m not sure. It’s just that… things feel… weird… like something doesn’t fit… like something is out of place.”
“Do you have any idea what?” It was clear that the sword was somewhat concerned by this pronouncement.
“I don’t know. Despite how well things went today, and it went a hell of a lot better than I thought it ever would, I kind of feel like something is plummeting towards me, like a meteor or maybe a storm front. It is disturbing my thoughts.”
“But the tea went well?”
“You were there, what do you think?”
“Well, there was no lie in either of them when they swore on me, I could tell that. Both girls seem to honestly be offering their friendship to you. That was unexpected based off of the briefing that we had gotten on Iron Dragon,” said Destiny’s Wave.
“I know, but I am not sure having them as friends is any better than having Team Kimba as friends,” grumbled Chou, rubbing her forehead.
“I think it is a matter of perception. In Team Kimba you were a member, a vital part of the team and you fought alongside them in battles both here and outside in the real world. With Chu Lan and Thi Linh, it might seem to others like you went to them for protection, especially if you do not join Pan-Asia and do not get involved in any fights with them,” advised the sword. “Should you merely stay with them socially, using them as shields, that should isolate you from the perception that you are powerful on your own.”
“That is easy enough. I really would rather stay below the radar if possible.”
“Then it should be fine.”
“Really?” Chou sounded hopeful, clearly wanting something to be going right for a change.
“Really,” said Destiny’s Wave. “Just relax, play the happy girl and see what comes of that. Who knows where that may lead you?”
“Good. I… I’m just tired of letting all of these good things pass away. I want to be happy. I want to have friends. I want things to be good. Is that a bad thing?” whined Chou.
“No, it is not a bad thing. As I said to you this morning, you have had a lot of loss. You deserve some happiness. You have Molly and Dorjee. You have Winnie, Chu Lan and Thi Linh. There are others you can call friend as well. Happiness is there for you, Chou. It is possible for you to have it and to achieve your mission. If we do this right and play this smart, you can train to be ready for the Dark Man and have your happiness. As far as we know, you being happy may be the key to you being ready to defeat him.”
* * * * *
He grinned happily at the mere idea that the Handmaid had lost her backup. Having to fight both her and the loonies from Team Kimba would doom any enterprise to failure right off the bat. This was indeed good news, the best he had gotten once he had started this quest.
Taking out Dorjee would not be that big of a challenge, he had done it before, in sparring both with and without powers. And what about that girlfriend of hers, the mage. She was really of little threat, except for that huge winged panther she could call up. The stuttering girl was no challenge, so, yeah, without Team Kimba behind her she was a far easier target to go after.
Looking at the screen, he thought about who just might be able to help him in dealing with the problem that was the Handmaid. He knew that Thunderdrake would be of some help, even if only as a useful little minion. N’Dizi seemed to have issues with the girl; maybe he would be interested in going after her with more planning and support. Power wise he would certainly be good in this situation. Once he healed up, he might need to extend a hand.
Nex was another known person with an issue against Chou but did he really want to work with that lowlife ninja? True, Nex would bring a lot to the mix but he had recently gotten in a lot of trouble with Security for going after her. That would not be a factor with getting his help, but then again… the ninja had lost a lot of face because of the girl. He’d had a string of bad luck and luck could change. Revenge would be a good way to get that face back and maybe change his luck.
Three names. That was all he had, three possible people to help him in his quest to end the Handmaid and save the school from certain doom. It would not be enough. He needed more people on his side before he moved against someone that potentially powerful. The Handmaid was said to be able to slay armies. Against a force like that he would need bigger guns.