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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

Monday, 12 February 2007

Chou stood there, her breath slow and measured, the blade of Destiny’s Wave riding up along her back, the tip resting under her hair, the blade hidden from the view of her two opponents. Swordmaiden was standing there to her left, her hair bound tightly in a bun, her rapier and buckler held ready and slightly loose, the rapier’s point aimed for her opponent’s heart, unwavering. Nightbane had a much looser and less formal stance than her partner, her blade held in a much more traditional middle guard position that she had to have learned here at school. The blade she wielded seemed to be made of orichalcium based off the way the metal shone. It was probably the sword used to attack Sara.

This was a fight with weapons only and no powers, which meant that Chou had the slight edge in this battle despite not having the benefits of being an Exemplar, being the nominally more skilled of the three thanks to her training and the skills given to her from the sword. However, she was worried about two opponents with swords, as she would have to focus all her attention in order to follow both fighters effectively. This was dangerous and she did not want to get injured. She was relaxed, ready to move in an instant, her body like liquid.

Sensei Ito and Sensei Beaumont were both refereeing the match, since it was with live blades. The three girls had the skill to partake in this match, with Nightbane being the weakest in terms of skill. There was a pause, which was filled with an upwelling of energy. Chou’s heart rate sped up and her body felt like it was humming. It was not the Tao filling her with strength but rather her own power, brimming over with energy for this fight. She let her chi flow through her and outside of her, letting it fill the space, letting it feel her opponents.


Swordmaiden took an immediate aggressive stance as she jumped forward with a thrust for her heart, letting her Exemplar speed try to get a quick win. Nightbane moved to the side, to flank her, swinging a downward slash towards her sword arm. Bladedancer spun to her left, her feet gilding barely off the surface of the ground, blocking Swordmaiden’s blade by sending it Nightbane’s way. Nightbane ducked under the attack and thrust towards Bladedancer’s abdomen.

She managed to catch the thrust with the flat of Destiny’s Wave and used the force of the thrust to move her out of the immediate attack range, the blow carrying her a few feet. She landed lightly with her sword ready, held diagonally across her body. Swordmaiden moved in carefully while Nightbane rushed her, moving in for another thrust.

Bladedancer blocked the thrust, rolling along the blade past the Buffy wannabe, and then kicking her away, with a back sidekick to the small of her back. Nightbane stumbled and managed to avoid exiting the ring and thus the match, but it took effort and a slight wrenching of her back. Six seconds had passed.

Wasting no time, Swordmaiden rushed in with a lunge that Bladedancer smartly dodged. The riposte from Destiny’s Wave knocked aside quickly by the buckler but Swordmaiden folded over slightly, not able to move past the knee to the stomach. Bladedancer did a handspring away from the girl, keeping space between them, as the Exemplar could overpower her with strength alone. No, she needed room to move.

Nightbane was slowly flanking, so that each girl was at about a sixty-degree angle from where she was facing, making it difficult for Bladedancer to keep each girl clearly in her peripheral vision since they covered a one hundred and twenty degree arc. Fifteen seconds had passed.

Swordmaiden feinted, causing Bladedancer to turn her way and in that split second, Nightbane launched herself at the girl. Bladedancer could feel Nightbane’s attack and she spun, facing the thrust towards her heart. As the spin continued, Bladedancer dropped into a full split and batted the orichalcium blade in the direction of Swordmaiden.

Since Nightbane had been clearly been expecting contact she was thrown a bit off balance and the blow of Destiny’s Wave only exacerbated that. Bladedancer spun on her back, catching Nightbane’s heel with a sweep and tripping her up. Swordmaiden moved around her tumbling partner, coming with a flurry of slashes and thrusts, both low and high. Bladedancer kipped up, blocked the moves or dodged them, moving legs and torso from the path of her opponent’s rapier.

Suddenly, Nightbane added thrusts and swipes to the attack, causing Bladedancer to augment her speed even more with her chi. Power hummed through her arms and her legs. She felt alive, pulsing with life. This level of sword was just what she had needed and it made her grin. Her body craved this action, drinking it in, filling an unknown hunger. Swordmaiden scowled at the girl’s cocky grin and redoubled her efforts to hit the nimble Bladedancer. Twenty-nine seconds had passed.

Nightbane overextended a slash and Swordmaiden had to shift position to avoid being cut by her teammate. That moment was all that Bladedancer needed. She blocked Swordmaiden’s rapier out towards Nightbane and slammed her fingers and palm in several nerve clusters of her primary opponent’s right shoulder, chest, and abdomen.

Before Swordmaiden could counter the rapid hand strikes with her buckler, her body froze, paralyzed by Bladedancer’s nerve point attack. The girl’s eyes were wide with surprise. Thirty-five seconds had passed.

Once the older girl could not move, Bladedancer used her as a barrier between her and Nightbane, gaining some cover. Nightbane still attacked, her sword flashing dangerously close to Swordmaiden. Bladedancer just slipped away from the thrusts and slashes, using Swordmaiden effectively as a wall. When she had maneuvered her opponent into position, she kicked Swordmaiden in her hip, thrusting her towards Nightbane.

A frenzied block countered Swordmaiden’s static thrust, the blade coming closer to striking than she wanted, and Nightbane leaped forward as the other girl fell to the ground, still paralyzed. Bladedancer let the other girl land and get her feet under her before moving in to test the girl’s defense. Nightbane blocked a few attacks and then saw a moment of inattention, going for an inward cross body slash. Forty-eight seconds had passed.

Bladedancer blocked the thrust, getting one hand on Nightbane’s extended wrist. She also turned, getting her hip against the attacker’s body. With a heave, she hip tossed Nightbane from the ring, disarming her at the same time. The girl rolled to her feet and saw where she had landed with a curse. Swordmaiden was able to twitch her fingers slightly.

A few quick steps took Bladedancer to the still paralyzed Swordmaiden. Looking down at her with a quick grin, she disarmed the girl and rolled her out of the ring with her foot. Swordmaiden was able to move her hand by the time she crossed the line but it was too little too late. Bladedancer stood there in the ring, panting lightly, two Swords held comfortably in her left hand, Destiny’s Wave, hidden behind her back, as immovable as she had been at the beginning. Fifty-five seconds had passed.

Sensei Ito called the match. A few students cheered in excitement at the display of skill and Chou had to smile. That had felt really good to stretch her fighting skills in order to defeat the irritating wench who had hurt her several weeks ago and the Buffybot that got on her last nerve. She needed to do that more often, as she felt really alive and happy at that moment.

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Hua Chu Lan was not happy, not even remotely. In the few weeks since her father had told her to become friends with the Handmaid, she had been at a loss as how to proceed, especially with the news that the girl was in a threesome with that Buddhist monk wannabe and the mousy summoner that was roommates with Dragonrider. Now she was sure that she had even less in common with the most fear-inducing girl she knew.

She paced around her room in Melville, ignoring her roommate, hoping that the movement would help her thoughts. The roommate in question, Quyen Nu, or more properly Phan Thi Linh, just watched her, wondering what was going on with her roomie to make her so nervous. With a calm but hesitant voice she asked, “Chu Lan?”

The girl never stopped her pacing as she snapped angrily, “What!?”

“What worries you so?” asked Linh.

Chu Lan stopped her pacing and turned to face her roommate. Her face filled with concern and trepidation as she answered, “Chou Lee. I don’t know what to do or say to make friends with her, as my father has commanded.”

Linh shivered slightly as she thought about the destructive power that was the Handmaid. There had even been stories of the girl in Vietnam and it was known that she had been in that region at least once. Forces of Nature were a thing to be properly feared. “I am not sure what I can say to help. All I have is that whatever you do, you have to really be her friend. Lying to her would probably not end well.”

Chu Lan nodded, realizing the simple truth of that statement and blurted out in a more western fashion, “I agree, but how the hell do I start?”

Linh looked thoughtful and replied, her words paced slowly, “Well, did she not invite us to a New Year feast? That might be a great time to approach her and give this a start. I can be with you if it would make it easier.”

Seeing the truth of that, Chu Lan sighed and nodded, “Please. That would be a big help. Just even knowing that the Handmaid is active scares the hell out of me.”

“Just because she is active and here is no reason to think that you are the target. Who knows who her target could be? It could just as easily be Ms. Carson, or that weird girl with those rodent powers, or it could be Mega-death, that devisor with the self-control issues who is always dricking out, or it could be one of the lunch ladies with plans of world conquest for all we know. If there is no fighting it then why worry about it?” Linh shrugged and offered up what advice she had.

Chu Lan smiled slightly at that. “When did you get so smart?”

Linh blushed slightly at the implied praise. “This isn’t smart. That is just simple peasant wisdom. You cannot do anything about the weather or the government or insects so you try not to worry. You just deal with what you can deal with.”

“Actually that was really helpful. Thanks. Putting things in that sort of perspective does make things a bit easier.” Chu Lan stopped her pacing and sat down on her desk chair looking out at all the snow. There were some kids playing in it and areas of trackless snow that calmed her eyes with their simplicity. “Yes, I can do this… I can make friends with the Handmaid. I just have no clue if it will actually help if she is after my father or me.”

Hearing the worry, Linh chuckled and shook her head. “Treat her as a typhoon. Her power is undeniable and she moves and destroys at will. Our feeble protests mean nothing. What else is she but a powerful typhoon?”

“Her appearance is often mentioned as coming in as a storm,” mused Chu Lan, brushing a stray lock of hair that had fallen in front of her face.

“Then why worry?” asked Linh, grinning gently. “Like any of us can stop a storm?”

After a little bit of thought, Chu Lan again looked worried, “I don’t think that what you are saying is helping Linh.”

“Okay, so at first we treat her as a viper but then we can relax. She will probably be expecting us to be nervous at first so that won’t be an issue. Just being her friend should be enough, shouldn’t it?” replied Linh, while she was peeling a lychee.

“It’s the best I’ve got,” sighed Chu Lan, sitting gracefully into her chair. Her eyes dropped to the fruit and she asked, “Can I have some?”

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With some concentration and exertion, Chou put four rounds into the center mass of the target and four into the head, nicely grouped. She grinned, pleased with her grouping and waited for Caitlin to say it was safe to step away from the firing line. Once that was done, she turned towards her friend for the critique.

Caitlin walked up and said, “Not bad. You are getting better.”


“No problem. You might even be good in a few months,” commented Caitlin dryly.

Chou stuck her tongue out at her playfully in response. Caitlin laughed. A thought and an urge hit Chou, making her frown slightly. She then bit her bottom lip in nervousness before saying, “Caitlin… I have something to talk to you about.”


With a voice tense with worry, she hesitantly stated, “I… I know about you, about… how you used to be Mister Mahren, before the accident that supposedly killed you.”

Caitlin froze, looking unnatural in her lack of movement, like a thing that had been carved. She turned her head and looked deeply into Chou’s rich brown eyes with her own metal ones. The voice was tense with some hidden emotion Chou could not put a finger on. “What?”

Chou sighed, praying that this was not going to blow up in her face. She did not even know why she was saying this now, of all times. “I know that you used to be Eric Mahren, the Range Master, before the magical accident where you supposedly died but instead became the Artificer.”

Caitlin stood there, still as a statue, which was unnerving Chou a great deal. The girl’s response was cold and filled with tension, her voice wavering slightly, “How… how do you know that?”

“Some tool I got for being the Handmaid that lets me see things. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell anyone else about this, but I wanted to let you know that I know and that I am sorry for your loss.” Chou fidgeted nervously, wishing that the Tao would keep from putting her in more uncomfortable situations.

“Which loss?” Caitlin was now visibly agitated, her metal eyes glaring at her intently.

Chou could almost feel the crosshairs on her as she continued, “Well… your manhood for one. I know that sucks. And the other… I am… I’m sorry for what happened to the woman you loved.”

Caitlin stood there, shaking slightly, as if ready to leap at the Chinese girl. It was clear that her body was chomping at the bit to burst into violent action upon the girl. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, clearly trying to calm herself, to tamp down the wild emotions that raged in her. Energy sparked around her, making her troubled self even more obvious. “So you used some mystical thing to find about me and my life? What gave you the right to do that?!”

Chou swallowed heavily, nervous and not wanting to fight Caitlin virtually or not. However it ended, she would lose. “I was checking on some things and I noticed a line that would have helped in something coming up but it was gone and replaced by… well I guess an invisible line is the closest to what occurred. Since I knew that the invisible line was you, because of your weird nature, I tracked back to see who you were and get an idea of what you could have done. And that told me… well everything.”

Caitlin visibly whitened at that and what it implied, as if she had seen a ghost, “Oh God… everything?”

Chou was confused by this and was about to answer when she stopped and thought for a second. How far back had she really gotten. Clearly by that response she was glad she hadn’t gone farther. “I… I only went back to the start of the school year. I promise you I didn’t go farther.”

Caitlin’s shoulders dropped in relief, and she sighed. This sort of thing was not supposed to happen. When she got better control of herself she looked up and demanded, “Promise me that you won’t look farther back.”

“I won’t unless the Tao needs me to. I won’t look,” assured Chou, hands raised in an attempt to placate her firearms instructor.

“So explain this to me... you used a mystical device to look at my life and found out who I was. Upon finding out who I used to be you came and talked to me. You also watched my life back to the beginning of the school year. You know all of that then?” Caitlin had caught up to herself and spoke slow and measured, trying to find out just what the girl knew.

Chou could feel the change in the atmosphere, despite the fact that they were in a simulation. “Yes. I do.”

“You know my friends and associates and my connections beyond this school?” Caitlin's gaze was getting more intense.

“Uhm... some. I know you have some friends outside of campus that hold a huge secret about your past that you don’t want anyone to know about and some such, but that's all. I did not track that particular set of threads down,” said Chou, wanting to make sure Caitlin knew everything.

“That was an invasion of my privacy,” stated Caitlin bluntly, some anger in her voice.

Chou interrupted with, “Look, you are this gaping hole in the Tapestry, and I needed to better understand it and you, so I could do my job. It is a tool of the Handmaids, so I used it. Aren't you the one always harping about having the intel you need to make decisions?”

Caitlin froze again. She sighed, realizing that she had clearly been hoist by her own petard. “Okay, you have a point. But I am not happy with this.”

Chou sighed as well, letting go of the tension that had been building inside herself. She did not want to start a fight with her teacher that could very well spill to the outside world. “I am sorry for that. I just wanted to let you know I know and let you know that I won't tell anyone.”

After a moments thought, “I can work with that.”

“Good because I also need your input on something.” Chou looked a bit sheepish about this. “Lately I have been thinking about... well trying to hide my skill, so I look less dangerous.”

Caitlin looked at the girl as if she were a special type of crazy. One eyebrow rose derisively. “Hiding your skill after you've flashed it to the world is kinda like trying to hide a bazooka under a skirt. It's not going to work. You want people to underestimate you? Back off and don't get involved in situations where you have to flash your skills. Letting them overlook you naturally and forget will work better than trying to convince people of incompetence.”

Chou bit her bottom lip nervously, still unsure how she should proceed with this issue that had been bothering her. “My idea, and I’m not sure how good it is, is to not exploit openings as much, to hopefully make it look like their skills have grown more and mine aren't growing as fast.”

“Hard road. To pull that off, you need to seriously back off and not respond as much as you want to,” replied Caitlin, calming down now that the conversation had moved away from her and her past.

“That's why I will need to train harder with you, so I don't lose any skill myself. I want to look less skilled in people’s eyes while at the same time trying to fully reach my potential.”

“Don't let 'em think you've slacked off too much. It's a fine line between falling off the radar and pinning a target to your ass, especially with your history. Carson hasn't been able to completely gut the whole problem with bullies and stuff. Witness what happened with Folder.”

“Yeah. That whole situation clearly sucked a lot. I don't want to be a target, but I do want people to kind of think that my flash is gone and that I have pretty much gone as far as a baseline my age can go.”

Caitlin smirked and flicked the blade Chou thought had been masking itself. “Never gonna happen so long as you carry that pigsticker around so openly.”

“Well... unfortunately I'm gonna be carrying this around,” replied a frustrated Chou.

“That's the point. No one's really that afraid of you. They all think the sword's what lets you do all the hinky shit,” explained Caitlin.

“Then I have no idea what to do. Maybe let myself get disarmed in fights and lose that way?” asked a confused Chou.

“No.” Caitlin shook her head, metallic hair tossed back and forth, some energy dancing between the strands. “Hardest thing is not to get involved in a fight to begin with.”

“I don't want to get into fights,” complained Chou with some exasperation. “That is why I am also thinking of backing off from TK.”

Caitlin paused and then said carefully, “Follow that logic pattern for a minute. Really toss that statement around in your head knowing what you know about people in general, teenagers in specific, and Whateley thrill-seekers. Does it wash at all?”

“I... I don't follow. I don't want to get in fights, not even remotely. They just sort of happen to me.” Chou seemed confused by what her pistol coach and friend was telling her.

“Why? Have a close look. What triggered the fights you have been in?” asked Caitlin, trying to get Chou to think through the issue more than she had.

“A lot of times, things I didn't start did. And then there are all the fights I got into because of TK, and there is the whole being attacked by Demons thing that bugs the crap out of me,” grumbled Chou, her fists clenching and unclenching in annoyance.

“Okay. Why'd you participate? Don't include demons because I have a special box set up for dealing with those myself.”

“Okay... I joined in because I was helping my friends or someone after one of them included me in the attacks.”

Caitlin nodded, having clearly been expecting those answers from her knowledge of the girl. “Another reason you and TK get into so many fights is... you lot have an aggressive posture. You all come off to me as the kids who got picked on one too many times back before this, and now that you can fight back...”

Chou blushed, her sentiment striking home, “Well... there may be some of that. I am trying here. What else can I do? Something is coming, something bad, and if I look like a threat I can't save people.”

“Don't get so hung up on shit coming. Can you prevent it from coming?” asked Caitlin reasonably.

“No, but I can work to set myself to be in the right place at the right time and from everything I can tell, I need to stop being a full member of TK and look less threat-like.” Chou was not pleased by this but saw no other option.

“Ah hold up... can you stop it from coming? Simple yes or no.”

“No. I am here, partially, to deal with it, to keep the fallout from being catastrophic.”

“Do you know what's coming?” Caitlin was interested and worried about anything that could bring that much potential danger to any of her friends.

“Something bad where a Dark Man has my friends and more people I think. I’m not sure. It is really fuzzy and all I can usually see is me fighting an army to save my friends. That doesn’t help that much.”

“So no. You don't know what's coming, much less how?” asked Caitlin, clearly concerned.

“Nope, but I know that what I am doing now is making me less able to stop it rather than more able. What I feel from my dreams is telling me that. I am grasping at straws, Caitlin, and this is the best idea I have to save everyone.” Chou started tearing up as she spoke and a few tears trickled down her face. She wiped them away absently with the back of her hand.

Caitlin shook her head and put a hand on Chou's shoulder, squeezing slightly. “No. This just means you're going to let it go, concentrate on learning, and keeping an eye out. If you can't stop it, can't divert it, can't do anything more than shore up and weather the storm, there is no point worrying about it. I know you will, but if your focus is entirely on this nebulous thing, you're going to fuck up in the here and now.”

“I am trying Caitlin, but it scares the shit out of me,” admitted Chou in a soft voice.

“You ever consider that this might not happen? There's a reason I hate precogs.” Caitlin was hoping for an answer she was fairly sure she wasn’t going to get.

“No... this is going to happen... I can see it in the pattern and there is nothing I have found so far that can divert it. I know in my bones this is going to happen.” Chou shuddered with revulsion at the idea of the Dark Man actually existing and having to fight him and his army.

“You know what'll also happen?” asked Caitlin, her voice more chiding than inquisitive.


“You're going to work yourself up so bad you have a heart-attack before your sixteenth birthday. Calm down, and wait. Learn. If you can't fix it, there's no point panicking about it, so fuck it. Back-burner it, do what you can to prepare, and deal with it when it gets here,” advised Caitlin, making sure that Chou was clear on the point.

“And that is why I need to try and find a way to make me look less dangerous, less a threat. Not Underdog level ineffectual, but nothing more than a skilled baseline,” countered Chou with some agitation.

“Shit, that's easy. That's not even a difficult goal at all. Pick a discipline, practice, become competent, move to next discipline, practice, rinse, repeat.”

“Oh?” questioned Chou sarcastically. “That was my plan, but I also don't want everyone and their brother knowing about what I am learning.”

With a shrug, Caitlin said, “What are you worried about? This is Whateley. If you can't shoot fire from your eyes, lightning from your ass and prove you're the second coming of William Wallace, the only way anyone takes you seriously is if you are intimidating enough to make them shit themselves. The only thing that makes anyone take you seriously, Chou, is you have a sword that can chump PK bricks.”

“But I can't get rid of the sword,” objected Chou.

“You ever consider concealment that's not dependent on a hiding schtick that fails against even the most incompetent of mystics?” Caitlin tapped her eyes. “I'm about the most mystically incompetent person on campus, but even I can see the bloody thing. Which means any avatar, mage or psychic's not gonna be suckered. Never mind some of the more weird sensory tricks.”

Chou scoffed at the other girl's words, “You mystically incompetent? Not likely. You can probably see the sword because of the Artificer sight. Even Fey has issues seeing Destiny's Wave at the moment. So you aren’t incompetent… at least in that arena.”

“I see essence currents. I'm looking at the actual spell. I KNOW it's that talking sword of yours. Waltzing around with something like that is like unzipping your fly and letting your junk hang out. Unidentifiable mystic effects that hide things, walking with a weapon openly strapped and such are all neon signs marked: ‘investigate me’ or ‘kick my ass’ to the people you want to avoid.”

“Then what the hell am I supposed to do? Carrying Destiny's Wave is part of who I am as the Handmaid.”

The former Range Master gave Chou a hard look that looked less like the girl she was than the Range Master she had been. “Rephrase that statement. You just made a severely false statement that you've bought into.”

“What? Carrying the sword is part and parcel of the job.”

“Who you are is Chou Lee, a girl going to school who needs to severely re-order her priorities. WHAT you are is secondary to that. This is where that Handmaid bullshit falls in. You aren’t the Handmaid all the time Chou. It’s just a job, not your life.”

“So I just leave the sword in my room? What if something happens and I need it?” complained Chou, holding onto the sword.

“There is only one situation where you need a sword, Chou. For everything else it's a convenience,” stated Caitlin, one eyebrow raised in annoyance.

Chou thought about that for a few seconds before replying, was that really true? “Okay... you may have a point there. So leave DW in my room for the most part? What about if I carried her in my bag?”

“Could work. In a bag isn't as likely to draw unwanted attention.” Caitlin conceded that point now that Chou had accepted the other.

“Okay. I can do that. It will take longer to draw but I guess I can move first. Any other helpful suggestions?”

“When you're confronted, walk away. It's the hardest thing to do, but walk away. You might be able to, but TK as a whole? None of you is capable of walking away as a group,” stated the Artificer, with no doubt in her mind that Team Kimba was incapable of that sort of restraint.

Chou sighed and rubbed her eyes. “That is actually part of the reason I am thinking of leaving them officially. Dorjee should help with the ‘walk away’ thing as sometimes he is too Buddhist for his own good.”

“It happens. And Dorjee? The lightning whip kid? Yeah he is. Good kid, though.”

Chou blushed and looked away, “Yeah… he is.”

“Just don't lose sight of one thing. You're not Buddhist, you're not Chinese Taoist. You're an American kid, born and raised, and you let that identity get stripped and you've got nothing but a sword. Who you are is something that you need to not forget. If you choose to work with this Tao shit, do it on your terms, not on everyone else's.”

“Okay... I can do that, or rather I am trying to do that,” amended Chou. “I am trying to make that change.”

Caitlin looked at her seriously and asked worriedly, as if Chou was possibly in some sort of trouble. “Who's pushing you to change who you are?”

“I guess the Immortals and myself. I mean, I'm not exactly who I was you know?”

“Yeah, you are. You’ll figure that out in time. Skin don’t define you, you define you. And I wouldn't trust the word of a buncha pricks who've forgotten what it means to be human.”

“Well, I’m trying not to listen to them, and honestly Becca isn't trying to change me, not after your talk with her. Hell, in all honesty most everyone is trying to change me, including you,” scoffed the young Asian girl, shaking her head at the absurdity of it all.

“Teaching is change to a point. All I care about is whether or not you're alive at the end of the day and can sleep soundly without hating yourself. If those two things are all you got at the end of the night I consider it a win for me,” replied Caitlin, some depression creeping into her voice. Chou had seen Mahren’s life here at Whateley and knew that the point was hard made.

Chou sighed. “Yeah. I am getting better with the hating how I look thing and I am still alive, and with Nex gone I should be safe from most assassination attempts at any rate.” She joked about it, despite the fact that Nex hadn’t been entirely incompetent. If the Tao hadn’t been there for her she might not have lived.

The other girl chuckled, “You're too worried about life and death. Concentrate on being a kid more. You think about serious shit when you walk in here. When you leave, be a goddamned kid again. When the shit comes down, and you're scared and your ass puckers so tight you couldn't drag a needle out with a Mack truck, that’s when the training will take over. Trust yourself more, worry less.”

“I am trying, but this whole mess has me messed up in the head. I miss my dad. I miss my life. And all I have is this and I have no idea what to do with it.” Chou lifted the sword to make her point.

“Do what you feel is right for you. In all things look to thine own ass. If you can't cover yourself and keep yourself upright, happy and sane, you can't do it for anyone else. You make yourself useless if you break yourself.”

“I'm trying. This isn't all that easy sometimes.”

“Nothing worth doing ever is.”

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Chou was very thoughtful as she headed back to her room. All the things Caitlin had been saying really hit home with some of the problems she was having with all of this grief over the Dark Man and the pain her friends had been feeling. Sometimes she had trouble knowing who she really was as she juggled several things that seemed to be mutually exclusive, most clearly the part about her being the Handmaid and her having a life. Being Alex seemed so far away from where she was now and what she was doing that her memories of being a boy were getting less distinct, which was very troubling.

She was Alex. Once she was done with this Handmaid business and could get the box back, she still had dreams of changing back. Chou was just the name she picked out of the air to keep her safe when those guys attacked the restaurant, something to throw the cops off her tail. If she had known that she was going to be stuck with that name for the rest of her life, she would have gone with something American and not had to play Chinese girl. What did she know about being Chinese? All the stuff that she had learned from Destiny’s Wave was at least five hundred years old. Surely, a culture had changed in that time, right?

Apparently, her manners and way of speaking were pretty old fashioned, as if she had been raised by a grandmother who had been steeped in the past. None of the other Asian kids found that completely unusual, but she was not Asian. She was a boy from Knoxville for God’s sake, not some girl from Beijing. That was tough to deal with sometimes, tough to have to play the good girl when all she wanted to do was scream. There had to be some sort of way off this crazy ride and she had no idea what she could do to achieve that. Molly and Dorjee both knew her past and who she really was and it did not bother them all that much, so shouldn’t she be allowed to be herself? But would they stay with her if she changed?

The lights of Poe glowed warmly ahead and she smiled to herself as she drew closer. Despite everything she had lost, she had found a home here where she had met some amazing people, people who she had never believed she would ever meet. In addition, she had made friends, lots of them, more than she had ever had before. As Alex, his weight, his general lack of coordination, and his bookish and nerdy nature pretty much meant that most of the other boys shunned him and there were not all that many girls who wanted to deal with him. Now she had an abundance of friends, most of whom would face death itself for her. Of course, Fey and Tennyo would probably win but that was okay. Then there was the fact that she had met Molly and Dorjee.

The Tibetan boy was cute and he kissed well, making her feel things that were quite different from anything she had felt before. It was wonderful and made her happy. Then there was Molly, who was like a warm fire inside her, who loved her in such a full and complete manner that it made her head spin. She knew that no matter what, Molly would always be by her side, come what may. She grinned to herself as she walked towards the front doors.

Chou headed inside, where some boy she didn’t know from the boys’ side was talking to someone who looked like she could be his mother. Thankfully there was no one else who might get in her way to bother her, thus she made it up the stairs and to her door still pondering the way things were playing out around her. On one hand she had gained, and on the other she had lost. She only wished she knew how they balanced out. Then there was also the party she had asked Ayla to plan. She had to have been crazy to think of doing that. Maybe Ayla was too busy making money with another company and was unable to finish the plans? Chou really doubted it but she did have hope.

When she opened her door, Ayla was in full swing, complete with a fancy headset and a laptop screen full of weird graphs. “Look Steven, this really isn't sour grapes. I don't need you to place all that money with AJG Financial Services.Put it anywhere.Just not with Bernie... Yeah, yeah, I know his background. Hell, I've had dinner with him!But that just makes him untouchable until someone catches him red-handed. His return rates are nearly impossible for derivatives in those investment areas, unless he's using precogs to pick his cutoffs and collars, which is massively illegal... No, there's no such thing as a black box like that in these derivatives, just overly complex hedges and arbitraging. An expert should be able to see how the derivative works..." Ayla waved Chou into the room. "Look Steven, I've got to go.Important meeting. But if you can't get a straight answer on his investment mechanisms, put your money somewhere safer.”

“Ayla?” asked Chou a bit hesitantly.

“Yeah?” replied Ayla as he hung up and began making notes on his laptop.

“I was just checking to make sure everything is in order for the New Year celebration,” said Chou, wondering if her first ever celebration of a holiday she had barely ever heard of before was going to go well. It was a bit of a concern. Now she knew that she was born in the year of the Sheep and the website she had checked had said that:

People born in the Chinese New Year zodiac year of sheep/goat are elegant and highly accomplished in the arts. They seem to be, at first glance, better off than those born in the zodiac's other Chinese zodiac years. But sheep/goat Chinese zodiac year people are often shy, pessimistic, and puzzled about life. They are usually deeply religious, yet timid by nature. Sometimes clumsy in speech, they are always passionate about what they do and what they believe in. Sheep/goat people never have to worry about having the best in life for their abilities make money for them, and they are able to enjoy the creature comforts that they like. Sheep/goat people are wise, gentle, and compassionate. Jobs as actors, gardeners, or beachcombers would suit them best.

This did not really please Chou all that much, despite how much of it rang true. However, that did little to help her in this celebration of the year of the Pig.

Ayla grinned, brimming over with confidence. “Don’t worry Chou. I have everything taken care of. I have decorations and catered food all set up. It’ll be fine. I have someone on top of this. I’m sure you’ll be pleased.”

“It’s not going to be over the top, like your party for the Golden Kids where Fey and the others were wearing maid uniforms, is it?” Chou was a touch worried about how things would look. There was something inside her pushing her to do this and she was not sure what it was. She was tired of mysterious urges but still unsure how to deal with them.

“No problem. The wait staff is going to be dressed well and appropriately. I have a good sized banquet room reserved just under Crystal Hall that should hold all of your guests. I even made sure the invites went out in time. Stop fretting,” chided Ayla.

“I just have never had a party like this before, and I have no idea what I am doing. Destiny’s Wave only knows things from the 1500’s back. I think I am starting to freak out over this,” replied Chou nervously, feeling a trembling in her chest and abdomen.

“Chou, you asked me to set this up, so just trust me to make it good. My birthday was good… right?”

Chou winced at the memories of that event. They were still quite vivid, and thankfully she was not having nightmares of them any more. “You mean the part where I almost died if Jade hadn’t cast into me?”

“Not that part, the other part,” replied an exasperated Ayla, still hoping to live down that misadventure. “The party before the assault.”

“Yeah, it was actually pretty good. I have to give you that one,” conceded Chou, rolling her eyes. Magic had healed the damage, but there was some scarring as a reminder of that attack. She just wanted to smack that fucking moron who turned a simple waiting game into a near bloodbath. She still heard the kids’ screams sometimes, remembered how she felt before Jade cast into her and kept her alive until more serious healing could occur.

“It will be fun. Just wait and see,” assured Ayla.

“I believe you, but we have terrible luck when it comes to parties. I don’t even know what I was thinking when I asked for your help in this. It’s going to be a disaster,” moaned Chou as she fell back onto her bed.

Ayla rolled his eyes. Melodrama was uncalled for. Particularly when he was in charge of the planning.

Tuesday, 13 February

“I’m glad you’ve come back to your sessions, Miss Lee,” stated Dr. Bellows with a genuine smile as Chou came into his office. “I do hope that we are going to be able to make more progress this time.”

“Yeah… sorry Dr. Bellows. I know that my just leaving was rude, but I realize that I do need some help now since my boyfriend and girlfriend both think I have a few issues that need to be dealt with. And they were pretty insistent about this.” Chou blushed as she said that, thinking back to the conversation where her two loves had sat her down and told her in no uncertain terms that she needed to come back to talk with the shrink. Was it her fault that she still had nightmares about her dad, depression, and stress issues?

“That would be Chain Lightning and Gateway?” asked Dr. Bellows gently, trying to make it a non-issue. Someone being open about a poly relationship in High School was tough enough without someone saying anything that could be considered repudiation.

Chou’s blush deepened and she looked at the floor as she murmured, “Yes.”

“Okay. Well, if you are okay with coming back, then I am okay with helping you some more. So… what issues are they concerned about for you?” Dr. Bellows sat back in his chair, his usual friendly smile on his face.

Chou inhaled deeply and released the breath slowly, trying to calm her racing heart. She looked up, glancing across the bookshelves before saying, “The big one is my Dad. I still have nightmares where I see the Demon Lord of the Hell of Fiery Immersion tear him apart. I just feel so impotent over that.”

“I see. Now, if I remember what you told me correctly, you were upstairs in your room when that happened?” Bellows didn’t need to refer to his notes as he had reviewed them earlier and had a good memory.

“No. I was on the way to the bathroom. We were waiting for pizza to arrive as we were watching the Yankees play. The door rang, my dad answered, and it was someone looking for me and the sword. My Dad told them to leave and shut the door. I had a bad feeling so I started creeping up the stairs, just in case I needed the sword. The door splintered, I ran for the sword and he died before I got to my room.” Chou sniffled some, the pain of remembering that event still strong. The details of the event were etched into her memory.

“So you were Untransformed and Unarmed when the Demon Lord came in? Do I have that correct?” asked Dr. Bellows, emphasizing what he felt were pertinent points.

Chou sighed, looking at her clasped hands. “Yeah, I was. There really wasn’t anything I could have done. I know that. But I should have been able to do something.”

Dr. Bellows leaned forward, closer to Chou and said, “Chou, you are not like the other kids here. Untransformed, you have no power. Until that thing took the box, you could go from Alex to Chou and back. Even if you had been transformed, how well do you think you would have done against the Demon Lord?”

There was a pause before Chou answered in a small voice, “Not well.”

“You would have needed the sword, which was upstairs. How can you be to blame for the actions of a Demon?”

“I can’t,” she replied in the same voice.

“And do you really think that you can be held responsible for what happened to your father? That in some way that any of that could honestly be any of your fault?” pointedly asked Dr. Bellows, hoping to drive that particular point home.

Chou bit her lip unconsciously as she thought and looked at things as honestly as she could manage. It was easy to feel guilty for not protecting her father, but Dr. Bellows did have some quite valid points that she could not argue with. She couldn’t have done anything to stop that from occurring, no matter if she had tried, and if she had stayed and fought she would have died as well, letting Destiny’s Wave fall into his hands. The Demon Lord was a creature of free will and was able to make its own choices. It had chosen to do what it had done, not her. “No, I don’t think it can be my fault but I still feel so guilty.”

“Well, we can work on that. Getting past blaming yourself is a big point for you. Don’t ever doubt that. And the other thing?”

With a swallow, trying to settle her thoughts, Chou replied, her voice faltering some, “I also have been having disturbing dreams where a dark man is menacing people, mostly my friends. I have to cut through his minions to stop him and it… it is really bloody. I…”

“It’s okay Chou. Nightmares happen. It sounds like the ones with your father are keeping you from finishing your grieving. I am not sure what this one could be about but we can work on that.”

“Dr. Bellows, my childhood died with my father. I know that to be true. Once that happened, I was thrust into this world of heroes, demons, villains, and mystical forces wanting me to do things that made no sense and being a girl! I just wanted a normal life and now look at me.” Chou’s voice rose during that and then dropped, full of depression at the end. She was starting to choke up from the emotional rollercoaster she was on.

A warm hand rested on her shoulder. She hadn’t even noticed his coming to his feet as she was so distressed that she was sort of blocking out the world. His hand felt good there. “Chou, your transformation was pretty harsh, even by normal Whateley standards, especially as you had a way to return to your original form only to have it taken away. The thing is that you need to face these issues and not run from them. If you run from them, they will only get worse and be more entrenched. Yes your father died, but you are still here and alive, partially because of his death. He gave you time to escape. Your father died helping you live. Isn’t that a good reason to keep going?”

Chou shrugged, still a bit unconvinced. “I know I have to keep going, as the damn Tao doesn’t really give me a choice. All the time I have to do this or do that and it is making me crazy. I feel like a damn puppet and I don’t know what to do.”

Dr Bellows sat back in his chair, looking at the young Asian girl intently, “You know, a lot of the Avatars have that issue as well. I have one girl who is upset because in her mind the spirit stole her life away. A lot of people face that feeling, some because of their job, others because of their family. It is not a unique feeling. The question is: are you going to allow that to control you, or are you going to try and take your life back?”

Chou pondered this. Sure, the Tao controlled her, sometimes even riding her body to accomplish some obscure goal, but otherwise her life was her own, to do with as she pleased. Maybe she needed to stop moping because her dad was gone, she was trapped like this, and take change her life for a change. Nothing else so far had helped and after all wasn’t the Handmaid a force of change after all? “I think I want to try taking my life back, for me, but I don’t know how?”

“Well, your relationship with Chain Lightning and Gateway is one area where you are taking control of your life. You chose to do this. Did the Tao make you want this?”

Chou blushed slightly, thinking of Dorjee and Molly, thinking about what each of them made her feel, how alive and happy they made her feel. “No, the Tao didn’t make me like them.”

“And did the Tao make you come here, to talk to me?”

“No, I decided to do that so Molly would stop fussing at me. She had even gotten Dorjee in on this which was unfair,” grumbled Chou, a touch of irritation in her voice.

“Clearly they care about you and want the best for you. I think what you need to is to look at your life, see what is there, and decide what you want out of your life. While it sounds like the Tao can force you to do some things, you have to remember that it is your life and not the Tao’s. If you don’t live your own life, other people will use that malaise of yours to control you. Do you really want to turn your life over to someone else?”

Thinking back to the lie told to her that made her kill an innocent man, she frowned. The Tao certainly had wanted this, but not for the reason she had been told. The Immortals and her Mentor had manipulated her into taking an action she probably would have passed on. She had no desire to kill an innocent man and yet she had, driven to the act through lies, rather than the truth. Granted, Becca had since done nothing like that again, but the fact that it had been done once was not a good sign. There were people out there who wanted her to support their agendas and that did not sit well with her. She nodded and then said, “You’re right. I really need to stop letting other people make my choices for me.”

“That will undoubtedly help things. Now, I don’t think that will fix your nightmares overnight, but it will help you in everything else. Remember, you are not the Tao, so live your own life and work with the Tao only when you need to.”

“I think I can do that.” Chou grinned weakly, aware that living apart from the necessities of the Tao was not quite that easy.

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Dyffud was moving through this complex series of steps that Chou was having some trouble following. She kept losing the thread of the movement, as it was a very foreign pattern to her despite the fact that she had seen Dyffud do it a few times. Some of the positioning made no sense and eluded her. He came to a stop and grinned. “Ah, my favorite student has arrived.”

“I’m your only student,” quipped Chou.

“Well there you go. So my only student, are you ready for class today?” teased Dyffud, clearly happy about something.

“I suppose. What did you have in mind for this time?” Chou was always amazed by the sheer breadth of martial knowledge that Dyffud had. Next to Caitlin’s vast knowledge of firearms and military tactics, it was almost all encompassing. She was at a loss over who knew more about their field, but Chou did think Dyffud probably had more. She had no way to prove that. It was just a hunch.

“I want to talk about Zanshin.”

“What?” replied Chou, a bit confused.

“Zanshin. It is a Japanese word most often used in sword training to refer to battle awareness. Samurai noticed that they could begin to feel opponents’ attacks before they happened and thus the speed of their sword fights grew as they were able to block and counter moves almost before they were made. This was a skill they cultivated and took some interesting places, such as running through fights before a blade was drawn. Someone trained in higher levels of Zanshin could even tell if snipers were drawing a bead on them. So we are going to work on your ability to perceive what is going on around you in this manner.”

“Uhm… I can perceive what is going on around me,” remarked Chou, unsure what her teacher was talking about. This was something she could already do.

“Well, what you are going to work on is feeling out attacks when you cannot see them, as well as knowing when you are being watched. One thing this can do, since it is not a sense most Psi users think about and thus they don’t block it: it can allow you to look past what the rest of your senses are telling you and feel what is really there. To be honest, that will take you some practice to get to, and it does work better in combat than out, but it is a great surprise,” stated Dyffud.

Chou widened her eyes in surprise. Something that could let her sort of see past Psi illusions? Really? That would be useful, and it wasn’t a trick that she needed to tell anyone about. This might be a really useful skill. “Okay. So what do I do?”

“First I blindfold you, and then you see if you can tell where I am.”

Chou snickered as that didn’t sound all that difficult at all. However, her conception of things and the reality of them were different.

She cursed yet again after pointing in one direction only to have Dyffud tap her on the back of her head again. This was the third time he had been able to get to her without her knowing where he was. “How the fuck are you doing that?”

“Language Chou,” chided Dyffud, a slight chuckle in his voice.

“Sorry, but seriously… how are you doing that?” grumbled Chou.

“What? Misdirecting you?” Chou nodded. Dyffud grinned and said, “You know how Chi follows intention?”

“Yes.” Chou was wondering where this was going.

“Well, there is this art called Ghost Walking that uses your intention to enable your Chi to create false images, making the opponent react to something that is not there. If you develop your Zanshin more you should be able to see through that.”

“Really?” Chou was surprised. This sounded like a variant of ventriloquism only with Chi instead of voice.

“Yep. Ghost Walking is best for use on people who have some Martial Arts training and thus the rudimentary degree of Zanshin that you gain through training. Unless they have really worked on their Battle Awareness, it can fool them into thinking that they are blocking attacks they can’t see when in fact they aren’t. Their bodies will react as they had been taught, providing the attacker a window to act in. But enough about that… let’s get back to working on your Zanshin.”

Chou sighed and closed her eyes, retying the blindfold. She stretched out her senses and felt around her. She was going to get Dyffud this time, she knew it. She just needed to feel around her carefully. She felt a source of chi in front of her and slashed. She cut nothing but air and felt a finger poke her gently in the head. She growled in frustration.

“Relax Chou. If you are not relaxed you won’t be able to do this. Tension actually makes it easier for the other person.”

Chou inhaled and let her breath out slowly. She grounded herself, deepening her connection to the world around her. Once she felt that connection, she stretched out and let her senses tell her what was around her. There was a presence off to her left but it felt hollow, not quite right. The rest of the room seemed empty. Suddenly she felt an overwhelming compulsion to roll to her right and her body complied before her brain fully registered the feeling.

Chou came out of the roll slashing back the way she came. It did not connect with anything. She spun around on her knees until she was facing the direction she had moved from, sword held at the ready.

“Good! Much better. Let’s keep going until you get a good bit closer.”

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Winnie sat in a corner of the new Crystal Hall with a few other Underdogs. This spot had been unclaimed by any of the other groups and thus seemed like a good choice for them. She was huddled around a mug of hot cocoa that had little tiny marshmallows in it, which made her smile. That was just how her mother made cocoa for her. She missed her family, but didn’t make an issue out of it as too many people she knew, especially Anna, had lost their families because of becoming mutants. Her family was fine with it, but Winnie wasn’t about to let her good fortune make her friends upset.

Moreover, things with the rest of her friends were a bit weird; ever since she had helped Chou and Molly find and fight that circle, some of the others in the Underdogs were looking at her differently, as if she were special in some way. It was a bit unnerving and she didn’t like it. There was no way in which Winnie was special. She wasn’t pretty, she wasn’t smart, she was clumsy, she got tired easily. She noticed that Rhiannon was staring at her again which made her shift uncomfortably as she blushed and hid behind her mug. She took another sip.

As she set down her mug of warm chocolaty goodness and noted that the staring had not stopped, she looked up a little worried and asked Rhiannon nervously, “W-w-what?”

“What’s it like?” asked Rhiannon with no lead up, as if Winnie had been following the girl’s train of thoughts.

“W-what’s w-w-what-t l-l-like?” Winnie was fairly sure what was being asked but she was hoping it was about her knitting or something she was comfortable with rather than something she didn’t want to dwell on too much.

“Being on a team with Chou, Molly, and Dorjee? What’s it like? Do they kiss all the time? Anna says that they weren’t all that smoochy in Boston but come on… you spend more time with them and might know more,” prodded Rhi. “So what is it like? Is it cool?”

Winnie sighed and set down her mug. This was not something she wanted to deal with yet again and said, “I-I-I have n-nothing t-to s-say about-t th-that.”

“So they do, right?” asked Nate, with all the interest of a horny teenager. That interest was plain in his voice. “They make out all the time? Do they ask you to join in?”

Lucille glared at Nate for his crass comment and said sharply, “She doesn’t want to talk about that, Nate. Drop it.”

Nate looked a bit hangdog, sad to have his dreams and fantasies foiled and said contritely, “Sorry Mom.”

As a few people giggled at Lucille’s nickname, Lucille turned from glaring at Nate back to Winnie, a friendly smile on her face, “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

Winnie nodded and then scrunched up her eyes. She was thinking about that now and what it felt like. It was a bit upsetting and she wasn’t exactly sure why. She played with her scarf and then said, “I-I don’t-t f-feel like I belong. Th-they are in sh-shape and I’m n-n-not. I-I don’t l-like exercise and th-th-they want me t-to try more.”

“That’s not a bad thing,” commented Mindy, sounding quite logical. “I mean you’re on a team now, which is so cool, and they clearly think your power is worth something. I just fade or glow, whoop-de-do, but your power got you on a team with the girl who kicked Nex’s ass. Isn’t that worth something?”

“I-I-I guess. B-b-but, th-they are all s-so good, and I-I’m not,” said Winnie, hanging her head and hoping that she wasn’t going to cry. Just thinking about how much she didn’t fit with the rest of them hurt. She kept thinking that this would be like back at home where some girls had acted like her friend in order to get her help on a school project, only to dump her when the project was over.

Sue came over and hugged Winnie, as did Mindy and Laurie. Lucille said helpfully, “Remember Winnie, Molly isn’t really all that good. We were going to offer her membership at the beginning of the year, remember, because of how she was being picked on? And then she met Chou and she tried to get a lot better. Maybe you will to.”

“B-but… I-I’m not an exemplar,” protested Winnie.

“Neither is Chou or Molly. In that arena both of them are baselines,” countered Lucille. “You can do this Winnie. That is, if you want to.”

Anna chimed in, sounding a bit excited, “Yeah Winnie you can totally do this, and I can help you learn Parkour, so you can avoid being hurt by knowing how to run away really well, and that can help you hide, and everything! You really should take the Survival course in the spring, ‘cause that’d help. Mr. Anderson is really nice, and he can help you learn how to make the most of what you got, and stuff like that. Besides, Molly is in it, and she can help you catch up with the work.”

“Yeah, you can do this, Winnie. I’m sure you can be a valuable member of their team… and then you can tell us how often they make out,” added Nate rather unhelpfully.

Several of the girls threw wadded napkins his way as he chuckled manically. Winnie smiled behind her mug of cocoa.

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His long, strong legs carried him up to the reference desk, but the only one there was that strange Team Kimba girl who looked like an anime character. This might be a problem. He hoped that the actual Librarian would be there, but it was only this girl. Maybe she wouldn’t tell that… girl what he was doing if she were able to figure it out.

He gave his most charming smile and said, “Hi. Where are the books on Chinese Mythology?”

Tennyo smiled at the boy, a junior by the looks of him, strongly built like many of the men with the Exemplar trait. “Have a paper to write?”

“Something like that.” he replied with a smile.

She pointed towards the racks on one side of the room. “The books you are looking for are over there about halfway down the stacks on the right hand side. If you have any other questions, please ask.”

“Thank you.” He headed that way, determined to find out everything there was about the Handmaid. Thunderdrake had happily spilled his guts over the legends and the history of the sword as well as its wielder. Death followed that girl like carrion crows, from what it sounded like and this did not please him. In his eyes that clearly made her a villain along the lines of Professor Reaper, Deicide, or Cataclysm. If all there was to the Handmaid was death and destruction, then she had to be stopped.

He needed to find out, to know the truth about her. If the Handmaid was more than just an engine of destruction then he could relax. However, if she wasn’t… well, you had to know your enemy after all. Moreover, if he was going to stop the Handmaid he would need to know as much as possible about her and what she was capable of. From what he had seen, she was powerful physically, but surely everything had a weakness. He reached the section and saw several books on the subject.

After grabbing a small stack, he headed back to the circulation desk. He had some reading to do.

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“Okay, now here's how you go over a picnic table.Well, I'll show you my favorite way first, but then we'll show you like about six other ways over.One of them might work for you. But it's kind of tricky the first time you try these, so we're gonna put a bunch of padding down over here, and if you fall, you'll be okay.Okay?”

Molly nodded, paying close attention to Caitlin as she went and vaulted over the table. It looked effortless the way the metallic skinned girl did it, and she was sure that it wasn’t nearly that easy. She came back and did it a second time, to make sure that Molly was able to follow the specific movements.

“Ready to give it a try?” asked Caitlin, grinning at Molly.

Molly frowned, trying to figure out exactly how to do the vault. She kind of saw the way that Caitlin planted her hands and swung her body around but she was having a little trouble working out the mechanics for herself. This wasn’t her first vault but it was the widest thing she had ever tried. She then nodded, fairly certain she had a handle on its size. She ran at the table.

She knew she had done something wrong midway through the move. Her hands did not exactly land the way they were supposed to. This caused her to tumble after catching her toes on the table. The rollout was ugly, but it at least reduced the pain. She had learned that much in both Survival Class and Combat Movement. Besides, the padding helped.

Molly stood, frowning at the table and trying to work the move out in her head some more. There was something simple she was missing. “Could I see it again?”

“Sure.” replied Caitlin.

Anna went first, running up to the table, leaping forward with both hands extended. She then brought her legs between her arms and landed on the other side. Molly immediately discounted that move as too difficult. It was a move that made sense for Anna and her squirrel spirit but not for her.

Caitlin went and did practically the exact move that she had done before. This time she focused more on the overall mechanics of the move rather than on how it looked overall. She nodded to herself, worked the move through her head a few times to get it correct, and then ran at the table again.

Molly leapt, planted her hands, and swung her legs around. She had enough momentum to get her legs around but not enough to go completely over the table. She bounced on her rear and up onto her feet. With a grimace, Molly tried to rub the pain out. That had really smarted.

Caitlin came over and smiled, “Not too bad. With practice, you should be able to clear the table. Vaulting over narrow things is easy, which is what you learned in Combat Movement, but this is a good bit harder. Not too bad at all.”

Molly sighed, “I just want to move well, because I don’t want to get hurt in combat. My power takes concentration to use well, as well as standing still to work, and you don’t often get that in combat.”

“That’s a good reason to learn Parkour… but do you have fun doing it?”

The summoner bit her lower lip and shrugged, “I enjoy the runs when I don’t crash. It makes me feel like I’m not a loser or physically challenged. I know I’m not an Exemplar. I’m kind of short, and pudgy, and not an athlete. I like this but I am not sure how good I am.”

Anna bounded over and hugged Molly, chattering happily, “But Molly, you can get better with practice. I mean I started off pretty bad, but I learned a lot from Mr. Mahren and now Caitlin. I’m getting so much better now, and I’m having a great time. I just thought you might have a good time as well.”

“Easy now, Anna. Look Molly, learning this for combat is all well and good but you don’t need to be a Hooligan for that. Being a Hooligan means that you actually enjoy going on runs, that the thought of going on them makes you excited,” commented Caitlin.

“Let me try this again as part of a longer run. I think the problem is that I don’t have enough momentum. Is that okay?” asked Molly.

Caitlin grinned, “Sure. Start over there by that railing.”

Once in place, Molly looked over the course, plotting her moves in advance. Once she was done with that she started, breaking into a run and heading toward the first rail. The vault over that was easy. The next set of railings were a little higher and Molly did a dive roll over it, concentrating on getting the move right, making sure she flowed into her next move. She rolled onto her feet, still moving, scrambled up and over a short wall then raced toward the table. With a bound, the girl launched herself at the table, planting her hands and swinging her legs around. She landed on her feet on the other side by mere inches and slowed herself to a walk.

Anna bounced and cheered as Molly gushed excitedly, “I did it!”

“Not bad Molly. Enjoy that?” asked Caitlin, leading the girl only slightly.

“That was fun. I mean I did so well, better than I thought and did you see me clear that table?”

A new voice joined the conversation. “I did. That was a good run.”

Molly turned and saw Zenith walking toward her. It took some effort but she managed not to squeak in surprise. Being frequently over at Poe meant she had seen the upper classman several times. She muttered embarrassedly, “Thanks.”

“Caitlin told me you were interested in joining the Hooligans, is that true?” asked Zenith as she looked down at the girl who was still flushed from her run.

Molly nodded her head, almost too embarrassed to talk.

“Cool. Caitlin, do you think she can do it?” Zenith was clearly trying to weigh the potential of Molly’s membership.

“If she practices, I don’t see why she can’t. She just needs to build some muscle but at fifteen it will come,” replied Caitlin, grinning. “She looked happy after that run so I think she can do this. Besides, having someone without Exemplar traits can help you lot get better at technique rather than simply powering through things.”

Zenith nodded. “Okay. How about provisional membership, so we can see what you got?”

Molly’s eyes grew wide and she asked excitedly, nearly squeaking, “Really?”

“Yes. Now I’ve got to get going as I am going to see Sahar in a little bit for some studying.”

Molly giggled, as she knew from her Poe contacts that the two girls were dating, and that the odds that Zenith was going to study were about the same as her with Chou.

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Much as it disturbed Chou to admit, some of the Goobers were pretty cool people. They were mostly very into the supernatural, and that drove them into learning more about that and how to fight against things better forgotten. It was a good mix of Goth kids, some magic types, all in all a broad collection of the school cliques. There were even some Twilight fans mixed in there, looking to learn all about vampires and werewolves. They seemed somewhat upset by what they were learning. The mix of pathetic and cool was strange. It was hard not to like some of them, despite what had been done to Sara.

Ecto-Tek was running the Powerpoint presentation, talking about the different types of vampires that were out there. He was currently covering the classic Western vampire. Chou was just glad that none of the images on the screen sparkled. She had heard about that and had groaned in response. She may be a girl now but that sort of thing held no appeal to her. She could only hope that Molly was immune to such literary trash. It was bad enough that Jade and Jay Jay enjoyed the books.

She remained leaning against the back wall, watching and listening with half an ear. After all, there was a remote chance that some of this information might have a use someday. She knew all there was to know about Eastern vampires but the Western ones were more movies to her than real. Besides there was that bitch Vamp, who may or may not be a real vampire. She owed the girl at least one serious beating if not a staking. Then she could erase the girl with a vacuum cleaner.

As she leaned there, Sarah came over and leaned next to her. They stood there quietly for a bit before Sarah turned her head and asked, “Like this?”

“It’s not bad.” Chou admitted with a shrug.

“You know, there is a need to fight creatures like that?” added Sarah, clearly building up to saying something.

“Like what? Like Edward? Because that thing clearly needs to be destroyed.”

Sarah shook her head, chuckling some over that one. “No, these things are real and can kill you or others. Someone needs to stand up for other humans and defeat the monsters of the world that prey on humans. They are a menace.”

Chou got an inkling that something deeper was going down with Sarah. It seemed to her that this could be important and she did not want to screw this up. “Yeah, but who can do that?”

Sarah leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, “Well some of us Goobers are like a real life Scooby Gang.”

“Like in Buffy?” asked Chou, trying to see where this was going to take her. Perhaps pay dirt was forth coming.

“Just like that,” admitted Sarah, as she looked out over the room. “You know… you have the kind of skills that would work nicely for our little group. There are things that need to be fought and you can help humanity. Interested?”

Chou grinned excitedly. Jackpot! “You bet.”

“Great. We have a meeting next week. But it’s on a different day and place. I’ll let you know,” replied Sarah. “I really think you are going to enjoy it.”

“Thanks Sarah.” Chou was pleased by this development. Clearly, they were being cautious in trying to get her to join but she was not pleased with having to deal with them for this long. Some of them grated on her nerves, and sometimes she just wanted to slap them. Maybe she needed to talk to Sara and see if this was still even necessary. Because if it wasn’t she would leave in a heartbeat.

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Chou was walking back towards Poe, focusing her breath on keeping her warm, when a familiar voice chimed in from behind her, “So, I heard about your New Year party and I was wondering, should I ask any other Immortals to come with me?”

Chou stopped on the walkway and dropped her head, sighing in annoyance. She looked up at the Monkey Princess and shook her head. “I didn’t invite you.”

“Sure you did, you just didn’t say it aloud. Now, is there anyone who you want me to drag along?” Sun bounced some, her grin broad and full of mischief.

“Why are you here all the time? Why don’t you go plague someone else instead of me?” Chou was getting irritated, wanting to draw Destiny’s Wave and chop the Monkey King in half, not that it would do her any good. If the Tao did not want the Monkey King dead there was no way she could do it on her own.

“Well, if you must know I am here working on a few different projects, so it’s not just you I am here for.”

Chou sighed again, a sigh of long suffering. She lowered her head, her black hair falling around her face. “Who are your projects?”

“Besides you? Well… your roommate for one. Ayla squawks oh so nicely whenever I tweak him. There are a few others, but none you need to worry about,” playfully stated Sun, batting her eyes.

With a deep, throaty growl, Chou warned, “Sun…”

“What?” The voice was dripping with innocence, eyes wide and without any sign of deceit or malice. Chou was not even remotely fooled.

“I don’t need this shit!” yelled Chou.

Sun sobered up, stopped moving about and said, “Look, Chou, you and I NEED to talk, and soon. How about Thursday, as I am sure you don’t want Valentine ’s Day ruined for you. Do we have a plan?”

Chou started some at the change in the Monkey King’s demeanor. This was unusual. What did he have to talk to her about? She almost goggled in surprise. “Uhm… sure?”

“Great. Well, gotta go and send out some invites. See you Thursday!”

As Sun took off on her cloud, Chou wanted to go curl up in her bed and cry. It felt like a mountain of insanity was being dropped on her head and she couldn’t take it. There was no reason for her to take it. This was all that damn monkey’s fault. Could this party get any worse even before it happened?

Maybe she should just curl up in bed and avoid the world tonight? That way there would be fewer surprises. At least she hoped that. Knowing her luck Ayla would stumble into the room, half dressed and making out with Vox, or Tennyo would have a nightmare waking up the whole floor again, or Jade would go cabbit crazy again dragging everyone into some merry chase, or Fey would start her period in a bad way, or some other bit of insanity that would draw her out of her isolation. She did not need this shit. Why did she even bother hanging out with these people again?

No, she had some reading to catch up on in Team Tactics. She would curl up in one of the hammocks, have some tea, and relax. It might just be the only way she was going to survive the last few days into the New Year.

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Since Chou had declared that she was holing up in her room for sanity reasons, Molly had made a unilateral choice and grabbed Winnie. Despite the stuttered protests, she dragged Winnie into her room in an attempt to force the girl to have some fun. She wanted to hang out with her new teammate and nothing the other girl could say would persuade her otherwise. That and maybe play some Katamari with the girl. Who didn’t like Katamari Damacy?

Winnie had been surprised when Molly had come to her room to get her and she had been unable to talk her way out of going along with the summoner. Far too soon to her liking, she was planted in the room with Molly and Lindsay, unsure what to do or say. Lindsay smiled at her and that was okay but then Molly made her sit on one of the beds. “So what do you want to do Winnie?”

“G-go b-b-back t-to my r-room,” stated the girl.

Lindsay smiled and said, “Don’t worry Winnie. We aren’t like that bitch or her lackeys. We just want to have some fun, with you. I have chocolate ice cream and movies. Want to watch something?”

Winnie smiled nervously. Overtures of friendship were a new thing to her. Realizing that she should do this rather than go back to her room and read, she nodded her head.

Lindsay smiled in response. Molly was helping her out of her shell and maybe they could help Winnie as well. “Great. Since you are the guest this evening, grab something and we can watch it. I have a lot of really great films.”

Winnie got up and scanned the collection of films that were in a large rainbow colored folder with butterflies on it. There were a lot of good Disney films available but what looked most interesting at the moment was ‘Ever After.’ She handed that to Lindsay who smiled as she put it in. Molly asked, “Want something to drink. or do you want to go straight for the ice cream?”

“D-do Y-y-you h-have j-juice?” asked Winnie a bit nervously.

“Sure. Want apple, orange, limeade, or cranberry?”

“Apple.” Winnie smiled, glad to have gotten the word out with only the slightest of pauses between the p sounds. It was one of her successes. The speech therapy seemed to be working.

Molly poured her a glass and handed it over. Winnie took the glass and took a sip. She gave the girl a smile of thanks. The movie was starting and the girls grew quiet. Halfway through the movie, while Lindsay had it paused so she could run to the bathroom, Winnie said, “Th-thank y-you Molly.”

“For what?” It was clear that Molly was a bit confused by the question and she looked over at Winnie, her head cocked to on side.

“F-f-for inv-viting me,” stated Winnie quietly.

Molly looked a bit confused at that, as this was only getting stranger in her opinion. “Uhm… why wouldn’t I invite you over?”

“N-n-no o-o-one in-nvit-tes m-me ov-ver t-t-to d-d-d-do an-nyth-th-thing.” From the worsening of her stutter, it was clear that she was very nervous over this.

Molly sighed. “I know where you are coming from, Winnie. I used to be alone with no one to invite me to anything except a few birthday parties. Middle school was really rough, and I dreaded coming here. Then I got here and got together with Chou a little while later. She and Team Kimba helped me get out of my shell a little, and you know, since you are on my team I wanted to help you do the same. You’re my friend, and this is what friends do.”

Winnie teared up a little at that. Molly came over and hugged her friend. Winnie hugged her back, happy to have gained a new friend. Lindsay came in at that point, took in the scene, and groaned, “Honestly Molly. Isn’t one girlfriend enough?”

Winnie and Molly split apart quickly, both blushing quite red. Soon all three girls burst out laughing. Molly lightly smacked Lindsay, saying, “Bitch.”

Soon the laughter died down and they got back to their movie. Winnie sat there and smiled through the rest of it.

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She had to stop the Dark Man, had to. Lives depended on her, and there was no way that she was going to let them down. She cut through another couple of soldiers who tried to bar her way, ignoring the spray of blood from their bodies as she drove herself forward.

She could not let them get taken away. She could not fail them, and up ahead she could see them, there up on the stage, chains around their necks, their hands, their legs, shackled like slaves. This creature of evil trapped her friends, her loves, and she had to save them, even if it meant cutting down the nearly endless army of soldiers. More blood arced into the air from more soldiers standing in her way.

Some of the enemy had powers or more lethal weapons, but she laid them to waste as well. Still, they did serve to slow her, to keep her from moving closer fast enough. Toni and Nikki were loaded into a van, followed by Tennyo and Jade. She called out to them, desperate for them to fight back but they moved like nothing more than mindless cattle. Blood filled the air with a fine mist from several other cuts.

Ayla and Hank were next, shuffling along after the others looking drugged, completely out of it, then Bunny and Rip. Tears burned their way down her face, leaving clear trails through the blood. Dorjee and Molly shuffled into the van, their eyes glazed like the others and ignoring her desperate cries. The doors closed and the vehicle began to drive off, speeding away from her. As she cut down more men, screaming in pain, the Dark Man laughed happily…

Wednesday, 14 February

Her back against the cool wall, Chou clutched her bent legs, resting her chin on her knees, running the dream over and over in her mind. There were clues there, clues as to what was coming, and all she had were only parts of this problem. It was like trying to solve a puzzle with no picture and only half the pieces. Each time she had this particular dream it disturbed her, with the scale of the death and the sheer terror she felt only growing, not just for those she loved but for everyone. This was huge and she wished she had a clue when it was, let alone what or where or even why. Come to think of it, who would be nice as well, as would how.

There were no clues in the dream to give her a place or a time. Granted most everyone looked the same so it couldn’t be too far in the future but what the hell was going on? Why was this occurring and where was it happening? The whole situation made her stomach churn uncomfortably. The whole thing was making her stressed and that was not what she needed right now. As far as she could tell, it was a glimpse of whatever terrible event had caused the damage to the tapestry. She shuddered at the violence of it all. It was horrific and she wished she had never dreamed those things.

She recalled how many people she had cut through, not slashed or smacked with Destiny’s Wave but cut, either in half or in bits. Her stomach lurched some. Chou quickly got out of bed and headed to the bathroom, locking her jaws to keep from vomiting in her room or in the hallway. With a great exertion, she made it into one of the stalls before her stomach emptied out. Every time she thought that she was nearly done, another image from the dreams came to her, raising fresh bile. She shook some and rested her forehead on the cool porcelain, trying to control the heat in her body, occasionally spitting the foul taste from her mouth.

She cursed the fucking Tao for doing this to her, cursed Destiny’s Wave for making her into this… this girl and she cursed the damn old man who had started this whole fucking mess off at the gun show. Her stomach churned some more, and Chou spat some more bile into the toilet. With a flush, it all went away, taking away some of the sick smell that filled the cubicle. She sat back against the wall of the stall, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Some of her hair felt sticky.

With the sound dampening panels, the room was quiet and dark, with just a little light - from a few dim overheads that never seemed to be turned off - casting everything in a pale, slightly flickering glow. Chou swallowed, trying to get those images out of her head. How could she kill people so casually like that? She drove through those soldiers without care or mercy. Killing one person had been almost more then she could abide. Did that have to be done? Wasn’t there another way to solve the issue? Surely there was another way to do this besides wholesale slaughter. She shuddered and spit a few times to clear the rancid flavor in her mouth.

The image of her friends and loves shuffling like mindless zombies into the vans ended that line of thought. If that was going to be what would happen, there was cause. Should this Dark Man do that to her friends, she would move Heaven and Earth to save them. She would happily subsume herself to the Tao to destroy all that stood in her path. What else was she going to do?

With her stomach only aching mildly and no longer jumping, she stood and made her way to the sinks. She ran the cool water, splashed some on her face and the back of her neck. When she cooled some, she took a handful and rinsed her mouth, trying to get the taste of her sick out of her mouth. She put her hands on both sides of the sink and looked up at herself. In the dim watery light she looked about as haggard as she felt. She frowned at her image and growled out angrily, “I hate this shit.”

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Molly quickly noticed that Chou was oddly quiet and introspective that morning. What caught her attention about this was that she was quietly keeping Toni from flipping her uniform skirt up instead of fighting back. Usually Chou would grumble and miss blocking but it almost seemed as if she were absently blocking the Ki Mistress right now. Clearly, this problem needed to be dealt with before Toni started really escalating things.

Molly came up to her girlfriend and hugged her. Chou was tense for a moment and then relaxed into Molly’s arms. Molly stepped back, smiling, saying brightly, “Happy Valentine’s Day love.”

Chou’s eyes softened and began hugging back. She replied with some emotion in her voice that eluded Molly. “Happy Valentine’s Day.” She leaned in and gave Molly a quick mostly chaste kiss.

“Fucking dykes!” Chou quickly spun around, trying to spot who had yelled that but there was no way to tell as too many people were sniggering over that catcall. She glowered at them.

“Ignore them. They’re just jealous that they’re not dating someone as hot as you,” replied Molly, squeezing her tight. “Now are you okay?”

Chou shrugged noncommittally. This was not something she was sure she should share. The images were too horrific, too graphic to share with her girlfriend.

“What’s bothering you?” prodded Molly, knowing just how to get through the martial artist’s defenses. The kiss on the nose made Chou blush and her defenses crumble.

“Too much to talk about. My nightmares are getting worse,” replied Chou half-heartedly, offering up a weak smile.

Molly squeezed Chou’s hand, pulling her along. “Well, there is nothing we can do about that now, so let’s have some breakfast. Remember to keep it light, you said you had a team run in Team Tactics class this morning.”

“Ugh… don’t remind me. Jade is determined to use her Radioactive Condor idea. Again! I am not sure I will be able to do it without laughing,” Chou smiled slightly.

“There’s the smile I love so much. Come on.” Chou’s smile grew larger as Molly tightened the grip on her hand and led her into Crystal Hall. They ignored the barely heard comments and moved into the food lines to get their individual choices.

Once they had everything, they headed towards the area that Team Kimba and friends had staked claim to on one of the upper floors. As they neared the table, they could hear Toni and Tennyo apparently arguing over dress designers. That was pretty funny and they were giggling as they sat down. Tennyo was vociferously defending Coco Channel as one of the greatest designers ever as they reached out to touch the crystal before joining in, almost certain that what was being said was not what was actually being talked about.

“If we go with Jade’s crazy idea and have two radioactive condor suits you can get closer to the enemy without being spotted.”

“Toni, I am not going to wear the condor suit,” stated Tennyo, eating another waffle and some bacon.

“But it was a great idea. And it worked. We can do much better this time… honest. We can make it look more like a real condor,” added Jade.

Chou just shook her head, cutting off a bite of cheese omelet. “You know… half the time we don’t need the crystal. Just letting someone listen in on our normal conversation might be enough to drive someone who is eavesdropping around the bend.”

Hank nodded, having to agree with Chou on this point. “That might be an idea. Maybe you can modify the crystal to sort of play our weirdest hits or something off and on. It can even be a monologue by Toni on anything where she blathers on about how Ki solves everything from world hunger to tennis elbow.”

“What’choo talking about Hank?” said Toni, imitating Gary Coleman poorly as she faked a glower.

“See? That right there would screw with any poor fool trying to understand what we are really talking about,” stated Chou, gesturing with her fork. “Hell, half the time I don’t know what we are talking about and I know everyone.”

That got most of the table laughing. Nikki looked thoughtful, and mused aloud, “I wonder how I can record the stuff I want and not keep the stuff I don’t?”

“I am sure you can figure that out,” commented Ayla. “Oh, we should get going. I think we’re first through the sim today. We wouldn’t want to make the Admiral or Gunny grumpy with us again, now do we?”

Toni looked excited about the sim and the rest only looked resigned. Molly giggled and said in the most chipper voice she could manage, putting the proper cheerleader lilt in her voice, “Go Team Kimba!”

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The discussion that was being led by their teacher was about the time needed to summon something. Mr. Langford finished up his lecture, “And that is why you really need to either summon things before conflict or manage to make sure that you have a few minutes of uninterrupted time to manage the summoning. If you are interrupted, your control over the summoned creature vanishes and it either disappears or does whatever it wants. Depending on what you were summoning, it could result in your being attacked and possibly killed. Devilmaster, one of the most famous modern Summoners, presummons most every creature he uses. He binds them into various forms and thus can carry a number of Devils and Demons at his disposal immediately.”

“How does he bind them into a specific form?” asked Jadis.

“Do you remember when we talked about the Summoner’s Contract? What he does is use a variant of it that makes the summoned creature bind with a pre-existing object that is connected to the summoning circle. You can see a diagram of such a circle on page 218 of your text. The wording has to be very specific or else the binding will not work. If a binding fails so does the summoning.”

Molly thought about this and then raised her hand, “Can any summoned creature be bound to an object?”

“As far as I know, yes, though some summoned creatures are harder to bind than others. So far as I know there have been no successful bindings of Unicorns, Ki-rins or one of the Wyrms. Greater ogres and higher level Demons and Devils have also resisted being bound to objects. So don’t try to do anything of that nature as that is not a failure you want to deal with. Are there any more questions? If not let us move to the lab where we will work on binding simple spirits to objects.”

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It was her first time wearing a girl’s swimsuit, and she was self-consciously tugging the fabric of her one piece in an attempt to cover more of her body than the fabric would allow. It kept moving from one side to the other, never covering any more skin. Molly had bought the suit for her, choosing a black suit with yellow trim, having French cut legs and a racerback, more an athlete’s suit that a casual bather’s. Those facts still didn’t help Chou in dealing with this and she blushed, feeling practically naked in a group of strange freshmen who were having their own issues.

There were a small group of them, standing near the pool, and listening to Mrs. Bohn, the Powers Lab instructor, explain the swimming test. Chou was actually grumpy that she had to miss a weapons class to do this. “Right, this is easy enough: jump in, tread water for a full minute, then make it across the pool and back three times, and you’re good. Heather, could you please get in there to lifeguard.”

The first freshman called up was a girl that Chou had never met before. She was wearing a suit similar to hers and the girl dove into the pool, swimming across with no difficulty. She then swam back to the middle and sank under water, staying there. This surprised Chou and she almost said something. “Alright, listen up. Selkie there is here to help you if you start to drown. She can breathe underwater and is completely at home there so she will be able to save you, even if you cannot swim. Now, let’s get started.”

The next girl up was someone Chou recognized as one of Winnie’s friends from the Underdogs. She didn’t dive in, but climbed in using the ladder at the side of the pool. She treaded water uncomfortably, and then did a slow breast stroke that got her back and forth across the Olympic sized pool, with Selkie under the water like a spotter.

A few more swam across before a voice broke her from her introspection. “Chou Lee… you’re up.”

Chou dove into the water and had no trouble treading water until Mrs. Bohn signaled her. She slipped into the crawl, easily cutting through the surface. This body was lighter and moved through the water far easier than Alex’s body ever did. It made swimming a pure pleasure rather then the uncoordinated splashing she had done before. That made her smile, almost causing her to swallow some water. She refocused on the task and made the laps easily.

Exiting the water, Chou realized how completely the suit clung to her body, leaving little to the imagination. She blushed and nervously joined the other girls who had completed the test. At least this indignity was over. She just wanted to get dressed and not have her body on display as it currently was. It made her feel awkward. This was all clearly Molly’s fault for getting her a suit that clung to her.

She began to notice something else as well. The other girls around her seemed to be shying away from her and looking at her oddly. She looked down over herself, making sure her swimsuit still covered her properly, which it did. Why were all the other girls looking at her that way?

That only increased Chou’s self-consciousness so she began to regulate her breathing, letting a calm sense of serenity fill her, at least to a degree. While that helped her nerves some, that still did not address the looks some of the girls were giving her or how some of them had turned away from her. Were they embarrassed or something? Why were they trying to snub her?

Chou pondered what was going on. Had she done something to offend them? What could it be? Was it the lesbian thing or the poly thing? That could be it, but she wasn’t sure. She had no idea why they were acting this way and it was making her a bit self-conscious. She watched the other swimmers, praying for them to go faster.

She was going to kill Molly once she dried off and changed.

to be continued