Thursday, November 25, 2010

Things I Have Discovered

(Mostly in the past six months)

- Standing up for something is simple if you believe in it.

- Enjoy life. Be passionate.

- I am worth waiting for. And whoever I'll end up with is too.

- Sometimes when someone dumps their responsibilities on you and runs, you don't have to be all happy and polite about it. You don't have to be nasty, but when those words like 'please' and 'thank you' drop from terse emails, it's a subtle indication that was a crap thing to do to me.

- There is so much to life. So much.

- Sometimes, hanging out with guys who have girlfriends is a great thing, because then there are no ridiculous expectations that come with singles being in the same room.

- Related, there's the Apartment of Safe Guys on campus. One's in a relationship, one probably won't be until he's graduated. Both great guys, and best of all, zero awkwardness. (Also, I bring them cookies, so we're tight.)

- I have a good angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other sometimes, leaving me stuck in indecision, right where I was before they showed up.

- I will end up in the oddball situations, just because I'm like a magnet for them. I now expect things to not go as planned.

- Some people have hearts of gold under class clown exteriors. Find these people and don't let go of them.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


The ring consisted of a simple ebony circle set in the dirt, and it contained two combatants. The first was a man, about twenty-five years old and six feet tall, lanky enough to be languid. He rolled one wrist in a circle, then the other, and repeated the motion with his shoulders. He proceeded to crack each knuckle systematically, not the half-conscious habit of someone filled with nerves. Most lazy bystanders would peg him as a playboy European, or even American, just talented enough a fighter to try his luck in the ring. The only indications otherwise were the way he moved, and the outlines of weapons sheathed on his back, hidden by his black duster. A few raindrops fell, striking and rolling from the jacket, which had the discreet shimmer of expensive fabric.

Mae stood directly opposite him, motionless save for the rise and fall of her chest. She looked almost native, except for her eyes. One hazel, one brown, they weren't enough different to capture immediate attention, but they marked her as having mixed heritage. Her long coat resembled a kimono, pale blue with abstract patterns of silver thread. It was held shut by bone pegs, and the black belt supporting a sheath, the bottom of which tapped the side of her calf.

The officiator coughed once, looking at her. She nodded, tracing the patterns on the katana's hilt. She remembered her father doing the same, years ago, his sizable index finger sliding over the loops and whorls.

The European shrugged his coat off, folded it once, and tossed it outside the ring. A dirt-faced boy ran towards it, hands nearly closing around the collar, when he made the mistake of looking at its owner. The European didn't move, or make a threatening gesture, but Mae saw his eyes. The boy jerked his hand away from the coat and scampered backwards, not taking his eyes away as if he believed the man would curse him when his back was turned. It was a foolish villager's superstition, and God knew there were enough foolish villagers around here. Mae's opponent probably viewed her the same way. Better trained and stupider, to challenge him, but he'd blatantly slighted her village elder's honor. In his world, the idea of dueling for honor died several centuries ago. The law still stood here. Man-to-man combat in this circle, with few rules and no outside interference.

He turned and bowed to her, almost mockingly. "Best of luck."

She returned the gesture, stiffly. He'd read up on dueling customs, then.

The officiator rang the gong once. Mae still felt the vibrations in the air as she unsheathed her katana. The steel slid free, gleaming despite the overcast skies. Holding the sword downward with her left hand, she unstrapped the belt with her right and tossed it from the ring. She made the mistake of entering a duel wearing it only once, and nearly taken a knife to the ribs as a result. It was an easy handhold for an opponent using a short-range weapon.

Her opponent looked her up and down once. The left corner of his mouth tipped up, and he tossed one of his swords, still sheathed, out of the ring. The other he drew from the scabbard on his back. Mae had known it was a katana from the first glance, and now she noted the way his hand closed around the grip. Comfortably. He'd used this sword before. It was an odd choice for a European. Or American. She leaned toward the latter, but his accent was fluid, shifting with each word.

And he'd thrown one of his weapons from the ring, making it unaccessible for the fight. It could have been an American sense of fair play, or the American gift of patronization/infuriation. He didn't think she could handle him using two weapons versus her one? So be it.

Their blades met, and she had to step back with her left foot. He put more strength into the blow than she anticipated. And the next. And the next after that. She would have to play on speed now. The next strike, she waited until the last moment and leaped back. His sword sliced into the ground, and she darted around him, slapping his back with the flat of her blade. Their eyes met as he spun. The casual arrogance melted from his eyes, leaving cold fury.

The battle continued for a half-hour, a flurry of strike and counterstrike. She grazed the side of his leg, and he nicked the top of her shoulder. Neither were serious wounds. And neither she nor him would give this up. Unfortunately, she was tiring, and he didn't seem to be. She didn't want to employ her last resort, but unless she made a lucky strike soon, she would lose. He swung, she dodged, and threw her sword out of the ring.

He paused mid-strike. "You concede?"

The rules stated one could use whatever weapon one brought into the ring. He had to know that. She brought herself, and that was the only weapon she truly needed. Mae closed her eyes for half a second, finding that spark in the back of her mind, and then she let it ignite. When she looked up, she was a girl with fire in her hands, slender lancets of flame dancing on her outstretched fingertips. Some of the villagers gasped, muttering fire demon, the epithet she'd lived with her entire life. They thought she was possessed, not simply genetically gifted. The talents didn't develop in Asians, or hadn't yet, only those with mixed blood.

He got half a curse out his mouth before she extended her hands and let the flame wash over his sword blade. She didn't make the flame hot enough to melt it, though she could. She just needed him to drop the katana. It hit the ground with a clank, and she darted forward, kicking it by the hilt from the ring. Three steps more, and she knocked his ankles from under him, pinning him on his back with a knee to his chest. She swept her tanto from the concealed sheath on her calf and wedged it neatly under his chin. It was her grandfather's weapon, a ninja's preferred weapon, lightweight and perfect for assassinations.

She felt his heart hammering beneath her knee. Mae let the traces of a smile edge her lips. He hadn't expected it because he'd thought it impossible she had a gift like that. "Do you concede?"

He laid there for a moment. She felt his pulse drop. The next time she met his eyes, they were iron-blue, fixed on hers.

He gave her a skeleton grin. All teeth, no humor."I don't lose."

She opened her mouth to retort, but found her throat closed. Her left hand trembled, and lifted the knife from his throat. Mae watched, eyes wide, as she brought the dagger through the air, towards herself. She tried to push away, to shake free the deadness in her limbs. The tanto came closer. A moment later, she felt the keen edge scrape her throat, the tip resting at that sensitive spot just under her ear. She felt herself press the knife closer, almost enough to break the skin.

He smiled and flicked two fingers. She found herself lifting the knee from his chest and scooting away. He rolled to his feet in one movement, like a cat, standing above her.

Mae felt her knees digging into the ground as she stared at his shoes. Black. Lace-up. Steel-toed. More, she felt the sting as the knife slipped through her skin, her hand shaking on the handle. A trickle of blood started down her throat, trailing toward her collarbone. Of all the people in the world to challenge, she found a puppetmaster. They were notorious for...creative deaths. They could be. All they had to do was command it. And the officiator could do nothing about it. Nothing happening in the ring was against the rules.

He squatted down, knees on his elbows, eyes glinting. "If you're going to use your talent, it's only fair I use mine."

She couldn't choke out an answer. She was too occupied with the smell of her own blood.

"So, it would be completely within my rights to kill you right here and now. That is in the rules, is it not?"

She managed one terse nod.

"But thankfully for you, I have more of a heart than that. I just want one thing from you."

She couldn't keep the anger from her voice. "What?"

He shook his head, smiling. "Temper, temper. I just want your sword."

Mae stilled. She heard the officiator pull a breath through closed teeth. That sword was her link to her father. A blood link. Yet, as she felt her own knife scraping her throat, she realized it was the sword or her life. She pushed the words through gritted teeth. "I concede it."

"That's a smart girl." He flicked his fingers again, and she inhaled sharply as feeling flooded into her limbs. She dropped her knife into the dirt, one hand running over the split skin at her throat. Collecting herself, Mae turned, watched him stride out of the ring and pick up her katana.

The officiator shot a look her way, questioning. She kept her face blank. He took a few respectful steps toward her opponent, speaking with the slow cadence of one unaccustomed to English. "Sir. Is there not another prize you would desire?"

He lifted one sandy eyebrow, swirling the katana in a few lazy circles. "No. This blade is remarkably balanced."

The officiator smoothed the wisps of his beard, dark eyes troubled. "I must say with all respect that I believe you should not take that weapon."

He picked up Mae's scabbard and sheathed the sword with a snap. "What are you trying to say, man?"

Mae rose to her feet, brushing the dirt from her jacket, and walked from the ring. "Try to strike me with it."

Half the spectators went silent, probably because only half of them understood English. The officiator paled, but nodded approvingly at her. He knew.

Her opponent stilled, scarcely tilting his head. "What did you say?"

She spread both hands, face serene. "Afraid to hit a girl?"

He shrugged. "If you insist." Before she blinked, he unsheathed the katana and swung it toward her side in one smooth motion. Mae waited for him to double over in pain, blade falling from his hands as his face turned blue. It didn't happen. At the last second, she dove, hitting the ground and rolling toward his second sword, the one he'd thrown from the ring before the fight. She rolled over it, catching it on the next revolution with her left hand and pulling it free from the scabbard. Standing and swinging on instinct, she slammed her blade into his, inches from her face.

They stood there, blades locked. Mae could only imagine the look on his face matched hers - brow furrowed, lips cracked, eyes pinched.

He pressed his lips together before speaking. "Who are you?"

"I could ask the same," said Mae. "That sword in your hands was worked on by a Charmer four generations ago. If someone not in the direct bloodline of my ancestor tries to use it against one of my family, he or she will perish, rapidly."

He eyed the katana she held. "It's the same with that blade."

They lowered swords at the same time. Mae held hers lightly by her side. It felt right in a way her father's never quite had. She'd grown accustomed to its weight, slightly too much for her, but she wouldn't fight with anything else. Mae twirled the blade experimentally. It felt like she was holding a stick of bamboo, lightweight and sturdy. "I like it."

He did the same, moving through a few fencing positions. "This is perfect. That one's always been a bit too light."

She looked at him, really looked at him for the first time. He had a defined chin and sandy hair, but the eyes. They were her father's eyes. Hazel with gold circles around the pupils. "Who were your parents?"

He shrugged. "No idea. I barely remember my father. I got abandoned in London when I was five or six and made my way from there."

"He told me he came out here to hide," said Mae. "He died five years ago." They were dancing around his key identifying mark.

"He was mildly telekinetic," he said. "I remember that much."

Mae exhaled. They were silent for a moment. "He never told me I had a brother."

"He probably thought I was dead. I should have been." He looked her over again, as if seeing her for the first time. "So. Firebomb?"

She lit her right hand, just because she enjoyed the flames dancing against her skin. "Yes. Puppetmaster?"

"Yup." He said it without a trace of shame. Maybe even pride. "And yes, I am an evil genius like the rest of them."

Mae smiled a little. He was joking. Maybe. "I don't even know your name."

"It's Chance," he said. "Chance Real. And you're Mae."


"Last name?"

"Depends on which passport I'm using."

He studied her face. "You meant that."

She gave an enigmatic smile. "Just because I look like I'm fifteen years old doesn't mean I don't have a fairly complicated job."

He tipped back his head and laughed. "It sounds like we're in a vaguely similar line of business, then. You here for the G12 conference in Hong Kong and just stop back in here?"

"I live here. But yes, I am traveling there." There were choice bits of information waiting to be gathered there. The job would pay well.

"Well," he said. "We should meet up sometime then. You know. Catch up. Get to know each other, I guess."

She fought to keep the edges of her mouth immobile. "I'd like that."

They exchanged contact information as the spectators dispersed, probably wondering how Chance and Mae went from attacking each other outside the ring to chatting.

Chance looked at his wristwatch. "As much as I hate to say it, I have a plane to catch."

"Best of luck," said Mae. She hugged him, on the wings of some impulse she couldn't explain.

He stiffened for a moment before pulling her into his chest. "I'm glad I didn't kill you before I found out who you were."

"I'm happy about that too," she said.

Monday, November 8, 2010


She emptied the cup of flour into the bowl, watching the residual cloud rise like vapor. He sat at the table, snickering at some meme-based website, probably. It shouldn't bother her he assumed control of her computer, she told herself as she shook powdered cinnamon into the bowl. Picking up a fork, she began pressing the flour and cinnamon into the butter-egg-sugar confection at the bottom of the bowl, mixing it in slow, circular motions. It did, though, a silly little thought nagging the corner of her mind.

A few minutes later, as she poured the chocolate chips into the mix, she felt him standing behind her, a few steps to the left. "How're they coming?" he said.

"About to throw them in the oven." She blinked. "Which isn't on. Turn it to 350, would you?"

"Sure." He pressed the display buttons as she reached into the bowl and scooped out an unshaped lump of dough. She rolled it over in her hands once, forming a neat sphere and setting it on the pan. Despite the slick of dough clinging to her hands, something about the simple act of creation soothed her.

He was still standing there, watching. Not close enough to radiate body heat, but in arm's-reach.

There was nothing wrong here. Two of her suitemates were in their rooms, doing homework, nonetheless, but almost present. He was a nice guy. Tried to kiss her once after their one date, but she wasn't ready. Never would be, for him. When she looked at him she saw a guy about her height, blond hair curling under his ears and pale blue eyes under the rim of a battered red baseball cap, jeans ripped at the knees and chewed-up brown Cons. Nice. That was all. She felt no fire or flutter or even spark.

She set the last ball of dough on the tray a moment later. "And done." She kept her voice casual, self-deprecatory, friendly but uninterested in that way. The pan went in the oven, the bowl in the dishwasher, and when she turned from the sink, crumpling a paper towel between her hands, she saw something.

She saw him grabbing her by the shoulders, spinning her into the far wall, hands sliding down her arms to trap her elbows against the wall, her eyes widening, mouth opening to protest, scream, him silencing her with his mouth on hers and her struggling, head pinned to the wall, unable to move.

It was a glimpse, a moment, but she knew her reactions flashed across her face, because he took a step back. "You alright?"

It was stupid. He'd never do something like that. If anything he'd be the guy who sort of forced a kiss in the heat of the moment then fell over apologizing in horror. It wasn't the future she saw. Couldn't be. Just an overactive imagination. Right? She realized she was still standing there, sliver of paper towel poking through her closed palms. She forced a smile. "Yeah. Just spaced out for a moment."

He tried a smile. "Okay. You looked kinda freaked out."

Though nothing had happened, nothing would, she felt a whispering sense of dread creeping into her gut, a black mist at the edge of her senses, lingering. Not enough to legitimately panic, not even close, but a feeling that shouldn't be there, a weed. She shrugged and stepped past him to the trash can, popping the lid and dropping in the towel.

She made an excuse about a study group almost as soon as the cookies were finished. Grabbed her keys, let him show himself out, took off across the road. She shivered as she paced down the next few blocks, feet crunching leaves. She hadn't thought of a jacket. Her black thermal was long-sleeved, waffle-textured, but thin, only warm where it overlapped her jeans. She made it to the right house a few moments later. The streetlight cast her as silhouette, thin and indistinct. She gathered her courage and knocked.

A dog barked inside, and she heard nails scrabbling against floor. A man ordered the dog back, and the porch door swung open a minute later. He was wearing a pair of stonewashed blue jeans and nothing else, bent over, grabbing the retriever's collar as he pushed open the swing door. "Sorry about Loki, he's hyperactive as heck today."

"It's okay." She bent down, let the dog sniff her hands, give her an enthusiastic lick across the face. Eventually he calmed and ran towards the back of the house, probably to fetch a tennis ball. He loved to play.

"So, what's up? Wasn't expecting you to stop by." He stood, and she realized, again, he wasn't wearing a shirt, and flecks of water danced from his hair. Fresh out of the shower. He was taller than her by a few inches. She always forgot that until she saw him.

"I just...." What? Panicked from an overactive imagination? Ran out of her house because of a premonition? She didn't know what to say, so she just walked over the threshold and wrapped her arms around him, bare chest and all.

She felt him tense for an instant before carefully pulling her in with one arm across her back. His voice softened. "Hey, what's going on?"

Her breath shuddered. "I...Kale was over, I was making cookies, and I just...God, this sounds so stupid, but I don't know, it just felt really weird."

"I thought you two weren't going out?"

"We aren't. But I think he still wants to. And...I don't know, he was just kind of standing over my shoulder and it really freaked me out, and I don't get why."

"Yet you're jumping me when I'm not wearing a shirt and that isn't freaking you out?"

She felt her face flame, and stepped back. "Um. Sorry, geeze, I wasn't thinking-" She caught the glimmer in his eyes and flushed again. "Dadgum you."

He laughed. "I get that a lot." He pointed at the couch. "Take a seat, let me grab a shirt before I freeze, and I'll be right there."

She sat. He disappeared up the stairs. Loki trotted over and rested his head on her knee, slobbering. She sighed and sank into the worn leather, idly massaging Loki's ears.

Stairs creaked, and he reappeared in a blue and black plaid. It looked soft. Slapping Loki's rump, he sat at the other end of the couch and turned towards her. "So."

"I...I don't know. I mean, nothing happened. I don't think anything would have, but...something just felt wrong and I got freaked out." She pushed an errant bang behind her ears. "He's a nice guy, he'd never do anything, but I just got this weird feeling...and now I'm not making any sense."

He lifted a shoulder. "It makes enough sense. My question is, why'd you come to me?"

She bit the edge of her lip. "I mean, this sounds stupid, but you've stood that close to me a million times, and like, I can be in a crowd and know exactly where you're standing in relation to me, every time. It's weird, and I don't even get that, but not once did I ever get weirded out by it. It's just..." She released a breath. She didn't do this spill-your-guts thing well. "I guess I just started thinking that if you'd been standing there instead of him I'd've felt perfectly safe."

He blinked, rubbed his jaw. "Well. Thanks."

She knew he meant it, was just surprised by her saying that. She was too. "Yeah." She shrugged. "That's about it." Now she felt like a class-A moron, filed away in his mind as a silly girl. She stood. "Sorry, I didn't mean to barge in, I'd better be heading back."

He blocked her path to the door in half a heartbeat, eyes fixed on hers. Carefully, he placed his hands on her shoulders. "I'm sorry it turned out that way with him. But I'm not him, and, well, I guess I'm here for you. You're an amazing girl and no one should freak you out like that."

She could feel Loki sniffing the back of her knees. Mostly, she felt his hands on her shoulders. "Thanks." She blinked. "I'm not crying, I promise."

"There's nothing wrong with that even if you were. Which you aren't. Of course."

She half-laughed, half-coughed, and he pulled her into a real hug, one where she wrapped her arms around him, closing her right hand around her left wrist and letting herself relax, cheek rubbing against his shirt. It was soft. And she was right. She did feel safe.