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Chapter 7: Misunderstandings
Storm
palladian23 wrote in superwebnovel
Author's Notes: Warnings for this chapter - Medical examinations, fight flashbacks, deliberate injury of another person, angst, bad language, recounting of past child abuse

Thanks again to my wonderful editor gwoman for her work on this chapter!


Back to Chapter 6

Lex groaned and put her arm across her eyes to ward off the morning sunlight coming through her windows. I’ve got to put up the drapes today, she thought, realizing the light had gotten her up so early that Casey wasn’t due downstairs for another hour and a half. She got out of bed and stretched, thinking that it was going to be another bright, hot day if the sparkling river outside her window was any indication, and was glad that at least the window faced roughly west.

Deciding to make the best of waking early, Lex took a quick shower and then went to the kitchen to make some tea. As the water heated, she wandered over to the common room and looked out the picture windows along the back of the building. The water was so dazzling at close view that she barely noticed the ever-present trash gliding by, and Crystal City looked like a glittering kingdom in the distance.

She spent the next hour unpacking, and by the time she went back downstairs, her stomach sounded as if it had begun to eat itself. When Casey arrived a bit later, Lex realized that her friend had as much trouble getting moving in the morning as she usually did, so Lex put the water on for tea for Casey. The two breakfasted in a companionable silence, Lex crunching on the sweetly tart cherry granola she’d found and Casey slowly sipping her English breakfast tea, until Lex had to leave for her scheduled tests.

Lex ran down to the medical level and emerged in the hallway, unfolding the schedule from her pocket. Looking to the right, she saw a couple of people in the area behind the first door and the large window beside it. According to her schedule, this was her first stop for the day, so she reached for the doorknob and gently opened the door.

“Excuse me,” she said as she stepped inside, wrinkling her nose slightly at the antiseptic smell. “My name is Lex McKilliam, and I was told to report here this morning.” Her voice sounded a little unsure, even to herself, but the people inside seemed to stand at attention now as if they’d been waiting for her.

“Ah, Ms. McKilliam, please come this way,” a man in a lab coat responded.

“Please, call me Lex.”

“Lex, come through here and change into this. Make sure you remove any metal you might be wearing.”

Lex rubbed the thin, wash-worn, hospital-style smock they wanted her to wear between her fingers. “Can I at least keep my socks on? It’s chilly down here.”

The man looked at her oddly, as if he hadn’t expected her to speak in return. “Yes, I'm sure that would be fine.”

After changing and returning to the previous room, Lex was brought to the CAT scanner. The man in the lab coat told her that she would be imaged and to try not to move during the procedure. Lex arranged herself on a tiny shelf which then moved back into the machine. For the first few minutes, she breathed the stuffy plastic smell and felt uncomfortable with the small, darkened space and the faraway sound of banging on pipes. Eventually though, while trying hard to not move, she realized she’d begun having trouble keeping awake. The dimness and the prone position finally got to Lex, and she fell asleep several minutes after the procedure began.

She stood in front of a waterfall, or at least that's what it seemed to be, but the surface looked completely smooth, like glass. Lex raised her hand to the water and found it much deeper than it appeared, at least by inches, and bone-chillingly cold. As she yanked her hand back, she realized that she could see something materializing on the other side of the cascade; as the image resolved, that something turned out to be someone. Lex tilted her head back and forth and squinted, trying to see if she could determine the person’s identity. It appeared to be someone who’d been locked in ice; the person looked very light skinned, with short white hair. Lex couldn't make out the figure's face, however; the volume of water between them obscured it, making the person look as if they could be just about anyone. The figure definitely wanted to communicate with her, however, and looked anxious to do so. Lex got as close to the edge of the water as she could without getting wet, watching the person as closely as possible. As she focused on the figure’s lips, she thought she could see them mouthing, “Watch out—”

Lex opened her eyes as she felt the shelf moving her back out of the machine. She yawned, trying not to be too conspicuous about it, and sat up as the movement stopped. She still felt about halfway in her dream world, her foggy brain working hard to figure out what it all meant. A young woman approached Lex then, dressed in a lab coat, her long dark hair done up with hair sticks into a loose bun. “How are you feeling?” she asked with a smile.

Lex stifled another yawn. “I'm fine, but I'm afraid I fell asleep in there. I hope it didn't mess up the tests.”

The woman laughed. “Don’t worry about it. We got the information we needed, and all of the images look like they came out well. For people who aren't bothered by the tight space, it's common to fall asleep.”

Lex laughed in reply. “Thanks. Is there anything else you need this morning?”

The woman looked back the man who’d spoken to Lex earlier. He’d been looking at a computer screen and glanced up to shake his head in response. “No,” the woman said to Lex, “you're good to go. Thanks!”

Lex nodded, sliding off the shelf to head for the changing room.

Once dressed, Lex looked at her schedule again and at the clock. It read just about ten, and she knew she had to be in the martial arts studio on the hour. Running the flights down, she got to the room a little out of breath. She went inside and saw an elderly man about her height near the back wall, looking at the room in the mirror. He wore loose-fitting black pants and jacket, the sort of thing worn in an old Hong Kong martial arts film. He held his body with the flexibility of a dancer and the strength of a weight lifter. Lex noted his iron grey hair and thought his face looked old without having lots of deep wrinkles. His expression seemed somehow disapproving and Lex could feel the power emanating from him. Having been in the martial arts world many years, she saw him as an opponent she would try never to fight seriously.

“No food or drinks are allowed in here.” His voice rang out like a whip crack as he turned and glared at the travel mug in Lex's hand.

“Sorry,” Lex replied, turning around so that she could put it on the floor just outside the door while taking a final sip of the astringent green tea she’d chosen that morning.

“Come inside and sit,” he continued, his voice harsh.

Lex entered the studio fully, sat cross-legged on the cool wooden floor, and waited. She had the feeling that she was already in trouble, but for some reason it didn't bother her that much. Then she realized it as a familiar feeling for her in a martial arts studio and ironically raised an eyebrow at herself in the mirror.

“My name is Fai Chen. Who are you?”

Lex looked at him with some puzzlement, wondering how he couldn't know her when the people here had almost every possible piece of information about her. “Lex McKilliam.”

His eyes narrowed when he looked at her again, as if he saw something dangerous, like a snake. “You studied under your father, Bill McKilliam?”

“Yes.” Lex nodded, more confused than ever.

“When you studied under him, did you answer to the name of Alex?”

She started to say yes, but the word got mangled as Lex’s heart squeezed and a vivid memory bubbled up.

She was ten again and heard the crowd at the judo competition mumbling and swelling as she faced her opponent: a girl her age but bigger, like all of her other peers seemed to be. Lex breathed in the familiar competition smells of sweat, fear, and blood as they circled one another, the other girl warily, Lex desperately. She knew she was lagging in this fight and needed to win it. If she did, she would only have a few more fights before she could go home and shut herself into the bathroom for a half hour or so, run the hot water and lay in the bathtub peacefully, no one interrupting. If she didn't win, she would be going back to the martial arts studio with her father after all of the other students had been dropped off, and things would happen there that she didn't like to think about.

She remembered what her father had taught her—cheating wasn't cheating if the officials didn't see it. Coming up with an idea, Lex circled for a moment more before coming in closer to try a throw over her hip that would involve her bringing the other girls body to the mat. As she did, Lex took one of her hands (meant to be gripping the other girl's lapels) and ground a knuckle into her ribs hard, feeling a stomach-turning give as she separated them and caused the girl to scream. Lex froze as the two of them came to the mat, knowing she had overdone it. Her heart beat furiously as the other girl rolled around, obviously in pain. Lex stood up and backed away a little, waiting. The officials conferred for a moment, then called the match forfeit, since the other girl couldn’t continue, and declared Lex the victor.

But then a man came to confront her father. He was the teacher of the girl Lex had hurt, and he accused Lex's father of teaching his students to cheat. The girl told her teacher what had happened, and he’d seen something that convinced him of the truth of her story. The two men argued, her father towering threateningly over the other, but nothing came of it, since the officials hadn't seen anything...

In the next breath, Lex’s mind came back to the present, her heart thumping in double time as she looked at the somewhat aged face of the man who’d argued with her father that day as he said, “I know your father.”

Before she could think about it, Lex blurted out, “I'm sorry.”

This startled Mr. Chen, and he paused for a moment as he looked at her more closely. Lex just breathed the suddenly stifling air for a moment, trying to get her thoughts together, and then continued. “I mean, I'm sorry about your student. I didn't mean to hurt her that day.”

“You cracked her rib,” he replied, his expression surprised, as if he hadn’t expected Lex to remember him.

“I'm sorry, really I am. I didn't mean to.”

He left that alone, continuing to study her. “When I was asked to come here today, I refused at first. But then they convinced me to come by sending me this footage,” he said, a remote suddenly in hand.

First the lights dimmed, and then Lex watched as one of the mirrors became a screen, showing her going through the form she had demonstrated for Casey. Lex stood in her surprise even as she spotted the small image of Casey watching in the background and knew it must have been from the previous evening.

“Where...where did you get this?” she asked, stupefied.

Mr. Chen looked at her through narrowed eyes again. “In case you didn't know, you are always watched in this place, which is another reason I'm not fond of coming here.”

Fuck…Lex thought as she continued to watch. After a few moments, Lex began mentally critiquing herself and finally concluded that she didn’t seem to see it the way Casey did, because she could watch her own moves fine. But, she mentally conceded, it might be different if she watched another martial artist.

“Who taught you this?” Mr. Chen finally asked, his voice still cold and his eyes suspicious.

Lex turned to him, still confused. “No one. I made it up myself. I put together a form based on some moves I wanted to perfect, and once I mastered them, I changed it to suit myself.”

Mr. Chen looked at her closely, and Lex thought she saw a brief flash of curiosity in his eyes. “I found it interesting to see, knowing that McKilliam couldn't have taught you this form—”

“He hated it,” Lex mumbled, under her breath, she thought, but when she realized Mr. Chen had paused and glanced at her, it seemed he’d heard her.

“But,” he continued, “the reason that I really came here was to ask you what you focused on when you did this form. I can tell from the way you’re concentrating that you weren’t just practicing.”

Lex looked at him, floored again. It took a moment, and her voice was scratchy when she responded, but she said quietly, “My father.”

Mr. Chen looked straight at her then, obviously weighing the information he’d gotten in his mind. He stared into her eyes and she stared right back, wondering what he saw in there.

“Why did you have to win the fight so badly that you cracked my student's rib?”

Lex's eyes slid to the floor as the change of subject threw her. She didn't want to answer, but got herself up to it, clearing her throat. “My father did not want me to lose. It was a...bad thing for me to lose.” Lex sighed and rubbed her eyes, since they now burned. She hadn't talked about her experiences at home for years now, yet for the past couple of days it seemed like all she’d been asked to talk about, and the impersonal, patronizing manner of the doctor whom she’d had to tell yesterday had been the last straw for her. She felt dragged out and exhausted by the ordeal and couldn’t manage to tell the story one more time to someone else who didn’t give a damn.

“I'm sorry. I don't really like to talk about it much, but I did go into some detail yesterday with the doctor who did my initial physical when I got here. If you need my permission to go into my medical chart, you have it.” She glanced back up at Mr. Chen, a hangdog look in her eyes, not sure what to expect and assuming the worst.

He was now giving her a look of undisguised curiosity, an intense examination with piercing eyes. Lex felt like an orange under his gaze, her outer skin being stripped away so that he could examine her inner secrets. Her stomach flopped uncomfortably, and she looked away to the floor again.

“I see. Please have a break for the remainder of the morning, and I will meet you back here after lunch, at 1:30,” he said, his voice still steely.

“All right,” Lex responded dully, bowing to him. “I'll see you then.”

She did her best to not flee the room, but went far more quickly than she’d normally walk. Then she ran up the stairs, not stopping until she got to her room. Once there, she slumped on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Lex hadn't thought about it for a long while, but she closed her eyes for a second and saw some of the angry faces from her past, some of her peers that she'd terrorized on the competition mats. None of the kids had been permanently injured that she knew of, but she couldn't help remembering the day she'd cracked the other girl's rib. Her stomach had fallen to her feet, and her heart had nearly stopped in her chest as she'd seen that look of pain on the girl's face. But even then, to her intense shame, she remembered feeling somewhat relieved that she would probably be awarded the match and avoid another beating.

However, that hadn't happened. Her father had been so angry that anyone had any potential evidence of her cheating that she'd been given hours of “extra training” that night after the matches so that she could master the cheat she'd been trying to do, he told her as he jammed his knuckle into her ribs. She couldn't decide even now which was worse: the pain or the experience of seeing her father's savage grin as he pushed her to the mats and ground the breath from her. For the next couple of weeks after that, Lex had felt her own cracked ribs every time she'd breathed, had known she deserved all the pain, and had felt so sorry for the other girl she'd wished she could cry.

After a while spent staring at the wall, Lex forced herself to shake it off enough to sit up and think about what to do with the extra time she'd been given. She had over an hour before Casey would probably be available for lunch, so she figured she might as well do some more work on assembling her room. She found the TV and DVD player first and hooked them up so that she could watch some of her favorite videos while she worked. Lex grinned as she set up the nice flat screen TV that had been delivered, then popped one of her favorites into the player and hit “Play” on the remote.

Even though her fiancé would laugh at her for it, she'd continued collecting anime series. One of her favorites, the one she now turned to, told the story of an orphan boy who began life as an outcast in his village. Instead of becoming angry, it inspired the boy to try harder, and he eventually won friends and became someone strong and powerful that other people depended on and looked up to. Lex really liked the series because of that, but her favorite character in the series wasn't the main one. The one she liked best came from another village. His family had turned against him and tried to kill him a few years after he'd been born. Since he was protected by a demon they'd been unsuccessful, but unfortunately they'd never stopped trying. As a result, he'd basically turned into a bitter serial killer, until he'd been defeated by the main character in the series, and as a result learning about the strength that comes from caring for others.

The first episode Lex chose to watch as she worked showed how the boy whose parents had once tried to kill him had become the village leader, coming to everyone's aid when powerful enemies attacked their homes. He'd been captured after successfully saving the village, and Lex skipped ahead to another episode where most of the people in the village showed up to get him back. By the time the second episode finished, Lex had unearthed and moved her couch in front of the TV, had unpacked and placed all of the couch pillows, and had set up her bedside table with a lamp and alarm clock.

If he can do it, I can do it,” Lex thought, feeling a bit more confident and less shaky as the show ended. Glancing at the clock, Lex realized she had to meet Casey, so she turned everything off and ran down to the kitchen.

As Lex rounded the corner into the room, she saw Casey sitting at the kitchen island making a sandwich and waved in greeting.

“How about peanut butter and jelly today?” Casey said, smiling in reply.

“Fine by me,” Lex replied, sitting next to Casey and grabbing two slices of bread. The bread smelled fresh, as if it had been made that day, and Lex spread natural peanut butter and raspberry jam generously on the slices.

As they began to eat, Casey asked, “So, how did your first day of training go?”

Lex looked up at her a bit reluctantly, licking a stray drop of tangy raspberry from her thumb. “On the good side, I did get to meet your old teacher, Mr. Chen. The bad thing is, I think he hates me.”

Casey gave her an odd look. “How could that be?”

Lex related the morning's events to Casey, who ended up shaking her head. “That's a tough break, but I think he'll come around. Mr. Chen likes to come on strong, but he's really a very caring man. I think he'll change his mind.”

“I don't know, Casey. Why would he? He has every reason to be mad.”

Casey shook her head. “I don't think so. That was a long time ago, after all, and it's not like you maimed the girl. Anyway, do you think he's never seen this sort of thing before, working with kids? I think he'll understand.”

Lex shrugged then, not very hopeful. “Well, I'm supposed to meet him after lunch, so I guess I'll find out then.”

Casey nodded thoughtfully, obviously contemplating something, and then turned her attention back to Lex. “So, what happened after that match? Did you win the tournament?”

Lex considered the question for a moment. “Honestly, I don't remember. What I do remember is my dad taking me back to the studio after the tournament, which meant that I'd fucked up. He spent a couple of hours 'teaching' me to do the move I'd been trying so that no one would see it. I ended up with three cracked ribs, I think, but I wasn't allowed to show it, even though I felt like each breath would puncture my lungs for the next few weeks. Each breath made me think of the girl I'd done the same thing to, and I knew I was a monster just like my father.”

Lex was quiet then, taking another bite of her sandwich and eating, although her stomach roiled, and she couldn't unknot her other hand from the fist it had balled into. The sandwich, which had tasted delicious seconds before, now seemed like so much paste and cardboard. She glanced up at Casey after a few moments, expecting the worst.

Casey looked sad and angry at the same time. “I'm sorry your dad was such a shithead,” she said gruffly.

Lex gave a little snort of laughter in her surprise, but smiled gratefully and slowly felt her body begin to relax. They finished lunch in silence, both women deep in thought. As Lex rinsed her dishes and prepared to go, Casey reached out to touch her arm on her way out the door. “Wait, I'm coming down with you. I'd like to see Mr. Chen again, to say hi.”

Lex nodded, grateful for her company. A few minutes later they walked downstairs together, and although Lex hesitated at the studio door, Casey pushed confidently on through it.

“Mr. Chen,” she said, greeting the man in the center of the wooden floor.

He gave a half-turn, and Lex watched his expression change. Suddenly, a true smile appeared on his face as he looked at the blonde. “Casey, my former student. It is good to see you.” He stopped, his eyes narrowing a little as he noticed Lex walking quietly through the door, her pace reluctant.

“I heard that you came here to teach Lex,” Casey continued. Lex could see a big smile on Casey's face in the mirror. She seemed genuine in her happiness to see Mr. Chen, but Lex could also tell from her friend's tone that Casey wanted to convince the man of something.

“Well,” Mr. Chen began in a dubious tone, “I don't know—”

“Come on, Mr. Chen,” Casey interrupted quickly, “you'll want to teach her. She'll be a much better student than I ever was. I hear you already saw some footage of her in action. Have you seen how fast she is?”

“Yes, but—”

“She'll be a great student for you. I know she'll work hard.”

“Casey, you have a big heart, but you don't know her.” Mr. Chen's eyes took on a steely cast as he glanced at Lex again, and her stomach seemed to compress in response.

“With all due respect, Mr. Chen, I know her a lot better than you do. Lex had a rough childhood, but she's a good person. Please teach her.”

Lex had been starting to feel annoyed at being spoken of like an inanimate object, but Casey's insistence about Lex being a good person rocked her a bit. She took a shaky breath and continued to listen.

“...when they got back home, that bastard gave her three cracked ribs—”

“Casey,” said Lex, a little more loudly than she'd intended to, “you don't need to tell Mr. Chen about that. It's like I said, he has every reason to be mad at me. It's OK. Thanks for trying to help.”

Lex caught a look at herself in the mirror then. She appeared hunched over, as if trying to pull into herself like a turtle. She felt humiliated and lost, the balloon pushing up inside her chest threatening to choke her, and she could smell her own nervous sweat with every shallow breath. She did appreciate Casey's efforts, but the secrets of her past had been opened up to so many people recently that Lex was felt as if her stomach had been cut open and all of her guts, still attached, were now on display.

“Why did he do that?”

Lex cringed to hear Mr. Chen's voice. She cleared her throat. “Really, it's not important,” Lex mumbled.

“Why did he do that?” Chen's voice rang out again, cracking like a whip this time.

Lex's mouth was dry, and her response was only a little above a whisper. “He said he wanted to teach me the right way to do the cheat I tried on your student that day, but that wasn't the only reason. He'd get so angry when I lost that there would always be 'extra training' afterwards. He must have been really mad because it went on for hours that day.”

Everyone fell silent for a long space of time as Lex stared at the floor, clenching her fists and willing the very earth to swallow her. Finally, Casey broke the silence. “Come on, Mr. Chen. Won't you teach her?”

“Enough!” Mr. Chen replied, turning to face Casey, now with a small smile on his face. “I've decided to teach her, my student who is most gifted with persistence! Are you satisfied?”

Casey gave a broad grin in response. “Yes, now. Thanks, Mr. Chen! Lex, see you for dinner?”

Lex tried to smile at Casey, but somehow her mouth couldn't form the right shape. “Sounds good. See you then.”

She heard the door shut behind Casey and sighed, then took a deep breath, trying to get enough air to fortify her for whatever was next, her stomach still churning anxiously. Then she turned to look at the man in the middle of the room where he stood, gazing at her curiously.

Lex swallowed nervously and bowed her head. “Thank you, Mr. Chen, for agreeing to teach me. I will do my best to be a good student to you.”

“I have no doubt that you will, Lex,” Mr. Chen said in a soft, patient tone that she hadn't heard him use before. Lex looked up at him for a moment, somewhat hopeful and somewhat dubious, but he just met her gaze.

“I understand your previous teacher,” and on those two words Mr. Chen's tone sounded disdainful, “taught you several different styles. Please go through your final forms for the styles you know.”

She looked at him full on for a moment, then dropped her eyes. "Can I use you as my partner when I need one?"

He nodded and followed her as she moved to the mats. Lex started with the hapkido black belt form, moving through it with economy, fluid grace, and the second nature that comes with having done something probably thousands of times, hampered only by the occasional misunderstanding between her and the teacher as to what was expected. Mr. Chen said nothing when she finished, just continued watching her, so she continued with the judo brown belt form. This form didn’t feel quite as second nature for Lex, probably because she’d only completed these moves hundreds of times, but she still could perform them competently. Lex had completed the judo form and had begun the tae kwon do black belt form when Mr. Chen stopped her.

“Lex, please rest for a moment,” he said, gesturing for her to sit. Lex sat down and braced her back against the wall, still breathing heavily, one foot remaining on the wooden floor. Mr. Chen continued to gaze at her thoughtfully for another few moments. Lex found she couldn't really decipher his look, so she waited, gradually regaining her breath.

“Lex,” he continued, “I have always tried to emphasize to my students the necessity of finesse in the martial arts. I see that you were taught a way in which force was emphasized to you. This way is not as useful to someone like yourself, or like me. Finesse and expertise are useful to all, force only really to those who are much larger or stronger than others. But force used against others tends to rebound against the user. Also, when you use force against your own body, to make it do things that it has difficulty doing for long periods of time, this will eventually rebound against you. You will become tired more easily than others who are not overexerting themselves.”

He sighed as he looked down, and then glanced back up at Lex. “I will think about this tonight and decide what the best next steps are. This evening I wish you to think about how to begin making your body your friend, instead of treating it like your slave. I suggest you start by trying the hot tub in the next room.”

Mr. Chen bowed to Lex, which startled her greatly. She leaped up to return the bow, but he’d turned and left the room before she had completed the movement. Lex looked at her disheveled reflection in the mirror for a moment, especially her dumbfounded expression.

With some confusion, Lex left the martial arts gym and made her way into the room with the pool and hot tub next door. After showering and finding a scratchy white towel, she went to the jacuzzi with only her towel on and got in. Looking around at the otherwise deserted room, she didn't feel too badly about not having a suit with her but put it on her mental list of things to move to headquarters.

Relaxing back into the warm, bubbly water, Lex looked at the ceiling and thought about what Mr. Chen had said. She glanced at her still-injured hand and the scars farther up her arm. Remembering her lessons at her father's school, Lex recalled all of the long hours she’d spent learning techniques, her father always yelling at her to keep going, to not rest until she’d mastered the latest things he’d shown her.

As she mentally reviewed her own practicing and training habits, Lex realized that she hadn't been any easier on herself, pushing herself even when she felt too sick, tired, or depressed to continue. Lex sighed as she thought about how out of touch she felt with what her body might be experiencing or with physical things she might need. Until now she’d always been too busy playing the taskmaster to listen.

Tentatively, Lex tried to tune in to the physical sensations in her body. She realized her stomach still felt shaky from everything that had happened earlier, she had a small headache, and her legs and arms felt sore from practicing longer at a stretch than she was used to now. Lex hunkered down into the water a little more, leaning her head on the side of the tub and hoping the bubbles and the heat would help work out her tired muscles and calm her down.

Lex's eyes popped open sometime later, and she shook her head to clear it. She couldn’t figure out how long she’d napped, but her muscles felt looser and she felt calmer in general. Dripping, she headed for the locker rooms to change.

After Lex had put on clean clothes and dried her hair a bit, she headed for the kitchen to meet Casey. By the time she appeared, about fifteen minutes later, Lex had almost finished putting away the clean dishes from the dishwasher. As she greeted Casey she smiled shyly, still thinking of what had happened that afternoon.

Casey smiled in return. “Are you ready for some dinner?”

“Definitely. Tell me what we're making, and I'll do what I can to help,” Lex replied, adding the last of the clean plates to the stack in a cabinet near the sink.

As they worked together to create the stir-fry that Casey had chosen for the evening's meal, they chatted, mostly talking around what had happened earlier, until Lex finally couldn’t help saying something more. “Thanks for what you did today,” she said quietly, hoping that the sudden heat in her face didn’t signify blushing.

“I was glad to,” Casey replied in a strong voice. After a quick look at Lex, she continued more softly. “You know, maybe you could talk to people about it more than you do. A lot of them might understand.”

“I just feel...I don't know...” Lex trailed off nervously, toying with the knife in her hand.

“Ashamed about what happened?” Casey asked, bending to look Lex in the eye.

Lex sighed and looked away. “Yes, I guess I do feel ashamed.” She took a big breath then, trying to relax, as she realized she’d nearly minced the bok choy she’d been chopping.

“Lex, you don't have anything to be ashamed about. You were just a kid trying to survive. Your dad, on the other hand, should be ashamed about a lot of things.”

Lex thought about that while she finished up and then handed the cutting board of chopped vegetables to Casey, who added them to the pan she was stirring. It didn’t diminish the lump of shame that had lodged in Lex’s chest, but she could feel something working in the back of her mind, still mulling over Casey’s words.

“Casey,” Lex asked as her thoughts finally moved on, “did Mr. Chen ever give you anything like homework when you were his student?”

“Well, he taught me things and expected me to practice them, but I don't think he ever really gave me homework. Did he give you some?”

“Yes, sort of. He told me I have to figure out how to treat my body like my friend and not boss myself around so much. I'm not really sure where to start.” Lex bit her lip as she stopped talking, wondering if Casey would find that strange, but her friend just appeared to be considering the question.

Casey remained silent for a few minutes, obviously still thinking, and finally said, “Since we've been eating together, you've been treating your body better in the sense that we've been eating all healthily cooked vegan food. So, maybe that's something, but it sounds like Mr. Chen may have been talking about something more.”

Lex sighed. “I think he meant working on the way I usually drive myself too hard, like my father did. I'm used to pushing myself to do things no matter how I feel. When I thought about it, I realized that it took a lot of effort for me even to sense how my body was feeling.”

Casey nodded, turning the meal out of the pan onto two plates and then adding rice. “It sounds like you're on the right track, but I don’t know if I can help much. If anything, Mr. Chen would complain that I was too laid back. Maybe that sounds strange, but you do need to learn how to pace yourself working on a farm. Maybe you could find some books to help you out.”

Lex smiled, thinking she would try searching online later. Their conversation drifted into other topics over the course of the meal, as Lex appreciated with every breath the garlic and ginger scents the cooking had spread throughout the kitchen. She marveled in her next bite that Casey had turned the simple ingredients she’d helped prepare into a delicious meal with just the right amount of spice and heat. Once dinner ended, Lex cleaned up, and then suddenly found that she felt exhausted. She trudged upstairs and barely managed to prepare herself before tumbling into bed.

She’d hoped to have some answers by morning, but when the alarm went off, Lex rubbed her eyes, her thoughts circling around some half-pieced together images. She recalled flashes of a dream in which she had pushed a rock up an endless hill. Her father had occasionally showed up to hit her and scream at her to go faster, while a mentor of hers from a previous job had seemed to periodically show up to give advice about how to get more leverage or push more efficiently, praising Lex when she did well. The whole thing had just left her with a feeling of anxiety and confusion. Shaking her head, Lex slowly made for the shower.

When she went downstairs for breakfast, Lex’s thoughts still swirled restlessly, having reached no conclusions. She made breakfast preparations, and smiled at Casey when her friend arrived a little while later. The two of them ate together, trying to wake up and making occasional comments about the day ahead. After finishing her food and planning to meet Casey for lunch later, Lex took a final sip of the strong English breakfast tea she’d chosen that morning, cleaned up after herself, and waved to Casey as she left the kitchen.

Making her way downstairs, Lex walked into the martial arts studio with a little trepidation, feeling unsure of what to expect, and bowed to Mr. Chen. He turned to her and returned her bow.

“Good morning, Lex,” he said evenly. “Did you have time to think about your assignment last night?”

Lex nodded. “Yes. I realize that what I've learned through my life so far is how to push my body, not listen to it. Unfortunately it seems like it takes a real effort for me to tune in to what I’m feeling. Do you have any suggestions?”

Mr. Chen sighed. “I will try to give what help I can during our time together, but this is something you will need to learn on your own. I can't tell you how to accommodate your body, but I will recommend what things I can, such as taking up meditation. Please continue to work at learning this lesson until you have mastered it, or it is likely you will wear your body out before its time.”

Lex bowed again, glad to hide her eyes as a strange feeling bubbled up in her chest at the idea that he cared about that at all. “I will, thank you, sir.”

Mr. Chen then sat cross-legged on the floor and gestured for Lex to join him. “I'd like to tell you what I've decided for your training, based on what I’ve already observed.” As Lex sat, he continued speaking. “I noted that in general, in the forms your father taught you, those who are bigger or stronger often end up having an advantage. Therefore, I want to teach you a particular art in response. The study of this martial art depends on you truly knowing it and perfecting it. If you do, you should be able to defeat those who have no or lesser knowledge of the art, regardless of their size compared to yours. For people like us,” Mr. Chen continued, smiling a bit ironically at Lex, who approximately matched his height and general build, “this is a good thing to know.”

Lex was excited, unable to stop from grinning, she saw, when she caught a glance of herself in the mirror. “I'd say. What is the martial art called?”

“Wing Chun. You may have heard of it before.”

Lex's heart surged in her chest. She’d been interested in learning Wing Chun since hearing of it as a little girl when looking into Bruce Lee's life. “I have, and I've always wanted to study it. Thank you, Mr. Chen.”

He nodded, and Lex thought she could detect a slight smile. “Also,” he continued, “since I know you're not used to a full day's training schedule yet, we will spend the afternoons learning Tai Chi Chuan. The movements of that art are more meditative and restful. I will also put an emphasis on learning these new things in your own time. It seems to me that your previous teacher may have put too great an emphasis on learning to do things quickly.”

Lex nodded in response, smiling a little. “That all sounds great, Mr. Chen. I’ve always been interested to learn Tai Chi, as well.”

“Good,” he replied, standing back up. “Shall we get started, then?”

The rest of the week passed fairly quickly, with martial arts lessons during the day and sharing meals with Casey in between training. Lex had also managed to research and order a few books to help her with Mr. Chen's “homework.” One of the other things she’d thought about in connection with the assignment had been getting back into voice training, something Lex found made her hyper-aware of her bodily sensations, especially her breathing, and she resolved to talk to Mr. Chen about it at some point. There had also been a battery of medical tests on Friday morning in order to get all of the rest of Lex's physical information, the doctors had said.

On Saturday morning, however, Lex woke up without an alarm clock. She yawned and sat on the edge of her bed for a few moments, waiting for her brain to wake up a little more. Lex’s room had become more functional—she’d set up her bedside table, as well as her desk not far away. In order to open the drapes and have a look at the day, she walked past the little sitting area she’d created on the other side of the room, while skirting the boxes in the corner that still needed to be unpacked.

Lex turned around afterwards to look at the pile of books that had mysteriously appeared on her desk sometime during the week. There’d been a note on them from Clara saying that she hoped that Lex was settling in, and that the books represented the beginning of her training for becoming the team strategist. In the note, Clara requested that Lex read the books and prepare a paper outlining team strategies by a date three months from the day she’d signed on.

Sighing, Lex looked at the stack and realized that she’d been too tired most of the evenings in the past week to do more than look at some of the back covers or inside jacket descriptions of the dozen or so books. Suddenly resolved, she found a small sheet of paper and a pen in her purse and noted the office supplies she thought she’d need in order to begin reviewing and taking notes on the books, then poked her head outside her door to leave the list and see if anyone had left her a schedule for today in the pocket by her door. When she found nothing there, Lex smiled to herself and climbed into the shower to wash and think.

Once out, toweling her hair dry, Lex had decided what to do. The wound on her hand had mostly healed, so Lex decided to spend some time in the weight gym after breakfast and then make a plan for her strategy book studies. Somewhere along the way she thought she’d figure out what to do this evening, maybe watch some of the films she’d brought or just go to bed early. She sighed at the last idea, already feeling lonely, but shook her head to try to mentally move on.

That got Lex thinking about how she’d try to get to the roof that afternoon to put in a call to Kurt. Unfortunately, her phone seemed to get bad reception everywhere in the headquarters building. She’d tried to call him a couple times early in the week, but they could barely hear one another. Lex had resolved to try again on the weekend if she could get up on the roof. She’d sent an e-mail to Kurt explaining what was going on, and he’d responded back not to worry, but it had made her feel sad and anxious not to be able to talk to him more often.

Trying to shake off her lonely feelings, Lex quickly got dressed and went downstairs for breakfast, ate on her own (finding some whole wheat bagels and eating one with peanut butter), and then went down to the gym. She started with a walk on the treadmill for a warm up, followed by stretching, and then began to explore the weight machines. After Lex had been working out for about an hour, Casey appeared as she finished a set of bench presses.

“You get up early even on the weekends,” Casey commented with a groan, still looking a bit tired.

Lex smiled in response, happy to see her friend. “I guess I just got used to it during the week. What are you up to this weekend?” she asked, trying not to sound like a puppy being left behind on a walk to the park.

Casey shrugged. “I wanted to get some time in here, but beyond that I don't have much planned. I know you're stuck here, though, so I was wondering if you wanted to watch movies tonight. I can actually get them to show on the big screen downstairs, if you want to try that.”

“Sounds great! Do we have any popcorn?” Lex asked with a grin, feeling glad and relieved all at once.

“We should. We have plenty of other snacks, in any case. You can pick out some of the movies you told me you wanted to see from my collection, since you probably don't have all of yours here. I'm going to want to see some of those martial arts films you told me about later on, though.”

“It's a deal. I'll pick them up next weekend.”

The two of them settled into their workouts then, Lex feeling buoyed up with new energy. After another half-hour, Lex finished up with a post-workout stretch and waved to Casey as she headed for the hot tub. Later on that afternoon during a break in her studying, Lex slipped out of her room, after looking to see that no one else was coming down the hall, to head for the stairs to the roof.

She felt that fortune must still be favoring her as she tried the door and found it open. Stepping out onto the roof, Lex looked first at the now mostly unobstructed view of the buildings across the water and the city in the opposite direction. Lex squinted against the nearly blinding sunlight to see a plain, flat roof surrounding her, with the occasional piece of machinery sticking up out of it. Checking her phone reception, Lex grinned to see that she now had a great signal. Dialing, she put the receiver to her ear and waited, appreciating the view as she did. After a few rings, she finally heard someone answer.

“Kurt! It's Lex,” she said, suddenly anxious to hear his voice again.

“Hey, honey! How are you doing?” he replied, his tone sounding somewhat distracted.

Lex swallowed, looking out across the water at Crystal City. She suddenly felt lonely hearing him, even though she’d been starting to feel good again with Casey around. “It's going really well. I’ve been becoming friends with one of the girls here, and I'm having more martial arts training.”

“That sounds really great,” Kurt responded, sounding cheerful and impersonal.

“I miss you, though,” Lex said, low and quickly, as her heart seemed to contract inwards.

“Oh, don't be silly, sweetheart! I'm right here, just a few metro stops away. You'll see me next weekend and I'm sure it will seem like no time at all.”

Lex nodded automatically and absently rubbed her chest as the odd pain there intensified. “You're right, of course. How have things been with you?” Her mind filled with dark clouds as he briefed her on the legislative details. He seemed so happy, just like always.

“...so don't worry; I'll see you next Friday. Do you know what time you should be home?” Kurt continued as Lex tuned back in.

Lex shrugged, and then rolled her eyes at herself for gesturing again to someone who couldn’t see her. “Probably sometime after five, depending on the trains.”

“I'll see you then, Lex. I've got to run now, though. I'm playing tennis with some of the boys from the office.” Suddenly, he sounded even happier. Lex felt like her mouth had filled with dust.

“Have a good time, Kurt. I love you,” she said, her tongue feeling heavy as she mouthed the words.

“Love you. Talk to you later.”

Lex closed her phone slowly after hearing the click as he hung up, and then gazed out over the water for some minutes more, its sparkle and movement somehow not calming her the way it usually did. She felt unsettled and empty after the call, not what she’d expected at all. After a while, a wind picked up that felt slightly cooler than her surroundings, blowing off the water and shaking her out of her thoughts. Her nose wrinkled as Lex noted Casey had been right about the rank smell from the water. Slowly, she made her way back inside to her studies.

Sometime during the early evening, when Lex had become absorbed in her reading, she heard a jarring knock at her door, and then Casey's head poked in. “Hey! Did you forget?”

Lex turned her face up from her books and smiled faintly. “I think I lost track of the time.”

Casey grinned in return. “Let's have frozen dinners like Joan usually does, make popcorn, and spend the rest of the night watching movies. Don't forget to wear your pajamas!”

Lex laughed, her mood suddenly improved, and she got changed and went downstairs. They spent the rest of the night wrapped in blankets on the couches, watching, commenting, and laughing.

Sometime late that night, Lex's eyes opened as she felt herself being carried up the stairs. So tired she could barely keep conscious, Lex’s groggy eyes looked up to see Casey's face. Her friend chuckled. “You're so light I could probably carry you all day.”

“Thanks...mom,” Lex said with the ghost of a smile before her eyes slid closed again. The warmth and coziness made it impossible for her to stay awake.

Lex spent the next day working out and studying again, with a long dinner break where she and Casey cooked together. While sitting at the kitchen island chopping carrots into matchsticks, Lex asked why it was so rare for them to encounter anyone else on the team, and Casey sighed.

“Well, a lot of people aren't here on the weekends, but during the week, Joan spends most of her time at some of the nearby military bases. I'm not sure what they have her doing, exactly. Serena just keeps different hours; she likes to be up late. I think she travels a lot. Riss doesn't leave her room much. I think they've got her on some super-secret computer thing. As for Lily, she's working at another place nearby and has a kid, so she's not here much, maybe once a month. You'll meet her eventually, though. She seems nice, I just don’t know a lot about her.”

Lex nodded and shrugged, finding it odd and wondering how they could be considered a team if they rarely saw one another, but put that thought aside to continue meal preparations. The stir fry they ended up with that evening, tofu and carrots made more flavorful with garlic and raisins, had been delicious enough to make her forget her questions for a while.

The following week went by in a blur, and Mr. Chen seemed put out since there were several days out of the week when Lex had to submit to some medical tests. One morning she had masses of electrodes glued to her head so the doctors could do some sort of brain scan. Another morning she had more blood taken and other tests done—in order to “fill in her chart,” Lex was told. Mr. Chen didn't extend the morning training, however, just telling Lex, “Don't be impatient. We will get to it in time. Just relax and try to absorb what you're being taught, not just learning to reflect it back at me quickly.”

Lex sighed, but she did her best to calm and center herself and to continue learning. She had at first worried that she would continue to have bad reactions to being back in the martial arts studio, as she had the first time she’d walked into the room with Casey, but Mr. Chen had a completely different way of teaching than her father had. He would patiently explain things, not yell at her if she didn't immediately understand. He praised her when she got things right and didn't shriek at her when she made mistakes. Things had changed to the point where Lex seemed to regard the studio as a place of peace and learning where Mr. Chen encouraged her curiosity and questions. Lex now had little trouble feeling calm and energized the minute her bare feet hit the boards, something she’d begun anticipating happily.

At one point, Lex realized that between working with Mr. Chen and hanging out with Casey, she’d been feeling comfortable and at home in her new job in a way she hadn't ever before. She also realized she avoided thinking about it too much because when she did she felt worried, as if waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The following Friday, when Lex had tried to diligently follow Mr. Chen's instruction despite her impending leave, she realized she must have snuck one too many looks at the clock when he stopped and turned to look at her.

“Lex,” he said, meeting her eye, “I don't seem to have your full attention today. Is this your first weekend out of the facilities?”

She gazed at him with surprise and anxiety, worried that he’d be upset with her. “Yes.”

“I understand you have a young man. I'm guessing you want to see him again.” Lex swallowed, feeling uncomfortable and found out, then nodded. “All right,” Mr. Chen continued, “I think we can finish our training today at noon, since I don't think it will be productive to go any longer than that. However, I'm going to expect you to be fully with me until then. Agreed?”

Lex nodded and smiled with relief. “Yes, thanks, Mr. Chen!”

He had a definite twinkle in his eye as he turned back to the mirror and began instruction again. Lex threw herself into the forms and before she knew it, noon had arrived. When he excused her, Lex smiled wide and bowed deeply to him, thanking him. Quickly, she ran upstairs, threw some of her strategy books and a notebook into her backpack, and grabbed her purse and travel bag so that she could bring some more things with her when she came back at the end of the weekend.

As she passed the kitchen, she swung inside and left a note on the table to Casey, letting her friend know she’d left for home and would return Sunday night. Making sure she had her cardkey, Lex darted out the door, heading for the metro and home.

Forward to Chapter 8
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Comments about anything you liked or that you thought could be improved are extremely welcome!





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Really liked Master Chen and his characterization. Though it is kinda stereotypical in some ways, it works very well here with him being a mentor figure to her. Not too sure if it could be improved on.. I'll let you know if I happen to think of anything subsequently.

Aside from that, I like how Lex is getting more comfortable with herself and the people around her, with Kurt the exception (possibly because he's from her 'old' life), in this chapter and I'm not sure if I want to look forward to a breakup scene in the next chapter, though I guess that should happen sooner or later.

Lastly, about the anime you mentioned, just randomly, was the idea based on any known anime? XD

Yay! So glad to hear it - I really like him, as well. Please do let me know if you do think of anything to improve his characterization, or anything else...that's one of the reasons I like to post my work, after all, hoping to get better. :D

I'm happy you like that aspect of the story, as well. In writing this, it really came home to me that it seems Lex has been walking on eggshells for a long time, never really feeling like she fits in, and it was nice to see her settling into her new home. As far as Kurt, he's definitely something that even Lex seems to be starting to realize maybe wasn't a good fit from the beginning. Not everyone was meant to be together, after all. : ( There will definitely be movement on this front in the next chapter...

Yes, it is a real anime! My second commenter on this chapter identified it, actually. :D Anyway, thanks so much for reading and commenting!

Kurt definitely has "future ex-fiancé" written all over him. At this point, I'm mostly wondering if this is the time she'll catch him cheating on her (because everyone knows that being early when meeting your Significant Other means catching them with someone else) or if it's going to be some other time.

Also, "don't treat your body like a slave"? Better forget everything she learned from Naruto. Martial art animes are definitely from the "push yourself until you drop, then push some more" school of thought. :P

Unfortunately, it definitely doesn't seem like it's going to work out between these two. : ( We're going to have lots of movement on this front in the next chapter, but it's not due to what you're thinking. Don't worry, though, it'll all be made clear the next time I post. :D

Heh, heh...I think that's one of the reasons she liked watching the series! I agree, though, that I think she's much better off following what Mr. Chen tells her. Much more sustainable in the long run.

Thanks very much for reading and commenting!

"when looking into Bruce Lee's." I think you dropped a word at the end there.

Great chapter. It's definitely moving faster; I hope you're not changing your style too much to suit our comments.

You're absolutely right! Thanks for noticing; the sentence is now complete. :D

So glad that you liked it! I've definitely found the story naturally moving faster after getting over the beginning chapters, so I guess I'd have to say it's happening pretty organically. Thanks for continuing to follow the story, and thanks very much for commenting!

Martial arts

(Anonymous)
Judo and hapkido do not have solitary forms

Thanks for your comment! Can you please clarify? I'm assuming you're talking about the series of moves Lex goes through to show Mr. Chen what she learned to qualify for her various belts, but I'm not exactly sure what you're getting at.

Hi again! I've thought a bit about your comment, and I think I realize now what you were getting at. I thought at first you meant that there is more than one form for those types of martial arts, but now I'm thinking that you mean you need a knowledgeable partner to test. Thanks again for your comment; I haven't been able to further my own martial arts training enough yet to test for a black/brown belt, so a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, as they say. I'm going to update the chapter with this in mind; please let me know if you have additional comments.

Typo

(Anonymous)
Missing period at the end if the 9th paragraph from the end.

Great story! Keep up the awesome work!! ^_^

Thank you, that's now fixed!

Thanks also for reading closely enough to see it, and for commenting! Your kind words are also appreciated. :D

mr chen

(Anonymous)
Might his name be a nod towards the book white tiger? If it isn't, I would recommend giving it a read. It's got somewhat of a similar premise and is one of my favourite books.

Astrum

I haven't read it, but I'm always open to recommendations about good books! Thank you for coming to read, and for commenting!

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