Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Being more than a Simulacrum (Part 14)

[As a reminder,  Place, Joss, Jim, Tim, Zita, Felix, and Wade have met up in an online game where they're attempting to free a captured dragon.  This started last time.  Place and Joss are physically at the secret Yamanouchi ninja school in Japan having arrived the chapter before last.]

“You two are obviously cheating,” Jade Fire said.

“Aren't the important calculations handled server-side?” Joss asked.

“I think she's referring to us using using a custom interface,” Place said.

“Is there a rule against that?” Joss asked.

“No,” Place said.  “But other than not learning the default keybinds what could she possibly be talking about?”

Joss smirked.  “I'm sure that she uses only the most basic equipment.  A two button mouse, a keyboard, a monitor that tops out at six forty by four eighty.”

Place smirked back.  Joss had caught on quickly.  “She probably doesn't even use the default controls herself because those are similar to ones found in other games and heaven forfend that someone should take skills gleaned elsewhere and apply them here.  She must have some sort of randomizer that means she needs to learn a new set of controls for each new game.”

* * *

Jade took off her headset for a moment and looked at her setup.  A custom left handed mouse with eight main buttons and a thumb-stick.  It freed her entire right hand for the whole keyboard since the mouse and thumb-stick controlled looking and moving.  Several of the mouse's keys were bound to macros of her own design so that she could go from thought to in-game action faster than a non-customized setting would ever allow.

She put the headset back on.

* * *

“Maybe I spoke too soon,” Jade admitted.

Joss responded with “Ya think?”

“But you're still trying to steal what you didn't earn,” Jade said.

“And, do tell,” Place said, “if the good princess Enning has earned all of these things,”  Place gestured to the treasure, “why didn't she bring it to the castle herself?”

“Listen you miscreants--” Jade started.

“It seems awfully inefficient to earn all of this loot,” Joss said, “then leave it behind in some random place, and finally hire a bunch of misogynistic mercenaries to bring it to her home base for her.”

“Misogynistic?” Place asked.

“I will never repeat what that one,” Joss pointed to guard with a tree on top of him, “called me.”

“Look,” Jade said, “I'm sorry about the asshole but you're still thieves trying to steal her majesty's tribute and --”

“Tribute?” Place asked.  “You mean she didn't earn it but instead it's being given to her, just like how I got the sword of Elsanor?  I thought you said I didn't deserve it.”

“No more talk,” Jade said.  “You're both going down.”

* * *

“You think we'll catch him before he makes it to the dragon?” Jim asked Tim as they galloped down the path after a horseman who'd gotten away.

“Not sure,” Tim said, “beating the other three took a while.”

“He's got a lead,” Jim said.

“How do you think Zita and the others are doing?” Tim asked.

* * *

Felix tried to assess the situation.  It was more difficult than he expected.

What the odds were really depended on how you counted things.  Eleven of the sixteen guards remained unscathed, Wade had been damaged, Zita was running low on spell strength, Felix himself was at a bit of a loss regarding what to do, and the summoned creatures were downright scary.  Were they outnumbered eleven to three or more like twenty to two?

Felix didn't know.

He slashed a tentacle with his sword and, before he could even figure out which of the creatures the tentacle had belonged to, found himself in a sword fight.  One where he was hopelessly out matched.

* * *

Joss finished reading the item description of the scepter Leela Place had given her just as Jade began to charge.  Josh struck the scepter against the ground.  Cracks opened up, the earth fell away, and Jade was, at least, slowed down.

“Great work cousin,” Leela Place said to her.  “Let's get to the others.”

* * *

“These are the most infuriating knaves in the history of that word being used to mean 'newbie',” Jade grumbled.  Then she got to work climbing back up to what had once been ground level.

* * *

Jim looked at the three horses, and their riders, trapped in the liquefied sand of the path ahead of them.  “Something tells me we shouldn't take the road here,” he said to Tim.

“Yeah,” Tim said, “I get that feeling too.  No idea why though.”

Jim just snickered.

* * *

Felix was one hit away from losing when a lighting bolt blasted his opponent.

“Thanks, honey,” Felix said when he realized that Zita was the source of the bolt.  Then he searched the enemy for supplies.  A healing potion later and he was back in the fight.

Zita and Wade would be better able to defeat their actual enemies, he figured that the best contribution he could make would be dealing with the summoned creatures and stopping their opponents from ganging up on either Zita or Wade.

To that end he tried to find where he would be of most use and settled on the hovering Hell cuttlefish.

* * *

“We just need to find something to boost our speed stat,” Place said as she and Joss dug through the treasure.

“Check this out, cuz,” Joss said.

Place did.  It was a rug, a fairly intricate design, but she wasn't sure at first what purpose it served.  Unless it was going to teleport them to the fight, how could it help them provide backup to--

It was so obvious that Place had to force herself not to facepalm.  It was a magic carpet.  It wouldn't get there as fast as horses, but it'd be a lot better than walking or running.

“You left without saying, 'Good-bye,'” Jade said from behind them.  “It's rude.”

“You accused us o' cheatin' without even knowin' us,” Joss said.  “It's rude.”

“What she said,” Place said while pointing to Joss.

“Why all the running?” Jade asked.  “Afraid you can't win a straight fight?”

“This isn't a fight,” Place said.

“It's a prison break,” Joss said.  “You've no right to hold that dragon captive.”

“The dragon belongs to--”

“Her majesty the extraordinarily exalted elegant effervescent elite elevated extravagant Enning,” Place said, a bit bored with the whole thing.

“Excessive alteration much, cuz?” Joss asked.

“Ask Jade what her rank is if you want to know why,” Place said.  “Though I don't recommend it.”

“You're going to fight me.”

“Why?”  Place asked.

Jade was apparently at a loss, so Place added, “If it's Enning's dragon then why should you fight for it?  Why doesn't she show up herself?”

“She doesn't have to answer to the likes of you,” Jade spat.  Well, as well as one could spit words online.  Jade's microphone just wasn't up to picking up the contempt properly, but Place was pretty sure that Jade had spat the words in real life.

Place glanced at Joss who had laid out the carpet and looked ready.  “We'll just be going now,” she said.

* * *

“Zita,” Jim called.

“Felix,” Tim called.

“Wade,” They both called.

 “Sorry it took so-- Whoa!” Jim said.

There were eight enemy soldiers still in action, and seven summoned monsters.  Big ones.

Zita, Felix, and Wade were all noticeably damaged.

Felix was the first to respond.  He was standing on top of what looked to be a cross between an elephant and a sea anemone and he simply shouted, “Help me fight the monsters so they can focus on the bad guys!”

* * *

There were six soldiers.  They were battered and their horses were nowhere in sight.  Before them was a swirling void.

“Are you sure this time?” one asked.

“I'm sure,” another said.

“Because the last time--”

“I'm sure, alright?” the second shouted.

Then he said some pseudo-Latin and the swirling void disappeared.  “See,” he said; Place wasn't sure whether it was a command or a question.

The others cautiously approached what appeared to the an ordinary section of the road, where the void had been.  One stuck his sword through the now-voidless space.

None of them seemed all that enthusiastic about going forward.  Place wondered what had gone on the last time they'd tried to pass the trap, but it wasn't important at the moment.

The fact that they'd lost their horses and already been worn down was important.  It meant they'd be a lot easier to defeat than they should have been.  Easier than Jade for sure.

“Thanks,” Place said.  "We'd have had a hard time helping our friends free the dragon if you hadn't done that.”

Joss piloted the magic carpet passed the guards so that she and Place would be between them and the main battle.

“Come on,” One of the guards said, “they can't take us--”

“No,” another guard said.

The first guard seemed flustered by that.  “No?” he asked.

“I'm sick of this,” the guard who'd said, “No.” said.  “I thought that joining Ravenna Ening's guild would help me level up, help me make connections with other players, make things more fun.  But this?

“Guarding someone else's treasure, fighting someone else's fights?  This isn't fun.  And what do I get out of it?  A sword that's obviously a hand-me-down,” he dropped his sword, “the privilege of riding a horse that runs away, 'quests' that are 99% boring and 1% getting ambushed.  No.  I'm, done.”  And he walked away.

“You don't walk away from Princess Rav Enning's service!” the first guard shouted.

“You'll have more fun if you find better companions!” Place shouted to the departing ex-guard.

“Yeah, this game seems like a lot of fun if people don't mess it up for you,” Joss said.

“They still can't take all of us,” the first guard said to the other four.

The ex guard shouted back, “Did you notice she has the sword of Elsanor?” and then continued to walk away through the woods.

Place drew the sword.  She glanced at Joss.  Joss was back to having a dagger and a gold chain equipped.  Place followed Joss's lead and equipped a gold chain as well.  It might be a simple strategy --tangle the enemy swords in the chain; strike fast and hard with the sword of Elsanor-- but it stood a good chance of working as well this time as it had before.

* * *

Jade sifted through the treasure in the abandoned cart until she found what she was looking for.  Then she laid out that magic carpet, and commanded it to rise.  Once she was on her way she said, “I'm coming knaves,” as if her enemies could hear.

* * *

Zita sent a healing spell in Wade's direction and stole a glance at Felix.  He was making progress but things were not, on the whole, going well.

She and Wade were slowly wearing down their opponents, but then those same opponents were slowly wearing down Wade and her.

She couldn't summon any more dimensional portals, she was out of elemental spells, she was spent when it came to illusions.  At this point it was all on her sword-fighting ability, and in that arena odds that ranged from four-to-one to nine-to-one (depending on how well Wade was doing) were not particularly good odds.

It was made worse by the fact that her present opponent seemed to be a good strategist.  To keep from being outmaneuvered in the sword fight she was being forced into a more and more precarious situation with respect to the sword mages constantly trying to pick her off.

One in particular was really starting to worry her.  She'd been able to evade so far but it was only a matter of--

The mage was hit by an unconscious chimera and was out of the fight.  Now she could devote more of her attention to the swordplay.

Jim or Tim, she wasn't sure which, said, “Hika-bika-bo.”

Zita shouted, “Hoosha!”

Feint, lunge, backpedal, sidestep, and she'd gained the blade.  It was only a matter of time.

* * *

Leela Place had dropped the last of the guards, which meant that it was time for Joss to get the magic carpet flying again.  So she went to work on just that.

Leela Place said, “I thought the cart you're supposed to be guarding was way back there.”

Joss looked, it was Jade again.  Joss followed her cousin's lead and said, “Our allies should be picking it clean as we speak.”

Jade threw a dagger.  Joss could see it wasn't going to hit her, and planned on ignoring the whole thing until she realized what it was going to hit.  The carpet was ruined.

“Oh come on!” Joss said.

Leela Place said, “Joss, check the stats on that knife.”  Joss picked up the dagger and looked at the item description.  She heard Leela Place say to Jade, “We're almost there anyway, taking out the carpet was a pointless waste of a good floor covering.  We'll walk from here.”

Joss was impressed by what she was reading about the item.  It had the longest description of any item she'd checked so far.  It could dispel magic, it could be used in any number of rituals, it also seemed to say something about--

“Joss time to go,” Leela Place said.

“Stop running and fight!” Jade shouted.

Joss followed Leela Place in running toward their goal.

* * *

Wade was feeling worse and worse about the outcome of this mission.  There'd been a moment of hope when Zita vanquished the enemy she was sword fighting, but afterward Wade and Zita were still outnumbered seven to two and their allies had their hands full dealing with the six remaining monsters.

Wade had no magic left in him, the same seemed to be true for Zita, Felix had slowed down considerably, and the twins, who'd only just arrived, were starting to show strain.

* * *

“Sorry we're late,” Place said; “we kept on getting interrupted.”

She rounded the unguarded back of the dragon-cart and assessed the situation.

Jim and Tim were fighting a large flying walrus.  Felix was faced off against an undead moose.  All three were distracted from their own fights by trying to keep four other creatures --a living oil monstrosity, a gryphon, a large slimy alligator-esque creature, and a tentacled mass with no apparent overall form-- from focusing on Wade and Zita.

Jim, Tim, and Felix were closer to the front of the cart, with Wade and Zita further back, closer to Place and Joss.

Wade was faced with three guards in plate armor and . . . barely managing to not get killed.  He wasn't even damaging them at this point.

Zita was fighting four and she was doing better than Wade, but it was clear that even if she took one or two with her she'd lose in the end.

“Help Wade!” Zita shouted.

Place headed off to do that when Joss grabbed onto her arm.  Place said, “We have to--”

“I know how to win,” Joss said.

“How?” Place asked.  Things were looking pretty bad.

Joss held up the dagger Jade had thrown at the carpet, “I did like you said.”

Place wasn't sure what to make of that, but that was when Jade showed up.

“No where to run knaves!” Jade shouted, she was close, but she hadn't rounded the cart yet, so she was out of sight.  When she did come into sight she obviously saw the fight that was going on because she said, “Damn.”

Place looked at Joss and said, “Whatever you're going to do, do it quickly,” then drew her sword, equipped a gold chain, and got ready to fight Jade.

Jade, for her part, stowed the magic carpet she'd been using and drew her sword.

* * *

The gryphon was starting to lose interest so Felix threw a rock at it.  Then he hid behind the zombie moose he was devoting most of his energy to fighting.

It seemed like a good idea, but a moment later --when the gryphon missed him and carried off the moose instead, leaving nothing between him and the other monsters-- Felix wondered if maybe hadn't thought that through quite as much as he should have.

As the slime alligator-thing started towards him he shouted, “Jim, Tim!  Help!”

Two things came flying out of the sky.  The first was a rock that the slime alligator-thing mostly ignored.  The other was a bottle that shattered in front of Felix.  Suddenly he was engulfed in impenetrable fog.

“Thanks!” Felix shouted.  He searched the nearby ground for a rock --not the easiest thing when he couldn't see-- and when he found one threw it where he thought he remembered the tentacle creature being.  Then started moving elsewhere in case it decided to retaliate.

* * *

Joss ran passed the combatants, her eyes scanning the cage on top of the giant cart as she did.  She ducked a pass by the gryphon, realized that one of the guards who had been fighting Wade had decided to follow her, and still hadn't found what she was looking for.  She kept running.

* * *

“So you're finally going to fight me?” Jade asked.

“Nah,” Place said.  “I'm going to pretend to fight you in order to distract you from what's really important.”

“Your mouth isn't going to get you out of this one,” Jade said as she approached with her sword drawn.

“I'm completely serious,” Place said.  “Today I'm a distraction.  Have been since before we met.”

Of course in the beginning there had been a plan that didn't quite have this ending in mind.  Right now she just had to trust that Joss's plan, whatever it was, would work.

* * *

“Come on; come on,” Joss said.  “Where's the--”

And then she saw it.


It had been a bit of a gamble from the start, but she assumed that the cage hadn't been built around the dragon with the intention of being torn apart again once they delivered the dragon.  That meant some kind of door, even if the door was an entire side of the cage that could be removed.

A door meant a lock, otherwise the dragon would be able to push the door open and escape.

Now came part two of her gamble.  It made a certain amount of sense to her for what held the cage physically closed to also be what held it magically closed.  If that were true then the lock would also be, or at least be near, the heart of the magic that prevented the dragon from breaking out.

As she got closer to the lock she saw that the blue glow of the magic was strongest there.

She shoved the dagger into the lock.

At first nothing seemed to happen.

The guard that was chasing her caught up.

She dodged a swing from his sword, converted the dodge into a roll, pulled out her daggers and ended in a fighting stance at the guard's side.  The guard had to backpedal and spin to avoid being left open to attack and hit the cage.  The magic of the cage threw him forward, Joss dodged again, and commented, “I guess the spell does more than contain fire.”

In fact she'd hoped that was the case.  The problem was, her other hope wasn't working out.

The guard got up, took a different stance --one that seemed more serious to Joss-- and Joss resigned herself to needing to fight him.  Then she caught a hint of a blue flicker.

She backed up a bit and waited a moment.  It flickered again.  Then the blue glow stopped altogether.  The guard didn't seem to notice.  Joss, however, was pretty proud of herself and evaded the guard's charge by jumping into the dragon's cage.

“What the hell?” the guard said.

Joss moved to retrieve the dagger, only exposing her right arm on the outside of the cage.  Once she had it, she said, “The Emancipabo Dagger: dispels magic; gets a massive bonus when it's confining magic.”

“What?” the guard said.  It sounded more like an expression of confusion than an actual question.

“Cry freedom and let Jubilee echo throughout the land,” Joss said more loudly.  The dragon noticed her.  Good.  She jumped out of the cage.  She climbed back into the cage.  She climbed back out.  All while the dragon watched.

“Come on,” she said to the dragon, “you have to get this.”

The dragon let out a small, tentative, breath of fire.  The fire went through the cage bars above Joss's head.

“You got it now,” Joss said.

The dragon roared.

Joss figured that cutting through the cage would get her back to her friends more quickly than going around, so she did that.

* * *

Place had known that she'd lose in a straight fight with Jade, that's why she had been avoiding one, but now she was buying time for Joss and that meant fighting a losing battle.

Place had lost her chains.  Sure, she'd been able to tangle Jade's sword in them, but Jade just yanked really hard and Place had to let go for fear of being pulled into an attack.  The sword of Elsanor helped, but one high stat weapon was no match for Jade's level.  Jade had power Place couldn't hope to match and being at a higher level meant that she had access to moves and abilities Place didn't.

Dodging was meant to be the great equalizer, so a knave could, in theory, dodge as well as a level 99 ├╝bermensch, but fights were not won on dodges alone and Place was running out of stamina, energy, and any other stats that might matter.

Jade tricked her into dodging right into a downward strike --Place cursed herself for not seeing the feint for what it was-- and had to block.  The force of the blow knocked her to her knee.

Then she heard a roar.

“What?” Jade said as she looked to the cage.

Place looked too.  The dragon had been silent all this time, why was it making noise now?  Then it hit her.  Apparently it hit Jade too because she shouted:

“The flame shield is down!”

She needn't have bothered.  The dragon spewed fire above the battle a moment later, which did a much better job of letting everyone know.

Joss shouted, “Everyone regroup on me!”

It took Place a second to figure out where Joss was, and a moment longer to realize that Joss had run through the dragon's cage.

Place took a moment to check on the others.  Wade and Zita had used to the distraction to get away from the guards.  Jim and Tim let go of the flying walrus and managed to land on their feet.  Felix was already on his way.

Confident that the others wouldn't have any problem getting to Joss, Place ran to regroup herself.

“Get back here!” Jade said.

There was a horrible sound.  Place risked a look back at the cage and saw that the dragon was ripping the cage apart.

* * *

Joss didn't stop running until she was at the edge of the woods.  She just hoped that the dragon's AI was sophisticated enough to mark her as “friend”, along with the rest of her party.

When she looked back the cage was in ruins.  The oil creature was on fire, the gryphon was fleeing, and the guards had been scattered.  No sign of the flying walrus or the mass of tentacles.

The dragon was flying free.

Wade was the last to arrive.  “My character's running on fumes,” he said.  His digital avatar was showing signs of exhaustion.

“We won, though, right?” Joss asked.

“Yeah,” Zita said.  “We won.”

The dragon roared overhead.

“You're welcome!” Joss shouted.

“So, what did you do?” Leela Place asked.

“Kind of wondering that myself,” everyone looked to see Jade.  None of them were really up for a fight, but there were seven of them and only one Jade.

“Everyone, meet Jade Fire,” Leela Place said.  “Jade, meet Zita, Felix, Wade, Jim, and Tim.”

Leela Place didn't bother preparing for a fight.  She collapsed to the ground then found a tree to lean against.

“You really do know Zita Flores?” Jade said in what Joss assumed was shock.

“Doy,” Leela Place said.

“Jade actually gave me the key,” Joss said.  She showed everyone the dagger.  They passed it around, each of them looking at its stats, when it came back to Joss she offered it to Jade.  “I'm guessing you want it back, and I'm not up for fighting for it.”

“Keep it,” Jade said.  Then she sat down against a tree.  “This was one hell of a session.”

“I think we ruined her day,” Leela Place said.  Joss could tell Leela Place was trying not to laugh.

“Look on the bright side,” Jim said.

“With all of the other guards beaten or scattered,” Tim said.

“You can take whatever treasure you want from the convoy,” Jim and Tim said together.

“There's gotta be some good swag in there,” Felix said.

“Might as well,” Jade said.  “Princess Enning is not going to be happy or forgiving when she finds out we lost the dragon.”

* * *

Place looked around.  She looked at her friends: Wade, Felix, Zita, her brothers, her cousin --maybe even Jade, given that the girl had stayed around rather than run or fight.  She was starting to make connections of her own.  This was something Kim would never have done.  This was all hers.

Joss whispered something to Wade and then he said, “Yeah, I can do that.”

A moment later a disembodied voice said, “We got Ringo and Ronnie Wood gonna help us out on this one, too.”

Then the music started, Bob Dylan sang:
They say everything can be replaced
They say every distance is not near
So I remember every face
Of every man who put me here

Too many voices to identify sang in the chorus:
I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released
. . .
* * *

“I like your taste in music,” Place said as she pulled off her circlet.  She was startled when there was someone standing over her in the real world, but she had enough control not to show it.

“Yori-san,” Place said.  “I wasn't expecting to see you out here.”

“I came to see if you were in need of anything Possible-san,” Yori said.  “Your eyes were glowing a most unusual shade of green.”

“Our eyes were glowing?” Joss asked.

Yori nodded.

Place closed her eyes.  “Yeah, one of the side effects of the VR method.  Sorry I forgot to tell you.  You should blink a bunch or just keep your eyes closed for a while.”

Place opened her eyes.  “Dry eyes are not happy eyes, you see.”

Yori offered her a hand, and she accepted the help getting up.  Then she offered Joss the same help.

The three began walking back to the main peak and the school.  Joss walked slightly ahead of Yori and Place.

“In addition to checking that you were well, Possible-san,” she said, “I wished to extend an offer to spar tomorrow.  It could be instructive to the students, would be entertaining to them even if it is not, and would give you an opportunity to practice your skills with partners who are not usually available to you.”

“If Hirotaka-san was any indication of the quality of Yamanouchi students,” Place said, “I believe I would lose quickly.”

“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Yori said.  “You will not be expected to answer until you have had a chance to sleep on it.  Part of why I came to meet you before you retired.”

Yori turned her attention to Joss, “The same offer is open to you as well, young Possible-san.”

“I . . . I don't know what ta say,” Joss said.

“You are not required to say anything,” Yori said.  “Was your meeting productive?”

“Um...” Joss was clearly lost.

“It was very productive,” Place said.  “We were able to remain in touch with three friends and two family members, meet a potential friend, and rescue an electronic dragon.”

“Your meetings sound a good deal more interesting than mine,” Yori said.

“Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing depends on the purpose of the meeting,” Place said.  “For my purposes today, meeting within an online game was productive.  In another situation it might be catastrophically wrong.”

“I was just along for the ride,” Joss said.

“She's being overly humble,” Place whispered to Yori.

“I can hear ya,” Josh said.

“Clearly my whispering technique could use some work,” Place said at a normal volume.

Yori actually laughed.

* * *

“You up yet cousin?” Joss asked Leela Place.

“I'm never up,” Leela Place said.  “If I ever claim to be awake it means I'm talking in my sleep.”

“You're a horrible liar,” Joss said.  “You're gonna miss breakfast if you don't get up.”

Leela Place grumbled, but eventually started moving to get up.  Josh said, “I'll leave you to make peace with mornin'; I'm gonna get some grub.”

* * *

Joss was wandering around in a way Yori interpreted as somewhat lost.

“Good morning Possible-san,” Yori said to Joss.

“Good morning Yori-san,” Joss said.  After a pause she asked, “Which way is breakfast?”

Yori smiled.  “This way, Possible-san.”

As she was leading Joss she asked, “Where is your cousin?”

“Uhh... comin' to grips with the fact that she needs to actually sleep sometimes if she wants ta be able to wake up in the mornin', I think,” Joss said.

Yori suppressed a laugh.  “An inability to recognize her own limitations is a trait she probably picked up from her sister.”

Joss nodded but she didn't seem to be fully paying attention.

“Yesterday she started talking about my team,” Joss said.

“I was unaware that you had a team,” Yori said.

“I don't,” Joss said.  “She was talking about my future team --if I decide to pursue world saving-- and suggested that it could include her brothers.”

“The composition of one's team is an important consideration,” Yori said.  While Yamanouchi tried to teach its students so that they would be able to operate alone, it was always considered a last resort.  In the field there were too many variables, and too many dangers, to be a lone operator.  Kim always had Ron and Rufus to watch her back.  Joss would need someone to do the same if she hoped to have success.

Joss remained silent.

“What's troubling you, Possible-san?” Yori asked.

“I want ta make a difference, and I'm willing ta put myself at risk ta do it,” Joss said, “but . . .”

When Joss was unable to complete her thought, Yori risked a guess, “You are less willing to put others at risk.”

Joss nodded.

They had reached the breakfast line.  Once they joined it --Joss ahead of Yori-- Yori said, “The desire to keep others out of danger is commendable, Possible-san.  However, you must also remember that respecting others' self-determination is important as well.

“What your cousins, any of them, do is up to them and not you.  Unless you think that they would be at notably greater risk than you would be, it would be unfair to deny them the choice you have made for yourself: whether or not to put oneself at risk,” Yori said.

Joss snatched rice and sushi from the lunch plate.

“If I'm team leader, though,” Joss said, “then isn't it my place. . .”

Yori had her own food, and Joss had yet to finish.

“In that case it would be your place to determine whether or not a given risk was too great for anyone on your team to take,” Yori said, “but again: it would not be your place to deny others a choice you give yourself.

“Obviously there are complications.  The same mission may not pose the same risk to two different people, and trying to gauge such a thing is inexact and difficult,” Yori said.  “Sometimes it is simple: I, for example, would be at far less risk undertaking a mission than one of my freshman students.  So a mission that would be an acceptable risk for me might not be for them.  Other times it is not so simple.

“If I needed to call on your cousin for help during her stay here, I would have great difficulty determining how much danger such a request could place her in.  It would be impossibly difficult to tell how that differed from sending her sister on an identical mission.

“There are no simple answers to these things, Possible-san,” Yori said.  “All of this is in the future, though, and dwelling on it will do you no favors.  There are more important questions you should ask.”

“Like what?” Joss asked.

“Do you trust the people who may be on your team?  Do they trust you?  Is that trust deserved?  Can you live with the mistakes that will inevitably be made?  Can they?  And most importantly of all,” Yori said, “what are you going to do today?”

Joss laughed.  “Is that truly most important of all?”

“There is nothing wrong with planning for the future,” Yori said, “but you must not let it distract you from the fact that you are always here, not there, and you are always living now, not then.”

“Thank you,” Joss said.

“So I've totally failed to drop any eaves,” Leela Place said as she joined them.  “Whatcha talking about?”

“I've been thinkin' 'bout what you said yesterday,” Joss said.

Leela Place asked, “What did I say yesterday?”

“About my team,” Joss said.

Leela Place closed her eyes.  A moment later she opened them and said, “Over dinner.”

“Yeah,” Joss said.

“Well . . . just remember that that was me talking,” Leela Place said. “What actually happens is up to you, Jim, and Tim.  Wade too, though I'm pretty sure he'd be willing to help you if you wanted his help.”

“If I may,” Yori asked.

“You may,” Joss and Leela Place said at the same time.

“Jinx, you--” they also said at the same time.

“So much for a free soda,” Leela Place grumbled, though when she finished there was a smile on her face.

Leela Place seemed to thrive on the interaction, but Yori had no idea what the soda reference was about.  Yori didn't try to make sense of American customs.  If they could accept whatever they saw as strange about her culture, she would accept the things she saw as strange about theirs.

“Why do you assume that Joss would be the leader of her eventual team?” Yori asked Leela Place.

“Jim and Tim seem content in supporting roles,” Leela Place said.  “Also Joss would likely be the primary combatant and the Possible tradition is for the person in the most danger to be the one who calls the shots.  That's why it's Team Possible and not Team Stoppable.”  After a pause she added, “Well, that and branding.  Ron really was cursed with a surname that doesn't make for a good team name.”

“It's a darn shame,” Joss said.  “The best I was ever able to do was call him 'The unstoppable Ron Stoppable,' and everyone just made fun of it.”

Leela Place looked at Yori then back at Joss, “I don't think you have to worry about people putting Ron down here.”

Yori knew that Leela Place was talking about her in particular, but the truth was that there were far more people here than just herself and Master Sensei who respected Ron.  “The first time Stoppable-san came here he had difficulty gaining acceptance, but he showed his heroism then and has helped the school since.

“I believe that the name Stoppable has gained the respect it deserves within these walls,” Yori said.  “I must attend to my morning class, I invite you both to join me.”

* * *

It was around noon when Yori reiterated the offer of sparing, and that accepting the offer would be seen as a favor since the students would be able to learn from observing it.

Place decided to take her up on it and soon they were preparing in a court yard.

Yori bowed to her.  Place bowed back.

Place circled counter clockwise and waited for Yori to either attack or show an opening.  Just as Place was about to have a decent shot from the side Yori lunged forward into what looked like a handspring.  Before Place realized that it wasn't --that Yori had reversed direction instead of continuing forward-- Yori's feet had almost hit her in a double kick.  Place dropped under Yori's legs and converted the downward momentum into a roll.  She ended up where Yori had started.

Place noted with a bit of satisfaction that Yori was a bit off balance for a moment, but the moment passed and they were back on their feet facing each other.

Yori had already made an attack, it was Place's turn.  The student's didn't need to be taught that waiting to attack until your opponent got so bored as to start an ill thought out attack was sometimes an effective strategy.  If the students were going to learn anything, the combatants would need to trade blows.  Or, at least, attempted blows.

Place faked a leg sweep, which Yori naturally jumped over.  In theory that would have placed Yori right in line with the punch that was to be Place's main attack.  In theory.  In practice, Yori blocked the blow in the air with enough force to expose Place's back, which combined with the less than solid stance that resulted from the fake sweep meant that Place had to drop to the ground just to avoid being a completely open target.

* * *

As Joss watched Place and Yori fight, an activity that seemed to consist entirely of near misses, she made note of the various moves the two combatants used, and occasionally acted out ones that she knew well.

She gradually became aware that she wasn't alone in doing so.  All of the students, some of the teachers, and the lunch woman were watching.  Some of them were doing exactly what she was doing.

* * *

“Don't you ever get tired?” Place asked.

“Do you?” Yori asked.

“Yes,” Place said.  “So very much: yes.”  She walked to a wall of the courtyard --the spectators made a hole for her-- and let herself sink to the ground with her back against the wall.  “Someone bring me water.”

Yori let herself collapse next to Place.  “Bring us both water, please”

“So. . .” Place said.  It took her a bit to push her brain passed that word.  “Who do you think would have won if we'd kept going?”

“I have no energy left, Possible-san,” Yori said.

“Ditto, Yori-san,” Place said.

“I hope ya'll ain't expectin' me to do that,” Joss said as she helped the students who were bringing the Yori and Place water.

“No, young Possible-san,” Yori said.  She drank some water and then said, “Each to their own abilities.”

“Yeah,” Place said.  “When I was your age I didn't exist.  Would have been truly unfair to expect me to do something like that back then.”

“You were never my age, cuz,” Joss said.

“My point exactly,” Place said.

* * *

“You realize we're both stupid, right?” Place asked Yori as they watched Joss show her skills to a teacher who was gauging who she should spar against.

“I'm sure that we both have many shortcomings,” Yori said.

“Each of us should have called off that fight well before it ended, especially after it became clear that the other wasn't going to do so,” Place said.

“I was caught in the moment,” Yori said, “as were you.  It is an oversight that we both must watch for in the future.”

“Yup,” Place said.

They watched Joss in silence for a bit.

“Do you think I fight like Kim?” Place asked.

“I believe that you fight like Leela Place Possible-san, cousin of Joss Possible-san, and friend of Yamanouchi,” Yori said.

“Good answer,” Place said. “But I'm not looking for my insecurities to be soothed, just an honest assessment.”

“You fight like you and your sister had the same teachers for many years,” Yori said.  “Nothing more, but also nothing less.”

Place nodded.  Joss was about done being assessed.  “I don't know what it means to be a friend of a school,” Place said, “but if you're willing, I'd be interested in learning what it means to be a friend of Yori-san.”

“I would like that, Possible-San,” Yori said.

* * *

While Joss and her opponent were prepared for her fight, Yori had a short time to talk to some of her students about her match with Leela Place.

“What did you learn from watching Possible-san and I fight?” Yori asked.  “Other than the fact that sometimes I do not know when to stop and, apparently, neither does she.”

“Outsiders can be as skilled as we are,” one student said.  Yori nodded.

“She isn't a master of any style, and still she matched you,” another student said.

That was the answer Yori had been looking for.

“Yes, Possible-san has learned, perhaps, as many as twenty styles of martial arts, but has not become a master of any,” Yori said.

“Based on a memory she believed that she would lose quickly, but in fact I never came close to defeating her,” Yori said.  “The reason for the discrepancy between her expectation and the reality was related to the number of styles employed.  In the memory the fight was limited to a single style of kung fu and my schoolmate, Hirotaka-san, won quickly and easily.  In the fight today she was free to draw on all of her knowledge and skill.

“What we do here is a form of rigorous training,” Yori said.  “We teach formal styles and strictly adhere to them.  It is not the only way to fight, however, and one certainly cannot expect their enemies to fight in the same way.  If you learned nothing else from the demonstration today, be sure to remember this: Possible-san is a master not because she has studied and mastered an existing style, but because she has created a style of her own that works for her.

“That is neither better nor worse than the way we teach here, and when your classes are over, you've graduated from this school, and moved on to using your skills in the outside world, it may turn out that her way of doing things fits you better than the way we have taught you,” Yori said. “If that happens it does not mean your time here was wasted, because what we teach you here is the clay from which you will form your own style, should you do so.”

“I'm sure you're all eager to watch the younger Possible-san,” Yori said.  “Go.”

* * *

Joss' sparring match was considerably less epic than the one between Place and Yori.  Joss displayed considerable skills --it was notable that she fought a second year student even though she was significantly younger than the youngest first year student-- and the match was probably as close as the match between Place and Yori had been, but it was overseen by teachers who knew better than to let the two fight to complete exhaustion.

* * *

“So, you've had a taste of what the students here are like,” Place said to Joss after the match. “Any new thoughts about the school?”

“I am totally going here if they let me,” Joss said.

Place smiled.  The enthusiasm was nice.  “Well, if you're so sure you might want to start learning Japanese, not to mention learning about Japanese culture.”

“I can do that,” Joss said.

“I'm sure you can, you've got a couple years to do it in,” Place said.  “There remains a question of what you'll do until then.”

“Whaddya mean?” Joss asked.

“Well, do you wait on the world saving until you get training here, or do you start up right away?” Place said.  “You can ask Jim and Tim to join you any time.  You don't have to wait.”  Place paused for a moment.  She remembered Montana.  Was it seriously only two days ago? “Though there might be good reason to wait.”

“Like what?” Joss asked.  “If you think I'm ready--”

“I do,” Place said.  “I was just thinking about water guns.”

“Water guns?” Joss was pretty clearly flummoxed.

“Remember the fun we had back at the ranch?” Place asked.

Joss nodded.

“Don't you dare throw that away,” Place said.  “If you do decide to start getting into the hero business when you're still a kid always make sure you allow yourself to be a kid.”  Place paused again, this time just to collect her thoughts.  “It would be a tragedy if you stopped having fun for the sake of fun because you were in too much of a hurry to do great and notably noble things.”

“You think Kim grew up too fast,” Joss said.

“I think that shooting you with a squirt gun was the most fun I can remember having,” Place said, “and I don't want you to miss out on that kind of fun.  I especially don't want you to miss out on that because of something I said or did.”

“I shot you more than you shot me,” Joss said.

“Did not,” Place said.

“Did too,” Joss said.  Then before Place could respond, Joss said, “And, cuz, if I'm supposed to do kids' stuff. . .”

“Yeah?” Place asked.

“Tag,” Joss said as she lightly hit Place, “you're it.”

Joss bolted.

“I'm still tired from fighting. . .” Place said.  Place had wanted to shout, but she wasn't in the mood or frame of mind for it and thus the words came out as an exasperated phrase Joss would never hear.  “Aw hell,” Place said.  She ran after Joss.

* * *

“I've had rebellious students before,” Master Sensei said, “But I believe that this was the first time the entire school was overrun by a game of tag.”

Place wanted to be apologetic.  Unfortunately her emotions weren't in the right place for that.  She chuckled.  “I guess I'm a bad influence.”

“Do you recall when Ron, Yori, Kim, and I went over a waterfall?” Master Sensei asked.

It wasn't hard to dig up the memory.  While the others had grabbed onto physical things to stop themselves from falling, Master Sensei had simply levitated.  Ron had called it, “That mystical floaty thing,” and after hearing that Master Sensei had started to do random maneuvers with no practical purpose.  Ron had concluded, “Ok, now he's just showing off.”

“I enjoy fun as well,” Master Sensei said.  “I believe that is what 'fun' means.”

Place nodded.  “Something like that.”

“I have meditated on what I observed in the shrine yesterday,” Master Sensei said.  “My conclusion is that you are not currently under any magical influence, and you are no more at risk of such influence than anyone else.”

Place bowed, “Thank you, Master Senesei-sama.”

“Now that you know your hopes were correct and your fears were not,” Master Sensei said, “what do you plan to do?”

“Make my way back home,” Place said, home being the lair, “perhaps meeting people on the way.  I'd prefer that people close to Kim learn of my existence from me, rather than a news report or gossip.”

“If you would like to travel home via Florence,” Master Sensei said, “I believe I can arrange transportation to get you that far.”

For a long time Place didn't know what to say.  Finally she said, “Florence is good.”



  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, I really can't overstate how much I appreciate feedback.

      Especially on something like this where it's been ages since the last installment and get to I feeling like I lost my touch.

  2. Seconding DawnM. I especially liked Master Sensei's line about what 'fun' means. :)