Ch. 1 part 8

-A last stand for Venus- part 8

1.

(2 weeks later...)

The old house had become quiet and sullen since they had left, nothing seemed the same without them.

It occurred to her that it was once again just herself and the old woman- alone. There was nothing to put if off any longer, she had to confront Ms. James. They needed this time, this space, alone together. They needed to talk.

San pulled away from the window facing the backyard in the parlor and looked into the sweet smelling kitchen across the sofas. She smelled an aroma of sugar cookies, they smelled sweet and warm, San swallowed hard and rose to her feet.

"Ms. James?" she called softly.

There was a clattering of dishes and then an embarrassed laugh. "Silly me," she could hear the old woman scolding herself, followed by more scraping sounds on the floor. San stood frozen by the window with her hand just on the windowsill. She hung her head after a while and peered at the forlorn green woven rug by the corner of the room.

Chip could've at least said goodbye, she thought gazing at it sadly.

"San? Did you call me?" came Ms. James in the kitchen.

"Yes," said San walking delicately past the sofas, as if there were still bodies seated in them watching television and not wanting to be disturbed. She went into the kitchen and stood there by the cabinets.

Ms. James was waving a gloved mitten hand over a pan of freshly baked cookies. "Don't they smell wonderful?" she was saying happily. "Finally I can catch up on my baking! With all of them here I did not have the time or energy..." she said absently.

Them, she thought with a heavy heart. She treated the word so casually, that word still filled a little empty spot in her chest. It wasn't as raw and big as before a week earlier, but it was still there. Despite herself, she missed them all.

"I've made the dough for potpies," said Ms. James running over to the sink and washing her hands. "Will you help me make them tonight?" she looked over her shoulder. "Do you want a potpie? If not, I can make something else!" she smiled and turned her head, resuming with cleaning her hands.

"A potpie will be fine," she said as cheery as she could, although she did not feel cheery at all.

Ms. James turned off the water and faced San wiping her hands on her apron. "Want a taste?" she nodded over at the cookies.

"Not hungry," said San meekly.

Ms. James smiled again and undid the apron around her waist. "Very well," she said brightly. "I'll leave them out to cool," she was looking at the cookies again. "They smell wonderful, don't they? Ah, how I've missed baking in that old oven!"

The house was finally empty and all Ms. James could think about was baking.

"Ms. James," said San quietly, Ms. James did not seem to hear her.

"How about we rent some videos at Blockbuster?" said the old woman laying the apron by the stovetop and smiling at her. "We could rent a whole bunch of movies and eat our potpies by the TV, how does that sound?"

San nodded vaguely and looked at her shoes.

"San...?" asked Ms. James after a few seconds of silence. "What's wrong?" she asked coming over and putting a hand on her shoulder.

San did not look up from her shoes. She felt the stinging sensation of tears in the corner of her eyes but she did not let them fall.

"San?" asked Ms. James patting her shoulder. "What's wrong, love? Why are you acting so down all of a sudden?" she hooked her pointer underneath her chin and tilted her face up to hers.

Looking in her blue eyes only made not crying even worse. "I love you, Ms. James," she said swallowing hard.

Ms. James looked concerned and touched at once, "I love you too, San...but what is the matter? What's wrong with you, you look ready to cry!"

"Because I...am..." she said and lowered her eyes as a tear coursed down her cheek.

The old woman sighed and hugged her, "Why? What's wrong?"

"We've never talked about it," she said hugging her tightly. "But we're going to have to mention it sooner or later, Ms. James."

"Mention what?" Ms. James pulled back and caressed her face. "What?" she asked gently with a worn smile.

San wiped her eyes and held the old, gnarled hand of the woman. The old house felt warm and comforting, like it always had, but today it seemed less reassuring.

"Let's sit down and talk," said Ms. James pulling on her hand and seating her in the unlighted room of the parlor. The only light was the sun glinting stripes of pale light across the walls and floor from the blinds. "Tell me," said Ms. James after San had sat next to her. "What's been bothering you, love?"

San looked away from Ms. James' kind face and at her clasped hands. "It's just that...no one is here now, and so it would be easier to..." she looked at her. "Talk."

The old woman inclined her head and smiled, "You can talk to me whenever you want, San, you know that."

"Yes," she kept her eyes trained on her hands. "I know, it's just that we've never talked while all the rest of them were here."

Ms. James waited.

San took a deep breath and continued, wiping her eyes again and swallowing hard. "I tried to forget, maybe like you had," she confessed. "But I can't, I think about it all the time. It makes me sad."

"What does?"

More tears filled her eyes and she looked back at Ms. James. "I love you so much, Ms. James. More than anyone in the whole world..."

The old woman smiled and patted her cheek.

"I...don't want to lose you," she wiping her tears with the back of her hand. The tears brushed against her lips and she was able to taste their salt.

"San..." Ms. James murmured quietly.

"You have cancer, Ms. James!" she cried looking back at her hands and sniffing to keep herself from acting a baby. "I did some research on it...there is no cure..."

"Yes, love, I know," said Ms. James in a quiet voice.

"I don't want you miserable and sick, Ms. James, I want you to be healthy and happy. I want you to be with me-!" she looked back at Ms. James and saw that the old woman's eyes were shining as well.

"I am happy, San, and I will always be with-" but she did not let her finish.

"Don't say that, Ms. James," said San standing suddenly and looking at the window. "You're going to sound just like everyone else," she said quietly.

"Everyone else?" Ms. James asked confused.

"They always told me that I'd always be with them, that they'd never leave me- but then they lied, I did leave, I always left. Whenever I start to like someone, whenever I start to really feel like part of a family, something happens! Something always happens and I'm taken away and thrown into another family."

"San..."

San clenched her fists and shook her head, "This time I thought it would last! This time I thought that for sure...nothing could keep us apart...but I was wrong again! I'm going to have to go to Maine, Ms. James."

"San, we can work this out with-"

"No, I know it won't work," she cried looking back at the rigid old lady sitting on the sofa. "They're going to split us up...they're going to take me away from you, just like all those other times."

"I won't let them, we'll fight."

"We won't win," she cried and did not bother to wipe away the next tear. "I know what they'll say," she said. "They're going to say that you're in no condition to raise a growing kid like me and they'll place me back in Maine."

"Come here," cried the old woman pained with outstretched arms.

San slumped to her knees and buried her face in Ms. James' cotton old shirt that smelled of her potpourri spices and sugar cookies. "It isn't fair, Ms. James!"

"I know it isn't," said the old woman patting her back. "But we can work this out, I know for a fact that I'm not losing you. You're my angel," she said.

San looked up in her face, "Me...? Your angel?" she asked.

"The sweetest angel there ever was," said Ms. James with a sad smile and a quick kiss on her forehead. "My angel, San."

San's eyes welled up with tears just as fast Ms. James' eyes were gathering up.

"I love you, Ms. James," she cried resting her cheek in her lap.

"I love you too, my angel..." she replied.

...

"He never plays anymore," she said absently as she looked out to the window. "I haven't heard him play in such a long time..."

"Have you?" murmured the crooked old woman swaying back and forth in the rocking chair, her crochet in her lap, her head bent over her work.

"No," San looked away from the window with a sigh. "I've been listening out of my window every night, but I never hear him play." She paused and then smiled, an idea suggesting itself into her head. "Maybe I'm asleep when he decides to play!" she cried.

"Maybe so," said the old woman looking up with a sudden smile and then peering back into her crochet work.

San nestled in her seat with another discontent sigh. "The Mysterious sound-maker should play at a decent hour, don't you think, Ms. James?"

The old woman nodded absently still rocking back and forth in the chair.

"I wish I could see him," she sighed longingly. "I would love to tell him how much I love his music! Oh Ms. James, if only you could hear him play!" she cried looking at the rocking woman. "He's a wonderful musician, he truly is! He plays such beautiful songs, Ms. James, he's so great!"

Ms. James looked up and smiled at her again. "Is that so?" she asked in her old croaking voice. "Tell me," she said and began crocheting again. "What's so great about him?"

"His music!" cried San smiling from ear to ear. "I felt like crying after hearing his songs!" she said with a firm nod when Ms. James looked up again. "They're very moving."

"Are they?" she sounded amused.

"Yes!" she cried insistently. "Do you know who he is?" she asked suddenly. "You've lived in this neighborhood longer than I have," she said leaning over in her seat. "Don't you hear the music at night?"

Ms. James looked up not saying anything. She rocked back and forth with an amused smile on her face but did not answer. "Yes, I have heard him play...once, anyway," she said chuckling and looking back at her crochet after a while.

"Really?!" cried San bristling with excitement. "What is he like?!" she asked.

The old woman chuckled again and when she looked up there was a twinkle in her eye. "What instrument does this Mysterious sound-maker play?" she asked.

"I...can't describe it," she confessed. "It sounds like..." she paused and averted her head to the ceiling in pensive thought. "It sounds like water...and sometimes it sounds like the wind..." she smiled shyly and looked away from Ms. James' incredulous expression. "I can't describe it, but I know it has a rich kind of sound to it," she said.

"Like the wind and water, eh?" laughed Ms. James lowering her crochet and laughing heartily. "You mean you do not know?" she said and smiled with her eyes.

San shook her head, "I wish I did. It's a lovely instrument," she said.

Ms. James was chuckling to herself and began rocking back in the rocking chair.

"But you said that you've heard him," she said quickly. "Have you?"

"I think I know whom you're talking about," said Ms. James looking up with those gray and blue eyes. "But, I could be wrong."

San pursed her lips and settled back in her seat. "Who is the person you speak of?" she asked curiously as she gazed out the window.

"Ah," sighed the old woman with a knowing smile and nod of her head. "I don't think he'd appreciate me telling you," she said with a faint smile on her lips.

She watched her with a twang of annoyance. "Who is he? You're saying that I know him?" she asked.

Ms. James shook her head and continued rocking, "Never mind I brought it up, dear," she said.

"Does he live next door?" she asked her. "You know the Mysterious sound-maker?"

"I don't think I do," she said faintly. "But I could be wrong, San," she said and looked up briefly. She smiled at her.

San made a face and sighed. "I guess I shall never know who he is," she said sadly while gazing at her feet.

Ms. James laughed softly, "Maybe so, maybe not," she said absently.

"I guess it is better that I don't know who he is," she said looking up at her with a slow smile. "I'll probably be disappointed," and San giggled.

Ms. James looked down in her crochet smiling knowingly to herself but not saying anything more.

...

"Hey? Where is Droops?" asked Derek eying her shrewdly.

"What?" she looked down at him absently.

"And that German guy, where is he?" he asked.

"They went home," confessed San sitting in a seat and rearranging her books and backpack. "But they'll be back after some time, I hope."

Derek leaned in his seat with a sly sort of smile forming over his face while San watched him. "So...he won't be back for a while, eh?" he asked smiling wickedly.

"I guess," said San with a suspicious snort. "Why?" she asked him.

Derek's eyes flashed suddenly and showed her a toothy grin. "No reason," he said and looked out of his window.

What is he so happy about, she thought with a snort. He better wipe that smile off of his face, Shou Lang and Salem will be back!

The bus lurched with a start and started toward school.

...

"Had a good weekend?" asked Ms. Walton as she crossed through the gym doors.

"Fine," she murmured quietly.

Ms. Walton was peering curiously around her shoulder, "Hey!" she cried looking around. "Where are your friends that you always have around you?" she asked and then looked curious and wondering in her face.

"They went home," said San adjusting her backpack on her back. "They'll be back in a while though," she said.

"They've been gone for a while now," said Ms. Walton. "I hope they return back to school," she said and smiled.

San gave her a half-hearted smile in return and ducked past her into the locker room. She was greeted by a bunch of stares.

"Not here?" one of them asked.

"No," said San and a little annoyed this time. "I told you last week, they went home!" she said and opened her locker. "Are you holding your breath until they get back or something?" she muttered.

"That's too bad," said the girl sadly. "Do you know when the Australian kid will get back?" she asked.

"How would I know?" she retorted bitterly.

"Are you going out with the German guy?" asked another girl applying deodorant to her armpit.

"No," she said changing her shirt.

"I thought you two were going out!" exclaimed another girl with long curly black hair. "You two are always walking together in the halls."

"No," said San again changing into her shorts. She kept her back securely against the locker like she always had.

"Oh," said the first girl without an expression. "So...both of them are single?"

"How many times do I have to tell you that they aren't?" asked San slipping on her shoes and shaking her head. "Salem doesn't have a girlfriend, but Shou Lang does."

"Who is Shou Lang?" asked a blond girl.

San was even more irritated. "The Australian one, Ok?" she tied the laces to her shoes with her lips pursed.

"Don't get an attitude," said the longhaired girl with a frown. "We're only curious!"

"If you really want to talk to Shou Lang or Salem just do so when they come back," she said tying the laces to her other shoe with a snort.

"Do you think he'll find me pretty?" asked the blond girl with a stupid smile on her face.

"Sure," lied San with a suddenly amused smile on her face. "I'm sure that they'd both find you very attractive!"

...

"Finally, school is over," breathed San taking out her backpack from her locker and sighing relieved. "I want to go home!" she said shutting it and looking around the teeming hallway.

All of a sudden she felt a hand enclose around her wrist, she turned over her shoulder and stared into the pretty eyes of Ms. Smith.

"Ms. Smith-!" she cried out surprised.

"Hello, San," she said with a languid smile. "I just want you to give a little message to your friend," she said and squeezed her wrist. "He hasn't seen the last of me."

San, arrested with fear could not go no further than swallowing hard and blinking.

"You can tell him that for me, will you?" she asked with a pleasant smile on her lips.

San swallowed hard and stupidly nodded her head.

"Good girl," she cooed and released her. "You too, my dear, will be seeing a little more of me as well," she placed her hand on her shoulder and smiled at her. "Alright?"

San was choked with fear and could not speak.

Ms. Smith pulled her hand away and turned on her heel waving at her, "Until then, you have a good rest of the day, alright?" she waved and turned, disappearing into the crowd of bustling teenagers.

San stood frozen in place and then self-consciously dropped the pen in her hand.

2.

"To think that one day I would spend the rest of my days side by side with one of the most feared demons in all of history!" laughed Chip on top of his shoulder.

"To think that I'd have a mere rat as my companion," he said and shook his head.

Chip laughed heartily at that, and he smiled.

He shook out the logs in his arms and stood staring at the pile of wood with a frown on his face. "That's the third time I've done this today," he said and shook his head.

"What?" asked Chip who had scampered near the smoldering ashes.

He turned and gave Chip an irritated stare, "Brought firewood!" he cried and shook his head again with a long sigh. "I've gone mad!"

"How so? Why don't we need firewood?" he asked.

"Not this much," he said and sat by the wisps of smoke piling away from the ashes by his knees. "I guess I'm so used getting firewood for a camp," he said. "Not like we're setting up a camp," he said.

"Yeah..." said Chip gazing into the dying ashes.

"It's that dumb girl..." he said absently and had not realized he had said that thought out loud until Chip whipped his head around looking at him.

"What?" he asked.

"Nothing," said Shou Lang testily. "I was thinking out loud, that's all!"

"You mean, about San," said Chip with a smile forming on his face.

"Yes," he said and snarled at him, "I was thinking about how used I was for setting camp for her, that's all I was thinking," he said and glared at the ashes.

"I miss San," said Chip after a paused silence.

"Well I don't," he snorted and glared at the logs he had absently cut out. "I'm in no hurry to get back," he said. "Once I get back I'll have to fight with another demon," he sighed heavily and looked at Chip. "I wish they were all dead."

"Do you think Master is right?" asked Chip with trembling whiskers. "Could those demons be the beginning of the end?" he asked.

"Maybe," said Shou Lang with a sigh. "They will definitely be the end of San's world if we don't do anything about it," he said.

"Shou Lang?" asked Chip in the same small voice he had used yesterday, and the day after that, and the day after that.

"No-!" he said sharply with a firm shake of his head. "No we are not going back there," he said and crossed his arms. "If you want to return then go ahead," he said.

"But Shou Lang," protested the possum in a whining plea. "I miss San!" he cried.

"I don't care!" Shou Lang snapped at him.

"Shouldn't we go back?" he pleaded with him.

"Not just yet," snapped Shou Lang.

"Why not? I want to see them again! It's been months, and you haven't found what you were looking for since we got here!" argued Chip.

"Then leave," he said rather curtly.

"Come back with me," said Chip looking pained. "I want to see them again!" he said.

Shou Lang shot him a glare, "You give me this speech every night! Every night since we first left," he said and snorted.

"But Shou Lang-" Chip groaned.

"I don't want to hear anymore of it," he snapped cutting him off. "We are not going back until I find this crazy witch and talk to her, ok?"

"But you haven't found her, yet! And it has been months, Shou Lang!" cried Chip.

"Months?" he repeated, "I'd say a month and a half at the most," he said.

"More like two months!" shouted Chip crossing his arms over his little chest.

"It has not been two months," said Shou Lang through a snort.

"I want to see San! I want to see Ms. James!" cried Chip angrily and pouting.

"Then go and find them, I told you my plans," he said looking away from the sulky possum and into the bright sunshine. "The day is still out, you can find the well on your own, can you not?"

"Shou Lang!" cried Chip.

"I'm not leaving until I find this witch," he said.

"She's hunting you down, Shou Lang, why would she make her trail for you to find?" asked Chip smugly. "If you want to catch her shouldn't you let her come to you first since the both of you are searching for each other anyway?"

He made a face and snorted, "Like you know anything about tracking, rat!" he growled and gave him a sly yellow eye. "I'll find that witch," he said and sat a little straighter with a cocky sort of smile. "You'll see."

Chip was pouting and sulking, a dark gloomy sort of cloud had passed over his face as he sat with his arms crossed and his lips firmly pressed together. He resembled much of a little shrew to him, and it made him smile.

What a sulky little shrew, he thought with a smile. Pouting like a toddler, I wonder why I have not thought of Chip as a child, when in fact he is. He is only ten years, he thought amazed. Why have I not thought of this before? Why, Chip is a child, a child!

This fact simply stupefied him, he had not thought of Chip as a child only until now. He was fond of the little possum nonetheless, and the fact that he was just a child made his like for the sulky little rat to increase. He felt very attached to this possum, the same way an older brother would become attached to his younger kid brother. He felt an enormous responsibility settle over him, it was up to him to care for this pouting child of a possum and his well-being. He felt his natural instinct to protect turn inside of his chest, and realized that he would watch after the little possum if it killed him to do so. Maybe deep inside he felt some sort of brotherly bond with the possum and the responsibility that an older sibling would feel towards his other siblings as he felt with Chip.

He smiled and reached over to tousle the possum's bright red hair. "When I find this witch, we'll go back, Ok?" he asked through a grin.

Chip was still pouting but nodded his head.

...

"Come on, Nitro," he said rubbing the snout of his nodding horse. "Enough eating your oats," he said slipping his pack over his shoulder and smiling into his black eyes.

"How old is Nitro?" asked Chip settling on the horse's head.

Nitro snorted irritably but made no move to get the little possum off.

"I don't know," he answered rubbing Nitro's velvet cheek. "He's dead, you see," he said looking up at Chip with a shrug. "I guess when he was once alive he was about two or three years old," he said. "He's a young strong horse," he said and looked back into Nitro's eyes.

My horse, he thought giving Nitro's neck a final pat. Then he jumped up on Nitro's back and looked into the trees.

"Suppose the Witch of Dander went into the mountains?" he asked pressing his ankles on Nitro's sides.

Nitro started in a jolly little trot. He snorted and waved his head, anxious to run freely instead of trotting.

He gave Nitro an affectionate pat on the side of his long neck, "Settle down, my friend, we will run in a while..." and he looked back at Chip. "Do you suppose she went into the mountains looking for me?" he asked.

"I think we should go to Dander and find her, more than likely she is waiting there for you," said the possum.

"I disagree," he said eying the mountains in the horizon. "Hector told me that this witch was hunting for me! She wouldn't be waiting around in Dander," he said and shook his head. "What do you think, boy?" he asked looking leaning to look in Nitro's eye.

Nitro only snorted and pawed the ground with his hoof.

"Angry are you?" he laughed and sat straight. "I promise that we'll run, alright? Until then you must walk slowly, we still aren't sure where to go just this second."

"Angry?" repeated the wide-eyed possum. "How can you tell if Nitro is angry or not?" he asked wonderingly.

He laughed again and patted Nitro's neck, "Nitro is my friend, and my horse. I know him better than anyone," he leaned and gave Chip a wink. "Nitro understands me, and I understand him, I really cannot say," he looked back into the peaked horizon. "We can sort of read each other's thoughts and expressions, I guess," he said.

"Really?" asked Chip still wide-eyed and in awe, "So the legends are true!" he cried showing him his little teeth. "The black smoke horse was the noble steed of Lord Shou Lang of Ether forest!" he laughed. "I still cannot believe sometimes that I'm here!"

"What?" he looked down at him.

"With you," cried Chip shaking his head incredulously. "I mean, here I am with the most feared creature of all the forests!" he cried and looked awed and surprised in his yellow eyes. "You are a legend, Shou Lang," he said, "If only my poor folks could see me now!"

"They would think you've gone insane," snorted Shou Lang kicking Nitro's sides and breaking into a canter.

Chip's nails dug in his shoulder as he held on suddenly. "Whoa-!" he cried. "You've decided to go to Dander?" he asked him.

"To Dander?" repeated Shou Lang with a smirk. "I've decided to go to Dander, yes, but only to check things out over there!" he pressed his ankles more firmly against Nitro and snorting happily, Nitro galloped into the wind. "To Dander forest, my friend!" he yelled in Nitro's raised ear.

Nitro jumped high over a little ravine and galloped freely down the hills and fields ahead of them.

Shou Lang could not help but give in to the light airy feeling he felt inside. He was home at last, and he had missed home. He was glad to be riding once more on Nitro's back, to feel the wind whipping in his hair and to smell the grass and pines.

Home, he thought with a small smile. I'd give up anything to return to this-!

Dander forest was only a couple of miles away, 170 or 200 miles at the most. He knew that if he should cross paths with the witch he would have to prepare himself for a curse. He knew of her power and her rage, yet this time he could not understand what he had done to anger her. He had only met with the witch once, and that was with San.

What did I do to her? He thought puzzled as he rode in silence over a rocky and steep hill. Why would she seek help from Monde to find and kill me? I haven't done anything that I recall that would make her so angry with me...? Or have I?

"How far would you say we are from Dander?" asked Chip looking at him from on top of his shoulder.

"I'd say a good afternoon's ride away from here," he answered. "That isn't too long, why? Do you have somewhere important to go?"

"No," answered the rat stiffly. "I was only asking!"

"Of course you were," he said gripping tightly to Nitro's smoky and wispy black mane. "Faster, Nitro! Faster!" he whispered.

Nitro snorted with delight and started out in a faster burst of speed that made Chip wail in hysteria and cling to his neck.

He laughed and kicked Nitro's sides again. "That's it! Faster! Faster! Faster!" he cried over the roar of the wind sweeping past his ears. "NO! NO!" wailed Chip.

...

He slowed Nitro into a perky trot and looked around the silent pines and trees. He moved his horse on the pebbled path and started him out in a canter. Nitro followed the path obediently, all until they rounded a clearing and a vast open field.

"Stop," he said and Nitro halted with a snort.

"Look at the sun," whispered Chip tugging his sleeve. "It is a little after noon."

"Hush," he snapped.

Chip fell into meek silence.

It was the field that confused him, he did not recall it being there before. When he had last traveled into Dander, the path led to a little human village...but the village was gone and there was only this field!

What has happened, he thought looking around the grass and flowers. This isn't supposed to be here, he thought confused. Did they clear the area and make a new town somewhere else?

"What's wrong, Shou Lang?" asked Chip tugging on his sleeve again. "What is that look for?" he asked. "Why do we stop?"

"This was once a village," he said knitting his brow in puzzlement. "There was a human village once here where this open field is. I do not understand what has happened. This is Dander," he said sweeping out his arm to the vast open plains.

Chip gasped. "What do you mean by this is Dander? Dander was a small and busy little town for humans!" he looked eagerly in his face. "Do you think that this place was invaded by demons?"

"Perhaps," said Shou Lang and gave Nitro a little tap with his foot. Nitro cantered into the open field so he could get a better look. "This is absurd," he said looking around the swaying flowers and bushes. "This can't be Dander! Perhaps I've taken a wrong turn somewhere...?"

"Wait, Shou Lang-look!" breathed Chip pointing into the grass.

His yellow eyes flew in the direction of Chip's pointing finger. He gasped quietly to himself and then gave Nitro the signal to stop. He jumped off Nitro's back and stooped down in the grass staring at it with wide astonished eyes.

"Shou Lang?" called Chip, frightened and small on Nitro's back.

There in the grass was a doll, a human doll made of cotton and sewn together. The doll resembled a little girl with black hair and faded painted eyes and lips. The fabric of the doll's dress was worn and torn; yet he could still see the red outline of her mouth. Human hands he could tell made the doll, demons would not make such objects.

He looked back at Chip and then back at the doll. Splattered on the plain white dress was red, human blood. The doll's face was speckled with dots of red, blood, he figured. The doll's hair, made of horsehair, was red.

This doll must've been lying in pools of blood, he thought looking up from the doll and over the grass.

He stood up and began searching things. He found signs, broken pottery pieces, rusted iron beams and rotting blocks of wood. This was not what he had expected at all. He was confused even more at this.

"What do you think did this to these people?" asked Chip after a long while when the sun had dipped well into the horizon.

He gazed at Chip in thought, "It could have been demons, or maybe a human village killing another human village. It could have been anything," he said.

"Can't you smell anything?" asked Chip.

"No," he said looking into the setting sun. "It has been too long for me to tell," he said. "At least a year has gone by since whatever has happened," he thought out loud. "I think it was demons."

"Maybe the witch did this?" suggested Chip.

"I don't know," he shrugged and looked back at his horse and Chip. "This is all very confusing. How am I ever going to find that crazy witch now?" he asked and slumped in the grass.

"Shou Lang," said Chip jumping off of Nitro and on his shoulder. "She could be in the Dark Forest, we have not tried looking there..."

"I'm not going there," he replied flatly.

"Aren't you stronger than Monde?" asked Chip. "You can kill Monde, can't you?"

He smirked and shook his head, "No...I am not stronger than Monde, you idiot."

Chip gasped, "Then he must be really strong!"

"Shut up," he said shrugging him off his shoulder and glaring in front of him.

After a few moments of silence he felt something wet and sticky on the back of his neck, he smiled some and patted Nitro. "There, there, my friend," he said looking over his shoulder at his blinking black eyes.

Nitro gummed his hair and nuzzled the back of his neck again.

"Pig," snorted Shou Lang at once and threw his pack over his shoulder. "There are your oats," he said.

Nitro snorted happily and gorged inside his pack.

"What are we going to do now, Shou Lang?" asked Chip watching the sun sink lower in the trees.

"I guess we go back to San's world," he answered with a sigh. "I'm not going to waste my time hunting after her. Besides," he looked at Chip. "We have to finish helping San's world, don't we?" he asked.

"Should we get Salem and Kithara?" he asked with bright flickering green eyes.

"No," he answered standing up, I put them all in danger the last time, he thought to himself while standing and mulling over the grass.

"Why not?" asked Chip popping back on his shoulder.

"I don't need their help, that's why," he retorted sharply.

"I guess all demons are like that," Chip was saying. "They all split to their own separate ways, don't they?" he asked.

"Yes," said Shou Lang motioning Nitro away from the oats. "Most demons don't work together or form alliances," he said. "Salem, Kithara and I are rare, you don't find many demons working together."

"True," said Chip thoughtfully.

He scooped up his pack and over his shoulders. "I guess you'll be able to see your darling San again, eh?" he said giving Chip a gleaming pair of yellow eyes.

"Yes!" he watched Chip's whiskers tremble.

He rolled his eyes and jumped up on Nitro's back, "I guess that means goodbye, my friend," he said and rubbed his neck.

Nitro neighed softly, sympathetically and disappointed all at once.

"I'll see you again," said Shou Lang giving his sides a kick. "I have to come back anyway and find that witch," he said.

Nitro cantered out of the open field and back on the pebbled path.

"After I kill all the rest of the demons in San's world I'll come back, alright?" he asked as Nitro galloped past the path and back into the trees. "I'll even bring San, would you like that?" he asked.

Nitro nodded his head snorting happily at the sound of her name.

Silly horse, he thought and was a little irritated with Nitro. You're supposed to hate humans, he thought making a face.

"We're going back home!" laughed Chip dancing stupidly around Nitro's head and shoulders. "I'll get to see Ms. James and San again! Ha! Ha! Ha!" he laughed.

Irritated and disgusted he smacked Chip over the head. "Stop singing!" he said rolling his eyes and making another disgusted face. "What has gotten into you?"

Chip rubbed his head and stuck out his tongue, "You're just jealous of me and San, that's all it is!"

"Jealous?" he laughed and narrowed his eyes at him. "Why would I be jealous over San, and why would I be jealous over a twerp like you, anyhow, huh?" he asked.

Chip stuck out his chin with a gleeful smile on his mouse-like face. "You're jealous because when I go back I'll be able to sleep in San's bed again!" and he laughed.

Shou Lang's mouth curled and he bopped him on the head, "Enough of that!" he said sourly and glared at him. "This time, it'll only be you and I, Kithara won't be here to stop me from torturing you!"

Chip went pale but he kept his chin stubbornly poked out in the air, "You don't scare me anymore, Shou Lang! I know that if anything should happen to me, San will come to my aid and protect me!"

"Pretty sure of that aren't you?" he said slyly. "Well, we'll see. When we get back, let's just see how much protection you have over a guy like me!" he laughed cruelly looking into the setting sun.

"You wouldn't hurt a hair on me!" Chip gloated. "So I am very safe!" he said.

"Oh yeah?" he asked and hit him on the head again.

Chip wailed and rubbed his head, "I'll tell San that you're hurting me!" he cried in his squeaking mouse-like voice.

He grinned and rolled his eyes again. "Go ahead, I'm sure she could really straighten me out."

3.

(The beginnings of Venus's comeback)

"I hate how all of the girls at school keep asking for Shou Lang," she cried bitterly while she looked at Ms. James. "It is so annoying!" she cried.

Ms. James shrugged, "Shou Lang is quite handsome, I guess it is expected," said the old woman and smiled kindly at her.

"Not really!" said San crossing her arms over her chest and snorting bitterly.

"You don't think so?" asked Ms. James looking up from her book.

"No way!" she said fiercely and shook her head vigorously and angrily. "There is nothing remotely cute about Shou Lang!" she said and looked at the ceiling dully. "He's such a show off and he acts like he's so cool all the time!" she snapped. "I don't see what they see in him, if they could only listen to him for one day they'd know how he really is!"

"Well...he did look out for you with Ash and all," said the old woman flipping a page in her book.

"Yeah..." she said slowly. "But only because he wants me for the navigator," she said more energetically. "You heard him when he left us!" she cried bitterly.

"Shou Lang is a sweet boy, San," said Ms. James with a smile.

"Sweet?! Maybe to you," she cried throwing up her hands and rolling her eyes. "Shou Lang is the total opposite of sweet!" she cried.

Ms. James was smiling, "Deep down he's a nice boy, San, why are you so hard on him all the time?" she asked.

"Nice boy?!" repeated San squirming in her seat. "That's an oxymoron!" she cried.

"He really does care for you, you know," said Ms. James looking back in her book. "Trust me, I know him, if he did not care he would've let you be killed already. He may seem like an uncompassionate person, but he isn't, not really..."

She made a face, "I still don't understand why those girls at school won't leave me alone!" she cried. "If they like him so much, why don't they just ask him to date them?! Why do they treat me like some messenger?"

"They might be shy," said Ms. James. "Shou Lang is very imposing..."

"No he's not," she snorted. "He only acts that way! I bet, if some girl slapped him at school he'd probably start crying." And then she laughed at what she had said and looked over at Ms. James and found her laughing as well.

"That'll be the day!" laughed Ms. James wiping a tear from her eye.

She couldn't picture Shou Lang crying over being slapped, the idea tickled her tremendously. Shou Lang would probably kill the girl rather than cry over it!

"San, San," chuckled the old woman flipping over a page in her book and shaking her head. "Anyway," she looked up from her book and smiled. "Although you say all this now, you'll be happy to see him when he finally gets back," she said.

San shrugged and settled back in her seat. "I won't be happy, just relieved. Ms. Smith scared me at school today, I think she's up to something."

"Maybe," said the old woman turning serious.

"When he's here it's like having a personal bodyguard around, isn't it?" she asked and laughed.

"I guess so," said Ms. James. "But when he's here, to me, it is like having my grandson over."

San winced and fell back in her seat surprised. Grandson? She thought and looked at her feet. Ms. James likes Shou Lang that much? Does she really think of him as her grandson?

"I know," said Ms. James as if reading her thoughts. "But you don't know Shou Lang the way I have," she said. "I've known him since he was a small child," she said and smiled. "He was a charming boy then, he helped me escape from Monde, you know," she said.

"I know," she said. "Shou Lang and Master Urdu helped you."

"Yes," and the old woman turned another page in her book. "You see, you shouldn't judge him so harshly. You have to remember that he has demon blood running through his veins." She sighed at once and slumped more in her seat, "In a way, I feel sorry for Shou Lang. He tries to be good, but at the same time he does bad...almost cruel things."

She remembered the piles of hunters in the forest and shuddered, she also remembered cleaning off the blood on the floor and walls of her very own house. She thought of all the blood she had to clean and shuddered again.

That was only two weeks ago.

"He can be very mean at times, yes," she said thinking back to the time when Shou Lang had turned into the large white beast in the forest. "...It must be hard for him," she had not meant to say that but somehow it had slipped out of her mouth.

Ms. James looked at her and she quickly ducked her head away and looked away, she felt her face heating up and could not understand why.

"Anyway," said San switching subjects uncomfortably. "He's still a jerk and that does not excuse his cocky attitude all the time!" she cried quickly.

"Well," said Ms. James in her usual languid way, "He is a boy, and boys are cocky, you must understand that in Shou Lang's world he is considered a legendary god." She laughed suddenly and looked up from her book. "I remember staying in a human village by the dunes, you know what village I'm talking about?" she asked.

The dunes, she thought trying to remember, and she did finally. "Yes!" she said brightly. "That is where Shou Lang killed Snake," she said.

"The girls there thought Shou Lang was the most beautiful and powerful force that ever walked the planet," and she laughed. "And at that time he was only nine or eleven years old!"

"What did he look like at eleven?" she asked.

"Oh dear," said Ms. James lowering her book so it was lying neatly in her lap. "That was a good thirty or forty years ago, San," she said. "At the time, in human years, he was eighteen or twenty years old...I suppose..." she said in absent thought. "I suppose he looked like any other boy that was nine or ten, I guess."

San sat back in her seat puzzled, she was trying to picture Shou Lang as a skinny little boy, but could not. "Was he skinny?" she asked.

"Skinny?" and Ms. James laughed. "Well, at that age he was..." she paused and placed her book on the table. "Let me see," she said and clasped her old hands together. "He was short, I could tell you that."

San laughed. "Shou Lang? Short? How short?" she asked.

"I don't know," said Ms. James. "Maybe around 5'1" or 4' 10"," she said and laughed with San. "But I wouldn't say he was skinny, he was more...well he was muscled, not as much as he is now, of course, but well muscled from training. He looked very boyish," and now she spoke deep in thought as if remembering something that was a long time ago. "He had longish hair, he had a ponytail like Chip does..."

She tried to see Shou Lang with a ponytail and being 4' 10".

"And his tail," said Ms. James with a laugh. "He had a little, bitty tail at that time. It was so cute," she said and laughed again. "He laughed a lot then," she said smiling at her as if seeing her for the first time. "He had a good childish looking grin," she said, "And he was so polite, very, very polite and courteous towards me, he was quite the little gentleman," she said.

"Shou Lang-a gentleman?!" cried San with her eyes popping out of her head.

"Oh yes," she said. "He was charming and courteous, he always smiled and always laughed...but that was a long time ago," she said and sighed. "I miss those days," she said.

"Shou Lang never laughs or smiles," she said. "I've only seen him smile or laugh once or twice," she recalled.

"Yes, well..." and Ms. James sighed looking away from her. "Those were different times, then. I guess growing up changes people."

"Growing up?" she repeated.

Ms. James looked at her and smiled quietly, "I still see Shou Lang as that little boy he was forty or thirty years ago," she said and smiled looking at her hands. "And in a way, he still is the way he was when he was younger, he just doesn't show it as much."

"Shou Lang could never be a gentleman!" said San.

"Maybe, maybe not," said the old woman with a sigh.

San sat back in her seat and looked at the blank TV screen pondering over what Ms. James had said.

A gentleman, she thought smugly, Shou Lang as a gentleman? That's a laugh! I guess growing up changes people a lot, she thought. I guess growing up for Shou Lang only made him worse.

They fell into silence again, Ms. James had started into her reading while San looked absently at the TV thinking. They stayed this way for a good ten minutes or so.

And all at once there was a crash and a thump sounding at the corner of the room. Both girls looked up from what they were doing and stared wide-eyed at the two figures standing at the top step of the trap door.

"Shou Lang-!" cried Ms. James in a startled voice as her book dropped to the ground with a loud thump.

San gasped and stood up.

And there they were, Shou Lang and Chip looking around the room with speculative eyes and blank expressions. All at once Chip's face was beaming, "Ms. James and San!" he squeaked happily.

Ms. James laughed and held her arms out, Chip jumped in them and she hugged him.

"You're back!" she cried running to the old woman and possum. "You guys came back!" she said giving Chip a hug as well.

She tossed a glance at the other silent figure rearranging the rug and shutting the trap door. It was Shou Lang. He was dressed as she had seen him last, blue pants and blue shirt with a piece of torn string around his waist and the black pack on his shoulders. He stood erect and looked at them, and then his eyes looking directly at her.

She did not know why she flushed and looked away, she did not know why she felt so shy and embarrassed all of the sudden. She hid her face in an embrace between her and Chip.

"Shou Lang," said Ms. James walking over to him and taking one of his hands. "Did you find what you were looking for?" she asked.

She looked away from Chip and gazed back at the old woman and Shou Lang. Shou Lang smiled partway and placed both hands on her thin shoulders. "Not exactly, but next time I will for sure!"

Ms. James smiled at him and turned to look at her, "Go get the cookies out of the refrigerator and microwave them! We must celebrate their return!"

She released Chip and went into the kitchen while listening to the run of their voices as they talked.

Despite herself she was pleased Shou Lang was back, this gave her a sudden jolt of surprise and nearly dropped the cookies. She was pleased that he was back? But why? She was just saying what a jerk he was in the parlor...

She pushed the plate of cookies in the microwave and pressed a button, and then she stood back and looked absently into the microwave.

About thirty seconds later she was opening the microwave door and taking out the moist sugar cookies that Ms. James had baked the other day. The aroma of sweet cookie dough wafted around the kitchen.

San smiled and breathed in their scent. No one makes cookies better than Ms. James, she thought and smiled down at the cookies in her hands.

She stood there with the plate in her hands for several seconds, gathering herself together, and then she started out into the parlor. She found the three of them sitting comfortably in the sofas and talking casually with each other.

Ms. James looked up as she entered the room, "Ah," she was saying. "Set them on the table, San," she said. "I'm so glad that we did not eat them all yesterday!" and she laughed with Chip.

San placed the plate on the table and stood back a while to grin at Chip. Then she looked around the sofas for an open spot. She found one by the old woman and sat down hesitantly and a little awkwardly. She looked at her hands.

"I'm glad that you're back," said Ms. James smiling at Shou Lang. "You were gone for an awful long time, I missed you!"

She looked up at Shou Lang and then looked back at her hands. Ponytail and 4' 10", she thought and hid a smile.

"Missed me?" Shou Lang sounded more curious than anything else. "Why? Was there a demon around here or something?" he asked.

Ms. James shook her head, "Of course not, you killed them all, didn't you?" she asked. "But anyway, there doesn't have to be a problem for us to miss you."

She took to account the word 'us'.

"The house isn't the same without you or Chip around," the old woman said looking over at San with smile. "Isn't that right?"

She looked at her hands but gave a faint nod of her head.

"We missed you," said Ms. James smiling at the both of them. "In fact, we were just talking about you, Shou Lang."

We? She thought pursing her lips and feeling her face warm up. We? We? We? Why does she use the plural...?

Shou Lang looked interested, a look of new wonder came to his face and he tilted his head as if confused. "What were you talking about?" he asked.

"Oh," and Ms. James took her hand and squeezed it. "San was interested in-" she started to say.

"Ms. James, no-!" she cried jerking on her hand and shaking her head.

She turned back in her seat and avoided Shou Lang's questioning stare. "What did you do that for, San?" asked Ms. James looking surprised.

"Never...mind..." she said.

Shou Lang reached for a cookie and bit into it staring curiously at her, "What were you interested in?" he asked, his yellow eyes gazing at her.

"I...have homework to do," she said quickly. "I should go upstairs and finish it," she said and stood up.

"Are you all right?" asked Chip.

"Fine," she said avoiding Shou Lang's look and flushing terribly. "Goodnight everyone," she said and turned quickly to the hall.

"Sit down a bit and talk," said Ms. James grabbing her arm and pulling her back down. "You can finish your homework in a while, can't you?"

She felt like sinking to the ground and disappearing through the floor and did not quite know why.

She pursed her lips together and clasped her hands in her lap. Then, almost hesitantly, she looked back at Shou Lang sideways.

He was looking at her still with that mixture of curiosity, interest, and now surprise in his features. His tail swished across the wooden floor as he bit into his cookie again, looking at her inquisitively.

"San asked me a question that got us into a conversation about you," said the old woman in her good-natured way.

"About me?" repeated Shou Lang shifting his eyes to the old woman. "What about me?" he asked.

Ms. James was laughing.

Chip turned his head and looked at her, she gave Chip a sigh and looked at Ms. James wishing that she was upstairs and doing her homework.

"Something bad, right?" asked Chip with a grin.

"No," assured Ms. James patting his head. "Nothing bad, Chip," and she looked back at her still smiling. "I don't see what you're so quiet about all the sudden..."

She sat back in her seat and wished for all the world that she could disappear into the cushions and hide away.

"Anyway," and she turned back to Shou Lang. "We were talking about how you were when you were younger," she said.

She watched Shou Lang sit a little straighter in his seat. "Why would she ask something about that?" he asked showing the raw surprise in his expression and voice.

"I don't know," said Ms. James, "Why not ask her yourself?" she laughed.

Shou Lang looked at her without saying anything.

She was on the verge of jumping out her seat and bolting to the safety of her room but she sat there and stared at her hands. She was aware that his cool yellow eyes were watching her, probably with disgust.

"What did you tell her?" she heard him ask.

"I told her about you!" laughed Ms. James. "She did not believe me when I told her that you were a gentleman when you were young."

"Really?" gasped Chip.

"A gentleman?" asked Shou Lang reaching for another cookie. "Well, I understand why she would not believe something like that. That was a long time ago," Shou Lang chewed thoughtfully.

"You still are a gentleman," said Ms. James.

Chip snickered and ducked his head away.

She looked back up from her hands at Shou Lang, he was looking at Ms. James, but then his eyes glanced over back at her and she looked back at her hands again.

"San," said Ms. James patting her hand. "Why don't you say something? You're acting so quiet! Aren't you happy to see Shou Lang and Chip again?" she asked.

Her eyes flew to Shou Lang, then back into her gray eyes. "Please can I go upstairs and finish my work?"

Ms. James looked confused, "You don't want to talk with us?" she asked.

"I rather do my homework," she answered quietly.

"Oh come now," she said patting her hand again. "At least say something!" and she paused. "You haven't even said hello to Shou Lang, have you?" and Ms. James turned to Shou Lang. "Why didn't you say hello to San?" her voice was chiding.

Shou Lang's eyes blinked, "Well...I don't see why...she's right here..."

"Say hello to her," said Chip snickering. "Don't be rude, Shou Lang, that would be very un-gentleman like of you," and he fell into fits of laughter.

"Shut up," growled Shou Lang.

"Don't be strangers, you two," said the old woman taking a cookie and looking from her to Shou Lang. "Say something!"

"Hello San," said Shou Lang without much of an expression.

She continued to stare at her hands, "Hello Shou Lang."

"You two might as well be strangers," muttered Ms. James with a sigh. "Did you miss San, Shou Lang?"

She flushed again, "I'm going upstairs to finish my homework!" she cried and nearly ran to the hallway.

"San-!" called Ms. James, but she ignored her and raced to her room shutting the door and leaning against it with heavy sighs.

At first she could only flush and ball her fists, then a smile erupted over her face and she covered her mouth giggling. She giggled into her hands and fell on her bed muffling her giggles through the pillow.

I don't even know what I'm laughing about, she thought rolling on her back and staring up at her ceiling. I made a complete loser out of myself just then, and she turned on her side laughing. I can be so silly sometimes, she thought sitting up and giggling again.

"Shou Lang must think I've lost my mind," she said to herself and burst out into giggling again. "His face-!" she said into her pillow. "That expression was priceless," she said. She was laughing so hard she was tearing up. She wiped her eyes and shook her head.

There was a knock on her door. "San?" squeaked Chip. "I can't reach the doorknob!"

"Oh," and she quickly opened the door for him, but he was not alone. Shou Lang was standing behind him without an expression. She quickly flushed and shrank back into her room.

Chip turned and grinned at him, "I'm going to bed now, ok?" he said and jumped on her shoulder.

Shou Lang made a face, "Not tonight you aren't!" he said and reached over and grabbed Chip by the tail.

"Shou Lang-!" she cried angrily and surprised. "What are you doing?!" she cried.

Shou Lang looked at her again without saying anything.

"Let him go!" she cried placing her hands on her hips.

"Yeah! You heard her! Let me go!" said Chip.

Amazingly he released Chip and leaned against her doorway looking in her room.

Chip bounded in her bed and disappeared underneath the covers. "Ha! Ha!" she could hear him cackling beneath the covers.

Shou Lang looked irritated.

She was wondering why he had not left and why he remained in her doorway, she stood in the center of her room hesitantly.

Then Shou Lang looked at her, he seemed to study her face for a while and then he looked away. "I guess it hasn't healed all the way," he said.

"What?" her surprise showed in her face.

He took a step in her room and pointed at her cheek, "That," he said.

She absently touched her cheek and looked at him, then she lowered her eyes as her fingertips brushed against the three slashes on her cheek. "No..."

Shou Lang looked uncomfortable, he stood awkward without saying anything, then he took off his pack and dug out a glass jar. He stood up and looked at her. Then he thrust the jar in her hands and looked back at the floor. "That'll help."

She stared at him, then at the glass jar. Inside of it was white looking cream, confused she looked back at him. "What is it?" she asked him.

"Iodine," he answered averting his yellow eyes at her. "But with herbs and..." he trailed off waving his hand disgustedly. "It doesn't matter what's in it, just use it on your face, Ok?"

"You...got this for me?" she asked him.

"It'll help healing up that," and he pointed at her cheek again. "Use it before you go to sleep, in the morning, wash it off." He spoke quickly and hurriedly as though he needed somewhere to be.

"Why...?" she asked staring at him surprised.

"Scars," he said. "I don't want you to have scars," he said quickly and turned away from her room and into the hall. "Goodnight," he said hurriedly.

"Goodnight," she mumbled.

...

No one was there, once more it was only he and Ms. James. He crept hesitantly into the parlor where the old woman sat rocking back and forth in her rocking chair. "Ms. James?" he called softly.

The old woman turned around startled, "Shou Lang!" she cried, her face now breaking into a smile. "I thought you had went outside!"

"No," he said looking at his moccasins and then back in her wrinkled smiling face.

"Come and sit by me," she said motioning to the empty space in the next sofa.

He sat down and watched her leave the rocking chair and sit by him. "What is it, Shou Lang?" she asked him. "I know that look on your face."

He looked around, looked at the time and then shifted his gaze to her. "I...uh..."

Ms. James smiled and patted his cheek. "Why do you have to be embarrassed, Shou Lang?" she smiled at him.

He felt very comfortable with the old woman smiling in his face like that. He took her hand and stared down at it for a long while. "Could you...sing me a song?" he asked.

"I knew that that was what you were going to ask," laughed the old woman patting his hand and twinkling her gray eyes into his yellow ones.

"Wait-" he said and started to stand.

"San is asleep with Chip," said Ms. James pulling him back beside her. "You have nothing to worry about, Shou Lang."

He made a face and looked at the wall. He hated asking.

"Still want me to sing?" she asked after a while.

"Yes," he turned to her. "Would you...?"

"Sure I will," she smiled again and patted his hand. "But I still don't see why you have to be embarrassed about asking," she said. "When you were little you asked me all the time."

"That was a long time ago," he said squirming.

"I guess you're getting too old for songs, is that it?" she asked.

"No," he said after a while.

"Then what...?" she asked him gently.

He did not know, so he did not answer.

Ms. James sighed, and then she smiled. "You know that the minute I start you'll fall asleep," she said.

"Yes, I know," he said.

She smiled and looked at the wall. "Alright, Shou Lang..." she said.

He felt very silly but he rested his head on her lap like he did when she was younger. And at once he did not feel silly anymore but very comfortable. He rested his ears and laid them flat against his head while curling his tail around himself.

Then she started to sing, her old croaking voice seemed to make him float. She sang softly, as she always had, and she pushed the hair from his eyes. Her voice sounded faded and worn, but still beautiful to his ears. Her voice seemed to carry him, away, away, away into the sky.

She was the only voice that could put him to sleep, even in full demon form. She was the only person in the world that could tame his soul and spirit, the only voice that could put him to rest. And she sounded so comforting! She sounded so sure and confident, that just by hearing her voice she was assuring him that everything was all right.

So he shut his eyes and let his mind dwindle, he let himself slip away from the conscious world to the subconscious one.

And before he fell asleep he wondered to himself if a demon could love. He wondered if demons could feel the way he felt now...he thought of all this as he drifted to sleep.

Can a demon love?

...

"Damn the rent!" she shouted slamming her hand on the counter. "I want to speak to your manager!" she screamed at the woman behind the counter.

The woman left with a smug look on her face but shortly returned with the manager.

"Excuse me," she said pushing her hair behind her ears. "There seems to be an issue about the payment of my room," and she smiled at him.

The manager had that look in his eye like all men had.

"She hasn't paid her rent for her room," said the saucy woman looking at the manager. "She expects to walk out of here without paying!" she cried.

The manager continued to stare at her.

"I'm sure that there's a mistake, I paid the whole thing yesterday and now I want to check out," she said looking from the manager to the glaring woman.

"Impossible!" declared the woman pointing at the computer. "There aren't any records of it! You did not pay!"

"I did pay!" she shouted testily at the woman behind the counter.

"Well, look at the computer yourself," said the woman motioning to the manager.

The manager only stared at her, as she expected him to do. She flashed him another smile, "Can you fix my problem, sir?" she asked and tossed back her hair and gave him a pretty smile.

The woman looked from her to the manager and stood up. "Excuse me, Tony! But would you please talk to this woman?!"

The manager gave the woman a dull stare, "I see no problem here. If the lady says that she paid then she paid."

"But-!" cried the woman whirling and facing the computer. "Take a look at the computer! You didn't even look at it, Tony!" she cried angrily.

"I looked, and we made a mistake," said the manager. He leaned to the counter and smiled apologetically, "We're very sorry for the misunderstanding, please forgive our mistake."

"Thank you," she said and smiled at him. "You're such a dear," and she blew him a kiss and left the manager and the woman to argue with each other. She walked out into the streets of Philadelphia.

Shou Lang, she thought with her blood burning. You can't just leave me and expect me to go along with it! I will make you mine if it is the last thing I do! She thought.

She quickly crossed the street and walked briskly to Ash's broken down apartment. She would stay in Ash's apartment for a while until she found another plan.

She fished in her pocket for Ash's key, once finding it she unlocked the door to his room and walked in. Immediately she stopped dead at the doorway.

Two girls popped out of the covers of Ash's bed, "Hello Ash!" they cried happily, and then they stopped and stared at her. "Who are you?" they asked.

"What are you doing in Ash's apartment?" she asked dully.

"Waiting for Ash," said one girl. Both were obviously human.

"Sorry to spoil all the fun, ladies," said Venus setting down the key and shrugging off her coat. "But Ash is dead."

"Dead?" repeated the other girl turning pale, "Ash is dead?" she cried.

"How long have you been waiting?" she asked giving them looks.

"I don't know," said the other one, the darker one. She had braids and one gold tooth. "Maybe two or three hours," she said and looked at the other girl. "Right?"

"I guess," said the girl with blond hair. "How did he die?" she asked.

"I assume that he's been killed," said Venus smugly. "But you two need to get out of here. He isn't coming back."

"Oh," they cried disappointed.

"Hurry and get out of here!" cried Venus walking to the little refrigerator and looking through it.

She heard them get out of bed and then grumbling to themselves while they dressed. "Someone could have told us," she heard the blond one say.

"Hey, that's my shirt, give it back-!" hissed the other one, and then they both started giggling.

Venus looked over her shoulder disgustedly, "Hurry up, I said!" she snapped.

"Don't be a bitch," said the blond woman zipping up her jeans. "We're leaving, ok?" she said and gave the braided girl a grin.

The other girl was putting on a fur coat and giving her a glare. "I don't see why we have to leave. This is a cool crib!"

"It's my crib," snapped Venus looking back in the refrigerator. "And leave your keys on the counter," she snapped.

"Bitch," they whispered.

After they dressed they crossed to the door, "Why can't we keep the keys?" asked one of them.

"Because this is my apartment," snapped Venus glaring at her. "Get the hell out!"

"Fine," said the black one. "But we can get keys from the rest of our friends. Ash gave keys to everyone," she said. "This is our hangout spot," she said tossing her braids off her shoulder.

"Whatever," she muttered. "Just leave your keys and get out of here!" she said and pulled out an apple from the refrigerator.

"Whatever," snapped the blond snapping open her purse and slapping her key on the counter. "Not like it matters, we'll be back."

The other girl put her key on the counter as well.

Come back and I'll rip off your pretty heads, she thought to herself.

Finally they left, she heard the door click as they left.

Once she was alone again she fell on the bed and gazed at the ceiling. "What am I going to do?" she asked herself while she bit into the apple. "How am I going to get Shou Lang now?"

Shou Lang, she thought thinking of his yellow eyes and navy hair. Her blood burned again. "I will make you my own," she whispered.

She closed her eyes and fell into deep thought. She had to think of a plan to get him. She was so close the last time...so close...so close...she had had him in her grasp! She was only seconds away from taking him, but then...somehow...somehow he had figured it out.

Damn you Ash, she thought darkly. You fool, I'm glad that you're dead!

This plan has to be perfect, she thought. I have to lure him in better than I did last time, she thought. Last time I went subtly, but this time I shall strike him full force! Then he won't be able to get away from me like he did the last time!

"But what to do...?" she asked the ceiling. "How will I go about doing it?"

She thought about what impact she had on him, he had thrown a girl out of a window all for her, and she smiled. She could break them up, she thought. She could turn them against each other...

Venus rolled over on her side and bit into the apple again, her mind still turning inside her skull.

I could disguise myself again...or maybe I can...yes! YES! She sat up and dropped the apple so it rolled to the floor. That's it! She thought making a fist and smiling broadly. I'm a genius, she congratulated herself on her new idea. This will work-! It has to work!

Venus jumped out of bed and ran to the bathroom to look at herself. She smiled and touched her reflection. "By attacking him I will never win," she said. "But if I attack the women...yes..."

And as she thought of this she watched her reflection change. She watched her hair turn short and her shoulder broaden. She then smiled, her eyelashes turning shorter and then her hands getting bigger and her feet and legs growing larger as well. She shot up several inches.

When it was all finished she smiled at her reflection and brought her hands to her sides to admire the change in her physique. "Perfect," she said, and admired the deepness of her new voice.

Hello Neil, she said silently to her new reflection. Neil Redmond. Perfect!

4.

That night he dreamed of the woman again, the beautiful woman singing to him and dancing with him around the fire. She twirled around and around with him laughing and singing with him.

He woke with a start and sat up looking dazedly around the room. And to his surprise Ms. Smith was standing in front of him, a smile on her face. "What?!" he cried pointing at her.

She shot flames out of her mouth that swarmed over him and began searing his flesh. He jumped to his feet but was burning with the flames.

And then he saw San standing there with a pail of water in her hands.

"San-!" he cried out to her.

Her face turned ugly and she pointed to the three ragged marks on her cheek, "Burn in hell!" she screamed and threw the water to the ground before he could reach it.

"San-!" he cried as he was swallowed up by the flames and falling into a dark pit of fire. Ms. Smith's face loomed overhead laughing coldly as he fell. He could only look up in her face with frozen shock and alarm. "No!" he screamed.

...

"NO-!" he cried sitting up suddenly.

"Shou Lang, it was a dream," said the comforting voice of the old woman, he felt her hands stroking his hands and wrists. "Just a dream..." she cooed.

He was covered in sweat and was finding it hard to breathe. He looked at Ms. James breathing hard. "What...?"

"You were dreaming," said Ms. James. "You must've had a nightmare," she said squeezing his hands. "You cried out in your sleep, are you all right, Shou Lang?" she asked him.

It took him a while to realize where he was. He was still in the parlor and with the old woman. He looked at the sky through the window and judged from the position of the sun that it was 2 or 3 O'clock in the morning. "Dreaming...?" he mumbled finding his breath at last.

Ms. James nodded her head, her face twisted with concern. "Are you all right?" she asked again.

"I...had the most vivid dream," he said shaking his head and running his hand through his hair. "I was...being burned alive!" he cried.

Ms. James placed her cool hand against his forehead. "You're so hot!" she exclaimed looking in his face surprised.

"I dreamed that I had woken up...but when I woke up Ms. Smith was there-!" he cried not hearing her. He looked around the parlor breathing hard. "She burned me!"

"It was only a dream, Shou Lang. Calm down," she said.

"San was there too, she had water to put out the flames," he paused and swallowed hard. "But she didn't help me! She threw away the water and watched me burn-!" he placed his face in one hand shaking his head.

"You're covered with sweat," said Ms. James jumping up from the seat and into the kitchen. "I'll get you a towel, just sit there-"

He leaned back in the chair closing his eyes and slowing his breathing. He could still see the red flames burning from underneath his eyelids and opened his eyes with a start.

"What a dream!" he cried running a hand through his matted hair again. "I'm covered with sweat," he said and wiped his brow. "Ms. James?" he called.

She returned in the parlor with a towel and a bowl of water. "Here," she said dunking the towel in the water and placing it against his head. "Hush," she said when he had started to talk.

She wiped his face and patted his knee. "Now," she said. "From the looks of it you were having a nightmare."

"Yes," he said.

"Whatever were you dreaming about, Shou Lang?" she asked wiping his brow again. "I've never heard you cry out like that in your sleep!" she said.

He sighed heavily and looked at her. "I have nightmares, but none like this," he said. "This was so clear," he said with another sigh. "I could feel my skin burning!" he cried.

"You were burning?" she asked him.

"I was on fire," he said nodding. "San was in my dream..." he said.

"San?" asked Ms. James looking very surprised and curious.

"Ms. Smith was burning me and I called out to San," he said. "She was standing there with water to put out the fire, but she threw it away and told me to burn in hell." He watched Ms. James' expression change. "I fell into this pit, and I could hear her laughing!"

"Who was laughing, San?"

"Ms. Smith was laughing...San was gone, I guess."

"Oh my," she breathed in with a sigh.

"But I could see it so clearly! I saw it so clear, Ms. James. I thought it was real! I swear that we were right here in this parlor!" he cried looking around. He did not mention the earlier part of his dream with the woman singing with him by the fire. "And San, I've never seen her look like that before..."

"I have to tell you something important, Shou Lang," said Ms. James. "San met with Ms. Smith today at school."

"Whaat?!" he cried whipping his head around at the old lady.

Ms. James nodded gravely, "Yes, Ms. Smith told her that you have not seen the last of her," her eyes looked troubled.

"Is San-?" he started out of his chair.

"San is fine," said Ms. James. "But you see, Ms. Smith is still out there. Nothing happened, so what San told me, but I'm glad you're back. Your timing is perfect!"

He sat back in his seat looking at his hands, "I'll go with San to school today," he said quietly. "Ms. Smith is very dangerous."

Ms. James patted his back, "You're all right, Shou Lang?" she asked.

He nodded and wiped the towel on his face, "I might just go and take a shower. I'm covered all over with sweat."

Ms. James stood up, "Ok," she said. "I'm going back to bed."

"Many thanks, Ms. James," he said as he watched her leave.

"You're welcome anytime, Shou Lang," she said over her shoulder as she went up the stairs to her room.

Shou Lang took the other stairway and walked into the bathroom. He closed the door and undressed, slipping in the shower and turned the water as cold as it would allow. He stayed in the shower for a long time, then he turned off the shower and dried himself off with the towel. He dressed quickly and left the bathroom and outside to perch himself on top of the roof.

His hair was wet and the wind and chill of the winter air made him a little cold.

He took out his panpipe and blew into it.

...

"I don't know," she said and shrugged her shoulders. "That's all he said," and she looked over him quizzically, "What did you do to Derek, anyway?"

"What?" asked Shou Lang watching the car come from the end of the street.

"He was calling you 'lord' just before you left! What's up with that?" she asked him and looked over at Chip who was yawning on her shoulder.

"Don't know," Shou Lang replied in his usual nonchalant way, "Why does it matter?"

"It doesn't," she looked at her feet.

After a while of walking and shivering into the cold she jammed her fists in her pockets. "Cold," she said.

"Me too," said Chip.

"You know what Shou Lang, the bus only comes when you aren't here," she said looking at him briskly.

He yawned and shrugged.

She looked back in front of her with a snort, "I could take the bus, you know."

"Why don't you?" he asked.

She shot him a look but did not say anything.

"We should take the bus next time, San," said Chip. "I don't think the bus lady likes Shou Lang all that much."

"Of course she doesn't! Because of him we got kicked off!" she said darkly. "And now I have to walk through this cold!"

"Take the bus then," said Shou Lang in his indifferent tone. "If you're cold."

"I'm trying to be nice by walking with you," she said and looked at her feet as she walked. "Misery enjoys company, doesn't it?"

"Well," and Shou Lang turned his yellow eyes to her. "I'm not cold, so I'm afraid you are the only one that is miserable."

She made a face and glared at Chip when he snickered.

"Then I'll take the bus," she snorted.

"You aren't cold, really?" asked Chip blinking large green eyes. "How so? It is freezing out here! It has to be near thirty degrees out!" he cried.

Shou Lang only shrugged and gave out a long whistle. "I'm just not cold, in fact," he stopped in the road and pondered. "I rarely get cold..."

"Lucky for you," she said sarcastically and adjusted her backpack. It was just starting to feel heavy. "I hate walking to school!" she griped.

"Take the bus," repeated Shou Lang with a smirk. "No one forced you to walk."

"Next time I will take the bus," she snapped glaring at him.

He looked over at her with a faint smirk tugging the corner of his mouth.

Ungrateful, inconsiderate, lousy...she thought darkly.

"Can I sit in your pocket Shou Lang?" asked Chip.

Shou Lang snorted, "No!" he said.

"Evil," Chip was muttering.

The wind rushed past her at once and she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk shivering. "I should have brought my coat!" she said shuddering and with her teeth chattering. "I knew I should've listened to Ms. James," she told herself underneath her breath.

"Come now!" laughed Shou Lang tossing her a playful glance. "It isn't that cold! Do you want to be late for school?" he asked.

"I'm too cold!" she barked at him. "Go on ahead, I'll catch up to you!" she said and tucked Chip in her pocket to keep him warm.

Shou Lang crossed over to the sidewalk and peered at her. "What was that?"

"Go on," she said shivering again and hugging herself. "I might just run back home and get my coat!" she said.

"It's warm in here!" she heard Chip's gleeful voice.

She put her hand on her pocket, "Quiet in there, Chip," she said and gave her pocket a quick pat.

Shou Lang's yellow eyes flashed, "Girls have to be such whiners," his faced looked disgusted and irritated.

"What did I say?" she said angrily. "Just go on without me, I'll catch up!" she cried.

"No," he said, "You'll never make it in time, you'll be late," he said looking over her head. "We have five or ten minutes left, let's hurry," he took her elbow.

"Shou Lang!" she cried. "I'm cold, I have to get my coat!" she cried jerking her elbow away. "Tell my teachers that I'll be back, ok?" she asked and started to turn around right when she felt his hands around her waist.

"Wait a sec," he said and lifted her up.

"Shou Lang-!" she cried.

"What's going on?!" wailed Chip. "Why are we off the ground?!"

"Relax," said Shou Lang lifting her up in a carrying position. "I'm only picking her up, rat, you have nothing to worry about."

She felt Chip's head pop out from her pocket. "Huh?" he was looking around.

She awkwardly put her arms around his neck, "What are you doing?" she asked him.

"Hold tight, you too, Chip," he said ignoring her and shifting her up. "We'll never make it to school on time at the slow pace you're going, San," he said giving her a clear yellow eye. "If you want to be late then say so and I'll put you down."

She pursed her lips and looked the other way. "If you're going to do some stunt, put me down before you start doing it! I don't want to be in a scene like you did the last time!" She snuck him a look from the corner of her eye.

His face held no expression, "What stunt?" he asked innocently.

"Yes! Yes! Yes!" cried Chip grabbing her shirt. "Do what you did last time, Shou Lang! That was really fun!" he laughed.

"No! Don't you dare!" she shot at Shou Lang. "Put me down if you're going to act stupid!" she demanded.

He raised an eyebrow, "Calling me stupid, eh?" he said and showed her his mischievous grin. "We'll see about that, San!" and he leapt off the ground and shot off in the air with San clinging to his neck and wanting to scream her head off in panic.

...

Shou Lang ignored her shouts and adjusted her in his arms, "You ready Chip?" he asked showing off his perfect white teeth.

Chip nodded his head, determination shone inside his green eyes. "Let's do it, Shou Lang!" he cried.

She shook her head and fought trying to get off, "NO! Don't you dare-! You're going to kill me doing something like-" but he did not let her finish for he swept her up in his arms again.

"On your mark!" he yelled over to Chip.

San looked down the narrow railway and screamed again and tried clambering over Shou Lang's shoulder to get off.

"Get set...!" Shou Lang continued.

"Shou Lang, please!" she wailed, then she looked helplessly at Chip, "Chip?! I can't believe you're doing this! Put me down, Shou Lang!" she screamed hitting him with her fists.

"Go-!" whooped Chip and jumped off the ledge of the building and on the metal railway.

"No!" screamed San covering her eyes as Shou Lang jumped off and on the railway.

She heard the scrape of her backpack against the rail as Shou Lang slid down the top of it with her screaming in his arms. Chip was on the other railway whooping and laughing as he slid down on Shou Lang's pack.

People jumped off the stairs as they surfed down the railway so they would not get hit. Others cheered and clapped.

Everything seemed to be passing her in a blur and could not see. She held wildly to Shou Lang's neck screaming and shouting at the both of them.

The end of the rail came, she saw it jutting out in front of them, and then wondered how they would stop without careening off the edge and busting their heads on the pavement.

"Shou LAAANG-!" she screeched closing her eyes as the end drew near.

With a whoop both boys landed on the ground, Shou Lang landed like a cat on his feet and looked over at Chip. "That was fun!" he said. "Let's do it again!" He was crouched with San still in his arms.

"No!" she cried fighting against him breathing hard. "Put me down!"

"Now for the school, fair?" asked Shou Lang ignoring her and kicking up her backpack so she could grab onto it.

Chip looked at the long railway up the stairs and flashed them both a huge grin, "We're going to have to do that again!" he laughed.

The other students laughed and pointed at them as they walked by. Some gave her thumb's ups. Others made faces and continued to the school.

"It wouldn't be fair," said Chip pointing at Shou Lang's pack. "You're faster than me and bigger than me! You'd win!"

"Last time it was a tie," said Shou Lang defensively. He looked up the rail, "I'm handicapped, I'm carrying San to make it fair. She's weighing me down so I won't be as fast as I normally am, Ok? And plus," he added looking at San. "I'll be carrying my pack and her backpack as well!"

"No! You guys aren't going to use me as part of your race, got it?!" she shrieked kicking her legs. "Let me go, Shou Lang!"

Shou Lang ignored her and slipped his pack on his shoulders and her backpack on the other. "You ready for round two?" he grinned at Chip.

"I'm going to win," laughed Chip crouching low by the stairs and smiling up at Shou Lang. "No way you can beat me carrying all of that weight!"

"We'll see," said Shou Lang, and she felt his muscles tense up. "Race you to the school, the front entrance! Whoever gets there first can get free hits off the other for the rest of the day? How does that sound?"

Chip's face began to glow, "You're going to regret this! How I've longed for this day!" he cackled gleefully.

"I'm prepared to win, rat, I hope you know that!" snorted Shou Lang.

"Shou Lang-!" she wailed. "Put me down! I don't want to be your handicap! Use someone else!" she screamed helplessly.

He lowered his eyes to her face, somehow his eyes were dancing with some sort of odd playfulness. He was even smiling, a mischievous smile that lit his whole face up. Once again he looked extremely handsome, smiling at her that way with his eyes sparkling over her.

San found herself staring. Strangely enough her heart fluttered and she didn't find herself so angry anymore. She realized now what the girls at school so admired and felt a lump form in her throat.

"Just hold on real tight," was what he said. Then he adjusted her in his arms and held her a little closer. "Ready Chip?" he asked.

"Clear the way! Clear the way!" hissed the students backing up.

"On your mark!" started Chip.

San found her voice, "Stop!" she cried.

"Get set...!" said Shou Lang tensing up, and she was able to feel the muscles in his shoulders and back.

"1...2...3..." counted Chip.

"GO!" shouted Shou Lang and Chip together sprinting across the cleared path.

It scared her how fast Shou Lang could run, he had passed Chip in less than a second and was whizzing toward the school. Several people dodged and jumped out of his way as he sped along.

"Not fair...!" was Chip's distant cry.

Shou Lang was laughing dryly, "Shouldn't have tried to race me-!" he cried and nearly deafened her because he had yelled in her ear.

In the distance there was the entrance-! More and more people jumped out of the way, all except one who stood talking to another student. San gave a shriek, Shou Lang tried to slow his feet, "Get out of the way-!" he bellowed, but it was too late.

San screamed and collided into the startled person who was screaming also, Shou Lang lost balance and fell over, bringing her down with him and the person they had trampled over.

"Ooof!" she cried landing flat on her stomach. Shou Lang and the other person piled on top of her, crushing her against the ground. "Get off-!" she cried.

"What the seven hells?!" Shou Lang was cursing angrily. "Get off me!" he yelled.

She watched Chip prance in front of her, and then race into the school laughing shrilly before the doors swallowed him up inside the building. "I win-!" she heard just before the doors shut.

The other person rolled off and then, as she looked over her shoulder, Shou Lang lifted himself up as well. She looked back and tried to get up but her back hurt and she laid back against her stomach. "Ouch!" she groaned.

"Sorry," said the person kneeling down, and then she stared at him. "San!" he cried, "Are you Ok?" and at once he was giving her his arm and helping her to her feet.

"What the hell were you doing?!" Shou Lang shouted. "You ruined my race! Now I've lost! You should've gotten out of the way, Mr. Louse!"

"Abdul," she said leaning on him and looking happily and thankfully into his face, happy just to be inside his arms.

Abdul ignored him and was brushing San's shoulders with his hands, "I'm sorry! Are you hurting anywhere?" he asked.

"Not anymore..." she replied as if in a dream.

Abdul swung his arms around her and hugged her tight, "Didn't mean to fall on top of you like that," he said with a hint of laughter in his tone.

"Are you listening to me?" growled Shou Lang.

"You shouldn't have been running around the school like that, freshman," replied Abdul coldly. "You should follow the rules like everyone else!" he snapped.

Shou Lang's faced turned dark, there wasn't any play anymore. "You should've moved out the way, and maybe we wouldn't be having this conversation!" he snarled angrily.

Abdul made a snort and looked down in her face, "Are you ok, San? Is he bothering you?" he asked and looked over her head at Shou Lang.

San looked over her shoulder at Shou Lang.

Shou Lang's eyes almost turned orange, instead they glowed a flaming bright yellow.

"I don't see why you hang around a loser like him," said Abdul turning his face away from Shou Lang as if he was inferior, as one would turn away from a beggar or tramp. "You must get sick of him, don't you? I know I am," and he hugged her again.

San was still looking over her shoulder, her cheek pressed against his neck.

Shou Lang went rigid and then a shadow fell across his face, his tail twitched and whipped out from behind him, but he said nothing.

"Maybe we should get inside," she said turning her head as well and looking up at him. "The bell is going to ring, isn't it?" she asked and peeked over her shoulder again. She was afraid that Shou Lang would reach out his clawed hands and strangle them both.

"Do you want me to walk you to the nurse?" he asked placing both hands around her waist and drawing her close. "Are you ok, San?" he asked.

San gave Shou Lang a quick check and found him bristling up, his tail spreading out with each hair sticking on end. His yellow eyes were trained on Abdul.

"Uh...we should..." she started to say.

Abdul gently rested his forehead on hers and smiled at her, "You're sure you don't need to go to the nurse?" and pulled her closer.

She craned her neck and turned, Shou Lang was making his fists and setting his jaw, another shadow had fallen over his face. He stood as straight as a board looking angrier and angrier.

Swallowing hard she faced Abdul again, "We should go now," she said and tried to gently pull away.

"Wait a minute," he said pulling her back and grinning at her. "I want to talk to you," his brown eyes were laughing. "Will you leave?" he pulled her so that he had his arms securely around her like a trap, and would not be able to slip away again. "I'll walk you to class," he was saying, his voice was a subtle mockery.

"But-" she looked over at Shou Lang. It suddenly dawned on her that Abdul was doing what he was doing on purpose just to test Shou Lang and make him angry. He was purposely ignoring him, and somehow, a concept she did not understand with boys, was trying to make fun of him through the use of a girl. "Abdul, the bell is going to ring," she said twisting her neck and looking in Abdul's face.

Abdul was looking at Shou Lang from the corner of his eye, she could tell. "In a second, alright?" said Abdul and gently touched the bottom of her chin. "The warning bell hasn't even rang yet!" another sounding mockery. "I'll make sure you get to class on time," he smiled pulling subtly on her ear. "Ok? You can stay just for a few minutes, can't you?" he laughed and touching her cheek.

"Get your hands off her!" Shou Lang exploded at last, sounding as though he had been suppressing himself.

She turned over her shoulder but Abdul pressed her cheek against his collarbone. "Hey, you're still here? Why don't you get to class!" he said, "and stop fooling around and breaking rules, do you want me to get a teacher?"

From the corner of her eye she could see Shou Lang bristling and swelling. "Mock me, do you?" he sounded furious.

"Get out of here and leave us alone!" Abdul shouted over her head. "Pester someone else for one day, will you? San has had enough for one day, and so have I!"

She turned her head around fully to get a good look at Shou Lang whose eyes had turned a dark orange and face a dark curtain. He looked ready to erupt!

"Abdul," she cried straining to look in his face. "Don't, we need to get to-"

Abdul ignored her, "He's bothering you, isn't he, San? We should go somewhere else where he can't annoy us," Abdul had a smirk on his face as he looked up at Shou Lang and then back down in her face. "I'll walk you to class now so you won't be late, Ok?" he hugged her close again, as if sending some taunting message slapping in Shou Lang's face.

When she could finally twist her head around Shou Lang's expression had changed from furious to burning hatred. Now he had no expression and watched them with a blank yet black stare. Although his face held no emotion, she could see the boiling suppressed rage teeming inside of him. She recognized that look and had grown to fear it. Shou Lang had looked like that before, a look she had seen him give Hector in the forest. It seemed Shou Lang had no emotion showing in his face, yet one could feel the extreme burning anger and cold fury boiling in his presence, it was in his cold yellow eyes, it was in the firm straight line of his mouth.

Abdul ushered her up the last steps and into the school. "Where's your locker?" he asked her brightly, cheerily.

She bit her nails looking over her shoulder at the disappearing, unmoving figure of Shou Lang, his being disappeared all together when the doors behind them slammed shut.

5.

She bit her lip and sank beside Shou Lang on the bleachers. Chip was poking him relentlessly with a huge and merciless grin plastered on his face. Shou Lang had his arms crossed, his face expressionless all while Chip tugged, yanked, jerked, on his ears, clothes, arm, everything-!

He did not take account of her as she sat beside him, "Shou Lang?" she said in a real quiet voice, afraid that he would be angry.

But he did not respond and sat silent and featureless with his arms crossed and Chip hitting, punching, and jerking on every part of his hair and face.

Just by watching, she could tell that he was extremely very irritated or, what she feared, extremely angry. She could also tell by how hard Chip was pulling on his ears that he had to be in some sort of pain, but if Shou Lang was, he wasn't showing it. His face remained an impassive mask.

"Shou Lang?" she meekly asked again. After a while she lowered her head and stared at her lap.

Ms. Walton suddenly blew into her whistle. "Come on girls! Hurry up and get out of the girls' locker room! I'm going to start taking points off your grade!" barked Ms. Walton.

"Hey San, look-!" cried Chip jumping on her shoulder and pointing at Shou Lang. "I can do anything I want for the rest of the day since he lost!" he cackled.

"I don't think you should..." she said slowly watching Shou Lang's face.

"Watch this-!" cried Chip bouncing happily on Shou Lang and yanking hard on his hair. Shou Lang's head came back but his face remained featureless. She winced inwardly for him. "This is great," said Chip pulling hard on Shou Lang's sensitive ears.

"Maybe you shouldn't..." she said biting her nails again.

"Hurry it up in there!" Ms. Walton screamed suddenly. "If I have to come in there I'm taking ten points of your final grade!"

She looked back from Ms. Walton to Shou Lang squirming uncomfortably. She did not like his expressionless face at all. She couldn't tell what he was thinking, and that scared her. He had looked so angry before, she was sure of it that he was going to erupt and do something, but he didn't. She felt guilty for some reason but did not quite know why. She could not help but feel responsible for his sudden behavior.

Chip was yanking on Shou Lang's ears again. "This is the best day of my life!" he cried.

"Chip," she said with a subtle plea, "Stop doing that, just think of what Shou Lang is going to do to you after today!"

"I don't care," sang Chip. "That is exactly why I'm going to enjoy today!" he laughed and gave Shou Lang's hair a fierce tug.

She was quiet for a moment trying to pull her thoughts together. Meanwhile the girls were trooping into the gym laughing and hitting each other. Suddenly they seemed to catch them.

San made a face as they giggled forth in front of them. "You're back from Australia!" one of them cried happily.

Shou Lang, ever so calmly, lifted his head and looked at them, his face still expressionless as before.

Chip sat on top of Shou Lang's head with his head cocked, a strand of hair fell into his face. "Australia?" he asked them.

The girls scooted San to the side and surrounded him. "I'm so glad that you're back!" said a brown-eyed Mexican girl. "I missed you!"

"Me too," replied a blond. "You were gone for such a long time!"

The other girls were laughing, surrounding him with their flirtatious gazes and giggling. The boys fired Shou Lang looks as they passed.

San was boiling. "That's my seat!" she cried but none of the giggling militia of girls seemed to hear her.

Shou Lang remained looking at the wall with his arms crossed, she thought there was a flicker of annoyance in his expression.

"Hey ladies!" said Chip gazing around. "What about me?" he asked.

"Chip!" she cried angrily.

But one girl grabbed him and cuddled him up, "You're just so cute!" she cried tapping him on his nose.

She felt as if her head would come off but she snorted and sat down glancing at them sideways.

"Tell us what you did in Australia," giggled a black girl with braids scooting close to Shou Lang and taking his arm. The blond with the big blue eyes reached out and hugged his arm.

That was when she saw Shou Lang's expression change. He looked at his arm and then stood up so fast one of the girls fell of from her perch on the bleachers and on another bleacher step. "Hey!" she cried angrily.

Shou Lang looked disgusted and repulsed, as though he was looking at the ugliest and gruesome sight in the world, then he looked at his arm where the blond had been hugging.

San's mouth fell open and cracked into a smile.

"Disgusting-!" he cried at once. "Repulsive little humans!" he cried making a completely disgusted and mortified face. Shou Lang turned green, "Gross! Sick! How dare you touch my skin? How dare you soil my skin with your dirty, human, foul fingers?!" he cried angrily, and the whole gym went quiet.

The girls were looking at each other bewildered and amazed all at once. "What?" they whispered looking around at each other.

"How could you be so ignorant?!" he cried with wide yellow eyes. "All of you disgusting...ugly...smelly girls?! To tolerate your annoying and disgusting presence is enough, but to touch me?! Do you want to dirty my clothes and fill my scent with human stench?!" he cried breathing hard and looking greener. "To think that I've lowered myself for one second just to put myself in your presence...!"

All of the girls had wide frightened eyes. Some of them looked extremely angry and offended, and she did not blame them.

"Shou Lang," she said standing and hesitantly walking up to him.

"They touched me-!" he cried pointing a trembling finger at them. "How could they touch me?! Do they honestly think that I am of their level?! Do they think that they have the right to touch my skin?! My perfect, clean smelling skin?!" he cried angrily.

"What's your problem?" demanded the Mexican.

"I can't stand it!" Shou Lang cried squeezing his eyes shut and pulling at his hair. "I can't stand all of you humans! You make me sick! You make me sick!" he cried shaking his head. "Your stench! Your disgusting faces...I just can't bear it any longer! I'm going home-!" he cried and jumped off the bleacher.

"Shou Lang wait-!" cried Chip and San together.

"Where do you think you're going, Shou Lang?" asked Ms. Walton standing in his way and blocking the exit.

She jumped down the bleachers and ran up to Shou Lang and stood in front of him. "Shou Lang!" she cried. "Those girls didn't know not to touch you!" she cried. "Don't go home! Stay here!" she cried.

Shou Lang's eyes blazed suddenly as they settled on her face, "Get out of my way before a I smash your face in!" he snarled.

She fell back and shrank, "Shou Lang?" she was scared.

"Calm down a little," said Chip. "We just got back, you're going to leave when we need to finish what we're doing here?" he asked.

"Sit back in those bleachers and apologize to those girls!" shouted Ms. Walton. "What you said was very mean, Mr. Wolf! Go up there and apologize!"

Shou Lang's eyes turned to slits, "I will do no such thing!" he said in a low growl. "They were the ones that touched me! If they hadn't touched me..."

"Shou Lang!" cried Chip.

"Are you talking back to me?" demanded Ms. Walton with a reddening face.

"If I have to look at one more human," cried Shou Lang shutting his eyes and groaning. "Oh, I feel sick! I've never felt so repulsed in all my life!" he cried turning away from Ms. Walton, Chip, and San.

"Ms. Walton," said San looking at Ms. Walton. "I'll talk to him, he's in a real bad mood, that's all!" she cried. "I can get him to calm down!"

"This is bad, San," she heard Chip whisper from on her shoulder.

"I know," she whispered back.

Before Ms. Walton could say anything, San had walked up to Shou Lang and was looking expectantly in his face. "Shou Lang!" she pleaded with him. "You aren't really leaving are you?"

"Get out of my sight," he sounded as though he meant it.

A lump formed in her throat. "Please-!" she said desperately. "Why? Why are you going home?" she asked.

"This is a waste of time," he muttered. "I need to look for those damn Uoy fragments and I'm fooling around here!" his voice grated.

"Shou Lang," and she took a deep breath and grabbed his arm.

He whirled his head and glared at her.

Her hand was still touching gently to his arm, restraining him from going anywhere.

For a few intense moments he stared at her.

Then she swallowed down the lump in her throat and with her other hand grabbed his hand, sliding her other hand from his forearm into his hand.

Chip had fallen into a tense silence like the rest of them.

Her heart thumped against her chest. Thump. Thump. Thump. A steady pattern... and although she was scared and knew that she could be making a big mistake her determination overwhelmed her fear of him. Both her hands remained inside of his hand.

His cold yellow eyes only stared.

"San-!" cried Chip breaking the deafening silence and looking in her face. "What are you doing?!" he cried.

Shou Lang narrowed his eyes and jerked his hand away, "Don't touch me! Run your filthy hands over the louse, instead!" he cried and coldly turned away from her.

"Shou Lang-!" she faltered.

He walked to the other exit and slammed the door shut.

"I'm calling the office," cried Ms. Walton circling away from the middle of the gym and running into the little office in the girls' locker room.

"Is he really going home?" breathed Chip.

"I..." she gasped.

"What's his problem?" the other students whispered to each other.

Suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder and turned, "What a dork, huh?" laughed Derek. "Does he think he's an alien or something?"

"Shou Lang..." and she shrugged his hand away and ran after the exit doors. "Shou Lang!" she cried, angry now. "Shou Lang?!" she found his swishing tail turning the corner.

She ran for it and found him walking down the hall. She ran up to him, "Shou Lang!" she cried.

"Get away from me, human!" he growled glaring at her.

"Shou Lang!" she yelled and with a frustrated cry grabbed hold of his sleeve. "You can't just leave! You have to help kill all the rest of the box demons!" she cried shrilly.

He jerked her away and continued down the hall but she wouldn't be stopped. She grabbed him by his shoulders and stood directly in front of him. "Why are you-?" she started.

"If you touch me one more time I'll smash you into one of the walls, got it?!" he shouted at her.

She almost ducked away in fear but took a breath and stood exactly where she was. "No!" she cried firmly. "No! You can't leave! Ms. Smith is still alive, Shou Lang!"

Thump, thump, thump, went her heart. It was the first time she could ever stand up to him this boldly.

She felt his muscles tense up, "Don't make me kill you, San-!" he growled and shoved her away.

San picked herself off from the floor vibrating with new determination. "Why are you so angry?!" she cried.

"Leave me alone."

"Are you jealous of Abdul or something?!" she shouted at him. And like lightning he turned around and seized her by the neck. "What?" he asked pressing his nails in her neck.

She swallowed hard, "I just-"

"Shut up!" he said, she had never seen him so angry. "Let's make this clear, ok?" he said pushing her against the wall and towering over her. "I could never be jealous over you! And I could never be jealous over a human!" he spat icily in her face.

"Shou Lang, I-" she whimpered.

"Why in the seven hells would I give a damn about you?! Why would I care?! Why would I?" he continued furiously.

"Don't be mad...!" she cried.

"Shut up!" he shouted at her again, and he swallowed hard. "If I didn't need that damn dagger I'd kill you now! I'd-! You'd be smooshed flat into the concrete! I'd snap your spine and-and-!" he was too angry to finish.

"I was only-" she tried to say.

"Shut up!" he snarled at her again. "You may think that you're something different or special to me, but let me make this clear when I say you aren't! You're just a disgusting part of the human race and when I don't need you anymore, you know what I'll do? I'll kill you! Just like I've killed any other human!"

"Shou Lang?!" she pleaded.

But he wouldn't let her speak, "The louse?! What do I care about him?! Do what you will with him! I don't care! I honestly don't care! I could care less, I have better things to care about!"

"I...!"

"When I go back to Ether I won't have to worry about whining, disgusting, difficult human girls like you!" he snarled narrowing his eyes. "I'm fed up here, and I'm fed up with you! I'll go home, I'll talk to Ms. James, and then I'll be off! And you know what?!" his eyes flashed. "I'll destroy the well so that I'll never see your putrid face again!"

"Why do you hate me so much!" she cried after he released her throat and was storming down the hall again.

He turned and glared at her, "You're human," he said dryly. "That's why."

"But so are you-!" she cried.

His face changed and he lowered it so that his bangs hid his face, he stood like that for a long while. "Soon I won't be..." he said quietly, she could barely hear him. "I'll find the Uoy and wish myself to be a full and a complete demon..." then he looked back up at her. "Then I'll kill Monde."

She stumbled over to him and gazing in his yellow eyes she felt her own eyes tearing up. She lowered her face and stared at their feet. "I don't want you to leave, and I don't want you to turn yourself into one of those demons. You aren't like that."

"Well," he sneered, "It isn't up to you, is it?"

She bit her trembling lower lip, "You're one of the only friends I have..."

"I am not your friend," he sneered.

"I thought you would help me..." she said watching a tear splatter on the ground.

"New plans," he said curtly.

"Shou Lang..."

He turned suddenly and continued down the hallway. San watched him gripping her hands with her tears silently coursing down her face.

When she was sure she would never see him again after he turned the next corner he turned again and started back towards her. She watched him incredulously.

He stopped in front of her without looking at her. "I forgot something," he said.

She snorted and wiped her eyes.

Then he brushed past her leaving her in the hallway again.

Go ahead and leave, she thought bitterly. I know for a fact the world will be ruins, that the beginning of the end will come not only to my world but also to yours! Go ahead and leave! Run away!

She stayed in the hall for a long while. Perhaps several minutes, and then Shou Lang returned with Chip perched on his shoulder. "You're not taking him!" she cried reaching for him.

He thrust Chip in her arms. "I'm not taking him anywhere," he muttered.

"Then-?" she cried.

"I'm not leaving, alright?!" he shouted angrily, then his face softened. "I'm not going anywhere," he told her.

She wiped her face.

"But right now I'm irritated, so we'll go home," he said shoving his hands in his pockets. She noticed on his shoulder was his pack and her backpack. "I can't stand to see another human face!"

"What about Ms. Walton-?"

"She can do whatever she wants, but let's go. I'm irritated and I want to go back to the house. I'm sick of school at this moment...besides, I have to take a shower," he crumpled up his face, "where they touched me!"

She swallowed hard and looked surprised at Chip.

"Come on," said Shou Lang nodding to the hallway. "Let's go, San...unless you want to stay..."

"I don't," she said confused yet partly relieved.

"Ok, then," he said and adjusted his pack and her backpack. "Come on, let's go," he said grumpily and the trio trooped down the hall and outside the school.

...

"My! You're home early!" cried Ms. James in her usual cheery and merry way. "Was there a problem at school today?" she asked clasping her hands together and smiling around at everyone in the kitchen.

San took off her shoes, as did he. He stood up straight and threw her backpack and his pack on the kitchen table with a little snort. Then he looked at Ms. James' bewildered face and left the kitchen.

"I'm taking a shower," he called back as he trudged up the stairs. He was irritated and very agitated, he hated his stench of cheap, worn, perfume and hair spray. He could still feel the hands of those girls and shuddered.

"Was there a half-day at school dear?" he heard the old woman ask from downstairs.

"Nope," chirped the squeak of the rat. "No half-day, only Shou Lang was real pissed off today and so we left the school!"

"My!" was her startled response. "Goodness! What happened at school today, Chip?"

He groaned, making a face, and ran a hand through his hair. He opened the door to the bathroom and shut it, yet all the while he was still unconsciously listening in on the conversation going on downstairs.

"I never knew how sensitive he was about being touched!" he heard San say. "He was so angry today, Ms. James...if only you could've seen him!"

"Ah," he heard the old woman sigh.

He made a face and tugged off his shirt.

"Shou Lang has always had a terrible temper, my dear. But this touching thing...I don't see why it is sudden news to you! I mean, Shou Lang makes it pretty clear that he detests humans!"

Chip was laughing, "He looked ready to throw up! He must really find humans disgusting, don't you think?"

He turned on the water to the shower and flicked his ears. He was still aware of their conversation but pretended not to hear it. He undressed and went into the shower, after finding the water too cold he turned the handle to as hot as the water would go. He still found it warm instead of hot and stood back with his arms folded over his chest and his ears flicking.

"Yeah, I know, but..." he heard San say through the roar of the shower. "I know he doesn't like to be touched...but what about you, Ms. James? He lets you hug him all the time!" she sounded confused.

"He's a difficult boy to understand, I know," replied the old woman. "But once you get to know him he really isn't all that complicated. It's hard to explain..."

Sniffing he raised his ear and listened more closely, suddenly interested in what they were saying about him from in the kitchen.

"Are you kidding?" and Chip scoffed. "Complicated?! He's the most stubborn, and hard-to-know guys out there-!"

He wrinkled his nose and crossed his arms over his chest again.

"Shou Lang is...well...sometimes I feel..." said San's voice hesitantly. "I don't know, Ms. James, I kind of understand him sometimes, and then other times I have no idea who he is at all!"

"You're not the only one, Shou Lang doesn't even know himself half the time!" stated the old woman's voice, and then they all laughed.

He narrowed his eyes, then he flung out his hand and forced the handle the other way so the water was freezing cold. He turned it all they way to the blue painted 'C' on the knob.

"You have to understand," continued the steady run of her old mellow voice, "Shou Lang is part demon, and demons by nature don't like emotions, they find it a weakness. Physical demons, like Salem, Kithara, and Shou Lang, are very egotistic creatures. Physical demons are more like wild animals, they find emotions like love and sadness a weakness, but that does not mean that they can't feel those emotions...rare as it may be. Physical demons are born with some type of consciousness at least."

"What about Monde?" challenged a squeak.

"Monde is a physical demon corrupted by the Uoy stones, but he is still able to feel those emotions if he really wants to. The spiritual demons are the ones without morals or values, they are the ones that are far worse than any physical demon."

Like Ash and those Amazing Ten guys, he thought suddenly. Spiritual demons are the kind of demons that take the longest to kill! I hate them!

"I see," he heard San say. "So...we should be lucky that Shou Lang is a physical demon and not a spiritual one?" she asked.

"If Shou Lang were a spiritual demon he would have slaughtered us by now. Spiritual demons love to kill and destroy things, that is their purpose. Physical demons just want to be powerful, but don't get me wrong, there are many physical demons that love to kill just as much as the spiritual ones."

"But Shou Lang is part human-! So he can feel just as much as a normal person would, would he?" asked Chip.

His hand clenched and his body tensed.

"Yes, of course, but Shou Lang is very proud," Ms. James chuckled, "he would never show any signs of weakness, not to anyone. Dear..."

"Yes, Ms. James?" said San's voice.

"To be honest, I think Shou Lang likes you more than he'll let on. You too, Chip...you see...? Shou Lang likes to keep to himself, but the fact that he even goes to school with you everyday, or sleeps in the same house with you is a major compliment! Don't you think? I know Shou Lang, and if he didn't have any feelings towards the both of you, he would've gotten rid of you two already."

He groaned and leaned against the tile of the wall, "My lord," he breathed running a hand through his wet and tangled hair. "Does she have to make me sound so disgustingly soft?!" he asked himself angrily.

"I guess," sighed Chip and San together.

Disgusted he turned off the water and jumped out of the shower. "Enough of that," he grumbled dressing hurriedly. "I better get down there before they start talking anymore about me!" and he tore the door open and ran down the stairs.

...

"Oh, would you get that please?" asked Ms. James.

"Sure," he replied dryly and picked up the receiver to the phone. He then placed the phone to his ear and waited, all of a sudden he heard a click.

"Hello?" came San's voice.

Is she on another line? He thought looking up at the ceiling. I never knew two people could talk at once, and he smiled to himself.

"Hello? Oh hello San, it's me- Ms. Ran!" said a droning syrupy sounding tone.

He made a face and narrowed his eyes, his hand tightened around the phone.

"Oh...Ms. Ran..." San sounded dull. "What do you want?"

"Oh, isn't this wonderful, San? I haven't talked to you in such a long while!" said the syrupy sounding chirp on the other line.

Who is this woman? He thought disgustedly. Her voice made him feel sick.

"What do you want?" she asked again in the same monotone voice.

This sounds nothing like San at all! He observed, She must not like this Ms. Ran, he thought and flashed Ms. James a look. The old woman was crocheting and looking at the TV while she chatted with Chip, he grinned and slipped out of the parlor.

"Is that all you have to say to an old friend, dear?" came that intolerable sounding voice again, and he winced from the sound of it. There was something about the stranger's tone of voice that made his insides knot up. Her voice was a mixture of slow molasses and the sound of a screeching violin.

"You're not my friend," replied San's voice flat.

Yes, he decided with a smirk, she must not like this Ms. Ran woman at all! I hope they don't mind if I listen in...he smirked again.

"San, honey, I want to be your friend! I try, and I try, and I try...why don't you like me? You are most unsettling! I hope you don't treat that poor Ms. James this way, it would break her old fragile heart!"

"What do you want?" she said for the third time.

The woman scoffed, "Well-!" she sounded offended. "Very well, I see that speaking courteously to you won't-"

"If you don't tell me what you want I'll hang up-!" cut in San sharply.

"Hang up? Hang up?" he heard the ice grating in her voice. "If you hang up on me I'll make sure you regret it, young lady! Now, where is Ms. James, I need to speak with her!"

"She's not here," said San flatly. "Sorry...she might be in a little later, Ms. Ran."

He twitched and peeked out into the parlor. The old woman was still in there...then he scratched his head and pursed his lips together.

"That's too bad," said the other voice. "I guess I'll have to take the news up with you. Can I count on you to tell Ms. James what I'm about to tell you now, San?" asked Ms. Ran.

"I'll see what I can do," said San sarcastically.

"Very well," sighed Ms. Ran. "I guess you already know from my last visit what this conversation is going to be about..."

He gasped quietly, suddenly remembering.

This woman-! She's the one who wants to take San away to Maine-! And Ms. James, he looked back in the parlor. Ms. James...

"I talked to the Kettles last week," said Ms. Ran. "I want to let you know that they're still keen on having you back with them. They want to set up a conversation with Ms. James...this is starting to irritate them, San."

San was quiet.

You can't take her away, he thought gripping tightly to the phone. No one is taking San anywhere-!

"They want you back in Maine, isn't that nice? After all, you are there daughter."

He grit his teeth together and balled up a fist.

"I think you'll be better off with them, San, dear. Ms. James is going to have to leave for a nursing home or something like that, you understand, don't you? She's too ill to raise a growing girl like you...it wouldn't be fair to you or to Ms. James," said the artificial sweet voice.

He had already decided that he did not like this woman, and the more he heard her voice the more he resented her.

"I'll give you their phone number so you can give them a call," continued Ms. Ran. "You'll write it down, won't you?"

San remained quiet.

"If not, I'll leave a message for Ms. James to get, and besides-" there was a little laugh. "I already gave them your number, so it really doesn't matter if you don't want to call!"

He hated her with an acid dislike and yet could not understand this sudden storm of detest for this woman that he had never met.

"Anyway," said the stranger, "there number is...667-9845, of course there is the area code," another chuckle. "Do you want me to repeat it, dear?"

San was still silent.

"You do realize that if you refuse to cooperate I'll have a team arranged to take you to Maine with or without your consent." The woman laughed again, "San dear?" but San was silent.

San, he thought, San...

"Oh come now!" laughed Ms. Ran. "Don't act childish, you already knew that this was what was going to happen! There's no reason to act silly over the matter, just cooperate and things will be fine!"

"I'm not leaving Ms. James," said San's voice, it was so soft he almost missed her saying it.

"I'm afraid you don't have a choice!" cut in the woman icily, "Bratty and ugly girls like you don't deserve the love of kind-hearted people like Ms. James!" she spat.

He felt as though his head would come off but somehow managed to keep his mouth shut although he was gripping the phone so hard it might have snapped.

"This is my home!" San sounded deeply pained and wounded, as though she was dying, and how he hated hearing her that way. "I'm not leaving for Maine! You can't take me away from Ms. James, she's my family!"

"Oh, yes I can," hissed Ms. Ran coldly, "You are legally the daughter of the Kettles! You have been for nearly nine or ten years now! You belong to them, San, you can't stay with a dying old woman, you have to go."

If he were standing in the same room with that woman he would have ripped off her hands and shoved them both down her throat.

"San, I know this is hard for you to understand, you were never a bright girl to begin with, but I'm sure if you have too tough a time understanding the situation just ask Ms. James."

That's it, he thought, and was about to open his mouth and shout at her but a sound stopped him short.

He heard it again and burned when Ms. Ran started chuckling. "Don't be a baby, my dear, I'm sure you'll be able to visit the old dear! No need to cry, San, don't cry," and the sound of her sudden artificial concern and hypocrisy made his tail stand on end. Then she started chuckling again, as if she found pleasure in San's agony. "Things will work out at the Kettles, dear," she was saying cheerily. "They're very nice people!"

And then he heard a click and knew that San must've hung up. Soon after he heard Ms. Ran hang up as well. He stood in the middle of the hall with the phone still in his ear and his hand clenched around it.

After several long seconds he returned to the parlor and placed the phone on its hook, then he stood up straight and looked at Ms. James.

"Oh thank you, Shou Lang," said the old woman absently. "Were you on the phone?"

He swallowed, "Ms. James, I think, maybe you should go upstairs and talk with San."

Chip turned around to stare at him, "Why?" he asked.

He turned his head to the wall so the old woman wouldn't be able to read his face, "I just think she should go up and check up on her, that's all," he said as nonchalantly as he could.

He heard her get up and shuffle over to him, "What do you mean, Shou Lang?"

"I..." he cleared his throat and then crossed his arms over his chest, "She...might need to be checked on!" he said.

"Checked on?" repeated Chip incredulously as he bounded up on his shoulder and gave a tug on his ear. "Are you worried about San or something?!" he cried with a huge grin spreading over his face.

"No!" he swatted him away. "Of course not! Don't be stupid!"

"Why would she need to be checked on, Shou Lang?" Ms. James sounded worried. "Did you two get into an argument again?"

"Whaat?!" he cried looking over at her in surprise. Like she would care what I have to say about her, he thought.

Ms. James gave him a speculative look, "Never mind," she said. "But if you think she needs to be checked on why don't you check on her, Shou Lang?" suggested the old woman giving him an absent smile.

Chip's nails dug in his shoulders, "Yeah, Shou Lang! Go up there and check on her yourself if you're so worried about her!" he taunted.

"I'm not-!" he started to argue.

"I don't know why she might need to be checked on, Shou Lang," said Ms. James. "Do you?" she asked looking at him.

He looked at his feet uneasily, "I was just suggesting! I'm not worried or anything, I was just thinking that's all!" he said irritated.

"Fine," said Ms. James and pat his shoulder. "Then she doesn't need to be checked on?" she asked.

"Well...I...uh...I..." he stammered uneasily. "I guess...not..."

The old woman's eyes seemed to read through his words, "Why don't you do me a favor Shou Lang...?"

"Huh?" he asked shoving his hands in his pockets. He stared at her.

"Go and check up on her for me, will you?" she asked lightly.

"But me?!" he cried, "Why can't Chip go up there and-" he broke off from the look on her face. "Um..." he said and then lowered his eyes and made a face. "Ok," he said, "But I really think you should..."

"What's up, Shou Lang?" asked Chip. "Is there something that we need to know about that's going on with San?"

He glared at him.

She sighed, "Fine, Shou Lang, I'll see what's the matter..." she said. He felt somewhat relieved. "But you're coming with me!" she said and gave him a look over her shoulder.

He faltered, "But...I'm busy right now!"

"Doing what?" asked Chip grinning.

He shot Chip a glare, "I'm busy beating you up, that's what I'm doing!" he growled and grabbed him with both hands and shook him.

"Come on, Shou Lang," she sounded worried again.

He made a face but followed her up the stairs.

...

"San? May I come in?" asked Ms. James softly.

"What do you think the problem is?" whispered Chip in his ear.

"She got a call from this Ms. Ran lady," he whispered back.

The old woman knocked again, "San?" she asked. "San? Are you in there, love?"

"Ms. Ran? I heard San talking about her," his green eyes flashed suddenly. "San told me how much she hated that woman! She's mean!"

Evil, not mean, he thought.

Ms. James looked back at them, "You're right, something is definitely wrong." She turned and gently opened the door, "San, sweetie?" she asked.

He craned his neck with Chip to see inside the room.

"San?" Chip jumped from his shoulder and stepped inside her room like Ms. James had done, he remained in the doorway looking in.

San was lying down on her bed, her face in a pillow, not moving. The light was off and made the room look blue for the blinds were drawn. He could see rectangles of light shining from the blinds on the wall.

"San?" Chip jumped on the bed with her and shook her shoulder. "You ok?" he asked.

San pulled him in a hug even though her face never left the pillow.

"San, what's wrong, dear?" asked Ms. James sitting on the bed beside her and patting her back. "Don't cry dear...it's all right."

He hung back and then left altogether. He walked downstairs and out into the front yard to jump up on the roof. He stayed there and looked out into the sky, he saw the first star.

He told himself not to think of San anymore, he did not want to think of the sound of that awful woman's voice in his ears or the fact that San was leaving for Maine. He had no clue where Maine was, but it sounded far away.

She isn't really going is she? He thought with his arms crossed and a troubled expression on his face. She can't leave, not when I need her to help me hunt for Uoy stones!

Uoy, a little voice in his head reminded him. Her dagger...he could find someone else to replace her, couldn't he? He could force some punk loser off the street to do his bidding and carry the dagger for him. But would it be the same? Could San really be replaced?

The question startled him. Replace her, he thought staring absently ahead. Sure I could find another human to wear the navigator, but...would it be the same? What would it be like...without...San?

That thought startled him more and then he could not force his mind to imagine what it would be like without her, it was unthinkable, really. He couldn't imagine what his life would be like, erasing her away would be like erasing Ms. James or Kithara from him. It was beyond comprehension, he could not grasp the thought of her leaving, being taken away. She was part of his daily obstacles, just like dealing with Chip had become. She was part of something, like his Master, Salem, and Nitro, they were all part of his life, in a way. They were...there, and they would always be there.

But if she left, if she left and he could not see her again...

Then it hit him like a bat suddenly being smacked against his head.

If San were to leave for Maine, I would never see her again...! He gasped and widened his eyes. That means...forever...! I'd never see her again, she'd become a memory. Something faded away never to be felt again in real life! She wouldn't exist...she'd be gone forever! She'd be nothing more but scraps of faded memory...

He sat up straighter, startled and unprepared for this surprisingly alarming thought that could one day be a reality.

If she left for Maine, for certain he would never be able to see her again. That was reality, she was leaving from his daily routine, his everyday life, she was going to slip away forever.

He did not want her to leave, she was part of his everyday course and routine. His everyday life would change...without San. Life as he saw it now would be altered! He liked things the way they were now, he did not want change, at least not yet anyway. He had grown accustomed to her being part of his normal life, and to have that taken away? It didn't fit with him, San had to be with him or otherwise he wouldn't have a normal day at all! She had to be there, she had to be apart of his everyday life, or it would not fit right.

No, he decided absently. San must stay with me until I say so otherwise! She has to be here, she can't leave, no, she must not leave!

He stood up on the roof with one fist clenched in determination. I have to make her stay, he thought. She must stay with me, I will not have it any other way! I'll make her stay with me, no one can just take her away! She belongs to me, he thought watching a second star appear in the sky. She belongs to my life.

To my life...?! He thought suddenly and lowered his head. She belongs to my life?

He stood that way for a long while thinking that thought over.

A human belongs to my life, is that it? He thought cocking his head and holding his chin in thought. Yes, he thought and decided firmly with a nod, San belongs just like Chip and Nitro belong. It wouldn't be the same, so they all belong in my life...yes, he thought looking back into the sky. That's it, he thought to himself.

He felt himself vibrate with inner determination and will. If San could not stay here then he would fight for her himself, he would fight to preserve his normal life, for he would not stand to let someone else change it. He was the boss of his territory, and no one would take that away from him. That went along with anything and anyone in his territory as well. He would see things off as he saw fit, he was master, not they or anyone else!

...

"Thanks you guys," she said hugging Chip and then reaching over to hug Ms. James. "I just hate it when Ms. Ran calls me...but how did you know that Ms. Ran had called?" she asked looking into Ms. James' eyes.

"I didn't," she said with her gray eyes twinkling. "Shou Lang did," she said patting her hand. "He thought that we should check up on you."

"True," said Chip after reading her expression of bewilderment and shock.

She was stunned, she sat back with her hands in her lap. "Check up on me? But why would Shou Lang...?" she trailed off.

"Don't know," Chip shrugged and hugged her wrist. "I'm glad that we made you feel better, though. I'm sorry Ms. Ran had to be so mean."

San stroked his hair and smiled at him affectionately, "I could never ask for a better friend," she said. Then she looked at Ms. James, "Ms. James..." she started.

"Not now," smiled the old woman, "Let's do something fun! How about chomping down on that pie I baked while you guys were out a school!" she said standing and clasping her hands together excitedly.

Already she was feeling herself again, she laughed. "That'll be great!"

"Pie!" cried Chip zooming from her room and down the stairs, she could hear his feet thumping against the boards of the stairway as he left.

Ms. James shook her head and smiled down on her, "Dearest..." she said and took both of her hands. "Just make sure that you say something to Shou Lang when you see him. Of course he would never admit it, but he was very concerned about you, make sure you say something, alright?" she asked.

San felt awkward but nodded her head, "Ok Ms. James."

"The future we can arrange later," said Ms. James patting her hands, "But for now...let's eat that pie, shall we?"

She nodded with a small smile on her face and progressed after the old woman down the stairs.

...

"Want some pie, Shou Lang?" asked Ms. James when he had finally entered through the front door.

He was barely aware that she had said anything, he looked up at her with a blank expression on his face. "What?" he asked.

"Pie!" said the possum smacking his lips. He had a touch of cream on his face.

"No thanks," he said and shuffled into the kitchen. He took off his shoes and left them outside in the garage before coming in and shutting the door.

"Out on the roof again?" asked Ms. James smiling at him.

He nodded.

"Sure you don't want any pie?" she asked, fork in midair as she spoke.

"It's really good," added Chip.

He thought for a moment, "Ok, fine," he said and scooped the waiting plate in Ms. James' hand. "Many thanks," he said picking up his slice and eating.

"Use a fork next time," sighed Ms. James after he had wolfed the whole thing down.

Forks are for sissies, he thought with a smirk. He was about to lick the cream off his fingers when the old woman shot him a glare and pointed to the pantry. "Get a napkin, Shou Lang!"

He sighed and went into the pantry. That was when his ears flicked and heard footsteps entering the kitchen from the washing room. He rose up and looked.

San cut herself a slice of the pie from the table and sat down.

He looked back into the pantry and dug out napkins with his sticky fingers. He wiped his hands carelessly and threw the rest of the stack in the middle of the table. Ms. James smiled in approval, "Much better, Shou Lang," she said.

He sat down and snuck San a sideways glance.

She was eating her little sliver of pie, eyes cast down, her entire being focused on eating at the moment.

He looked back in front of him and rested his head on one hand. He let his mind wander a while and half listened to the rat's idle chattering.

When everyone was done eating he stood up and followed the old woman's instructions to clean the dishes in the sink.

"I'll wash, you'll dry, and he will put them up," San was saying to the possum perched on her shoulder.

Ms. James passed out the aprons for everyone, but when he refused to wear it the old woman gave him a dead glare and resignedly he wrapped the apron around his waist.

This is so girly, he thought agitatedly.

The three fell into rhythm after the first couple of dishes. A pattern was made, wash, dry, put them up, wash, dry, put them up... He became absent in his work as he put the random dishes where they needed to be. He half listened to San and Chip's conversation.

When the last dish was finally put up he thankfully unwrapped the girlish apron around his waist and flung it over the peg. San came up beside him and helped Chip unwrap his, which was a baby doll's apron San had bought him not so long ago. Then she reached behind herself and undid her apron and hung it over the peg as well.

He gave them little thought and trooped back outside. He did not go to the roof but to the patio in the backyard. He wanted to get a good look at the sky and at the moon. He had missed the full moon when he had left, and the full moon had not yet risen in Ether when he finally arrived. He wondered where he was now with the changing moons, so he went outside and sat on the wooden railing that surrounded the perimeter of the patio.

He was absorbed in his thoughts and did not hear the backdoor open and two feet padding up to him. He was busy pondering over Ms. Smith when he heard someone clear her throat. Startled he looked over his shoulder.

"San..." he said mildly surprised. Then he felt a little uneasy and looked away from her back into the moon. "What brings you out here?" he asked.

She came up beside him, apart from him by maybe three feet or so along the rail, he looked over at her. San was looking into the sky and was quiet for the longest time, which suited him just fine. He preferred silence anyway, it gave him room to think, so he remained quiet as well and drifted off in pensive thought again, paying her little thought and soon forgetting she was there.

"Shou Lang?" she asked, breaking him from his thoughts.

He was startled again, he had lost his train of thought and had forgotten she was out there with him. He gave her a wondering look, she met his gaze.

The moon was a gentle waxing crescent, its moonlight was pale and thin but even so he could see her clearly. She looked almost shy and very timid, her face had a pale crown of light setting it aglow with the moon's rays.

"What?" he asked.

She looked down and then into the sky again. When she turned her head to look at him she looked ready to say something but it seemed she was having difficulty saying whatever it was. "I just..." she started off in a quiet hesitant voice. "I..." she met his gaze again and lowered her eyes.

He swished his tail.

She raised her eyes again, and with the moon on her face he saw her flush a little. "I...thank you for wanting to check on me, today..." she said and quickly looked away from him and back into the sky.

He stood there a little fazed, "What?" he asked.

"I mean...that was very nice of you...to think of me," she looked awkward when she met his confused gaze again. "Ms. James told me that you were worried about me after that telephone call I got from Ms. Ran."

He twitched and looked at the sky. He felt a little irritated, "I wasn't worried," he said flatly.

"Yes well...it was nice for checking up on me anyway," she said quietly.

He looked at her and found that she was smiling at him. He twitched his ears and quickly looked at the sky again, "I wasn't worried," he told her.

"I know."

"Good. I just want to make that clear," he looked at her sideways. "I don't want you getting the wrong idea or anything like that."

She nodded her head with her eyes lowered, "Yes, I know that, Shou Lang."

A long pause followed after and he fidgeted, he was uncomfortable and did not know why. "So..." he looked at her. "What are you going to do now?"

"What do you mean?" she looked at him.

"About this whole thing about moving to Maine?"

"Oh," she looked sullen. He felt foolish for bringing it up. "I...I don't know," she said sadly. "The Kettles want me back in Maine, I don't think I have a choice..." she sounded defeated and wounded again.

"Well," he said looking at her. "You're not leaving here, not as long as Ms. James and I are around, you aren't."

She seemed surprised, "How do you mean?" she asked him.

"Ms. James isn't going to let those guys take you to Maine without a fight," he said leaning on the railway. "She'll fight for you."

San still looked puzzled, "I know that," she said. "But...you?"

"What about me?" he asked defensively.

"You said that as long as you and Ms. James were around...why you?" she asked him looking confused and puzzled.

"Me...?" he hadn't realized that he had said that. "Well!" he shrugged it off and gave her a confident snort. "You don't think I'll let those human fools take my navigator away from me, do you?"

"Oh," she said and looked at her hands, "I guess not..." said San.

"Of course not!" he said looking into the moon. "They'll have to fight me first before I give you up..." he paused a second then looked at her surprised expression. "...the navigator, I mean," he added quickly.

"It doesn't matter anyway," she said leaning on the rail and looking up into the sky. "I can't stay long with Ms. James...they'll put her in a nursing home and place me with the Kettles anyway!"

He looked at her again.

"Either way...on both sides," she shook her head and lowered it. "They'll find some way to split us apart, and I don't think I can make it without Ms. James, I really don't think I can..."

"What do you mean?" he asked looking at her sideways.

She looked up at him soberly, "You don't know what it's like being out here by yourself..." then she smiled partway, "Well, maybe you do, you're an orphan like I am."

Yes, he thought.

"But it is different here in my world than in yours," she continued looking out at the sky. "I can't just take a sword and beat my way through my problems like you can. I'm not...strong like you."

He said nothing and looked back into the sky.

"It was so hard...growing up with my foster families...I hated it, I never had any real family of my own..." she looked over at him and smiled as if embarrassed. "I don't know why I'm telling you this. I'm sure you don't want to hear it."

He didn't say anything.

"But anyway," she said pulling away from the rail. "Thanks for thinking of me today, worried or not." San gave him a lingering smile, "Thank you, Shou Lang," she said and slipped away from the patio.

He watched her leave and shut the door behind her, then he looked back in front of him and laced his fingers together. After a while he looked back into the sky and judged that he had more than enough time before the full moon to finish off killing Ms. Smith.

...

"Did you talk to Shou Lang?" asked Ms. James as she dove underneath the covers with the old woman.

"Uh-huh," she said nodding and squeezing her eyes shut.

"What did he have to say?" asked Ms. James yawning and stretching.

"Ms. James, you know Shou Lang, he didn't say anything," she yawned herself and turned over on her side. "I'm so tired, Ms. James..."

"I'm sure he secretly appreciates you telling him that, you know," said the old woman grabbing her hand from underneath the covers.

"I doubt it," yawned San. "Goodnight Ms. James."

"You'll sleep here?" asked Ms. James.

"Uh-huh," she said and opened her eyes. "Oh wait, I forgot Chip-!" she cried and dove out of bed. She returned with a snoring Chip in her arms and dove back in the covers with Ms. James. "Ok, now I can go to sleep."

"Alright," said Ms. James flicking off the light switch. "Goodnight, dear."

"Goodnight, Ms. James!"

6.

(Neil Redmond)

"Why are you up so early?" he asked making a face as he entered through the doorway.

Chip twitched his nose and sighed, "I can't sleep," he confessed.

"And why is that?" he asked tilting back in his chair and crossing his arms underneath his head.

"I don't know," answered the possum looking through the orange tinted room. "I guess I didn't know how early it was until now..." he looked out the window trailing off.

He grinned suddenly and tousled his hair, "Oh I see," he said messing up his hair with his hand. "So you weren't trying to raid the kitchen and steal my pancakes from me, hm?"

"I told you already!" he shouted and swiped at his hand. "I'm not hungry anyway!" he crossed his arms over his little chest and pouted. "I just couldn't sleep..."

He blinked and sat back in his chair. "Couldn't sleep? Having nightmares?" he asked sarcastically with a snort.

"No!" snapped Chip.

"Oh I see," said Shou Lang with a languid smile. "You just wanted to keep me company, why, that's so sweet of you, Chip."

Chip's face darkened, "Whatever," he scoffed and looked away with a snort.

"That's ok," said Shou Lang leaning back in his chair again and letting out a long whistle. "I didn't need your company anyway!"

They were quiet for a while, both watching the sunrise from the open window.

Ms. Smith, he thought as he gazed outside of the window. I know you're out there somewhere...but you can't hide forever! I will find you, and I will finish you off. I won't let you trick me again. Give me your worst!

...

"Feeling any better today, San?" asked Chip as they walked.

"Yeah, I guess so," she replied and withdrew a breath. She was cold and shivered, she had not been expecting it to be so cold outside. She shuddered in her coat and looked at her feet as she walked.

Shou Lang was quiet as usual. He had his hands in his pockets and that determined thoughtful expression on his face as though he was thinking about something important. His tail swished around his legs as he walked ahead. She looked at him and wondered what was on his mind.

"Cold?" asked Chip once she had shivered again.

"A little," she admitted and gave him a guilty smile. "I knew that today it was going to snow, but I didn't bring my hat or gloves."

Chip was dressed in his woolen knit sweater that Ms. James had made for him and wore a little cap on his head. His cheeks were a frosty looking pink and eyes unusually bright today. "I wonder if Shou Lang is cold."

"Huh?" she looked ahead at Shou Lang and then turned to Chip and shook her head. "Cold? Shou Lang is never cold," she said. "Nor is he hot."

"I wonder," Chip lowered his voice to a hushed whisper, "What could he thinking about right now? He looks so serious!" whispered Chip in her ear.

"Maybe it's because he's cold but wants to look tough," she whispered back giggling.

"Yeah! See how his hands are inside his pockets? He's cold alright," laughed Chip.

"I hear you two talking about me over there!" growled Shou Lang looking over his shoulder at the two of them.

"We weren't talking about you!" said Chip innocently.

"For your information," he snorted looking the other way, "I am not cold! If I was I wouldn't be going to school," and he looked at them. "Besides, the weather is fine. You're both just a bunch of whining simpletons."

"You're the simpleton," she heard Chip mutter from underneath his breath.

Shou Lang shot Chip a glare but said nothing and kept walking ahead of them. She looked at Chip and grinned at him.

...

"I have to go to the office," she explained to Shou Lang and Chip. "We left school yesterday. Ms. James gave me this note," she presented it out of her pocket and sighed. "Now I have to talk with the office people so they won't count our absence as tardy."

"Then you'll be late for gym?" Chip asked with quivering little whiskers.

"Yes," she said and fondly patted his head. "Tell Ms. Walton that I'll be a little late so she won't mark me off, ok?"

Chip nodded his head.

Shou Lang just looked at her with the same sort of irritated expression he always wore on his face. She gave him a hesitant smile and slipped away from the both of them. "I'll be back!" she called over her shoulder.

"We'll tell Ms. Walton!" Chip jumped on Shou Lang's shoulder as he started walking down the hallway.

She watched them go with a long sigh, and then with another sigh she faced the office room. "Here it goes," she said shuffling to the office door and knocking before entering.

She was greeted by at least a dozen office women in sweaters and short black skirts with pens in their ears and buns. "Hello," said the woman at the counter.

"Oh," she cleared her throat and took the note. "My friends and I left school early, here is the excuse slip," she said sliding the little note to the woman.

The woman looked it over, "What? I'm sorry, this note will only work for parties living with you. You can't have an excuse for your friends."

"They're transfer students that live with me," she explained. "Read the note."

The woman read the note over again and then smiled, "Oh! I see! My daughter was talking about this guy!" she said smiling at her.

"Huh?" she was confused. "What guy?"

"Shou Lang Wolf," she said handing her the note. A huge grin wore her face, "She was telling me how he was new heartthrob of the school!" several of the other office ladies giggled.

"Um...sure, I guess."

"My daughter was telling me how jealous she was of you and so on," continued the woman taking the pen from her ear and writing something down on a slip of pink paper. "She wished that Mr. Wolf lived in her house instead of yours." The woman looked up and handed her the pink slip. "There you go."

"Thank you."

"Tell me," said the woman suddenly, she leaned on her hands. "I've seen Shou Lang Wolf several times," she said. "Is he your boyfriend? He truly is a very handsome guy...is he going to be a model?"

She wasn't sure how to answer so said nothing and smiled awkwardly. "Um...!"

"Oh I'm sorry for being nosey!" she said waving her hand apologetically. "Say," she said after she had finished giggling. "Can you do me a favor since you're the only student in here?"

"Um, yes, I'll try," said San pocketing the slip of paper and looking intently at the office woman's face.

"There's a new boy at the school, and I'm too busy to show him around," she looked over her shoulder at another office woman. "Bring in the new student," she said to her. "I'll have this young lady give him the tour of the school."

A new student, thought San with a twinge of embarrassment. I'm supposed to show him around the school? This will be interesting...

The other woman appeared with a tall boy by her side. "Here he is!" she said brightly and smiled at San. "I hope you'll make him feel welcome at our school!"

"I'll...try..." she said looking at the new boy.

He smiled at her in return, a confident smile, a smile that made her heart flutter.

"Good," said the woman at the counter. "He has his schedule and everything, just go over it with him and make sure he knows how to get to his classes. This is his first day here with us!" the woman beamed at the boy.

The boy nodded politely and walked up to her. He had a sort of confidence air about him, it was magnetic, and so was his friendly looking smile and eyes. "Hello," he said courteously.

"Oh...uh...hi!" she said stupidly and flushed. "Welcome to our school!" she said laughing nervously and looking away from him.

They walked out of the main office and out into the hall. San stood there for a while not knowing where to begin, "Ok!" she started off and smiled at him. "Let me see your schedule, I'll show you your classes first, and then the rest of the school!" she said brightly and as friendly as possible. She knew what it was like being a new kid. She had been a new kid most of her school career, that is, until she started living with Ms. James.

The boy did not seem to be bothered about being new, he wasn't shy or uncertain like most of the students who entered school for their first day. He handed her his schedule with a little smile on his face.

She studied his schedule and looked up in his face, "Well, for first period you have physical science with Mr. Thomson." He still had that half smile on his face, as though he was smirking at her in some way. "We'll go there first," she said. "So, follow me and I'll show you the way."

The tall boy took her elbow, she gasped quietly and looked around at him, he was smiling now. "What's your name?" he asked.

"Uh..." she was caught off guard. "My name is San James," she answered flushing again. "What's yours?" she asked.

"Neil," he answered. "My name is Neil Redmond."

...

"This is the cafeteria," she said motioning to the empty arena before them. "Lunch is broken up in three different groups," she said looking at him. "I have middle lunch because I'm a freshman. Freshmen and sophomores have middle lunch. First lunch are for the seniors and last lunch are for the juniors."

He smiled at her again, "Sounds a little confusing."

"I promise you'll get used to it," she assured him. "Once you stay in this school for a while it isn't all that hard. Things will start falling into place!" she told him with a smile.

"I'm glad I have you to show me around," he said in his same courteous tone of voice. "For a freshman you seem to know a lot about the school and how things work around here."

She took the compliment with a lighthearted laugh, "Thank you," she said. "Are you a freshman?" she asked.

"No," he answered. "I'm a junior, so I guess I get last lunch, right?"

"Yes," she nodded her head. All the sudden she felt out of place, she was a freshman and he was a junior. Whenever she was around juniors and seniors, out of respect, she treated them like how she would treat student teachers or substitutes. She held high respect and mannerism for her older peers, it was a thing she learned to do in the orphanages. The older ones got all the respect or the younger ones would get knocked around.

She smiled politely at him and cleared her throat, "Well," she said. "I'll show you the gymnasium next," she said and turned. "Follow me, please," she said politely.

"So..." he was saying behind her. "Have you lived in Philadelphia long?" he asked.

"Well," she answered truthfully, "I've lived a good part of my life here. I'd say a good three years or so. Most of the time I move around."

"And why is that?" he asked with a slight tone of interest. "Does your dad get transferred a lot?" he asked.

"Oh," she said and looked away, uncomfortable. "Well...I don't really know my dad, I've...never met him before."

"Oh," he said quietly. "I'm sorry."

"That's quite all right!" she said and smiled at him. "Make a turn to your left by the bookstore and-" she stopped. "I showed you the bookstore, didn't I?" she asked him.

Neil shook his head. "I don't think so," he said.

"Well, here's the bookstore," she said motioning to it. "It's closed now, but it's always open before school and during lunch. You can buy candy, books, pencils, paper, the works! This is where I get my stuff if I ever run out of something, but it's kind of expensive, though."

He looked at the bookstore with a thoughtful expression on his face.

"It gets crowded at lunch because the others want to buy candy," she looked at him. "I suggest that you buy your stuff early in the morning, right when school opens. The bookstore is open all up to the first bell and then they close and remain open all during the lunch hours."

"After school too?" he asked.

"If you hurry you can make it," she told him. "The lines are the longest after school, I think the best time to buy is in the morning."

"Ok, I'll remember that," he told her with that magnetic smile. "Thanks for the tip!"

"You're welcome," she said walking away from the bookstore and turning the corner. "The gym is right at the end of this hall, you have to take the stairs to get down there. The gym is on the bottom floor."

"Cool," he said.

She walked down the stairs and into the hallway. "All of the health rooms are here," she said. "And the vending machine down here is real popular after school," she said nodding at the coke vending machine as they passed it.

"A weight room too?!" he asked looking into the weight room as they passed. "My old school didn't have a weight room!"

"Do you work out a lot?" she asked with a smile.

He turned to look at her, "Some," he answered.

"Here," she stepped into the gym. "My class is in there, so ignore whatever they have to say," she said motioning him inside. "I'll introduce you to Ms. Walton since you have her next period."

Neil followed her across the gym floor and to Ms. Walton who was barking at a bunch of boys to stop horsing around. "Ms. Walton?" she asked.

Ms. Walton turned, "San!" she cried. "You're at least half an hour late!" she bellowed angrily.

"Here," she said taking the note from her pocket and handing it to her. "Anyway, we have a new student and I'm showing him around the school."

"Ah," said Ms. Walton looking up from the note and eying the new boy. "How do you do? I'm Ms. Walton, what's your name?"

"Neil Redmond," he answered courteously.

"He has you next period, Ms. Walton," said San quietly.

"Nice to have you, Neil," said Ms. Walton shaking his hand. "How do you like this school so far?" she asked him.

Neil looked at San and smiled, "So far, it's been really great."

She lowered her eyes and flushed a little.

"Well, San, get on with it! If you're not done showing him around then I'm taking points off your grade!"

"Ok," she said with a sigh. "I'm nearly done. I just have to get him to his first period class."

"San!" cried Chip bounding in her arms. "You're back!" he cried.

"Chip!" she said and cuddled with him. "Oh yeah, meet Neil Redmond, he's a new student here," she said.

Neil was staring at Chip with a look of surprise on his face, "Is that...a talking baby doll or something?"

She laughed, "No, this is my friend, Chip. He lives with me," she said and smiled down at Chip. "He's a very good friend of mine."

"Ok..." said Neil.

"What are you doing San?" asked Chip.

"Showing him around the school," she said placing him down. "I won't be long, I'll be right back, ok?" she said.

Chip whipped his tail around and sighed, "Ok...it's just that Shou Lang is killing me!"

She laughed again, "I'll see you Chip," she said turning.

"Nice meeting you," said Neil giving a little wave.

"Hey, wait a second," called a voice behind her. "San-! Ah..." Shou Lang stopped behind her and put his arms over his chest. "And just who are you?" he asked brusquely

"Shou Lang," she chided looking up at him from over her shoulder. "Be nice, he's a new student, Ok?!"

Shou Lang cast a yellow eye on her, "Ms. Walton got in my face, you said that you would be back in a little while, and here you are now nearly an hour later!" he snapped.

She looked away from him, "I'll take you to your first period now," she said looking at Neil.

"What?" Shou Lang asked angrily.

Neil was looking at Shou Lang with a blank glazed look on his face.

"Come on, Neil," said San motioning to him, "We have to hurry or my teacher will start deducting points off my grade," she sighed at this. "Ms. Walton can be very unreasonable at times."

"You're leaving?" Shou Lang demanded. "Why? Why are you leaving with that guy?"

San glared at him, "Why do you care?" she snapped at him.

"This whole time you've been with this boy?" he asked making a face a Neil.

"Be nice, Shou Lang," said Chip on his shoulder. "He's a new student!"

His yellow eyes flashed, "What business do you have with San?" demanded Shou Lang at Neil.

Neil only smiled, "Is she your girlfriend or something?" he asked. "She was only showing me around the school, that's all."

"She is no girlfriend of mine!" he snorted crossing his arms again and looking disgusted all of a sudden.

She bristled and glared up at him, "Come on, Neil. Let's go," she said and turned around with an irritated sigh.

"Ah!" exclaimed Neil smiling all of a sudden, he looked down at her. "For a second, I thought he was going to beat me up or something!"

"Shou Lang?" she smiled at him. "He's harmless really, unless you irritate him. Just for advise, don't get in his way, he has a serious temper problem."

Neil chuckled, "I see..." he said.

"He also lives with me, that's Shou Lang," she said looking at Shou Lang. "He's a transfer student from Australia. He can be a little crazy at times so you-" she started to say.

"You're very pretty," he interrupted smiling down on her.

"I-!" she was caught off guard again. "T-thank you," she said with burning cheeks.

"Hey-!" growled Shou Lang stepping in. "Are you going to get him on to class or what, San?!" he snapped at her angrily.

Shou Lang glared at Neil, Neil only smiled at him.

"Um..." she looked down at Chip, she had never been so embarrassed and stupidly flattered in all her life. He had actually called her pretty! No one ever complimented her looks, she could not believe that Neil had just done that.

"If it means all the same to you," Shou Lang continued in a steel grinding tone, "I'll just might show you around the school, would you mind?" he asked Neil heatedly.

Neil shrugged, "I don't mind," he said.

"Shou Lang," she said clearing her throat to get the words out. "I'll show him around the school, you don't even know the school half the time! We'll be on our way!"

Shou Lang's eyes narrowed on her, "Then shouldn't you be off, then? Why are you two just standing around staring at each other? Get on with it then!" he cried pushing San out the gym by her shoulders.

Neil followed close behind. "Is he a freshman too?" he asked.

"Uh-huh," she nodded. "Don't pay him any mind," she couldn't look at him and looked at her feet as she spoke. "I'll take you to class now..." she said.

...

"Thanks for showing me around the school," said Neil showing her his magnetic smile again. "You've been a great help to me!"

"You're welcome," she replied shyly.

"I hope to see you again sometime," said Neil and placed both hands on her shoulders. He cocked his head and grinned, "So far you're the prettiest girl I've seen out here!"

Her cheeks felt aflame once more and she laughed nervously and lowered her eyes. "I'm sure...you'll find a lot of girls far better looking than me!"

"Maybe," he said with a laugh. "But thanks for your help," he released her shoulders and turned into his class. "See you later!" he called with a courteous wave and then he was gone.

...

"Well-!" snorted Shou Lang when she had walked in. "You've been gone long enough for anything!" he cried.

San couldn't contain her delighted smile and covered her cheeks, "Leave me alone!" she cried breaking away from him and running with the rest of the girls heading for the girls' locker room.

...

Neil Redmond, she thought adjusting her backpack on her shoulders and sighing contently. She couldn't get his smile out of her head, nor his courteous manner or speech. She giggled and covered her cheeks again.

He even called me pretty, she thought and squirmed with delight.

"Oh shut up," Shou Lang retorted. "You're giggling like a foolish brothel girl!"

San ignored him and looked into the sky, Neil Redmond, she thought. Neil, Neil, Neil, she thought and smiled even wider. I don't know why I can't stop thinking about him, he wasn't all that...and besides, I've sworn my heart to Abdul Sahib!

"Look at her," she heard Chip say. "She's blushing! I bet she's thinking about that new student, Neil!"

"And so what if I was!" she said defensively.

"Don't tell me you've thrown the louse over for the new guy!" Shou Lang cried rolling his eyes.

"No," she said, "And Abdul is not a louse, stop calling him that."

"He is a louse, you just don't see it yet," Shou Lang retorted angrily. "I don't see what you find so interesting in him or this new punk you're so crazy about, either!" he snapped.

"You sound jealous, Shou Lang!" she said looking at him from over her shoulder.

Shou Lang's expression changed but he ducked his head before she could read it. "Whatever!" he cried and leapt up over her head. "Shou Lang-!" she cried but he had flown too far.

Chip whistled, "Did you see that?" he squeaked.

"See what?" asked San looking at him blankly.

Chip narrowed his eyes and started cackling.

What's his problem, she thought making a face at Chip and looking back into the sky. Oh well, she sighed. I just can't wait to tell Ms. James about Neil Redmond!

...

Shou Lang looked up from the table once San and Chip entered the house.

"Ms. James-!" she cried grabbing the old woman's hands and jumping up and down. "You wouldn't believe what happened to me!" she cried excitedly.

Shou Lang snorted, stood up, and slammed the backdoor after him.

"What?" Ms. James looked startled.

"This new junior at my school told me that I was pretty!" she cried. "Can you believe that, Ms. James?" she gushed.

"Well, dear," said Ms. James blankly and surprised, "you are pretty, you should know that and not have someone to tell you."

She didn't hear her, "Wasn't that sweet of him? I've never been called pretty except for him and Abdul!" she cried.

And Ash, she thought, but she decided not to bring him up.

"You're a pretty girl, San," said Ms. James puzzled. "Who told you otherwise?"

San looked at her, "Why...lots of people," she said. "But I don't care, I'm glad that someone else finds me pretty looking!"

Ms. James scratched her head, "I think someone would need their eyes checked to call you ugly looking, you are far from ugly, San. You're very beautiful."

"I'm going to do my homework!" ignored San sweeping up the stairs with Chip in her arms. "I'll come down to help make dinner in a second, Ms. James!" she cried circling into her room and giggling happily.

Neil Redmond, she thought. Neil, Neil, Neil...