Chinese New Year
All disclaimers apply.
Author's Note: All my info on traditional Chinese lifestyle is preliminary research, not being Chinese myself, so if anyone finds any errors in the story please feel free to let me know.
Sally Po paused in her rhythmic pounding of the punching bag in front of her. She glanced over her shoulder at Lucrezia Noin just coming out of the women's locker room, freshly showered and dressed.
"You're staying late?" Noin asked, indicating the empty gym around them.
Wiping persperation from her forehead, Sally nodded. "Yeah. I've got nothing better to do. I'll catch a ride home with our overachieving comrade Wu Fei."
Noin smiled. "What, trying to get that perfect figure?"
"Don't talk, Miss High Metabolism," Sally countered with a slight smile. "Some of us actually have to work to stay lean and mean."
"Whatever." Noin shrugged and slung her duffel over her shoulder. "Speaking of Wu Fei, how are things going in that area?"
"How are things going?" Sally echoed. She paused to stare at the swinging punching bag, absently cracking her knuckles. "Strange," she said after awhile. "It's very . . . strange."
"Strange?" Noin raised a dark brow.
"Yeah. That's the best word to describe anything having to do with him."
Actually, the best word to describe anything she had to do with Wu Fei would be "confusing." He'd always perplexed her as just a friend. But ever since she'd laid all her cards out on the table during a mission a few weeks ago, finally admitting that she was attracted to him and getting him to admit he felt the same, he became more than puzzling. Easing their way into this shaky new relationship was not fun.
Frustrated with the thought alone, Sally whirled in a roundhouse kick and sent the bag spinning.
Noin dropped her duffel and placed her hands on the bag to keep it still and allow the other woman to really pound on it. "Don't tell me he's still acting like a glacier," she said.
"No. Worse. One minute he's a glacier, the next, giving me these incredible kisses that make my blood turn to wine. It's driving me crazy."
The song quote made Noin laughed softly. "Yeah, Zechs and I were like that, too, at first. Although I guess we have it easier, since we've known each other so long. Have you and Wu Fei gotten into the 'deep talks' part yet?"
Sally snorted derisively. "Hah! We haven't even gotten into the 'civil conversation' part yet. He doesn't tell me anything about himself. Nothing at all."
"Do you want him to?" Noin looked at her friend from around the bag, her violet eyes inquisitive. "I thought this was just going to be a fling. You know. An experiment." Her lips twitched in a teasing smile. "Don't tell me you're falling for him."
"What? No," Sally said a little too quickly. She stopped beating up on the bag altogether and stood there, frowning. "I couldn't get into anything serious with Wu Fei. Even if you negate the difference in age and attitude and experience, it wouldn't work. He just isn't my type."
"Are you mocking me?" Sally demanded, eyes narrow.
Her friend shook her head slowly. "No. Just wondering, that's all."
"Well . . ." With a shrug, Noin bent to pick up her duffel. "You were planning to visit your family for vacation, right? Ask Wu Fei to come with you."
"Excuse me?" Sally sputtered, staring at Noin in disbelief. Bring Wu Fei with her to China to meet her family? Please. There were cleaner ways to kill herself.
"You heard me. Ask him," Noin repeated as if it were the most sensible thing in the world to do. "If he says yes, that means he's interested in more than a fling with you."
"If he says yes," the blonde woman began with a roll of her eyes, "the sky will fall and I'll sprout fox ears, turn bright blue, and lay an egg."
"Don't be cynical."
"To what end would I risk my self-respect asking Wu Fei to come spend time with me and my maladjusted family members?"
"If he says yes, you'll figure it out from there. Trust me." Noin winked, then turned and headed for the exit to the gym. "See you later."
After she heard the door slam, Sally turned back to the punching bag, cracking her knuckles again. She then resumed her abuse on it, delivering jabs and hooks and backhands that were powerful, but had no real conviction. Her mind was elsewhere.
That had to be craziest idea she had ever heard. Her family drove her nuts as it was; add one stoic soldier to the list and it would be over. A slow death like that was not recommended.
Still . . . it might be risky to go away for a week and leave Wu Fei to find logic in their new relationship, of which there was none. By the time she got back, he might return to his former disdainful self and deem everything about male-female relationships preposterous, like he did every Valentine's Day.
If that happened, she would be stuck with these awkward, vaguely disturbing feelings of attraction that had prompted her to throw caution to the wind in the first place. And he had reacted in a positive manner.
A family trip might be pushing it, though.
Oh, what the hell. What was the worst that could happen from asking?
Shuddering at the very thought, Sally sighed and walked away from the punching bag. As she unwrapped her knuckles and started towards the locker room, she tried to remember where she had last seen her testy little quasi-boyfriend.
Where is he, anyway? she wondered, and changed direction to look for him. He never worked out with the rest of them; he usually wandered off to a more private section of the gym so he could have some peace while he exercised. Actually socializing with human beings was burden for him.
Through the doorway that connected the main gym to the mat room, she noticed movement and took a look inside.
More than half the overhead lights were off, making the large room dim. Black mats covered the majority of the floor, and mirrors filled the entire far wall, reflecting back the sole figure near the center of the room.
Wu Fei, barefoot and shirtless, dressed in only drawstring sweats, was performing a martial arts kata. He seemed completely absorbed by it, so Sally refrained from interrupting him and leaned against the wall to watch.
The movement she had come in on seemed only one of the earliest, as the kata continued for the next fifteen minutes. His back to the doorway and his movements concentrated, Wu Fei didn't seem aware that he had an audience.
After awhile, Sally found herself as lost in the kata as its performer. It was truly beautiful. Every strike against invisible adversaries was perfectly executed, every turn and step graceful and precise. One moment, he moved slowly, carefully, the next, with furious, deadly energy. Twist . . . kick . . . spin . . . punch--it was a concise, complicated dance, yet he seemed not even to think about it.
Power, elegance, all important elements in a good kata. And Wu Fei seemed to have mastered it all.
Sally was vaguely surprised and impressed. True, she had worked with him for three years now, but though she had seen him win fights with terrible odds against him by using his skills, she'd never seen him in a kata. She'd never known he could be so graceful.
It wasn't until he finally ended the dance with a silent bow to an invisible opponant that she said, "No wonder you never lose a hand-to-hand fight."
He whirled with a suddenness that told her had hadn't known she was there. The annoyance in his dark eyes also told her that he wasn't pleased about it, either. "What are you doing here?" he demanded in his usual forbidding tone.
She smiled at her partner, deciding to irritate him further. "What does it look like? I'm watching you dance. Have you ever considered taking up ballet?"
Wu Fei gave her a glance so fierce that she wouldn't have been surprised to hear him growl. "Don't start, Sally," he warned, going over to a nearby bench to grab a towel.
"No, really. Just add a pair of slippers, and you'd blow them away in Swan Lake. Plus, I imagine you'd look good in tights."
He narrowed his eyes at her, then buried his face in the towel. Sally chuckled until she noticed the tension in his bare shoulders. Her teasing, which he usually ignored, seemed to be getting to him for some reason.
Not wanting to have him harbor any resentment, she relented. "But seriously, that was great," she said honestly. "I wish my form was half as good."
"Hmph." Wu Fei threw down the towel and picked up his shirt. "I stretched too long on the fifth movement, almost broke the ninth, slipped on the twelfth, and a dozen other mistakes. It should have been better."
Sally rolled her eyes as she stepped aside to let him pass through the doorway. "Ever critical. Give yourself some credit."
"It was flawed and imperfect. Simple as that."
With that sharp remark, he headed for the men's locker room. She calmly watched him go, not admitting to herself that she was mesmerized by every well-worked inch of his upper body. His form was sleek, toned, with just enough muscle to make watching him move interesting.
Suddenly, he whirled and glared at her. "Stop that immediately."
Faking innocence, Sally looked at him with wide blue eyes. "Stop what?"
"Staring at me like that. You're making my skin crawl."
Others might have taken that more seriously than he probably meant it. But she saw his words for what they were and smiled slowly. "I should think you'd be used to women staring at you by now. You're not a little boy anymore."
As she had hoped, she was rewarded by the ever-so-slight reddening of his cheeks. And as always, whenever he was flustered, he got mad.
"I'm sorry," he said in a scornful tone that showed he was anything but. "I choose not to associate myself with wanton women who spend their days alternately getting drunk and ogling boys half their age. I'll have to discard that habit in the future." The last sentence was almost dripping with sarcasm.
It was obvious what he meant, and Sally had to fight not to retort with something just as biting. Better to throw his insult back in his face.
"So, what, you don't want to associate with me?" Her smile was sly as she leaned back against the wall and crossed her arms. "Of course, I don't drink and I'm only four years older than you are, but I must admit, I do enjoy ogling you." The smile grew to wickedness. "And doing other things with you, as well."
No blushing this time, but the sudden fire that flared in his eyes was just as satisfying, if not more so.
Wu Fei decided not to grace her words with a remark, whirled on his heel, and retreated into the locker room.
Sally sighed and shook her head. Bring him to China with her? Heavens forbid.
She pulled her hair out of its ponytail and went into the women's locker room, hoping to catch him before he left.
Stupidity, that's what it was. These constant word games in which they always became engaged in place of outright insults or compliments were simple foolishness.
Wu Fei tiredly rubbed his eyes as he stood under the unrelenting rush of hot water from the shower nozzle. His body ached, in both good and bad ways. Good because it was only proof his kata was effective. Bad because the ache wasn't entirely related to muscle.
The recollection of teasing sky-blue eyes and the suggestive smile that went with them was guilty of that.
Though he hadn't said the words in over a year, he said them now: "Foolish onna."
That regression into his former immaturity was oddly soothing, and Wu Fei completed the shower without needing to turn the water cold.
As he dressed, he silently continued to grate over his most recent source of irritation. His partner had always been a thorn in his side--a reliable, humorous, and intelligent thorn, but a thorn nonetheless--but the thorn had become a dagger with a serrated edge and he didn't know how much more he could take.
It had been one thing when she had been an associate at work, then a comrade, and eventually even a friend. That had been tolerable. But now she was--dare he think it--more than that.
Most people would consider a few kisses, no matter how intense, to be of little concern in any relationship. It wasn't in his nature, however, to dismiss it so easily. Not when those "few kisses" had been his first ever. Not when he wanted more than a few.
A mere curiosity, he thought, smoothing his damp hair back into a ponytail that, after three years, trailed down his back. That's all it is. I've simply never been so close to a woman before. As long as neither I nor Sally begin to take this seriously, it shall never become as such.
No fear of that. Sally didn't take relationships seriously, if her casual flirtations with men were any indication. He was certain she wasn't promiscuous, but neither did she have the time to be deeply romantic.
He knew her interest in him was simply a convenience for her. Soon enough, she would get over it, and he would have whet his appetite enough to explore other relationships.
That was the logical way to look at it.
Logic, however, had no place in the way she drew his eye with every movement, every slight, ironic little smile.
"Idiocy," he muttered, picking up his gym bag. He forced himself to put her out his mind and focus on the possibility of future missions. Things had been slow lately around the Preventer station. Whenever they had lulls like this, he tried to devote most of his time to useful things, like research on unsolved cases or overdue paperwork or routine patrols around the colony clusters. But more often than not, he found himself in the station's gym, working off imaginary stress.
And more often than not, when there wasn't work, there was her. His priorities were entirely lacking in sense.
More agitated than before he had had the shower, Wu Fei left the locker room. Before he could head straight for the exit, he noticed the lights on the ceiling going dark.
Sally stood by the switches, methodically flicking each one. She was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, her hair had been slicked back into a tail much like his own, and her gym bag was thrown over one shoulder. She shot him a look as he walked over to her with a skeptical expression.
"What?" she asked.
"Most women take ages to get ready," he said.
"I'm not most women. Took me eleven minutes. It's a personal best." She draped an arm on his shoulder. "I couldn't let you get away without escorting me home, now, could I?"
He snorted. "You wouldn't be so merciful."
"Aw," she mocked him, then did something unprecedented: She kissed him on the cheek. It was soft and quick, with just a hint of sarcasm. He caught the subtle lavender scent of her shampoo or lotion or whatever, her scent.
While he blinked at her in surprise, she smirked and started to walk away.
He caught her hand before it could finish sliding down his arm and firmly pulled her back.
"Oh, don't even start reading me the riot act," she began, "it was just a--"
His mouth descending on hers was enough to silence her.
Her pure shock gave him time to take the advantage she usually had because of his inexperience. And so, in seconds, he had her pressed between him and the wall and was sliding his fingers into her still-damp hair, dislodging the elastic band that held it back. He decided that since he was being bold, he might as well take it all the way, and parted her lips with his tongue. That maneuver was still a little tricky as far as he was concerned, but by then she had recovered and responded fire for fire.
It felt incredible. She felt incredible. No amount of martial arts or sword exercises or even strenuous Preventer work could be as exhilirating as a single kiss. Her taste, the rhythm of her breathing, the sensation of her hands sliding across his back and neck . . . this was what he had been restless for during the days he had distanced himself from her.
This was what he had been craving, and it was terrifying.
Abruptly, Wu Fei broke the kiss, breathing harder than he had been only moments ago and somehow unable to push off the wall and away from her.
Sally was just as winded, her crystal-blue eyes locked onto his and filled with curiosity and longing.
Any second, now, she would have a witty retort ready, some smart remark that would make it easy to pull away, easy to dismiss what had just occurred as nothing more than a "moment."
But she said nothing. After awhile, her gaze lowered, and her breathing slowed, but still she was silent. Not willing to give him any reason, he realized, to move away.
Somehow that realization was worse than anything she could have said. He finally found the will to step back. She didn't stop him.
There were no words he could find that would explain what he had done. The silence grew deafening. He briefly tightened a fist as a distraction and felt something in his palm.
It was her hair band.
When he looked up, he found her looking at it in his hand, then reaching up to touch her loosened hair and slowly comb the golden strands with her fingers as if she didn't recall how it had gotten that way.
That action gave Wu Fei the words he needed. "Your hair looks better out," he commented tonelessly, holding out the hair band for her to take.
She did, saying, "I'll remember that."
He shouldered his bag and turned towards the exit, every inch of his mind in a turmoil, then stopped dead when Sally blurted after him, "Wu Fei, would you like to come with me to visit my family in China this weekend?"
That was shocking enough in itself, but even more shocking was his reply:
- to be continued...