The polite, inoffensive way to describe one Chang Wufei was that he was "gendercentric," the less polite, (though probably more accurate way) the way in which most of the other female and some of the male Preventors were inclined was that he was a chauvinistic prig.
Sally hadn't found that particular sentiment to be true. In her experience Wufei was protective, not chauvinistic. The looks of admiration for her patience and sympathy for having to put up with a "difficult" partner were things that Sally didn't understand. She was actually pretty happy working with Wufei, in fact he was the best partner she'd ever been paired with.
In the past six years Wufei had grown from a comely, if on occasion near-rabid, boy to a very handsome young man. Wufei had overcome his past uncertainties and the angsty teen-age self-loathing of his earlier years to find himself with a clear definition of who he was and what he was fighting for. Sally was proud and pleased to have been able to play a part in his revelations, and took a small amount of pardonable pride in the man that he had become. While he was still a little stiff-necked, and didn't like being surrounded by people, detested parties and social gatherings of any sort, Wufei was a good man. He had a clear-cut set of ideals and a code of determining what was right and wrong that he could live with. He was no longer at war with himself and Sally was glad of that for his sake.
Okay, so it wasn't so much that Wufei was a misogynist, he really wasn't. He just had a very traditional upbringing. Sally knew all about traditional upbringings! Couple that with his dislike of seeing anyone he considered too weak to be fighting, going out and getting hurt, and Wufei had a tendency to come off as a bit overbearing.
But to Sally at least, he was sweet. He never outright disrespected her or disparaged her opinions, unless, of course, they had anything to do with Sally putting her own body directly in the path of threat or danger. If any such scenario came up, he would immediately label it as "too risky" and seek to change it to something he considered a little more acceptable. Namely, he tried to switch it around so that he was the only one taking all the risks and Ex-Major Ex-guerilla-fighter ex-mercenary Sally Po was the one who was stuck safe behind a communicator somewhere far away from the danger zone.
After a few months of putting up with his efforts to protect her by keeping her from doing things she knew damned well that she could do, and do well, Sally had had enough. She had let Wufei know on no uncertain terms that she was going in there with him come hell or high water and nothing he could say or do was going to get her to back down. Up until that point, their partnership had been going relatively smoothly… That had certainly set the cat among the pigeons. They'd gone round and round about it for hours, days at a time. Finally, Lady Une had interceded (stating she was never going to get any peace and quiet in her office if she didn't) on Sally's behalf, and Sally Po had been riding in the front seat with Wufei ever since.
He still had a tendency to try to protect her, but he knew when he might get away with revising the plan with a little compromise and when he might as well just give up and let her do things her way (because she was probably going to anyway.)
The main problem now, so far as she saw it, lay not within her partner but within her own heart. While Mr. Chang might be her intellectual equal as well as her full partner in the Preventors, and the passing years had completely erased the four year age gap between them Sally had certain standards of professionalism that she rigorously held herself to and dating within the ranks, especially one's partner was on the list. Dating ones partner…it was just so damned unprofessional! At least that was what she would have said if anyone had brought such a scenario to her before she had been partnered with the dark and handsome Chinese man.
Impossible, she thought, shaking her head and snorting to herself. The whole thing's just impossible. The little misogynist-in-training shouldn't mean this much to me, but he does. I can't let it distract me from my work though. I'll just have to endure the pangs of unrequited love in silence and hope this insanity leaves me quickly.
Aside of her work, she had yet one other thing to worry about and was it ever a big worry. Sally Po, or, Po Sai-Li as she had been named at birth, had still to contend with the being suffocated by the warm and loving bosom of her family.
The Po Family was one of the oldest and most respected families in Hunan Province, they were also one of the most traditionalist. Po Sai-Li, the bastard half-breed daughter of Po Tsu, was anything but a traditionalist. She prided herself on her independence and self-reliance. She acted in ways that flew in the face of the "True Path" and did things that were Not Done. Her blood-father was the keeper of the family's holding and as the only male born of their family inhis generation had inherited everything and was now the sole leader of their Clan and family. He was also a very strict traditionalist and fiercely condemned anything that flouted his sacred ways. As far as he was concerned his way was the only way, and his errant daughter was one of the biggest thorns in his side.
Women were not supposed to have thoughts, much less entire lives and careers of their own. (Which Sally did.) They were not supposed to disobey the edicts of any of the male members of their family (Sally positively lived in disobedience; not only that, she reveled in it!) They most especially were not supposed to be working in a man's field…Sally had been a doctor, achieved the rank of major solely on her own merits, had been a rebel freedom fighter protecting her homeland of China and was now a Preventor, all occupations which flew in the face of that rule. Women were supposed to quiet, meek, and obedient to their husbands, fathers, and brothers… They were never supposed to speak out of turn or venture a direct opinion unless asked for it first. They were supposed to mind the home and birth and raise the children.
None of these options held any appeal for Sally, she had no intentions of settling down to a marriage arranged by her family. In fact, when her father had received a marriage-alliance proposal for her Sally had personally contacted the young man making the proposal and told him that she would not be accepting it. This was also yet another violation of her family's so-vaunted traditions, she was not supposed to decline a proposal unless her father said she could and she certainly was not supposed to make the decision for herself. It had been a scandal!
Sally wished that her father would just disown her and get it over with…but she knew that he wouldn't do that. He still considered his wayward daughter to be "his" which meant that he still owned her. Po Tsu expected his children to be obedient, and when they weren't he usually found ways to bend them to his will. The rest of the family was a lot more laid back about it all, they were willing to let her go off on her own and wash their hands of her. Not so her father. He was jealous of his power, guarded it closely, he resented anything that might threaten what power that he had. And Sally was definitely a threat…at least in his eyes she was. She had no intentions of usurping her father from his position, but it was not her that threatened him; it was her actions. Her continuous defiance of him, her constant flouting of his authority and her refusal to bend to his will, even a little were threats upon his power. In the end it was all about control.
I don't care what the rest of my family thinks of me, she told herself. I have no intention of settling down to a marriage arranged for power or getting trapped in the Parsons mousetrap with some guy! I have too much that I can do with my life! I may have very strong feelings for my partner now, but I'm sure that they'll fade in time. All I have to do is be strong and wait it out. I'm sure that the day will come when I don't wake up and realize that there is something new to love about him as well as something new about him that irritates me. Maybe if I try thinking of him like my younger brother… Yeah, that sounds like a good way to get my affections to cool down into something manageable! That's what I'll do.
The object of Sally's reflection, Wufei, remained in valuable ignorance of the honey-haired woman's inner turmoil, choosing instead to concentrate on some inner turmoil of his own. Unbeknownst to either of them it was on the same subject over which Sally brooded. His partner.
Now, Wufei prided himself on being a logical man. He took great care now not to let his emotions get the best of him or to keep him from doing what he knew to be right. He thought things through, relying on his background as an intellectual rather than a warrior to examine a situation from all angles and decide upon the best course to take based in that analysis. He did not like disorder, hated disorganization and prized discipline very highly. In point of fact, he was always in order. His appearance was always so neatly kempt as to be immaculate. His hair was slicked back and tied in a pony tail as tradition demanded. His pristine white uniform was kept spotlessly clean and neat, pressed to a fare-thee-well and conscientiously groomed. He was the kind of man who would see a pile of rope on the floor and spend all day untangling it simply because it interferred with his sense of order in the universe. He liked having everything in its place and knowing that he knew where everything belonged as was the right and proper order of things.
That was why he was brooding. As he walked from his one-room flat two blocks away from Preventors HQ to the small complex that housed the main offices of the Preventors. Something was turning his neatly organized, filed, catagorized and cross referenced universe upside-down. Or, rather, it was someone. His partner in fact, and a more stubborn and infurioratingly frustrating woman he had yet to meet. (Although from what Heero said, Relena Peacecraft came in a close second.)
For one thing, she was self-reliant to the point of putting people off sometimes. That in and of itself wasn't a bad thing (for Wufei was guilty of it, so how could it be bad?) But in Sally, it was almost an obsession, and not a very feminine one either. Wufei sometimes got the sneaking suspicion that she was overcompensating for something else, but he was damned if he knew what it was. She never talked about her past, but since he never talked about his Wufei didn't ask.
Aside of that fault, Sally also continued to defy his ingrained concept of what a perfect woman should be. She did this simply by existing. She was competent, capable, a great strategist, a fine Preventor and really the best partner he'd ever had. Okay, aside of a few one or two week training missions with greenie Preventors she was the only partner he'd ever had; but there was a reason for that. The other people he'd been partnered with had been annoying, they didn't know how to do anything right, and they couldn't even seem to figure out what his next move was going to be in that way Sally had. She was always patient with him, never lost her temper but never let him walk all over her either. She'd agree with him if she thought he was right, point something out she thought he might have missed, and went toe to toe with him when she thought he was wrong.
But for all of her self-reliance and for all of her occasionally argumentative qualities, Sally was probably the kindest person he'd ever met. He could recall a time back when they'd first met when she'd offered him food and shelter over the objections of her comrades. Then later she had walked straight into the line of fire as a Leo towered over them, without flinching, just so he wouldn't have to fight. He'd been feeling particularly worthless at that time in his life and she'd said that healing his heart was worth more than her life at that moment. Even now she was always finding little ways to cheer him up when he was feeling down after a particularly depressing mission, or when he was still haunted by the memory of his colony self-detonating. All these little kindnesses, teasing him lightly until he gave in and answered her in kind, making him laugh, cajoling him into taking a break and doing something "fun" with her that he was usually surprised to find that he enjoyed.
He realized with a start that they had been working together for six years now. The fact surprised him because it felt like almost no time at all had gone by. But it had, and that made Wufei wonder just how long things would go on like this. He had Sally as his partner (and pretty much all to himself) now, but eventually she'd want to find someone and settle down to have children. He supposed she was attractive enough to rope in about any man she'd care to. What with her lively blue eyes like twin flames that sparkled when she laughed and those full lips that were more often than not stretched into an easy going smile, she shouldn't have any problems finding a husband when she wanted to settle down. But that thought caused him an inexplicable little pang of… something. He found that he really didn't like the idea, at all. He tried to think of his life without her in it and kept drawing up blanks. His partner was closely interwoven with every part of his life, not just on his job and the missions but also in his free time. He enjoyed her company. In all of his life he'd never really had someone who's company he could truly say he enjoyed. His solitary nature had been one of the reasons he'd been a scholar as a child, books didn't expect you to hold a conversation with them.
He realized that he had never really thought about giving her up before and that now that he had, he'd no intention of doing so. And that, he realized, was selfish of him. He couldn't keep a young, pretty and intelligent woman like her all to himself simply because he'd find it inconvenient to find another partner. It would be wrong of him to try to keep her to himself since there was no way he could possibly marry her and he wouldn't want to dishonor her by asking her to take a secondary position as a consort or some such if and when he did marry and restart Dragon Clan. For one thing, he himself frowned n such practices and for another she would likely box his ears for the suggestion that she would take a menial position in his life. However she didn't seem inclined to go out searching for a husband or lover either so perhaps he was worrying over nothing. Perhaps he was worrying about her marital status as a way to put off thinking about his duty to his Clan for another year.
"Good morning Wufei," Sally called cheerfully from her own office, right across the hall from his.
"Sally," he said nodding in acknowledgement. He never ever called her "woman," he'd tried it once, early on in their association. And the memory was sharp with the clarity only embarrassment can bring.
He'd been trying to get her attention to tell her that he'd needed more forms… "Woman?" he'd said. Sally had ignored him, looking innoscently around and behind her as if he'd been speaking to someone else. So he'd tried again. "Woman." She'd studied her fingernails obviously ignoring him. So he'd tried a third time, this time using her name. "Sally." She'd turned to look at him, her open face perking right up. "Yes Wufei? Is there something you need?" she'd asked. "I've been trying to get your attention," he'd said. "No-o" she replied with certainty. "You've been trying to get the attention of a person called Woman, and scince neither you nor I are named woman, you must have been talking about someone else." I was quite obviously reffering to you as you are the only female in this room," he'd answered back stiffly, indignant at her nerve. Sally had only responded with that never-ending supply of patience she had. "Well you must have been talking about someone else since noble scions of the Clans don't go around calling people named Sally Woman. Especially if he expects her to answer him in a timely fashion." By this point Wufei had reached the end of the lamentably short fuse he'd had in those days. "Look woman, I will call you whatever I please!" he'd said. Years later that remark had been the cause of an inner bit of shame but at the time Sally had merely replied with more patience and a smile. "Oh, by all means, call me whatever you like," she'd answered cheerfully. "Just call me Sally when you want me to answer you." He'd tried calling her "woman" again later that afternoon, but she'd simply ignored him again. So he'd been calling her Sally ever since and she'd never once let him slip up.
"Coffee?" she asked, offering him a mug. "It's fresh."
"Thanks," he said. Common cortesy was also something she had worked with him on over the years. She'd nearly had to practically pummel the notion that saying words like please and thank you were not offenses to his dignity but were rather ways of respecting the people around you by not treating them as subservients.
"Is your half of the report finished?" he asked, merely as a formality. Of course it was finished, she was Sally after all.
"Yes. How about yours?"
"Naturally. Are you looking forward to the vacation time that Une has offered us? I imagine you already have plans for it," he said, hoping he was wrong. If she didn't have plans made then she'd probably eventually invite him along to help her find something to do with her free time.
"Not really, I-"
"Mail call," one of the office orderlies called. "Something for you, Po. Messenger said it was fairly urgent."
Sally frowed momentarily in puzzlement, but her face cleared as the orderly handed her a scarlet packet emblazoned with a golden flaming bird. Wufei realized with a start that he recognized it, it was the seal of one of the Clans.
"I wonder what the old bugger wants now," she muttered with as close to a sour look as Wufei had ever seen on her face. With that, she absent mindedly tore open the seal on the pouch and pulled out the envelope inside of it, which was also brilliant scarlet with gold writing in Chinese on it. Wufei's careful, and curious, eyes caught the first few glyphs and they were in ancient Chinese, one of the Elder dialects.
"What's that?" he asked, casually curious. Sally had never received mail before.
"Oh just some personal business I'm sure," she said vaguely. She slit open the envelope with her field knife walked into the privacy of her office to read it.
Wufei tried to conceal his curiosity. Nosiness was the province of women. Still, what would she be doing getting a letter from the Clans? It was an official one, he could tell by the gold embossed crest. Gold and scarlet? Wufei searched his memory…which Clan? Not Tiger, the guardian spirit of fire, they were coppery-orange. The Clans at the four major elements were the ones that held only one color. Dragon Clan, who's sole element was Earth, had green as their color. Shark Clan, of water element, naturally had blue. Eagle Clan, of air element, had white. The Clans whose Guardian spirit's nature lay in a mixture of two different elements had more than one color. Ki-rin (unicorn) Clan, with the elements of Earth and Fire, were silver and jade. Finally, his copious memory supplied the detail he was looking for. Phoenix Clan had chosen scarlet and gold as their emblemic colors. What would Phoenix Clan want with her? Was she connected to them in some way?
Perhaps they had heard of how she protected China and wish to thank her, he thought, then he snorted. And perhaps pigs will fly first. The Noble Houses in Phoenix Clan were notoriously traditionalist. Dragon Clan had been willing to accept a person, male or female, on their own talents if they could prove themselves. He'd heard and read that many of the Clans here on Earth were not quite so forward thinking. He had not really thought much about the other Clans for a long time, mainly because he had not wanted to think about his duty to his own Clan to find a wife and begin reconstruction of it. He was still quite young yet, he could afford to put it off for another year or two…or three.
Wufei shook his head to clear it and went back into his office. She would tell him, or not, as she saw fit to. Until that point it wasn't any of his business.
Sally closed her door behind her and leaned against the solid oak desk in her office, it wasn't huge, but it was at least good sized. One of the better offices in Preventors HQ, and Sally had earned it on her own merits. That was one of the reasons she liked it so much. She got to decorate it to her satisfaction and she didn't have to share it with anybody. Wufei had his own office just across the hall from her, and it wasn't larger than hers. Of course, having a female as head of the Preventors was a good way to ensure equality between the sexes as far as Sally was concerned.
Sally pulled the letter, written in shiny gold flecked ink on thick parchment paper made from rice leaves and rag in the traditional method, out from the envelope with a feeling of trepidation. She had a feeling that whatever was in the letter, she was not going to like it one bit.
Return home at once. The Grand High Council wishes to address you about a matter of some importance.
~Your Honorable Father.
And he didn't even bother to sign it, all it contained was his official seal next to the closing. He only did that when he was being his most formal. That told Sally that he was displeased with her about something.
Feh! Father's always displeased with me, she thought with a shrug. She briefly considered simply discarding the note and ignoring the summons. But she dismissed that idea as a bad one right away. She could get away with bending the rules when the matter was between her and her own House, but ignoring a summons to the grand High Council would give them grounds for disciplinary action. She was mortally certain that she did not want that at all. She may have spent all of her time in the Outlands as a healer-warrior, but even she knew that she was no match for what the Clans could dish out to her of they so chose. So that left only one question.
What could the Grand High Council want with me?
Well, there was no helping it, she had to return home the Po Village and await her meeting with the Grand High Council.
Ah yes, Po Village, she thought with heavy irony. It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there!