Friday, 29 December 2017

2.36 Just a Story


After a very long flight and an almost as long series of bus rides, Tula is finally home. She leaves her bags on the front yard for the time being, knowing no one in this small town would dream of stealing it. 

She looks around the house and notes that it hasn't changed a single bit. Walking through the front door is like stepping through a time machine. Even her grandmother's paintings hang in the exact same positions on the walls, still just as bright as when they were freshly painted. 



Paolo rushes to greet her. 

"Oh I'm so happy to see you!" he gushes before she can even open her mouth, "And so is Haliya! Well, once she gets back from ballet she will be. She's grown so much since you left!" 




Right, her younger sister. Tula has trouble imagining her as anything but a little toddler. Internet in the hotel was usually only good enough for voice calls and pictures. 

"Does she even recognize me?" Tula frets, "She was only two when I left..." 

"She's always happy to see your pictures," Paolo is quick to reassure her, "She keeps telling her friends about her 'cool sister' in China." 




Tula smiles with seeming relief, "Oh really? Aw, that's so sweet! I can't wait to see her." 

Noticing her father's shining eyes and soft smile, she realizes that he's just as excited to see her. And nervous. He probably still blames himself for being a bad father. She almost shakes her head; just like her dad to get caught up in the past. 

"I missed you so much, dad!' 



With those words, she sweeps him into a hug. The relief that he feels all but floods from his every pore. 

"I missed you too. Now go get settled, I'll bring your stuff in. I'll try to get Haliya to leave you alone for a few hours, you need your rest..." 

Tula waves his concerns away dismissively, "Nah, I slept on the bus here. Just send her my way once she gets home." 



And sure enough, several hours later, Haliya bounds up the stairs to see her big sister. Tula was looking for something to read, but a person can do just as well as a book. 

"Wow," Haliya breathes, "You're so pink!" 

"And you're so...yellow." 

Haliya's face scrunches up, "And blue..." She sticks her booted foot in front of her a little. 




Tula and Haliya stare at each other silently. 

There are tons of questions Haliya wants to ask, like if Tula really went on the Great Wall and if she can use chop sticks and everything... man, her sister's so cool! 



Tula can see the adoration in Haliya's eyes and obliges with a hug. Haliya returns it eagerly. 

"I want to hear all about you," Tula says with a smile, "I hear you're doing ballet? I'm jealous, I could never dance..." 



Haliya's eyes widen; her sister wants to know about her

So she shyly tells Tula about her dance classes. She likes the dancing, but the giggling with her friends seems to take priority. 



Tula listens with interest, nodding in the right places and continuing the conversation; do you like your teacher? Ooh, you'll have to show me your pirouette sometime... Maybe you could teach me to dance! 



When Haliya beams at her, Tula knows her little sister could be very... 

useful. 




Haliya is exhausted from ballet and school and eagerly accepts Tula's offer for a bedtime story. Haliya normally sleeps in Tula's old room, but with Tula home, she's kicked upstairs to Paolo's old bedroom. It seems that he kept to his promise to be with Sun downstairs. 

Tula starts with the story on the page- about a canine police officer- but quickly sees that Haliya's eyes are pinned on her face rather than the book and that she's not really listening to her story. 





Tula's gaze wanders to the pictures of her mother and father. She is completely unsurprised that Paolo keeps them up. 

"Do you know who that is?" Tula points to the photos. 

Haliya looks at them and shrugs, "Daddy and some lady." 

"Do you know who that lady is?" 

Haliya gives it some thought, "No..." 

Tula smiles, "Let me tell you about her. In a story."

She flips to the first page, which is introducing the protagonist, a german sheperd named Officer Sheperd. She decides to alter the story juuuust a little bit.  

"Officer Sheperd met a lovely fox named Christina. She wore flowers on her head and she was very beautiful. He knew he liked her immediately, but little did he know that her father was the dastardly Mr. Hunt! Mr. Hunt was the one behind all the stealing. Mr. Hunt was the one making the forest animals so sad..." 



Haliya cocks her head, "I thought you were going to tell me about the lady in the photo..." 

Tula smiles, "I am, just pay attention..." 

"'Kay..." 

"Officer Sheperd heard from Miss June-bug that she saw a fox leaving the house on the night of the robbery. Their ears were pointy, their tail was bushy..." 

Haliya gasps, "Who was the stealer?" 

Tula smirks, "Let's find out..." 



"There were only two foxes that lived in the town. Mr. Hunt....and his daughter Christina. It had to be Mr. Hunt, Officer Sheperd thought. Christina was too nice to be a thief." 



"But when he came to the fox den to arrest Mr. Hunt... all he found was Christina. She had Miss June-bug's dresses, Mr. Toad's safe, and most importantly of all..." she pauses for dramatic emphasis, "...Officer Sheperd's heart." 



"Christina wanted to become nice again, so she went with Officer Sheperd. The other police officers could help her. But poor Officer Sheperd was too sad to talk to her anymore. That's when he met Miss Star, the yellow starfish. She liked building things. He liked Miss Star a lot, so he asked her to build a house. They could both live there and be happy. She made the house just for Officer Sheperd. He loved it! He and Miss Star moved into the house. But even though she made him happy, and even though she was very nice... he still thought about Christina. He wanted her to get better." 

Haliya's eyebrows furrow; she can't follow Tula's story very well. But, as her eyelids droop, she fights to keep listening. 

"So even though he loved Miss Star, he always loved Christina a little more." 



Haliya falls asleep at this point, her exhaustion winning out over the many questions she has about this story. 



Tula kisses her sister's forehead, having a vague memory of her mother or father doing this when she was young. 




"Sweet dreams." 



The next morning, Tula and Haliya have a very late breakfast. 

"Key lime pie isn't a very healthy breakfast choice," Tula criticizes. 



"Oh don't worry, I let her have some," Sun says from behind them, "She likes sweets." 

Haliya giggles, "Mommy always lets me have pie for breakfast." 

"A little sugar never hurt anyone," Sun defends. 

Tula arches an eyebrow, but says nothing. 




"I bet you didn't eat pie in China, I bet by the time the sun rose you and those tourists were already running on the Great Wall." 

Tula chuckles, "You've seen too many movies..." 

"But you did go on the Great Wall, right?" 

"Only about a million times," she mumbles before adding at a normal volume, "Yeah, I went there with friends a lot."

"Were any of them your boooooyfriend?" 

"...No, Haliya." 




Haliya pouts, "I thought you'd fall in love and get married and have Chinese babies..." 

Tula coughs, pretending to be shocked, "Haliya!" 

Sun's face remains neutral, but Tula can see the twinkle in her eyes, "She's not the only one who thought that..." 



As Paolo sits down to join them for bruncht, Haliya turns to Sun. 

"When will I get a niece or nephew? I want to hold a baby..." 



Sun turns to Paolo, "Was Tula so baby-obsessed when she was her age?" 

Paolo rolls his eyes, "A lot of little girls are. Calm down, it's normal." 

Haliya pushes away from the table, "I'm going to bake!" 




While Haliya makes muffins, Tula tries her hand at painting. Aside from art classes in school, she's never held a paint brush. It brings back some memories of her grandmother, painting serenely. Well, obsessively after her grandfather's death. Strange what activities the mind clings to when things change. 

Maybe Tula can't understand it, but she can see if art does anything for her. 




Haliya makes a single, fluffy muffin. Seeing Tula painting, she stares at her grandma's paitnings and quietly zones out. She's only seen a few photos of Persis, but wishes she could've met her. Most of her friends live with their grandparents, or at least see them weekly. Why did she have to have such a small family? She doesn't even have a cousin her age to play with. 

Well, there's Bree, but she's normally in Bridgeport for school. Aunt Xara decided instead of the constant coming and going Gregory, Seth, and Omar had during their childhoods that Bree should be with her mother as much as possible. 

Haliya sighs. She bets that there're lots of big families in Bridgeport... 




Tula inspects her work. 

Decent, but could be better. 




They have pie for dinner too. 

"All this pie is going to make us fat," Tula mutters.



"W-What? Really?" Haliya is shocked. 

Paolo shoots Tula a look from the other end of the table. 

"Only if you have too much," Paolo corrects. 



"Oh, ok..." And there's never such a thing as too much pie, so she should be fine, right? 

As they eat, Paolo and Sun cite the late time and head off to bed. This leaves the sisters alone. 




"Did you ever use kung-fu on anyone?" Haliya asks. 

"Only in sparring matches." 



"Oh..."

Tula smiles, "Well I did fight a vampire once..."





Haliya is entranced by her sister's story. An ancient vampire? Last-minute strikes while backs are turned? Her sister is so cool! 



"And did you save Prince Rafael?" Haliya asks, her eyes intense, "Did you live happily ever after?" 




"It's just a story, Haliya..." 

Haliya pouts. Everything is "just a story" it seems. 

"How about Christina and Officer Sheperd?" 

"Stories can be based on some truth. That doesn't mean all of it is real." 

Haliya's brow furrows in confusion, but she shakes her head. Adults are weird. 




"So when will you have babies?" Haliya moves on to her next urgent line of questioning, "I want to be an aunt." 

"And why to you want to be an aunt?" 

"Mommy and daddy say I'm too young to be a mommy, but you're already old!" 

"I'm 19, Haliya..." 

"You know what I mean. You can get married! I checked..." 



Well, this dinner has certainly been... informative. 

Her sister likes happy endings, it seems.
She has a lot to learn.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

2.35 A New Perspective


Tula leans back on the old, rickety couch. If you could call it a couch. While the inside of the hotel looks suitably fancy for the rich tourists, they still cut costs in some places. Tula has no idea just how long it's been since this couch could be called "new-ish", but she would guess that it dates back to before her parents were her age. 



She'd sat in this very spot at least dozens of times by now, waiting for her next group of wide-eyed tourists. For virtually all of them, it was their first time outside of Simnation. The tourists from a few other countries like France and Egypt tend to be more well-travelled, but a lot of them didn't need her services. 

She's here to give a guided but "authentic" experience to tourists, who can then go home and say how they "saw so much" and "really experienced the culture" in just a few days or weeks time. Then after saying how transformed they are, they go right back to their normal lives like their life-changing trip never happened. 

Nonetheless, it's been an interesting experience. She's met many different kinds of people; families, teenagers on school trips, people going on a wild bachelor or bachelorette party-trip, first time tourists, seasoned travellers, stressed businessmen and women, researchers... 

They all have one thing in common, though. 

She can earn their trust. Every single one. Sometimes it takes a few days of deep conversation, sometimes a well-timed caress or an "accidental" slip-up... even the story of the tragic incident that led her to Shang Simla. Once their trust is won, it's all too easy to get close to them, make them feel at ease telling her things they wouldn't to anyone else... do things with her they'd never imagined. 

It's exhilarating having that much power, but it's an intense, burning feeling. She constantly needs more and in different forms from different people or else she gets...

bored. Bored like she is right now. Where the hell are these people?  



As if on cue, a man with gelled back hair and a very expensive, very authentic watch strolls into the foyer. 

"...You the tour guide?" he says, giving her a once-over. 

Definitely from Bridgeport, Tula thinks with slight distaste. She'd recognize that accent and that uppity look anywhere. 



"Yes, hi," she says, clumsily getting to her feet. She inwardly swears. Stupid two left feet! 

"...hi." 

"I'm Tula, I'll be your tour guide for the next three days. I thought there would be two of you...?" 



The man smiles, seemingly genuine, "Oh, my girlfriend won't be long. She's just moving her things to a room upstairs." 

"Of course. I can let you two get settled in if you'd rather begin the tour later..." 




"No, it's fine. Me and Jessica don't get out much," he laughs a bit to himself, "I'm sure she'll be eager to explore." 

You make her sound like a dog, Tula thinks dryly to herself, but just nods. 



It becomes quickly apparent that Jessica is no dog. 

Tula hasn't seen a vampire since her Aunt Tulip's last visit. She almost forgot just how piercing their eyes were. 

She squints at Jessica's face. Something about her, aside from her eyes, reminds her of Tulip... 



"Is there something wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost," Jessica remarks coolly. 

"You could say that. You look a lot like someone I used to know." 

"Oh? Who might that be?" 

 "It's not really important. Anyways, how was the flight here? I understand if you're tired and would rather rest."



"It was fine. I slept for most of it, so I'm more than well-rested enough to see some of the city." She doesn't smile, but Tula can't deny that something about the woman's stare seems...alluring. 

She shakes it off. "Well, if you insist! When would you like to leave?" 

Jessica peers over Tula's shoulder at her boyfriend. "I'll let Rafael shower first." 

Tula casts a dubious glance outside at the streaming sunlight, "It's rather hot outside. Maybe after night fall?"

Jessica's eyes narrow, "Are you insinuating something?" 

Tula looks at her, her eyes level with Jessica's, "Not so much insinuating as observing. Unless you use some expensive contacts, I assume your eyes glow naturally? Like a Vampire's?" 

There's a tense pause.




But Jessica laughs, and to Tula's surprise, smiles. 

"I admire your bluntness. Most people outside of Bridgeport are afraid to mention my vampirism. As if it were some sort of disease. I don't really understand it. But you don't seem phased." 

"My aunt is a vampire," Tula says. 



"Really?" 

Tula can't stop herself from staring at Jessica's fangs as she talks, "Yeah. She was adopted." 

Jessica quirks an eyebrow, "A vampire raised by humans? Interesting. Maybe you can tell me more about it on the way to the city." 

Tula nods cheerfully, "Sure. Whenever Rafael's ready!" 




Not long after the trio heads down to the Forbidden city. Tula has been here hundreds of times, but she gives Jessica and Rafael the opportunity to "ooh" and "aah" regardless. 

Well, gives Rafael the opportunity to "ooh" and "aah". Jessica, a bit more subdued than her boyfriend, smiles and takes in the sights.

"Do you know if there's any Ming and Qing era artwork still left on display here? I wasn't able to find any information on it on your agency's website." 

"Unfortunately no," Tula informs her, a tinge of regret in her tone, "All of it has been purchased by different collectors over the past few years." 

Jessica looks at the archway behind Tula and sighs, as if nostalgic, "A pity. I wouldn't have minded seeing it again." 





"Again?" Tula echoes. 

Jessica closes her eyes, seeming to be remniscing, "Yes. I came here once, quite some time ago. Travel was quite a bit less popular then, there weren't any tour guides, such as yourself." 

There's a long beat of silence. Jessica, her eyes still closed, exhales from her nose slowly. 



"But it was a different time. We're here to explore Shag Simla as it is now, yes?" she opens her eyes and pins Rafael with her intensely red eyes. 





"That's right," Rafael agrees. 

Tula waits a moment for the look to pass, but it doesn't. The couple stands there, eyes locked, for what seems like an eternity. 

"Well, now that we're here, let's look at the bridge behind us..." 





"This bridge is what used to be one of the several entrances to the forbidden city. Changes in the landscape as well as several natural disasters destroyed the other two."



"After the Forbidden City was reclassified as a cultural heritage site, many of the former inhabitants relocated to other areas in Shang Simla. Over many years and painstaking work by archaeologists and government architects, these two additional arches were built to replace the old entrances to the city. Their bases have been reinforced to prevent past destruction from repeating itself..." 



After touring around for several hours, Jessica and Rafael decide to take a lunch break. Tula leads them to the nearby restaurant, one that has almost reasonable prices for tourists. 

Jessica and Rafael both smile as they chatter about the beautiful architecture of the city. 

"I've missed China," Jessica sighs to no one in particular.

"Were you here for long?" Tula inquires conversationally. 



Jessica's smile becomes devilish, "Less than a year. I was here on...business, you could say." 

"Oh, what did you do?" 

"I worked-and still do- for the military."




Tula arches an eyebrow, "So you were stationed here? I wasn't aware that Simnation had a base in Shang Simla..." 

Jessica laughs, "It was a long time ago. Things were...different, shall we say." 

Jessica doesn't add anymore, and Tula decides not to push for details. At least, not yet. She senses that there's a much more interesting story behind this. 





Tula orders them lunch (well, her and Rafael). Jessica elects to read during their meal, not contributing to their lighthearted conversation about their next destination.  



"Too bad we're only staying for a few days," Rafael laments, "I have so many ideas of where to go and what to do!" 

"Ah, the problems of a traveler... I don't envy your burdensome issues," Tula says with an air of mock-compassion. 

Rafael chuckles, "I face many hardships. I'm in China with a beautiful woman..." he winks at Jessica before leaning towards Tula and says in a false whisper, "Just don't tell Jessica!"

Jessica smirks, "You know when I was stationed here, I met a very handsome man...hmm, what was his name? Zhan? I should really get back in touch with him." 

Tula laughs at the bantering. She's witnessed her fair share of bickering couples and relationships on the verge of collapse since becoming a tour guide here. They use a "romantic getaway" to Shang Simla as a last ditch effort to save their dying romance, but it rarely works for long. Rafael and Jessica don't seem to be such a couple. 

But, glancing at Jessica's almost hypnotic eyes and Rafael's almost vacant smiles towards the vampire, she wonders if there's something more than she can see. 



Rafael's laughter fades, though his expression is still bright when he turns to Tula. 

"Say...do you know any clubs around here? I was thinking me and Jessica could go out this weekend..." 



Tula chews her food thoughtfully, "Well yes, but the hotel has parties sometimes. I could see if we would arrange something a bit more affordable, and something where you're less likely to get ripped off than in a club" 

"I prefer that idea," Jessica cuts in, "We've seen enough clubs in Bridgeport. I'd like to experience something a bit different." 

And so it's decided. 





With their weekend plans set, the trio heads off to another popular tourist destination; the Phoenix Martial Arts Academy. 

Despite living in Shang Simla for nearly a year and taking tourists here countless times, Tula has yet to progress beyond the white belt. 

"Screaming at it won't make your blows land any more accurately," Jessica remarks sarcastically. 




Tula grins at Jessica before schooling her features and repositioning into a better stance. 

"Better," Jessica approves, "But this would be easier if we were all wearing appropriate clothes..." 



They all pause from their strenuous exercise to pilfer uniforms. Tula's pretty sure no one will mind. 

She sighs and taps her foot impatiently outside of the bathroom. Rafael and Jessica went inside to change together, and have been taking their sweet time. She can only imagine what they're doing in there together... 







Her imagination might be slightly off the mark. 

Jessica's bites stopped hurting long ago. Rafael feels only bliss. 



Eventually Jessica also gets changed. She's unsurprisingly several belts above everyone else. 



She can already break boards with ease. 




After a long, tiring training session, they all head back to the hotel. Tula has a room she rents here for a hugely discounted price considering how sparsely furnished it is. She doesn't spend that much time in here; it has a bed, several power outlets that she uses for her phone, computer, and lamp, and a bed. That's all she really needs. 

She collapses in bed and vaguely thinks about getting into better shape before drifting off into a dreamless sleep. 



The next morning, she and Rafael are up rather early in the morning. They share a salad together. Rafael jokes that he needs to stay slim for his job back in Bridgeport as an explanation. 

"So are you in the military too?" Tula inquires. Though from appearances alone, she wouldn't take him for a soldier. 

Rafael gives a hearty laugh, "Now that's a good one! Plumbob, no. I'm a report processor at Doopeas's headquarters." 

Tula raises an eyebrow, seemingly impressed, "Fancy." In reality, she's met plenty of their corporate drones, all coming to Shang Simla for a conference or a desperate (sometimes forced) reprieve from their stressful jobs. But Rafael seems anything but stressed. After living with Sun for the duration of her pregnancy, Tula thinks she's gotten pretty good at spotting most of the signs of anxiety, both blatantly obvious and hidden. Rafael exhibits none of them. 

Rafael smiles at her, interrupting her musings, "Hardly. It may not seem like it, but all I really do is manage reports. Correct errors, process data. It's mind-numbingly boring. If it weren't for the pay..." he sighs, and inspects his watch before glancing quickly at their hotel room door, still firmly shut, "Well, some things are worth suffering for, right?" 



"Speaking of things worth suffering for," Tula says with a sly grin, "How did you and Jessica meet?" 

Rafael smiles gently, his eyes glazing over nostalgically, "Like a lot of couples in Bridgeport, in a club. It sounds cliche, but when I saw her dancing, I was mesmerized..." He glances at Tula before adding, "And no, not in the creepy 'vampire' way if that's what you're thinking." 

Tula shrugs, "I wasn't. Like I told Jessica, my aunt is a vampire. She's been married twice and as far as I know, she never had to mind-control them to love her." 

Rafael looks apologetic, "Sorry. It's just that people are always getting the wrong idea. My brother thought that Jessica...well, I think you can guess what he thought. It's nice to find someone more open minded." 

"Well, to be cliche myself, travelling does give a new perspective, doesn't it?" 

"I'll say!" Rafael gazes at Tula for a few moments as they both eat and then with a cocked eyebrow, asks, "Well you have my love-story. What's yours? I'm sure that you must have a boyfriend or lover somewhere around here..." 




Tula looks away and giggles, "No luck on that front, I'm afraid. Not many people I meet are interested." 

"I find that hard to believe..." 

Tula blushes, "Oh shush. You don't know what you're saying." 

Rafael shakes his head, "Oh believe me, I do." 

Tula slaps his shoulder, then gets up to clear her plate. "I should get away from you before you say anything else silly," she gives a meaningful look to their hotel door, Jessica still sleeping soundly behind it. 

Rafael rolls his eyes, but grins compliantly, "Yes, ma'am!" he even throws in a salute in the direction of his and Jessica's room. "Don't worry, I know who my commanding officer is." 




Given that it's a weekend and their extensive walking under the hot sun yesterday, Jessica sleeps well into the afternoon. Rafael decides to explore the hotel and the surrounding forest, so Tula takes advantage of her free time to arrange that party. Being here for nearly a year has given her plenty of time to make friends to invite over... 



After a shower and a late brunch with Jessica, the couple is ready to party. 





It doesn't take long for the guests to trickle in. Jessica and Rafael playfully bicker about whose phone playlist to use for the music. 



And then it's party time! 



Jessica and Rafael warm up with some silly, outlandish dancing. They're saving their real moves for later. 



Tula is not nearly as coordinated, but she makes a good effort. Her friends here have long learned to put up with her awkward, discordant movements and now only judge her silently with smirks instead of giving feedback. 



It doesn't take long for Jessica and Rafael to split up and meet new people. Rafael dances with Sun Young Kim. She smiles at him, her gaze warm and inviting. Though he smiles indulgently at her and compliments her on the way she moves her body, he doesn't do much more to take the bait. 

Just as well. As Tula will later tell him, Sun always tries to snap up her younger male customers, allured by their exotic origins and stories of faraway places. It's mostly harmless, but Tula has her suspicions that it doesn't always end well... 



Tula and Jessica end up nearby the stereo, tearing up the dance floor. 

Well, Jessica tries to teach her how to tear up the dance floor. She mostly just holds in her laughter at Tula's awkward flailing. 




"A young, attractive woman who can't dance," Jessica mutters, "What a waste." 




"I've always been pretty clumsy," Tula replies, a shy smile on her face, "Makes dancing pretty difficult..." 




"And is this why you don't have a boyfriend?" Jessica asks bluntly. 

Tula jumps in surprise, causing Jessica to laugh, "I see Rafael told you..." 

"I've been around for a while Tula. You don't seem like the type to have trouble getting someone. Anybody." 




Tula pretends not to take Jessica's meaning, "Well it's true...single for life! I've always been such a ditz around people... guess it comes from small-town living." 

Jessica leans in a bit closer, "You don't seem to have any problems convincing people to do things for you, like with getting us the uniforms at the martial arts academy... throwing this party together on such short notice..." 





Tula avoids eye contact. No one has ever come this close to finding out how she manages people. She must admit, it's a bit unsettling. 

"In this business, you need to have a way with words, I guess," she smiles awkwardly. 





Jessica grins warmly at her, "Yes, that's true. Tell me, Tula... how did an 'awkward ditz' such as yourself become a successful tour guide with a 'way with words'?" 

Tula inwardly curses. How did she make such a stupid miscalculation? Now she's contradicted herself.  "Some people are easier to...converse with...than others," she says cryptically. 





"I think," Jessica takes a step towards Tula, eliciting a shiver, "That we'll get along quite nicely."

"Glad to hear it," Tulip answers brightly. Jessica seems to sense she's unsettled and smirks.



It's at this point that Rafael stumbles in from the kitchen, clearly drunk,  and passes out on the couch.

"If you ever find yourself around Bridgeport, we'd love to have you," Jessica says, a congeniality in her tone that wasn't there before.

Tula knows it's a bit of a non-sequitor, only thrown in because Rafael is here, but she can sense that the offer is genuine.

"I'll definitely let you guys know if I'm around there."

Bridgeport... a large city where no one knows me and I have no reputation? Sounds promising. 

She hasn't given much thought to her plans for after Shang Simla, and this just seems to perfect to ignore.



For their last day in China, Jessica insists that they visit the Scholar's Garden. Rafael, as always, follows her judgement, but isn't afraid to show that he's a bit bored. Being hungover and under the hot sun outside isn't the best combo. 

He watches two children play chess and is goaded into keeping time for their game. He supposes it's easier to be a timer with his dry mouth and pounding headache than going on a tour and "meditating" for a few hours... 



Tula takes Jessica to the "room of contemplation", usually used for reading, meditation, or sparring when it's cold or raining. Jessica has already been here before, but seems to enjoy Tula's spiel about the garden nonetheless. 

Jessica spots the caretaker of the garden and leaves Tula's side to ask more questions. 



The woman is usually a fountain of information for curious tourists, repeating the same responses over and over. But seeing how long their conversation has gone on for, Tula guesses that Jessica wants a deeper understanding of the gardens. 

"Do they still grow Peonies here?" 

"'Still'? No one has seen that flower in these gardens for decades..." 

Tula wonders exactly how long Jessica was stationed in Shang Simla for. 




Satisfied with her short interrogation of the caretaker, Jessica turns to Tula. 

"Not many people spar here anymore... before I leave, would you treat me to a match? I don't get the time to practice in Bridgeport..." 



The caretaker, having seen this scenario happen often with excited tourists wanting to "re-enact" such and such battle, or engage with the Garden's practice dummies, has uniforms ready for both of them. 

Rafael wanders in to see the much more exciting match. 



"Don't hold back. I certainly won't," Tula begins their battle with a fierce challenge. 

Jessica nods once. 




Though Tula is unpracticed and unbalanced, she gives it her all. 



Jessica easily dodges the kick, but seems surprised at how intensely Tula is going on the offensive. 



Her blows are clumsy and easily blocked, but Jessica sees that unmistakable predator's gleam in Tula's eyes. If she ever got the chance, Tula would take her out instantly. No mercy. 



Jessica, in turn, shows Tula none. She's surprised that Tula is managing- although fumblingly- to block her strikes. She obviously has gone too long without practice. Jessica resolves to order a training dummy when she and Rafael get back to Bridgeport. 





Tula is still no match for Jessica's better training and superior agility. Jessica doesn't even need to use her enhanced speed to hit Tula's shoulder. 



Jessica barely pauses before kicking upwards. Tula barely has enough time to duck, but Jessica's calf hits the top of her head. She's one blow away from losing this sparring match. 

Jessica easily sweeps Tula's feet out from under her, tired of playing around. She bows and turns to change her clothes. 



In a moment of blind rage, Tula lashes out. 

Jessica spins around in a blink of an eye and thrusts her arm in front of Tula's. There's a resounding smack as their arms hit each other. Tula's face, previously erupting with fury, is now blank. Even Jessica is having problems seeing if any of that anger still remains. 



They both bow to each other. 

"I know you're just a beginner, but that was an illegal move," Jessica says in a low voice. 




"Who says I didn't know?" 





Jessica smiles devilishly. 

"A good way to think, but be glad that this wasn't a real fight. You need more training." 

"If I come around Bridgeport, maybe you could be my teacher." 

"I'd be glad to be of service." 

They exchange emails and phone numbers. "Could you get Rafael for me and tell him it's time to head back? Our flight leaves in a few hours." 



As Jessica gets changed, Tula has a much more affectionate goodbye with Rafael. 

"Please come visit us if you ever get the chance!" he says, wrapping her into a warm, tight hug. 

"Will do," she says with a brilliant smile, "And maybe you can help me with my dating problems." 

Rafael winks at her, "Trust me, you don't really need any help. But I'll see what I can do." 

She gives Rafael her phone number and email address. Once Jessica comes out, she calls a taxi for them. 

With any luck, this won't be the last time they'll see each other. 

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AN: None of the facts I used about the forbidden city here are true, I decided to make something up. 

Jessica and Rafael are actually a very affectionate couple in my game, and Tula made friends very quickly with both of them. Rafael kept spamming her with romantic interactions, so I think he might like her a bit too much. 

Sun Young Kim, the woman Rafael is dancing with, has the flirty and good kisser traits (like Rafael himself). He was the mother of Yasu Archer, the generation 10 heir to NutsAndDolts's first RLC blog, R&R, hence the super vague reference to her romantic trysts "not always ending well". That wasn't to make a crossover or anything, but just some behind the scenes trivia ;)