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Xan and Cho sat quietly in the shade watching the craziness unfold. Today was hectic in a way Xan hadn’t seen before. People shouting, the bray of horses pulling wagons and carts. Until now, it had just been he and Cho in the dorms. While they had been kept busy with cleaning and repairing, it wasn't the pure noise-laden chaos of move-in-day, the day first-year students were assigned their living spaces in the dorms for the upcoming school year. Xan watched families and wagons and new students swarming about.

Their only saving grace was that Xan and Cho didn’t have much in the way of possessions, so their in-processing went rather quickly. Xan and Cho had moved into the dorms the previous week and, because they were early arrivals, they had been tasked with cleaning the other rooms and performing minor maintenance and whatever odd tasks the administrator, Ren Rong, could invent for the two of them.

As the families and their prospective students queued up to speak with the administrator, Xan looked on the procession with amusement, some attendees that were arriving by wagon had trunks and boxes and crates of possessions despite having been instructed as to what the student could bring. A few had just a single bag. Most had their extended families escorting them. Xan watched with mirth as Ren Rong told one girl’s parents that she couldn’t take chickens inside with her. The outraged squawks of the chickens punctuated the discussion as Ren Rong emphasized his point with each shake of the cage. Xan noticed that the goodbyes from the parents—the hugs and tear-filled faces—sat especially heavy with Cho, who seemed in a particularly sour mood having said barely three words to Xan all morning.

Cho got up.

“Where are you going? The good part is about to happen.” Xan pointed to a wagon loaded down with what looked like the contents of an entire house. Xan watched Ren Rong as he moved towards the family with purpose, head down, gaze locked on his prey, and rapid pace.

“I’m not into it,” he said with a disinterested shrug. “I’m going to go find someplace quiet. Maybe the inner courtyard. Come get me for orientation.” Cho dodged past the queued students and families as he entered the dorm.

Xan was worried for his friend, but his attention quickly snapped back to the sound of a crate crashing, chickens screeching and shouts as people tried to corral the little hellions. He grinned at the pandemonium. The family with the heavy wagon ended up leaving two small boxes. A woman, Xan guessed was the student’s mother, was crying and holding the young dark-haired woman. It took a bit for the new student to extract herself from the clutches of her family, gather her two boxes, and rush into the dorms. Embarrassed at her parent’s spectacle, she bull-rushed the door, with her head down, gaze averted.

It wasn’t long before Xan spotted Wang Sue striding up with a simple trunk and a backpack. Her gaze landed on him like a hammer blow. She frowned at him, the look disapproving, before finally stepping up to the administrator. They talked for a bit before Ren Rong referred to a piece of paper and Sue headed into the dorm.

The families had thinned out and Xan was thinking about going to find Cho when Sue came back outside. She stood for a minute looking around, hand up shading her eyes. She turned toward Xan and even at this distance he could see her eyes narrow with the same disapproving look his mother used to give him when she thought he should be doing chores.

Oh, here we go. Xan thought as Sue tromped towards him. She stood over him, hands on her hips. What an entitled princess. A small part of him wanted to lash out at her, but his father had always said the best way to irritate someone who felt superior to you, was to be overly kind to them.

“Greetings, Sue. How are you this fine day?” Xan said pleasantly, smiling up at her as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

“I am well, Xan. Where’s Cho?” Sue looked around for him. Her tone was frosty and just a tad bit distracted.

Figures. She always wants to talk with Cho, he thought.

“He got tired of the intake process.” Xan replied after a beat, “I can take you to him. It looks like the entertainment here has died down.” Xan got up and dusted off his rear. The school uniforms were comprised of light-gray cotton pants, off-white linen shirts, matching light-gray jackets, simple black cotton shoes with a leather sole and red cloth wraps for their calves. While he didn’t exactly wear rags back home, these uniforms were nicer than anything he had ever worn before.

Xan led her into the building, ushering her down winding corridors and connecting common rooms, then through a nondescript door which let out into the inner courtyard of the building. The smell of lilac and moisture on a cool breeze heralded their arrival. There was a small water fountain in the corner that burbled and lacquered wooden benches scattered around a modest square space. Well-manicured bushes provided the illusion of seclusion for those seated on the benches. From the doorway, they could see Cho sitting over by the water feature.

The two picked their way along the stone-paved path towards the splashing of the fountain. The only other sounds were the mild twitter of birds and chirps from crickets that silenced as they approached. Cho glanced at them briefly, then went back to watching the water noisily cascade down a series of moss-covered rocks that had been arranged into steps. There were two curved black lacquered benches forming a semi-circle facing the water. Without waiting for an invitation, Sue moved over and sat next to Cho.

Xan shook his head. She’s chasing the wrong butterfly.

“I’m going to go get something to drink. Would either of you like something?” Xan asked.

Cho just shook his head in the negative.

Sue looked up irritated, but her expression softened. “That would be great. Thank you.”

Xan looked at her skeptically for a second then shrugged and left.

#

As soon as Xan had entered the main building, leaving Sue and Cho alone in the garden, Sue turned to Cho. Her heart thundered. She shouldn’t be here. Doing this. Talking to this boy. She had a million other things to worry about—she needed to be better than anyone else if she hoped to make it at the academy. Nepotism didn’t work here, if anything the opposite were true. Where all the other new students would be given slack, she would be expected to know the rules, to know the fundamentals because of her family and who her grandfather was. Sue knew one instructor in particular who was looking forward to making it hard on her. She couldn’t afford to worry about relationships or friends, not if she wanted to make it. And she needed to make it. This was everything to her. More importantly, this was everything to her family.

But she was somehow drawn to these two. They were yin and yang, Xan was loud and annoying, and Cho was so quiet.

He appeared sad as she looked at his profile. He was clean shaven and his sandy brown hair was getting a little long. She resisted an urge to reach out and run her fingers through it. He was so good looking and different from the other young men Sue had been around. Especially Kai Jin, who just wanted people to fawn over his looks or tell him how amazing he was. To him, women were trophies to be won and displayed. Cho was different, though, unassuming and polite. Sue wanted to understand more about him. She wanted someone to appreciate her for her abilities not because of who her grandfather was. The crickets started chirping softly once more, reminding her of the awkward silence. The need to speak.

“I wasn’t aware this little grotto was here.” She offered up to the lull.

Cho grunted.

Sue shifted. Why is this so hard? There were a dozen things she should be doing instead of making small talk. She took a breath. “Do you come here often?”

Cho replied so softly it was barely above a whisper. “Yeah.”

She thought frantically. How can I get him talking? “Did you get moved into the dorm?” Sue asked. She cringed inwardly. What a lame question.

“Yeah. Last week.” Cho kept watching the water trickle down the stones.

“Oh. What have you been doing since then?”

He shrugged placidly. “Cleaning rooms,” he replied in a monotone.

Maybe if I talked about myself he might open up? “My grandfather has a garden in the back of his house. I would play back there with my stuffed horse and paper butterfly on a stick. We would have hours of adventures. I would be outside until the lightning bugs would come. Many a night grandmother would have to pull me inside for dinner and bath time.” She smiled at the memories. “I’ve always liked gardens since. There isn’t really a winter here, not where it snows or anything like that…” She trailed off. I’m babbling.

This wasn’t going well. She looked around the garden at the bushes and plain walls for any inspiration. “Tell me about your village.” She knew instantly that was a mistake and wished she could stop the words before they reached him. She put a hand over her mouth.

He turned to her with a haunted look. His blue eyes were pools of frost coated loss. “My village? You want to know how my hopes and life were destroyed? How my girlfriend was brutally murdered running across the field she was working in? How my parents and sister are just gone? Gee. Where should I start?”

He never raised his voice above a soft level. It was flat. Emotionless. And every word was an icicle stabbing into her. He turned back to the burbling water.

Sue had been there in the village and couldn’t believe she would mention Mogu. Especially considering her own parents. Her face flushed in embarrassment. She stood quickly and turned to go. This had been a serious mistake. How could I have been so stupid?

Her heart froze in her chest as she locked eyes with Xan who was standing there holding two drinks. Great. He’d probably heard her disgrace herself. The flush in her cheeks deepened, her ears burning as she quickly fled the courtyard.

#

The next morning, Xan went to find Cho as he wasn’t at breakfast. On a hunch, Xan headed back to the garden in their building’s inner courtyard. Cho was sitting where Xan had left him the night before. Xan walked over to the bench and flopped down trying to break his friend’s reverie. Cho didn’t acknowledge his presence despite the squeak and a groan from the wooden bench as it flexed under Xan’s weight.

Cho just sat staring at the water in the fountain.

“Have you been here all night?” Xan asked, raising his voice over the soothing sounds of water. There was no response. Concern changed quickly to irritation. Xan leaned forward and snapped his fingers in front of Cho’s face.

“What?” Cho asked him.

“I’ve been talking to you. What’s going on with you? You know we start class tomorrow?”

Cho just grunted and went back to staring at the fountain stoically.

“Oh no. You need to talk with me here, Cho. You were all up my butt making sure I was committed to this effort. I guess I forgot to ask if you were.”

Cho’s eyes flickered towards Xan and back to the fountain. A reaction. Finally!

Xan continued. “I’m not a warrior. We both know that was always your strong suit, but I’m willing to learn. I can’t do it without you though. I’m out of my depth here. You’re my only friend, my only ally—and if we’re going to make it here, we need each other. It’s just us now. We’re the only ones left.” Xan hung his head. “I can’t do this without you.” Xan breathed, emotion and loss threatened to overwhelm him.

Cho dropped a rough hand onto Xan’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Xan. I’m here for you—I always will be.” Cho said softly with a sad expression, but his eyes were clear. “I just need to work through some stuff. You know? My dad, Wen Mei, our village. I’m not as good at processing the emotional things as you are. Probably the only benefit from your father and the Path of Peace. My father taught me how to beat down obstacles or stick them with a spear. The thing is, this isn’t a problem I can pummel into submission with my fists. It’s just going to take some time is all.” He gave a weak smile and sighed.

“You had me worried, Cho. I’m serious that I need your strength and I’m sure I’ll eventually need you to stick a problem with a spear.” He smiled. “You remember when your father tried to teach me to use a spear?”

Cho laughed, eyes crinkling at the corners. “You almost stabbed yourself in the foot and vaulted into the target.” He sobered a bit. “I never figured out how you managed to do it.”

Xan shrugged. “I’m talented like that. Yet another reason why we need to stick together.” His smile faded. “I’m worried. I don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow. Or in the next year. Even though Sifu supposedly tested us, I’m skeptical that I can learn magic. Po and Lee Bo were amazing fighting those creatures.” He inhaled deeply and let it out slowly, forcing himself to relax.

Cho looked at his hands. “I’m scared too.” He sat still for a long minute, the gentle chirp-chirp of crickets marking the passage of time, then looked up at Xan. “But my father says…” he shifted uncomfortably, “said, that a brave person is someone who is afraid, but does what they are supposed to do, anyway.” He tried to smile. “That’s us right now.”

Xan nodded appreciatively. “I won’t let you down.”

“I know you won’t, Xan. Now, leave me alone for a bit, hunh? I’ll come find you for dinner. I promise.”

“Fine. All right. I’m going to walk around, but I’ll be in my room around dinner time. I better see you there, yeah?” Xan said.

“Yeah,” Cho said, waiving him off with one hand. “I’ll be there.”

Xan stood up and left Cho to sort through his feelings. Cho insisted that Xan dealt with emotions better, but the truth was, Xan hadn’t processed his grief at all. He’d worked hard not to think about Mogu or his family. His father in particular. Currently, Xan had all of his emotional baggage tied up nice and neat and stuffed in a box. He would peek at it later. But not yet. He couldn’t afford to get distracted, not with so much on the line. There would be a time and a place to unpack those bags and rummage through all of those terrible emotions, but first, he needed to survive the next few days. With Cho coming around, that left Xan to fan the flames of his own anxiety to do well at school.

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About the author

MarkStallings

Bio: I’ve been in Colorado since I was a young teenager. I live in the foothills of Pikes Peak with my wife, two children and various dogs and cats. I have a crazy technology background having founded several tech companies centering around human machine interfaces before I discovered a passion for writing.

When I’m not slinging the ink and trying to get paid to fabricate tales that entertain, I like to shoot competitively, drink craft beer, ride motorcycles and play games with friends.

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