He laughed. Not an amused laugh, but a sound of bitterness, of cynicism, and strangely, of understanding.
“I’m sorry,” he said, when he had stopped. “It’s just that you’ve taken the words right from my own heart.”
At first I thought that he meant his ethnicity, being Japanese-American, but then it became clear that he meant something else entirely.
“I do understand how you feel about having that identity crisis of being Asian-American, and I feel it too. But what I feel more is that tug of war between my human half and my fox half.”
That piqued my curiosity. I thought that he had completely disconnected himself from the yaojing world. “But you’ve already incorporated yourself into the human world, haven’t you?”
“Do you really think I have? Have you forgotten the whole mall incident?”
Of course I hadn’t forgotten it, but it had slipped my mind for one second. But now that I’d been reminded of it, I could see Khit’s point. Khit used his premonitions to save people, but if those same people that he saved ever found out who he really was, some would fear him, blackmail him, maybe even try to kill him. And the fact that he had blue-colored blood must be hard to hide. It meant he could never see the doctor.
The bottom line was that we, humans, would probably never accept him into our world if we discovered his yaojing side.
“What about the yaojing?” I wondered out loud. “I know you don’t like them, but what do they think about halflings?”
“I don’t personally know any other halflings, since we’re very rare,” he said. “But from my experience, the yaojing never understood me even though they wanted me to become like them. They only contacted me when they thought my strength might be an asset for them.”
When Khit had turned sixteen, the Yaojing Elite had contacted him for the first time. Khit had always known of their existence, having had dreams of his mother, but he had never seen a yaojing in person.
But at sixteen, the Elite had recognized his strength and immediately visited him. Because he was curious about his mother’s world, he had followed the leaders back to their headquarters. He’d even helped some of the average yaojing collect life energy from humans by encouraging cheating, lying, and stealing.
“But I didn’t feel comfortable being there with them,” said Khit. “I wanted to get out of their circle, but I never had the courage to say anything. Until…” He trailed off, his expression suddenly becoming haunted.
Impatiently, I waited for him to continue, knowing if I prodded, that sentence would forever remain unfinished. Finally, he cleared his throat, and without looking in my direction, said, “You noticed my scar.”
It was a topic that was so far removed from my mind that it took me several seconds to recall what scar he was referring to. “You mean the dog bite?”
He nodded. “You already know my tail grows when my skin comes into contact with a dog. But I’ve never told you what happens when a dog bites me.”
He hesitated again, making my curiosity pique even further. I sensed he was trying to draw bits and pieces out from the truth, deciding what to tell me, and what to leave out. I didn’t want to pry, but his propensity for leaving me hanging was beginning to drive me nuts. Finally, he continued. “Before the dog attacked me, I believed my human side made me weak. So I tried to prove I was as strong as a full-blooded yaojing. I lived like a hedonist, doing things I dare not tell an innocent girl like you. Due to my recklessness, two yaojing brothers who’d always hated me for being a halfling were able to spring a trap on me.”
“Scyther and Keane?” I interrupted.
“Yes,” he confessed. “They led me into a pack of street dogs. I tried to run, but I was completely hammered. One of the dogs bit me just below the tattoo on my shoulder blade. I turned into a real fox, with no human emotion or thought. Only animal instinct.
“I couldn’t change back into a human for days, and when I woke up as a man, naked and alone on the street, I had no recollection of anything that happened during my time as a fox. But the whole ordeal was a wake-up call. I didn’t want to become a real animal, and so I began to appreciate my human side a lot more.
“After that, I realized I could help humans with my premonitions instead of harm them, and that would make me stronger than the yaojing. So my ability to be human and to love them became my new superpower.”
He said the word superpower for my benefit, purposely reminding me of the day I’d asked him what superpowers he had. That day, he’d said his human superpower was the ability to live for more than his own desires. I hadn’t fully understood him then, but now I thought I did. When he’d been living with the yaojing, he’d believed himself to be weaker than them. But it was only after realizing that his human side was a strength, not a weakness, when he’d been able to change his lifestyle and turn himself into the man he was today. He was right. The yaojing might have all kinds of cool superpowers, but most of them used those powers selfishly. Khit was stronger than them because he used his powers to help others.
“I told the Elite that I wanted out.”
“I’ll bet they didn’t like that,” I said. “Did they try to force you to stay?”
“At first they did,” he replied. “But when I stopped joining in their parties of debauchery and instead tried to warn humans away from them, they decided they couldn’t risk having me with them. They were afraid I would expose their schemes to the humans. But they also didn’t want to kill me because they thought I might still be useful one day.”
So they parted ways. And except for Scyther and Keane, Khit hadn’t been in contact with any of them since then.
A moment of silent understanding passed between us, and I saw in his eyes, the same fear that I had. The fear of rejection, of not knowing where one truly belonged. And in his case, it had been far worse. At least in my world, I was fully human, and although I occasionally was exposed to racism, most people in my world were accepting of other cultures.
In Khit’s case, neither world would ever accept him. There were no laws against discrimination of half monsters in the human world or of half humans in the yaojing world. Humans and yaojing alike would not hesitate before killing Khit if they believed he was a threat to their lifestyle.
“Did you ever talk to your mother about it?” I asked. “I mean, through your communications in your dreams.”
He picked up his glass of orange juice and gulped down half before responding. “We’ve never talked about anything besides her current activities. There’s very limited time to talk during dreams.”
I found myself growing curious at the relationship Khit had with his mother. “Can’t you talk on the phone? Or would that go against the rules of the deal?”
Khit shook his head. “Neither my father nor I are allowed to hear my mother’s voice in person. That’s one of the rules. But dreams are different because I hear her voice psychically. Besides, we wouldn’t want to take the chance anyway. That snake tried to bug my phone before to find out if my mother ever called me.”
“Then it’s a good thing she’s halfway across the world,” I decided. “It would be terrible if she bumped into you, your father, or Scyther. Do you know where she is right now?”
“She was living in Uganda for a few years to accomplish her eighth task, but now that she’s gotten her eighth tail, I think she’s moved to Vienna to figure out her final task.”
“Because the yaojing leaders are there, hashing out a new plot to steal life energy from the unsuspecting citizens, and my mother needs to talk to the leaders, since they’re the ones that assign her the tasks.”
“Again, why Vienna?”
Khit heaved a regretful sigh, one filled with shame at his yaojing side. “The yaojing like to spread themselves around the globe, but the Elite like to stick together, sort of like the Mafia. They do organized crime in one part of the world at a time, and since they haven’t been in Vienna for about a century, they chose that poor city because its crime rate of late has been low. Most likely you’ll hear about the crime rate going up sometime soon.”
“Wow,” I breathed. “I don’t mean to sound callous, but this is really interesting, how the yaojing world totally affects the human world, and we don’t even realize it.”
He lightly chuckled, a deep rumble that for some reason reminded me of the warmth of hot chocolate settling in my stomach on a winter’s night. “I didn’t mean to get so off topic, but getting back to your writing…I just wanted to encourage you not to give up. There are Asian-American authors who have been successful, and maybe they aren’t writing in the fantasy genre you love so much, but there always has to be a pioneer. It would be great if you were that pioneer.”
I tried to smile. “Thanks for the encouragement, but you don’t have to say those things just to make me feel better.”
He stared directly into my eyes. “It’s not just encouragement. I think you’re an amazing girl.”
I caught his gaze and couldn’t lift my eyes away. There was a mesmerizing pull that wouldn’t let go, as if I were being hypnotized. His eyes were the exact sapphire-blue of a summer sky just before a sudden summer storm. Dark and mysterious, yet not at all cold. Safe, and yet, glinting with a hint of danger at the impending deluge of a barely constrained passion.
And as if I couldn’t quite help myself, I began to lean towards him, and he towards me.
The sound of a telephone jerked me back into reality. I realized that the phone had been from the TV movie, which we had been ignoring all this time.
My face flushed hotter than after a five mile run. I had almost kissed Khit…no, my professor, again. What was wrong with me?
He spoke first. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uneasy. But I can’t say that I didn’t mean to kiss you. Caren, look at me.”
I kept my head down and shook my head, too scared to see what might be reflected in his eyes…or in mine.
Then I heard him sigh deeply. “Don’t look at me then, but I can’t be silent anymore. I know I’m your professor, but I’m not that much older than you. I…I’m very attracted to you, and I have been for awhile now. The truth is, that time in the library—”
“Please don’t say anymore,” I begged, cutting him off. “I can’t like you back. I’m sorry.”
“Why not? Don’t tell me you can’t feel the attraction between us.”
“No, I can’t deny it,” I admitted. There was something between us, a binding force that was pulling us together, intertwining our lives, but it couldn’t be the same thing as what Darryl and I had between us—that soul mate connection.
“I know I’m attracted to you,” I continued, in an almost frantic voice. “But I can’t be.”
His brow furled in confusion. “You sound like it’s wrong for you to like me. Is it because I’m a half yaojing?” He spat out the words distastefully.
“No!” I cried. I hated that look of self-loathing on his face. “It has nothing to do with you. It’s because we aren’t soul mates. I told you about my library dream before, remember?”
His self-loathing dissolved to be replaced with disbelief. “You mean you were serious? You actually think that Darryl kid is your soul mate based on a silly dream?”
“It isn’t silly,” I shot back. “Dreams should be taken seriously. I would think you of all people should know that, since you communicate with your mother through dreams.”
Khit just stared at me sullenly. “How can you be sure Darryl was the one in your dream? Did you see his face? Are you sure it was his face you saw?”
I actually hadn’t seen my dream guy’s face, but I wasn’t about to admit it to Khit. Besides, I was positive that it had to be Darryl. “He was the one who helped me take the book down from the shelf. He’s my soul mate whether you like it or not, and I can’t cheat on him. I’ll…I’ll eventually get over this attraction I have to you, and I’ll naturally fall in love with Darryl just because it was meant to be.”
Khit’s glare told me he was angrier than a rampaging rhino disturbed from a nap. I knew I was in trouble and started to inch away.
His voice was low, but filled with suppressed fury that I knew would be unleashed at any moment. “You idiotic girl. For one as smart as you, I can’t believe how stupid you can be. Haven’t you realized yet that—”
I never heard the end of his tirade, as the sound of keys at the door stopped him short. His fogged eyes cleared a bit as he realized that we were not to be alone for much longer, but the tension in his expression remained.
“We’re home!” Liana’s clear, tinkling lilt filled the air, and I breathed it in with a sigh of thanks. She had just saved me from something that could have gotten very nasty…or reckless.
Nia and Stacy followed suit, guilty expressions on their faces. Good, they deserved to feel bad for leaving me alone with Khit.
But Liana was shameless. “Hello Dr. Inari. I’m sorry we couldn’t be here for dinner, but I’m sure you still had fun without us.” She secretly winked at me. “Sampling Caren’s talent in the kitchen is enough to make anyone’s day.”
He smiled back at her, and only I could see that it was taking him a lot of effort to pull back his torrent of emotions. “Her cooking is wonderful.” He breathed in, slow and steady, and then glanced back at me. “Well Caren, it’s late, so I won’t take up too much more of your time, since you no longer need my company.” To everyone else, he was simply bidding a casual goodbye, but to me, his mocking words were filled with a double meaning.
He stood up and walked to the door. “Good night girls. I’ll see you in class on Tuesday.”
Liana gave one final wave goodbye and shut the door behind him. She whirled around, a mischievous beam filling half her face. “Soooo…how did it go?”
I pointed to the coffee table. “Well, there’s a lot of cheesecake left over. Go ahead and eat it.”
“I don’t think that’s what Liana meant,” Nia put in, her face just as curious.
Stacy’s head bobbed up and down eagerly. “Yeah, spill it Caren.”
I sighed, knowing there was no way they would leave me alone until I told them something. So I went ahead and told them that the professor and I simply had a nice meal together and talked a bit about life.
“I don’t think that’s all that happened,” Liana said. “Tell us the truth. Why did the he seem so angry when he left?”
Darn it. Liana had always been good at reading people’s emotions.
Instead of replying, I smiled and said, “I thought he looked rather happy with my cheesecake. You’re welcome to sample a piece if you don’t trust me.”
“Ha ha…funny, but you know that’s not what I meant. The professor wore the expression of one who was just rejected.” Her eyes lit up as she gasped and guessed correctly what had happened. “He confessed, and you rejected him, didn’t you?” Her disappointed groan told me she thought I had been wrong for doing so. “Why Caren? I can see that you like him too, and he seems like a nice guy.”
I was starting to get annoyed with her meddling. “I told you that I like Darryl. He’s my soul mate.”
“And you know this how? Based off some stupid dream? Darryl hasn’t even called you once to go out. But the professor rescued you when you were stupid enough to get drunk, and it’s obvious that he really likes you.”
Liana looked behind her at Stacy and Nia for support. “Right?”
They were nowhere in sight, having disappeared at what looked like the beginning of a fight.
“Ohhh, they’re no help,” Liana muttered. She glared at me again. “You should have given the man a chance at least. Even one date.”
“I’ve only know him for two months,” I argued. “For all I know, he could be some serial killer.”
Of course, that was nowhere near the truth, but I was running out of points to make in this argument, and Liana had no idea that I knew more secrets about Khit than his own father.
“Two months is enough. Besides, both of you act like you’ve known each other for years. You talk about him so much, and I see your secret smiles whenever his name is mentioned.”
I simply stared at her, completely confused at the war of emotions within me. Had I really smiled whenever Liana and I talked about Khit? And only now that Liana had mentioned it, I realized that I did talk about Khit’s class quite often. But it wasn’t because of Khit…it was his lectures that I found captivating.
Suddenly, I felt scared for no reason at all, but all I knew was that I did not want to talk about Khit anymore.
“Just..just leave me alone!” I shouted angrily. Then I stomped to my room, terrified that Liana would reveal something else about me that I hadn’t known.
Faun barked as the door slammed hard behind me, and I knelt beside her, taking her in my arms to calm her down. She struggled for a bit, still startled by the loud noises her stupid owners had made. I whispered in hushed tones, telling her that I was sorry for scaring her, and eventually, she stilled.
I sank down onto my bed, hugging Faun all the while. At least she was one friend who wouldn’t make me angry.
I couldn’t believe Liana. She was always trying to act like my mother or older sister instead of as my best friend. And my mother wasn’t even this nosy about my private life.
Liana had no business telling me who I could or could not like.
And as for Khit…what was he thinking? How could he have feelings for his student? Besides that, we’d only known each other for two months, and that included the month between our first meeting and the next meeting when I found out he was my professor. We hadn’t even talked during that month.
And yet, it was true what Liana had said. It felt like I had known Khit for years, and the unmistakable pull between us could not be ignored.
But just because I liked Khit and thought he was hot didn’t mean a thing. I could be attracted to any hot guy I met on the street, and I wouldn’t have cared if I had rejected any of them if they had asked me out. Khit was no different.
So then why did I feel so guilty?
The last thing I had wanted was to hurt him, but without fully realizing it, I’d been playing with his emotions.
Liana had been right about that. I should have talked to Khit right after that night I’d gotten drunk. Then maybe he wouldn’t have thought he still had a chance with me.
In a way I was no better than Jared. Even though I hadn’t dated Khit and Darryl at the same time, I still hadn’t made things clear with either of them.
That hurt look on Khit’s face when he thought I’d rejected him because he was a half yaojing would forever be ingrained in my memory. But we were never actually in a relationship, so he would probably heal quickly.
Unlike Liana, who still felt the hurt of her break-up, and even worse, the hurt of Jared’s parents’ rejection of her based on her genetic makeup.
I had just yelled at my best friend, who was still trying to heal from her break-up. I was a terrible person.
And I’d even locked her out of her own room!
I got off my bed, intending to fling open the door and beg for my best friend’s forgiveness. But when I opened the door, Liana was already standing there, her hand curled, poised to knock.
We stared at each other for several seconds.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted out first.
I could only blink at her, wondering why the heck she was apologizing to me when she had done nothing wrong.
“You’re right,” she continued in hushed tones. “It’s really not my business to tell you who you should date. No more meddling or trying to set you up with Professor I.”
“No, you don’t have to be sorry,” I said. “I know you’re always looking out for me, and you want me to be happy…I’m the one who should apologize for being an insensitive butt. I’m sorry for yelling at you.”
Liana gave a small half-smile. “I deserved your yelling. I would have yelled too if you had meddled that much with my love life.”
I sighed. “I should have listened to your warning. If I’d made things clear with Khit, he wouldn’t have gotten hurt today.”
“I think…” she said slowly, “that you don’t have to worry about hurting his feelings. I don’t think he’ll give up that easily. And also, I get this weird feeling that he’s been interested in you for longer than we all think.”
I stared at her as if she had suddenly sprouted a flower on her head. “But we only met two months ago.”
Liana shrugged. “It’s just a hunch. I could be wrong.”
Then she changed the subject, and it was as though we’d never fought in the first place. But that last thing she said kept niggling in the back of my mind the whole night.
Especially when I put it together with Khit’s premonitions.
I knew he had seen me in his visions before I’d met him, but had he also seen me in person? Maybe he’d been observing me secretly for years, and I’d been oblivious to it all along.
The thought should have freaked me out. After all, that was the behavior of a stalker, right there. But strangely, I just felt even guiltier for having hurt Khit. He might have been waiting all these years to actually come up to talk to me, and I had crushed his hopes all in one night.
I had to do something to apologize, to make it clear that I still wanted to be his friend. After all, even though Fate had not made us soul mates, our lives had still been destined to intertwine. Fate had assigned me the task of helping Khit’s family get back together.