She couldn't understand a word that anyone was saying. It seemed to help.
It started with… well, her name turned out to be Vi, but Chao-Ahn would forever think of her as Red Haired Nervous Smiler.
Her sleeping bag was two spaces over from Chao-Ahn's, and that afternoon, while Chao-Ahn was sorting through her new clothes and trying to locate where Mr Giles had stashed her toothbrush, the Red Haired Nervous Smiler sat on her pillow watching, and kept her company.
She talked fast, with frequent stops, starts, and uncertain pauses. And she kept asking what sounded like polite questions – followed by a pause and then some very fast apologetic talking when she realised (yet again) that Chao-Ahn couldn't understand a single word and was therefore clearly not going to answer.
Then Dreadlocks Girl came into the room, and Nervous Smiler started talking to her instead… but still glancing over politely at Chao-Ahn the whole time, making sure she felt included.
Included? Yeah, right.
The second time was the next night, while standing outside the bathroom.
The house seemed to be largely made up of loud arguments, and long waits for the bathroom – no matter what time it was. Chao-Ahn had woken at two in the morning with an urgent need to use the toilet, and had got up only to find that three other girls had had the same idea.
She ended up sitting outside the door, next to Lanky Girl With The Funny Smile, waiting impatiently for someone she was thinking of mentally re-christening as Girl With Extremely Full Bladder.
And then Lanky Girl started talking.
At first it was just an awkward sentence said with a grin – probably some kind of joke. But that led into another few sentences, and then she started rambling. Chao-Ahn just sat there, nodding, and wondering when these idiotic Americans were going to realise that not speaking English meant that she couldn't speak English. And also how long she was going to have to wait before the bathroom was free… but then she noticed that Lanky Girl's rambling was getting quieter, and slower – and she had a very serious expression on her face.
And that was when she realised that, whatever was being said, it was clearly very important. Too important to say to anyone who understood the words.
Chao-Ahn sat on the back steps, one day after training, drinking a coke – and watching Bossy Drill Sergeant packing up the last few weapons.
She looked tired. She'd looked tired, and kind of thoughtful, ever since the Big Spell Downstairs, two days before. Chao-Ahn didn't know what had happened down there (and clearly wasn't going to find out until she invented a universal translator), but whatever it was seemed to have involved an argument between Drill Sergeant and Red Haired Magic Girlfriend, because they weren't talking.
Drill Sergeant missed her, though. That was pretty obvious.
Chao-Ahn watched her for a bit longer, and then said unexpectedly, "Cheer up. It'll all be okay in the end."
Rather pointless, given the circumstances. But Drill Sergeant seemed to get the gist – and smiled and said some things back to her. It started slowly… then got faster and more emotional-sounding… and then she checked herself, coughed in an embarrassed way, smiled again, and went inside.
Chao-Ahn stayed on the steps, finishing her coke.
She found Camera Guy sitting in the dining room, looking at his video camera. Which was off – she could have seen a point to it if he'd been reviewing footage, but he was just sitting there looking at his definitely-turned-off camera, which struck Chao-Ahn as rather pointless.
But she sat down next to him.
And, sure enough, yet another person taking advantage of the whole can't-understand-a-word thing. She kept wanting to roll her eyes and walk off mid-sentence… but she got it. It made sense, somehow. And it made her feel useful.
Camera Guy said something very serious – lengthy and serious – and then lapsed into silence and went back to staring mutely at his camera. She sat there a bit longer, just in case, but nothing else seemed to be coming, so in the end she got up and left.
Cute Younger Sister was fun to hang out with – especially when she had the kitchen to herself. (A rarity, but if you got up early enough, it was possible.)
Cute Sister smiled when Chao-Ahn came in and said, "Hi! Something something something good something."
So Chao-Ahn smiled back, said "Morning. Did you sleep well?", and started making some toast.
"Something jelly something," said Cute Sister – which turned out to mean there was none left. Chao-Ahn just shrugged and grabbed the honey.
"No, something," – with a grin.
"You've lost me."
So Cute Sister put down her cereal, walked over to the pantry, and pulled out the chocolate syrup, gesturing.
Chao-Ahn frowned. "Eww."
"No! Something something good! Something something."
"Syrup on toast? Really? Why don't I just use…" She turned and started looking through the fridge, finally producing eggs and a bottle of cream.
Cute Sister grinned – and grabbed a container of grated carrot. "This will something something," she said persuasively.
Ten minutes later, Chao-Ahn and Cute Younger Sister were sitting at the counter, surrounded by miscellaneous ingredients, giggling and adding new things to each other's breakfast.
And Cute Sister suddenly bit her lip and said confidentially, "Something something today. Buffy something."
Chao-Ahn nodded and said, "Yeah, I know."
…which she didn't. But it seemed like the right thing to say.
Then came the battle.
Her English was getting good – slowly. She knew "yes", "no", "thanks", "good", "have", "hairbrush", "underwear", "stake", "vampire", and "pizza", among others.
This, though? How were you supposed to comfort the mourning, or offer sympathies, when all you had was baby talk? How were you supposed to mourn at all?
…by living somewhere where people actually spoke Cantonese, that was how.
But, instead, she ended up sitting next to Dreadlocks Girl's hospital bed, telling her the whole long story of her aunt who had died less than three years ago. And Dreadlocks Girl told Chao-Ahn all about someone (…her cousin?) too – a long involved story that took awhile. And they both talked together, in their own separate languages, about Curly-Haired Juice Lover, and Teddy Bear Owner, and all the other people they'd seen die that day.
And they cried together.
They couldn't understand a word that she was saying. It seemed to help.