I thought I broke the cycle, Wendy Watson mused. I moved on to more suitable men. I gave myself a talking to and decided not to waste my time.
Her Valentine's Day plans had often included a surly Asian dude she was meeting at the airport for a brief but miserable weekend together. In recent years she had dated Ben, and then Tyler, both non-Asian and residing locally, precluding both airports and surly behaviour in the latter's case. Ben was surly, except he insisted she call it 'sensitivity to negative harmonics.'
The announcement of arrivals droned as she tuned them out, juggling the keys of the Middle mobile. It would be amusing to see Sensei Ping's reaction to another ride in the Hruck Bugbear, but her new wheels were much nicer. She turned in a circle and observed the busy airport cynically. She was single on a holiday for lovers, and on the clock. Expectations were in the basement.
“Greetings, my little Pit Viper. Perhaps this time you will be able to do justice to the sacred greeting?”
She straightened her spine and looked him in the face, free from Lucho Libre mask but still pretty uncommunicative. Wendy smiled with pride and recited, “Oh, Sensei, you're very hot, reminds of the things I'm not, rippled muscles and all class, I wish you could teach me how to have your ass. Welcome back, Sensei Ping,” she cheered, throwing her arms in the air and moving toward him in a threatened hug.
He gave her the traditional slap to the back of the head, but it was nearly gentle, and she was sure his tone was amused when he barked for her to get the luggage. She tried a grab to hold his hand, getting a little slap again. Wendy smirked to herself and trotted ahead to grab the massive suitcases. It was not even her worst airport pickup.
She could feel him readying a complaint about her car as they approached the smart car, but his disbelieving snort was better than she'd thought.
“Apprentice, you expect Sensei Ping to ride in this mechanical idiocy? It resembles a little girl's drawing of a bubblegum vehicle!”
She popped the hatch open and stacked his overpacked bags in the tiny trunk area. The defense of the day was unflappable good humour. The more he bitched, the more she would smile and gush over his esteemed presence. Hopefully he'd get sick of it before her temper broke. Sensei Ping knocked on the roof and frowned, as if deciding it wouldn't keep the rain out.
“It is very pretty, but also practical,” she said, as if he'd praised the Middle mobile II instead of dissing it. “Let me get the door for you, Sensei.”
He climbed in with a sniff, and wiggled around like he didn't have room to sit. If The Middleman could get himself in that seat, she knew Sensei Ping could if he wanted to. She got in and pulled her seat belt on, starting the car with a flourish. The much quieter engine purred as he grudgingly settled in. He wiped his hands together irritably and stared out the side window.
“How was your flight, Sensei Ping?”
Nothing. It was possible there was a grunt bitten back before it made a sound.
“Okay. Um, we have you set up at the usual hotel. The presidential suite was open this time,” she tried.
His neck moved slightly and she nodded like he had answered in the positive.
“I do have to make a quick stop at home to drop off something to Lacey, but it will take two minutes.”
He glanced at her, furrowed his brow, and scowled. “Lacey?! You dare delay Sensei Ping with matters to do with your underthings?!”
In the process of changing lanes, Wendy got distracted and had to pull back into the center to let a honking car by. She signaled and made the switch, then asked, “My underthings? What?”
He sneered at her, giving her a real back of the head slap. “You spoke of lacey things!”
She cleared her throat instead of laughing, and lifted a cloth grocery bag from the floor, handing it to him. “I said I need to drop something off to Lacey, who is the girl I live with. Well, woman. We're both women, hear us roar. It's organic cane sugar, and she's baking for Valentine's Day.”
Sensei Ping growled.
“- which is today, so it's rather urgent, you see, though it will only take a minute or two. I promise!”
His angry silence seemed like permission to inconvenience him, so Wendy turned in to her parking lot. She put the car in park, and took the bag from his lap carefully.
“You can stay here if you like, fiddle with the radio, and I'll be ba-” she cut herself off as he got out stiffly and looked at the building with interest. “Or you could come in for a minute and meet Lacey, who will just annoy you like a toy poodle. Then you can take it out on me.”
She followed Sensei Ping as he headed right for the elevator, raised the gate for him, and set it to go to the sixth floor. She looked at her shoes as the car jolted up. He waited for her to lift the gate again, and she fumbled a second as Noser looked up.
“Hey Wendy Watson. Hey . . . new, older Asian boyfriend,” he asked.
“Hi Noser. This is Sensei Ping. He's not my boyfriend. He's not very talkative. I just came here to drop off some sugar to Lacey,” she told him, begging him with her eyes not to draw the master into conversation.
“All is full of love,” Noser said philosophically.
Sensei Ping shoved past Wendy and looked at the controlled chaos of the loft. He traced the clanging of pots and spoons to the kitchen. Lacey turned around and grinned with the kind of friendly energy that was bound to enrage him.
“Hey Dub-Dub! This must be Sensei Ping. Hi!”
Her roommate moved forward with a flour-encrusted hand extended, and Wendy grabbed her. “Hi! He doesn't shake hands. Or anything. We're just here for a second, okay,” she murmured, holding on to Lacey in case she got any 'free hugs' ideas.
“Oh, okay,” Lacey said breezily. “Thank you for bringing me my sugar.”
Wendy knew her oldest friend was sexy. She had a throaty voice and an appealingly honest sexuality that landed more men than any woman could want. She'd also never seen Lacey as a romantic possibility and knew the feeling was mutual. They were like sisters, and not the kind of sisters that appeared in porn together. All the same, with the throaty gratitude and quick peck on the cheek, she knew Sensei Ping got a lesbian vibe that wasn't completely insane. He lifted his fist to his mouth and coughed.
“You may kiss your girlfriend, Apprentice,” he allowed. “Sensei Ping is a man of the world.”
Giggling, Lacey took the grocery bag and sighed, “Oh, if only, Sensei Ping. Wendy's boy crazy. I never had a shot.”
During their next session, Sensei Ping was just going to beat her to a pulp, Wendy decided. A very watery pulp. This was the man who didn't like his suitcase to touch the ground, and she was exposing him to innuendo and light same-sex groping.
“Lacey and I both like men. We're roommates,” she clarified.
Sensei Ping looked pointedly at the lipstick on her cheek. Wendy cringed and excused herself to wash it off. “I'll just be another minute, Sensei. One more minute, and we'll get you right to your hotel. Did I mention the presidential suite?”
She washed her face and emerged to find Sensei Ping and Lacey sitting at the table with cake and green tea. He was digging in with gusto, and the blond took his freshly cleaned plate and stood up.
“You want some more? There's plenty. Wendy? Some cake,” she offered.
Another chunk of dessert landed in front of the sensei and he practically planted his face in it. Wendy nodded. What Sensei Ping liked, Wendy Watson would provide.
She and Lacey ate their own slices, then shared a third one. The sensei plowed through four more slices and a pot of green tea. He waved away another helping and strolled through the apartment, looking at the protest signs and artwork. Wendy helped Lacey with dishes. She tried to check on Sensei Ping frequently, but he was stealthy for a guy with a belly full of cake. He made it upstairs silently, and came down with the painting of The Middleman.
“Sensei Ping has misunderstood your affections,” he commented. “It is a good likeness but for one detail. His nose is crooked at the bridge. Sensei Ping broke it in four places once. It was a fine day and he learned much.”
Wendy picked up her Boss's portrait and hurried it back up to hide in her closet. Even Lacey hadn't seen that one before. It was a little too personal, and it did show her feelings for him. She might agree to display it after they were both dead fifty years or so.
Sensei Ping and Lacey had started the Xbox, and were shooting at zombies with enthusiasm. They might have hit three in the first fifteen minutes, before Lacey died and the sensei continued on one player mode. He snarled and goaded the zombies as he shot at them, getting remarkably better with only a little practice. Wendy sidled over to her roommate.
“Um, was that cake special? Like special? He's not normally . . . verbal,” she whispered. “It's happy yelling and growling, but I'm concerned.”
Shrugging, Lacey wrinkled her nose. “Is he allergic to soy?”
Sensei Ping had made tofu the primary requirement for his midday snack. Wendy thought it was gross and made The Middleman take it out of the package for her. She was betting Bossman was having mini-strokes for every minute she didn't check in, and she really didn't know if Lacey's cake had unwittingly poisoned the venerated master. It was probably better to be the one who called first instead of the one to answer the frantic call.
“Ugh. I have to go call my boss. Just keep your distance, okay,” she warned her roommate. “Sensei Ping is crabby.”
Boy, some days she really hated to think what she was asking of her boss.
“Hey, Boss, how are you,'' Wendy asked casually, tiptoeing up to her bedroom. “I'm fine, everything is fine, and Sensei Ping is – Pink lemonade, you have to get down here right now! Right now! I did something!”
Her sudden switch to brutal honesty had him stumbling toward the car, stuttering out half questions. “Dubbie, wha - how did - where are – are you surrounded?!”
She gritted her teeth, slumped, and let the ugliness of it grumble past her lips.
“I did it again, Boss. I don't know what's wrong with me, but he gives me the imperious glare and I just . . . the buttons – I pushed all the buttons! They're big, angry, red buttons and I need to push them. I couldn't stop,” she confessed. “I'm sorry.”
His deep breath was soothing, not the lead up to a harsh dressing down. He was summoning every nice impulse he had, prepared to waste them all on her ungrateful ass, and she was infinitely relieved. Sensei Ping was only going to be happy shooting CGI zombies for another few minutes.
“Did you recite the hallowed verse of greeting,” The Middleman asked.
“I, uh, improvised, but he seemed to think it was funny.”
“Wendy, tell me exactly what you said to Sensei Ping.” The Middleman braced himself on a wall as he listened to her mumble her obscene little verse. He was sure it hadn't been delivered so bashfully at the airport, so she had afflicted his mentor with perkiness and foul language.
She had the sinking feeling there wasn't going to be coffee at the office for her anymore.
“I know. I'm bad. You can punish me later, but right now you have to save me from him. He's all . . . something, and he's going through my stuff. He called your nose crooked!”
“He broke my nose in four places during my training. It was a fine day and I learned much from the experience,” he agreed. “How did my nose become a topic of conversation?”
She squirmed at his battered housewife repetition of the nose-breaking, and the potential embarrassment of having the subject of her most controversial work see the canvas. “No reason. Hurry, please? I can hear him going out into the hallway. I have to go.”
He sighed a little as she hung up on him, but there was honest anxiety in her tone. Sensei Ping was formidable, and he had given her the order to listen to their visitor. Wendy knew not to take on a fight she couldn't win, even if the opponent wasn't so much a mortal threat as a problematic colleague. Since her experience in the alternate reality, she was a little nervous about Sensei Ping. Perhaps he should have handled the meeting himself. When she was uneasy, she fell back on the jubilantly offensive silliness that marked her age as opposed to her maturity.
He might have slipped through a few yellow lights on his way to the loft. His justified irritation was no match for the vow he had taken to protect Dubbie, and her emotional upheaval had a negative effect on his own calm. He parked next to her smart car and strode into the building quickly. The elevator lagged and shuddered up to her floor. Noser was in his usual spot in the hall, and he nodded in greeting.
“Hey Wendy's Boss. Are you here for the Valentine's Day cake? Lacey has outdone herself this year, Cupid himself could not resist,” he said.
The Middleman felt his eyes widen and he opened the door without knocking. If there was cake, things might be worse than he'd estimated.
Sensei Ping was standing on the back of the sofa, conducting a demonstration of high kicks that threatened several lamps and Wendy's head when she ducked in trying to save her furnishings. The sensei looked at him and dipped his head. “Apprentice.”
Just as Dubbie would always be his apprentice, he would always be Sensei Ping's apprentice. The typical greeting was a glimmer of hope that died quickly when the older man leapt straight into the air and landed in a smooth crouch.
“Wow! Very nice,” Lacey cheered from the kitchen. “Hi, Wendy's Boss.”
He spared a smile at her, and bowed to Sensei Ping. “Hello, Lacey. Sensei Ping, I am honoured you have found time in your busy-”
The sensei waved his hand, made a noise of blowing away an irritant, and the vase that Wendy had just stopped from wobbling fell to the floor and shattered. She rolled her eyes and turned her back on the mess.
“Pfft! You do not have eyes for anyone but your insolent Dubbie. Sensei Ping knew Sensei Ping should not have arrived today. Sensei Ping will make Hong Kong Airlines pay for this disservice,” he grumbled.
Wendy crossed her arms and her mouth opened to argue, when she caught The Middleman's frantic stand-down gesture. She knew they weren't the issue. They had a solid, functional, not at all romantic partnership. They were two sexy people just trying to save the world between showers.
“Crap,” she said softly to herself. That phrasing from her brain was a little suspicious, and she was going to call that the power of suggestion. She had no desire to make her time at work more potentially wounding.
Gesturing for the two young women to follow, The Middleman walked into the kitchen area and whispered, “What did you do to Sensei Ping?”
Eyes on the floor, Wendy said, “He ate half a cake that Lacey made, with some green tea, then he went all Shaolin Soccer on us.”
They looked to the nonplussed confrontational spoken word artist.
“So he's a health nut, right,” she surmised. “I didn't shove it in his mouth. It's vegan red velvet cake. There's apple sauce and beet juice. I thought it would be okay!”
Deep breath in, he thought to himself. Deep breaths bring clarity and readiness. There is no need to panic.
“Lacey, Sensei Ping has not eaten sugar since he started training decades ago,” The Middleman told her seriously, then glanced at the sensei to catch his bared teeth. “Of course, he is a man with many vital years ahead, and not so long ago he was a very young convert to the martial arts. A prodigy, even, quite a bit younger than most in the discipline. Certainly, by no measure, old . . . or work-worn . . . “
Wendy shoved him out of the punch surely to come, and smiled. “Sensei Ping is TIMELESS.”
“Sensei Ping IS timeless,” her boss repeated gratefully.
He reached down and hauled Dubbie into his side, jostling her in a friendly manner. She didn't know, but she had just saved him from having the sensei make him cry for a second humiliating time. She held on around his waist and tried to ignore the nipple effect of rubbing on his rough jacket. The cuddle was nicely reassuring, though. Hopped up Sensei Ping was terrifying.
“Hoo boy, Sensei Ping is so right about you guys. You shoot sex beams whenever you make eye contact. I feel like I should be giving a condom lecture.”
They spun around to glare at Lacey, separating as they did so, but that just left the opening for Sensei Ping to interject with more wisdom.
“The fluffy one is right. If you could make babies by meeting eyes with great love, you would have one thousand offspring,” he said sternly. “Your young would be fine fighters, but perhaps too pretty for mirror hall tournaments. They might also inherit Pit Viper's dwarfism.”
He tipped The Middleman's chin to the side and nodded, his expression vaguely paternal. Wendy huffed with insult and stepped forward, but the sensei only looked down his nose at her.
“Yes,” he muttered. “A terrible disadvantage.”
The Middleman opened his mouth to speak, but his mentor folded his hands behind his back and nodded curtly.
“Sensei Ping says it is a disgraaaace,” Sensei Ping bellowed. Then he did a gratuitous backflip without even unfolding his hands.
He had a disturbing amount of energy, and Wendy wanted him out of her apartment before something more unfortunate than The Middleman's deep blush happened.
“The Four Seasons is all ready for you, Sensei,” she remarked. “I'm sure you're . . . eager to rest?”
“Or we could arrange some workout time for you,” The Middleman added unhelpfully, horrifying her to no end. Wendy turned to her boss with pleading, her hands attaching to his arm.
“You're gonna make me fight him now? Boss, I'm sorry,” she hissed.
Stopping her from the unconscious way she was trying to climb him, he looked down at her and put his free hand on her shoulder. “Dubbie, of course not. Sensei Ping also works out alone, or I could -”
She could see the broken places in his nose now that it had been pointed out, and Wendy blurted. “Rock climbing! We should all go rock climbing!”
Smoothing his silk jammies, Sensei Ping nodded. “Sensei Ping is not dressed for the outdoors, but rock climbing is interesting. Provide a solution!”
Sending you out into the woods to strangle bears was the solution, Wendy thought.
“I have a gym membership,” Lacey offered. “It has one of those fake walls. I'll bring you guys as my guests.”
“Sensei Ping will wait in the hallway with the guitar man!”
They both turned to look at Lacey and she regarded them with irritation. “What? He asked for a solution and you two obviously have other stuff going on today. Work is work, but his opinion about what you do by yourselves is your business,” she told them. “If you don't want to talk about it to me, it's not even my business.”
She gave them an enigmatic smile and grabbed some clothes before going into the bathroom and shutting the door. Wendy cleared her throat with a little gurgle. The Middleman shuffled his feet.
“Do we have to talk about something,” he asked.
She thought about changing into gym clothes but her stomach was roiling with red velvet cake and awkwardness. Sensei Ping could climb the walls and she would keep her feet on the ground. She just had to figure out where to point her eyes. Next year she was booking Valentine's Day off.
Lacey emerged in her cute sweats, waved them to the door and led the way out to see what Sensei Ping had done to Noser. The musician was sitting there strumming chords of something distantly familiar.
“That sensei guy is dangerous,” he observed. “He asked me if I knew any Warrant.”
The Middleman frowned. “Where did he go, Mr. Noser?”
The single finger lifted from his guitar and pointed up; the seventh floor. It housed Pip's den of iniquity and Joe 90's giant penis sculptures flanking his door when no one was complaining too loudly. The Middleman took off for the stairs, Wendy right behind him. They found an empty hallway exhibiting eerie calm.
“You knock there, I'll try the other door,” The Middleman suggested.
Wendy tapped on Pip's door. She leaned on the wall as lazy footsteps dragged over to answer. It cracked open on his weaselly little face, and he grinned.
“Okay, you can be my Valentine, but I don't want you hanging around like you own me,” he slimed. “You could have dressed a little better.”
She jammed her heel into his toes and smiled. “Thanks Pip. You've relieved any romantic regrets I might have. Did you see an angry Asian guy wearing black?”
He opened the door wider and looked back and forth. “Wendy, I don't do sloppy seconds. I'll see you around, though.”
Joe 90 was waving The Middleman into his apartment, a big smile on his face. Wendy shoved the closing door and immediately had to squelch a sigh. It was like a forest of penis worship in the living room. Chest high phalluses made of wood and plaster surrounded them and Sensei Ping was standing in the midst with a satisfied air.
“Sensei Ping has found a fine young artist to patronize. Carry Sensei Ping's purchase to the car,” he ordered.
Joe 90 patted one sculpture on the over-sized foreskin, his pride clearly displayed. “Isn't this cool, Wendy? He bought the knotty pine one!”
Normally she'd try for more joy for a fellow artist, but the day had been too long, and he was pulling a giant bubble wrap condom down the shaft of the thing. “Cool.”
The Middleman hid his disgust as he bent his knees and hefted the sculpture up. He could lift it, but it made him stumble when he tried to walk.
“Could you . . . ?” He gestured to the business end of the penis, and she wrapped her arms around it. They started moving slowly toward the door.
“This is so wrong,” Wendy muttered, hefting the giant penis in both hands. It bumped into her stomach as The Middleman took a step forward. They both winced at the quasi-thrusting motion as they struggled with the ridiculously ugly sculpture. She was a fan of the masculine form, but this was just dumb.
Sensei Ping had sent the elevator up for them, and The Middleman put the sculpture down to pull the gate closed. Wendy stood next to the big dick with her eyes closed.
“I'm sorry about this whole day,” she said softly. “I should have just recited the hallowed verse of greeting and brought him to the Four Seasons.”
“It's not your fault. You couldn't have predicted this. Sensei Ping genuinely likes you, and I don't think the hallowed verse bothered him much. Sometimes he needs to let go of his self control and just live. I'm sorry you had to witness it. I know it's not a very good Valentine's Day.”
Without thinking, her hand moved into his, sliding their fingers together. “I don't mind.”
The elevator stopped and Lacey pulled the gate up, her eyes fastened on the joined hands. The Middleman squeezed gently and let go to hold the gate and close it for her roommate.
“Joe 90 has a new fan,” Wendy confirmed.
“Good for him,” Lacey said graciously. “I like it when good people live as they see fit and aren't afraid to admit what makes them happy. Even if they come to the realization a little late.”
The choreographed set of glances between Middleman and apprentice did not go unnoticed, but Wendy couldn't argue the appropriateness of a hook up while he was listening. He would take it all the wrong ways, thinking once again that she was ashamed of him.
Lacey held doors for them as they did the bump and grind to the Middle mobile and settled the monstrous penis on the back seat. Sensei Ping took shotgun, which left the two roomies in the smart car as they led the way to Lacey's gym.
“Sensei Ping is kind of nice,” she ventured. “In a commanding way. It's obvious he likes you or he wouldn't bother making you jump through hoops.”
“He's a good guy. He's just a little too high maintenance for the current Wendy Watson lifestyle.”
“You don't say that about Sexy Bossman,” Lacey challenged.
“He's not trying to be high maintenance, he's just carrying a lot of stuff. When he asks for help it's because he really needs me.”
Wendy glanced at her and smiled. “You know, I talked to Pip and he seemed a little lonely. You're in if you want it,” she smirked.
Their arrival at the gym was thankfully low-key. The Middleman and Sensei Ping went to the men's locker room, and Wendy followed Lacey to the rock climbing room. She watched a trainer hit on her friend as he helped her into a harness. The blond barely noticed the attention. She had gone through a seriously sporty phase during her teens – a failed attempt to get some of Dr. Barbara Thornfield's time - and the athleticism was still part of her routine.
Wendy slapped some chalk on her palms and took a pair of gloves, but the trainer told her one of the employees had to spot for each client. That left her with the choice of hanging out at the juice bar or on one of the benches near the base of the fake cliff. Sensei Ping's appearance in spandex shorts got her moving very quickly.
And people say looking down is dangerous, she thought. Looking up to that is way more scarring.
The Middleman showed up a few minutes later, looking mildly flustered. He ordered a large milk and paid for her smoothie as well.
“When Sensei Ping is ready to go, I'll take his luggage in my car,“ he told her. “I'll get him settled at the hotel.”
“What about the . . . sculpture?”
He grimaced, and she hid her smile by drinking her smoothie. “I'll tip the bellhops very well,” he said. “Then I'll go home and scrub my brain.”
She nodded, slowly. “You didn't get any cake. We were too busy corralling Sensei Ping. I'll bring you some cookies tomorrow.”
He stretched his long arm out and flipped the strap of her vest the right way. “Only if you want to, Dubbie.”
She kind of did, and decided not to worry about what it meant. If there was ever a day for secret Sexy Bossman love, Valentine's Day had to to be the one.