The Tickle Ninja

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic


This story shows how our disabilities can be turned into abilities if we choose to see them as such.

Submitted: August 27, 2018

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Submitted: August 27, 2018

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The Tickle Ninja

By Kent Osborn

Chapter One

Until the age of five, Tikelan was an utter delight to all who knew him. A smile was almost always on his face, and he laughed at nearly everything and everyone.Something as simple as a pine needle or a scrap of bark would send him into wild fits. Tikelan was silly and backward, but because he was so young, his family and others excused him and giggled at his odd behaviors.  But as he grew older, his sense of humor confounded and concerned people. He simply derived too much pleasure from the mundane and insignificant.

He refused to play with any of the toys his parents provided, and instead of enjoying balls and blocks, he played with dirt and dander he found on the kitchen floor.  He would contemplate the cat's ear for hours, study the dust floating in sunbeams, count and name clouds, tease and shriek at houseflies. Feng and Dongmei, his brother and sister, did not understand their younger brother's behavior more than anyone else. His siblings wondered why he had so much fun with such inane pastimes. It did not take long until they stopped trying to play with Tikelan and ignored him altogether.
His parents, Teng-li and Mingyu, continued to introduce him to normal, acceptable toys, but he never played with them in the correct way.  His father became very vocal about this and complained often to his wife.
"That boy needs to be seen by a psychologist.  He is odd."
"Yes, but he is happy, Teng-li.  Let him find pleasure where he finds it."
"It was cute and funny at first, but now that he is five, I can find no pleasure in it.  Tikelan sees the world askew. Instead of stacking blocks, he set them side by side.  He makes toy soldiers dance instead of battle. He put his toes in his finger paints, and has more fun playing with dust and dirt than with balls and games.  That boy plays by himself most of the time, and he never grows tired of solitude."
"Do you hate to see him doing these things, or do you hate to see him having fun with them?"  his wife asked.  She grabbed a pear from the fruit bowl, and began peeling it slowly.  "Let us see how he grows." She offered him a slice.  Teng-li sneered at the offering, like it were a dead spider.
"I have been seeing him grow!" Teng-li explained.  "And I do not like it."  The father scratched his bald, dry scalp, leaving red trails where his fingers had been.  His wife once again offered him a slice of the pear, but he shook his head and left the table.  This same scene, or a similar one, repeated itself many times in their house.
Tikelan continued to marvel at the world of the small, and he seldom made contact with anyone except his mother.  She alone had faith in the boy, and he could sense this.  With her, he was able to develop his language skills; he would practice speaking to random things that he encountered: lint on the floor, sand on his shoe, the smudge on a teapot, the palm of his hand, and so on...He talked to all things inanimate, and acted as though they replied.  Seeing this frustrated his father and siblings to no end, yet Mingyu continued to love him dearly.  The rest of the family shunned Tikelan, and this pushed him closer to his mother.  Much of her energy was invested in defending him.
At age 6, Teng-li insisted on calling the doctor to have his son analyzed. 
"The boy is in sound physical and mental health," Dr. Tamiga concluded after a lengthy exam.  "This is surprising, for he has dual simian hands, as I am sure you know."
"Dual simian hands?" his father said fearfully. "Simian?  That means monkey, right?"
"Yes, well, the marks on your son’s hands are like a primates.  You see, there is one long horizontal crease in the middle of the palm, where most people have a broken horizontal line."  Teng-li looked at the long creases on his son's hands, and then compared them to his own.
"So he is not even human?"
"No, no, Teng-li. Do not jump to conclusions," Dr. Tamiga said.  "Tikelan is quite human.  I’ve delivered countless babies, and I will tell you that people with just one simian hand are quite rare.  Yet people with dual simian hands are even rarer, making up less than 1% of the population.  I have never seen a case before now.”

“What do people who have simian hands act like?  What sets them apart?

“It’s hard to say, it varies so much. Most people with Down syndrome and schizophrenia have simian hands, but your son does not have any psychological disturbances.  I'm sure of it."
"But he plays with sand and dirt, he talks to himself, and the only way he interacts with his siblings and cousins is by tickling them.  He is disturbed, Doctor, I assure you."  Both the Dr. Tamiga and Teng-li glanced at Tikelan, who seemed oblivious to the gravity of the conversation.  He was playing with the rubber sole of his shoe, removing small rocks from the treads.
"I've never met anyone with dual simian hands,” the Doctor continued, “though I have read about it in medical journals.  They all say the same thing: people with simian lines have great capacity for determination and focus, but what they focus on might be...unconventional.  Palmists say that the simian hand crease is a merging of the mind and heart lines, which means for these people thinking and feeling are the same."
"Palmists!?  Doctor, I came to you for science-based advice, not hocus pocus wish wash."
"I understand. My apologies, Teng-li.  I have no concrete predictions for you about Tikelan.  My guess is that he will live a life of quiet intensity, and you should give him space.  He will channel his rare gifts when he is ready."
"Dual simian hands! That doesn't sound like a gift to me!" Teng-li muttered.
"Those who have hands like his are bound to be different and lead a unique life.  I would not be so quick to see it as a curse."
"Well is it a curse, or a blessing?"
"If you treat it like a curse, then that is what it will be, and if it is treated as a blessing then it may become that too."
"But this boy..." Teng-li began, searching for gentle yet truthful words, "I'm afraid he will never be able to function in society.  As it is, he won't play games, he won't build with blocks, he cannot help with chores.  He can do nothing practical.  He can do nothing the way it is supposed to be done, and he seems happy when he does things wrongly."
"Be careful with these words you use, Teng-li."
"What words?"  the father asked.
"Words like 'should' and "supposed'.  You cannot parent this child with strict ways.  Your son is a rarity.  He has no choice but to be unique, and instead of discrediting his character, learn how to accommodate it."
"How?"
"Be patient with him, and realize that he will never perform typical tasks, or hold a typical job.  This does not mean he is disturbed or sick.  Love him.  Do not shove him."
"Your clever rhymes do not comfort me Doctor."  With that, the Teng-li grabbed his son by the shoulder and escorted him out of the doctors office, and back to the car. 
When they returned to the home, neither spoke.  This was normal for Tikelan, but the rest of the household expected their father to share what he had learned.  Teng-li remained in gruff silence as he stormed into his office and looked through the medical almanac.  Dongmei and Feng were playing a game of checkers, while Mingyu was in the kitchen preparing a Watercress and Bokchoy soup.  Tikelan seemed relieved to be home, and when he found a long, black hair on the floor he looked at it with joy like it was an old friend.  He admired the sheen of light that reflected on the hair.  He moved his elbows up and down and watched as the glint of light slide across its surface, marveling at its sleek movement.
Teng-li stomped back into the living room and slumped down in his red leather reclining chair.  He huffed as he flipped through the medical almanac, and out of the corner of his eyes he noticed Teng-li staring at the hair, and losing himself in obsessive observation again, and this annoyed him to no end.  He was so distracted and aggravated by this, that he could not read the book near his youngest son.  Snorting, he marched back into his office and slammed the door.  Feng and Dongmei glanced at each other and shared a look of fascination and vexation, then continued playing their game.  A few minutes later, the office door swung open and struck the wall, shaking the nearby china cabinet and its contents.  Teng-li paced into the kitchen and confronted his wife, who was chopping beans on a wooden board.
"That doctor says similar words as you, Mingyu. Be patient, be patient.  That visit was a waste of money.  That doctor went on and on about his palms..."
"His palms?" Mingyu said, looking up from her work.
"The doctor said that he has simian hands.  Did you know that?"  His wife hesitated before answering.
"Yes.  I recall a nurse in the delivery room mentioning that after he was born.  She said that our son may be the only person alive with two simian hands.  She suspected that Tikelan would have a challenging life, and perhaps a remarkable one. That was all she said."
"Why didn't you tell me about this?" Teng-li said, crossing his arms tightly against his chest.
"I disregarded the nurse’s words.  They sounded strange and untrue.  Judging people by palms is a poor use of time, I think.  Besides, I wanted us to treat Tikelan like a normal child, not a freak." 
"Well, that didn't happen, did it?  I just looked up simian hands in the medical almanac and it confirmed what the doctor said:  A single simian hand crease is present in normal people with a frequency of 0.8% on the right hand and 1.3% on the left hand, whereas it is present with a frequency of 71% on the right hand and 66%% on the left hand in those with Down syndrome.”

 They were silent.  A shadow of gloom descended on the father's face and hung there like a wet rag, while a look of relief gusted across his wife's face, her features rose and laxed like she had sighed deeply, gratefully. 
"Why aren't you glad, my dear?" Mingyu asked.  "Our son does not have down syndrome.  He is relatively happy and healthy.  This doctor’s visit may provide us an explanation for his odd behavior."
"An explanation?  Or a justification?  Why aren’t I glad? How could I be?!  Simian hands are a mark of peculiarity, a sign of lameness.  I wanted my sons to follow my footsteps in the carpentry trade, and some day we could all build a house together.  This was my dream, but I intended on living this dream."
"I know, my dear, but Tikelan will do something else...something different, something artistic perhaps.  Let us celebrate his uniqueness and not condemn it.”
"I don't want an artistic son,” Teng-li said, waving his hands dismissively.  “Our son acts autistic, not artistic."

“Do not judge our son so soon.  Tikelan is still so young."
"When his brother was his age, he--"
"He is not his brother, nor is he you,” Mingyu said, chopping beans more quickly.  “Tikelan is Tikelan, and no one else."   Teng-li opened his mouth wide and arched his brow as though he were going to bark a protest, but then he paused and grabbed a bean from the cutting board.  He bit down on it and left the kitchen, the sound of crunchy, cantankerous chewing his only reply.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Father and son grew further and further apart after that day. Teng-li occasionally tried to engage Tikelan in practical pursuits such as puzzles, and building projects, but the boy always put the pieces together in the wrong way, and the abstract composition would make him giggle for a long time.  This was what upset his father the most, the fact that Tikelan laughed and rejoiced in doing wrongly.  Seemingly, the boy could amuse himself forever with incorrectness, and he did not seem to understand why no one else thought his failed attempts were amusing.  When he was a toddler, they thought he was funny, but not anymore.
When Teng-li’s frustration reached its boiling point he would confront his wife, complaining about their youngest son’s ineptitude and faulty ways.  She would always use the dual simian hands to defend her son against these criticisms.  This worked until he was 9.  Eventually, Teng-li blew up.
"Just because he has monkey hands doesn't mean we should permit him to act like a monkey!” he cried, loud enough so that all three of his children could hear him in the other room. "Tikelan just monkeys around day after day, and if we condone it, he will live like a monkey when he is an adult: filthy, thieving, desperate, and living in the forest.  He's not going to live in my house forever, I will say that much."
"But, Teng-li!"  Mingyu cried.
"No! I built this house.  I constructed it to raise constructive children.  If my son wants to be artistic, or autistic, or whatever you want to call it, he can do it on his own expense."
"When?  When are you going to kick him out...into the streets?"  she broke into tears, soft whimpering sounds came through her nose.
"When he is 16 he will either be acting like a human, and doing something with a practical purpose, or he is out!"
“Teng-li!"
"If you love that boy, guide him away from the nonsensical.  Help prepare him for a meaningful career."
"I...I will do what I can."
"I've tried, and I have no patience for the boy.  He's lost to me."
Meanwhile, Tikelan’s relationship with his siblings and his classmates remained estranged.  They could tell that Tikelan was bright, but his conversation skills were off.  He had mastered language well, but when speaking with his peers he would never stay on subject, and did not attempt to match their emotional tone. When his peer seemed excited about something, he would not join in the giddy feeling, but act bored or scared.  Yet when his peer was angry or frustrated with him, he would start snickering or singing, or both at once.
Because of his difficulty in conversation, his mother spent lots of her time speaking with him.  When they were together, he could talk quite normally, but when he left her side he could not carry on a healthy dialogue with anyone.  He was still interested in his peers, though they tried to avoid him.  Tikelan devised other ways to interact with them.
He seemed to have an innate sense of telling who was ticklish and where the weak spots were on their bodies.  Though he could not speak much, he could make almost anyone break out into fits of chuckling, whether they wanted to or not.  Tikelan felt he could bond with people the best when he could share bountiful laughter with them.  This was tolerated and perhaps enjoyed by his peers for a couple years, that is, until he was a teenager.
Around his 13th birthday, Tikelan attempted to tickle a stocky, mean-spirited boy named Po-fang after school, and a legendary fight ensued.  For no apparent reason, Po-fang struck Tikelan in the jaw, causing blood to trickle down his lips and chin, staining his shirt and shoes.  Tikelan smiled winningly as if he had just found a gold coin in the street. He appeared grateful for being punched in the face.  Po-fang was terrified by the tickler's deranged smirk, even though he was much larger and muscular than Tikelan.  There was something uncomfortably unpredictable about the boy's appearance; it frightening to Tikelan empowered by being hit in the mouth; Po-fang shrank back and his fists loosened. 
Tikelan leapt out, his hands clawing out as though he were going to tear off Po-fang's limbs, but instead of this a tremendous tickling ensued.  In less than three seconds, the bulky boy was reduced to a convulsing ball of giggles and wiggles.  Three other students gathered around and stood watching in shock as Po-fang squealed and squirmed about on the ground.  They gasped and chatted nervously until a minute later Po-fang calmed down, wiped the tears from his eyes and stood up.  He blinked many times, brushed off his clothes and then left the school yard. No one comforted Tikelan, though his lip was bleeding profusely.  They had seen his tickling assault and knew of the strange power he had in his rare hands.  Tikelan gave up tickling for a long time after this; few of his classmates talked about this, and none of them forgot. 
As Tikelan approached 16, he had fallen in love with no craft or trade, and had no real career interest.  He remained much the same as when he was 10, only he had become bigger, and better skilled at hiding his bizarre habits of studying the small.  He had received a microscope for his 14th birthday, and he often looked at hidden worlds in the comfort and quiet of his bedroom.  This secret hobby enabled him to give up scrutinizing the small in public.  For hours and hours, days upon days, he could be mesmerized by microscopic worlds in his laboratory, his bedroom.  Every spare moment, he would stare into the microscope and laugh at the busy bacteria, the bloated aomebas, the spunky protazoa, the flipping flagellum.  They were his tiny, silly cartoonish friends that danced all day and night.  He watched them with relish every day, as though they were hilarious movies or television programs. 
His father had hoped the microscope would usher his son into the life of science, and get him interested in a practical profession in the real world, but the tool only seemed to make Tikelan drift further and further into oblivion.  He had long ago lost touch with the "real" world, and it seemed he was soon to lose sight of it too.  As his 16th birthday drew near, his mother began to panic, which was quite unlike her.  She paced the kitchen, and cooked far too many soups, as she always did when she was distressed.  When the refrigerators and freezer were packed full of her soups, she decided to address the issue.  Taking Tikelan into the kitchen, they sat at the table and had a heart-to-heart conversation.
"My son, you know I love you, and I think I know you better than anyone else. I am confused by you often.  You do many things wrongly. But I do know that you are sensitive and gentle. You like to make people happy.  You know just how to tickle people to make them laugh, even if they hate being tickled."  She smiled at her son, who was petting a spiderweb next to the cupboard.
"Your 16th birthday approaches, and your father plans to...release you from our home unless you announce a career goal, or show interest in something practical."  She sighed. "I thought you could use your keen observation skills and sensitive hands...you might consider a career in massage, or acupressure."
Tikelan looked anxious, and said, "But mother, I don't want to leave our house.  I conduct my microscopic research in my room.  I'm in the middle of so many experiments," he said, a wry smile lifted his cheeks.
"Your brother and sister are going to a trade school, as you know.  Feng is training to be a carpenter, like your father, and Hassa is going to school for cosmetology.  They continue to live at our home because they are in school.  If you want to stay here, you must show interest in some professional field.  Here, take this; I tore it out of a magazine this morning."  She handed the page to her son and stroked the hair on the back of his head.  CORTIVA ACCUPRESSURE SCHOOL "Learn to balance energies by freeing the flow.  Help and heal others with your wise hands.  Semester begins September 1st."
"This is fine, mother.  If I show this to father, can I stay in our home?"
"Yes, but you must go to this school to learn.  The semester starts in less than a week."
"But my microscopic research! That IS learning, mother!"
"All I hear is a lot of loud belly laughter when you are up there doing your so-called research.  Your father does not think that laughing is very practical or professional.  He is tired of hearing you laugh.  He wants you to take something seriously, and get a degree."
"Very well, Mother. I will go to this school."
It was soon evident that Tikelan was not cut out to succeed Cortiva.  He plunged into his education with hope and gusto, but soon found that he lacked the precise hand/eye coordination to do palpations, or simple massage.  Time and time again, Tikelan would miss the acupoints on the body that the teacher had specified, and instead he would access tickle points instead, resulting in uncontrollable, violent laughter from his subject.  He tried time and time again, producing similar results.  Through trial and error, he learned to map the body's main tickle points, hidden tickle points and combined tickle points (where two or more areas have to be stimulated at once).  Just like at home, he could not do right, and seemed to delight in doing wrong.  To his teacher, it appeared he was learning nothing, and wasting his time and his parent’s money.
But the truth was that Tikelan was learning a great deal, only not what his teacher wanted him to.  Rather than learning acupressure--how to relieve pain, aid blood flow, and alleviate stress--Tikelan learned the art of tickling on the most precise and particular scale imaginable.  He mapped out all of the bodies tickle points to the finest degree, committing them to memory forever.
His instructor, Gobisan, raged about his faulty performance, and to Tikelan he sounded much like his father.
"No, no, no! You missed the mark again!" the teacher yelled as the massage subject suffered side-splitting laughter.  The teacher was angry and his subject appeared quite the opposite.  The teacher said he was wrong, that he had missed his mark, but the results seemed to suggest otherwise.
"You say that I have done wrong, Gobisan," Tikelan said, lifting his eyes to meet his teacher's. "Yet when I hear so much laughter and see such a radiant smile, I am not so sure."  A hissing sound escaped the teacher's nose, and Tikelan thought he might explode.  With effort, he calmed himself, took a deep breath, and continued.
"New students make mistakes.  They miss acupoints, and may accidentally tickle the subject.  But when this happens over and over and over, and they do not learn from their mistakes, then there is a problem.  A serious problem, Tikelan."
"But Gobi..." Tikelan began, "I know about acupressure.  I know it is not a real science.  There is no way to verify acupoints, or what effects they have when provoked.We can only know of them by seeing the usual effect they seem to have."  Gobisan gritted his teeth and the class could see his jaw muscles tremble beneath his cheeks. His skin grew shiny with the sweat of anger.  He looked like he wanted to bite the stubborn boy.  The class looked in awe at the smirking Tikelan, then over to the menacing Gobisan.  The boy seemed tickled by the instructor's rage, and he wanted more than anything to tickle him, to make him laugh boisterously.
"Tickling is not acupressure, boy.  Tickling happens when we fail to in acupressure."  The whole class turned to Tikelan to see how he would handle this subtle accusation.  "I'm doing the same as you, Gobi.  I'm focusing on the results of my actions.  They need laughter much more than anything pressure can produce."
"I see now that you have chosen to fail, Tikelan. I cannot help you.  Grab your things and leave at once."  The class turned to face the dissenting student.  "Now," the teacher said sternly.
The boy seemed delighted by the fact that he was getting kicked out of school, as though he were getting away with something instead of losing.  When Tikelan left school, a look of cunning mischief remained on his face.  This expression was worn by one with an ace up his sleeve, or a water pistol in his pocket.
When his parents returned home, they knew that his smugness was a sign that something had gone wrong.  His mother did not inquire for she trusted her son; whatever brought him happiness could not be all bad, she thought.  Teng-li, on the other hand, was enraged whenever his son appeared content like this.
"What did you do?  What didn't you do?" asked his father accusingly.
His brother Feng was glaring at Tikelan, too.  He had learned to hold his face in tight scowls just like his father.  When Tikelan was having fun, his father and brother both made the same face, and it uniformity tickled the boy much more than either face could have alone.
"Did you skip school to go pick apples?"  his father asked.
"He probably just stared at the palm of his monkey hand all day." Feng added.
"I can learn nothing more from that Cortiva school," Tikelan said.
"Did you get kicked out?" his sister Dongmei asked.
"I graduated myself," Tikelan said confidently.
"He got kicked out," Feng said, somehow pleased by this prospect.
"I learned all I needed from that school.  I'm pleased with my education," Tikelan said defiantly.
"And what did you learn, exactly?" demanded his father, fuming with rancor, balling his fists.
"I cannot tell you," Tikelan said, moving closer to his father, sister and brother.  "I must show you."  Tikelan's fingers spread wide and then curled in, and then did this again.  This odd hand motion reminded them of a cat retracting and then baring its claws. Hands whipped out from Tikelan's side as quick as a wild west gunman, and in less than a second he had tagged his father and brother and sister.  He had barely touched them, yet they were instantly reduced to a hysterical, heaving heap of laughter on the floor.  His sister seemed to enjoy this overwhelming hilarity while his father and brother tried to fight it off, and lost.  Ming-yu rushed into the room, and froze as she observed the scene, unsure if she should be amused or disconcerted.  She merely turned her cheek to the action, and retreated to the kitchen to make yet another soup.
Later that evening, Tikelan was kicked out of the house by his father.  As usual, when the boy was rejected, he reacted like he had won a prize.  He had feared leaving the house, and his microscope, but now that he had sophisticated tickle tricks, he felt much more autonomous and stout-hearted.  As his family waved goodbye to him, they had tears of sorrow in their eyes whereas Tikelan grinned impishly, tears of glee in his eyes.  He acted as though he had been given a most valuable gift, as though homelessness was a boon and what he had always wanted.
Tikelan walked great distances, but always within the perimeters of the village. He walked to all parts of village during that first week, but eventually he gravitated to the slums.  Somehow, he felt more comfortable here. He would walk all day, and most of the night, until bags formed under his pink, burning eyes.  People started calling him the Sleepwalker, and laughed at him when he passed.  As time went on, they were less apt to hide their jeering, and started to scoff at him openly.  Tikelan became the town joke, and he was aware of this.  Yet when the village folk laughed at him, he insisted on laughing with them, whether they wanted him to join in or not. 

Local boys started to pick fights with him.  At first they just tripped or pushed him, and said things like "Wake up, pink eye!  Rise and shine, sleep walker!"  Usually, Tikelan did not react to their meanness, but sometime would start laughing along with them, as though they were making fun of someone else.  The boys became more forceful and violent in their assaults, and their pushing and tripping turned into punching and kicking.  But no matter what, Tikelan would never retaliate violently.  This happened to him so many times that eventually he had to strike back.
As with Po-fang, Tikelan started to fight back by tickling, and making his enemies collapse into spells of uncontrollable hooting laughter.  This usually worked, but sometimes he was too slow, or not graceful enough in his tickle tags, and the bullies would get the best of him, and leave him with bruises and cuts of all shapes and sizes.  The pain he felt was a teacher, and helped him in fine tuning his tickle tag self defense skills.  His hands became spry and sleek, and he could defend himself against three boys at once.

This non-violent self defense gave him a reputation.  While he was shunned by the slum community at first, he began to gain popularity among the elders for his unique way of defending himself.   Cheega, in particular, had observed him in combat numerous times.  Usually he saw Tikelan square off with his old rival, Po-fang, leader of the local gang.The hulking, angular Po-fang started pushing Tikelan, who was leaning against a brick wall, trying to sleep. Po-fang dealt him several blows before Tikelan sprang to action and demobilized the larger boy by tremendous tickling.  Po-fang was writhing and cringing as the tickles coursed through his nervous system.  Tikelan nose was gushing blood and snot, and he wiped this with the sleeve of his gray robe.  The sleeve was already brown and crusty, as it had been employed often in the same way.  After Tikelan’s face was reasonably clean, Cheega approached him.

The village folk called the old man Pwon-dor.  He watched many people, many animals, many plants, but kept his judgments to himself.  (visual description)
"I have been watching for a long time.  I have seen many fights in my life, but never have I seen one resolved so gracefully, so artfully." The old man's huge, owlish eyes held Tikelan tightly.  His mind prodded him to leave, but his instinct would not allow it.
"I can't use my hands to harm others, even if I tried," Tikelan didn't know where these words were coming from, for he had not willed them, yet he knew they were truthful.
"Yes, I have seen this," Cheega said, his eyes seemed to inflate, and a pearlescent film filled his iris.  Tikelan noticed the old man's pupils dilating, and in the blackness, he could see star systems.
"I have seen so much," the old man said.  "I have seen so far, so wide.  I do not interfere or comment often, but I feel I must speak with you."  The boy gazed deeper into Cheega's cosmic eyes, and a sense of weightlessness grew in his stomach and ribcage. Somehow, he felt pulled into the old man's expanding pupil, and together they were floating in outer space.
"You can tell that I have seen oh so very much.  There is terror and beauty everywhere, but a sense of humor and intrigue rise above all extremes and in betweens.  I have seen so many people who fight, with others and within themselves.  People fight, and they often fight fire with fire.  This, as you know, only makes more fire.  They fight fire with fire, and thus commit two wrongs in attempting to make a one right," Cheega said, making two fists and slammed them together.  He winced as he did this, and it was obvious he had hurt himself on purpose.  "Aggression versus aggression does not bring peace, only pain, which is a poor substitute."  Tikelan nodded, and he felt the pain in Cheega’s hands.  Both of their knuckles ached as one for a moment.
"Tikelan, I know that you rise above your enemies by treating them better than they did you.  You practice non-violence at the most challenging of times.  Most people who claim to practice non-violence only practice apathy. It is easy to be non-violent in the comfort of one's living room chair."
"It comforts me that you take notice,” Tikelan said.  “I've been battered often since I left home and lived on the streets, but I have learned how to defend myself with tickling.  I've become better at it, but in the end my enemies are stunned only temporarily.  Tickling does not snuff out their angry flames; they always spark back to life and try to fight me again.  As you know, there is a gang who would like nothing more than to see me pummeled to a pulp.  I keep evading them, but eventually...eventually..."  Tikelan seemed to be waiting for the old man to complete his sentence, but the old man did not say a word.  Cheega winked.
"You've learned to be very cunning in your tickling, and able to identify the most vulnerable tickle points in the body of your antagonists.  You were born with this skill, and you were able to fine-tune your skills at acupressure school.  Even though you flunked out, the experience was of great value to you."
"Wait, how did you know about that?" Tikelan asked, aghast.
"I've been watching you for some time now.  I was only mildly curious when I heard there was a boy with a simian hand in our village.  But when I heard you had two simian hands, I had to see you myself.
"When you tickle, you are not fickle," Cheega continued.  "You know which buttons to press, and how hard to press, or tickle, them.  But you are right. If you continue defending yourself in this way, you will eventually be destroyed.  The local gang is growing larger, smelling worse, and becoming more brutal every day.  Unless you continue your education you will be destroyed."
"Education?" Tikelan said, cringing.  "I have never been able to learn as my teacher's intended.  I always learned something other than what they tested me on."
"You are only able to extract the information that makes sense to you.  Even though you may not graduate, I suspect that you could extract much learning from a martial arts school."
"Martial arts? I cannot be violent," Tikelan said.
"You can learn how to be more swift and fluid like a ninja.  Then, you can find a way to combine the grace of martial arts with tickle tags you already know.  You are able to demobilize the gangs, but you often walk away from the fights with wounds.  With martial arts skills, you have a better chance of overcoming the gang that keeps assaulting you."  Tikelan stiffened his lips as he thought about this, and he pulled out a gob of crystallized ginger from his pouch.  He chewed on this slowly, and when the candy was mashed up and dissolved on his tongue, he spoke.
"I had resolved to never enter any school again, yet your idea is a good one, Cheega.  You are a wise man, and I should listen to your counsel; only, I have no money, no means to enter a martial arts school."
"Nevermind that.  I once owned a small school, and I was head sensai there for a long time.  Through the years, my small school swelled in size and it is now large and respectable. Do you know of the Ouroroborous Acadamy?"
"Of course," cried Tikelan.  "That is your school?  You started it?"
"It is.  It was.  I have left it in the hands of Shogi, but I still exert much influence in the politics there."
"But why are you...why are you living here, in the ghetto of our village? You could be living in a palace by the ocean.  You are a legend, Cheega!"
"I prefer to live in secret here in the slums of our village. I like to find the sacred in the least likely places.  It is easy to have a transcendental experience on a mountaintop, but much harder to do the same in the seedy part of town. I like to challenge myself to find the divine in the drabby.  No one knows I am here.  As far as our town is concerned, I disappeared 20 years ago."
"But why reveal yourself now? And why reveal yourself to me, of all people?" Tikelan asked,

“Tikelan, you do something that I have never seen. When you are attacked, you circumvent the typical fight or flight scenario, and walk the middle ground.  You confront your aggressors without fighting fire with fire, or ire with ire.  When you are in a pickle, you tickle."  Cheega chuckled at his own silly rhyme, scratching his bushy white eyebrows as he marveled at his own wit.  Suddenly, he snapped back into a serious expression and addressed Tikelan.
"I can tell that you want to go to Ouroroborous, and you will.  You will not learn what Shogi wants you to learn, and it will infuriate him to no end.  He will wonder why I have recommended you, after he has not heard from me in over a decade.” The old man peered into the distance at a blue finch.  He lowered his voice and said, “Tikelan, you are the only student to whom I have offered free tuition.  Shogi will not understand this.  But that does not matter.  You will flunk out of school again, but receive the education that you need to protect our town from these bandits.  I predict that you will get additional help along the way, but not from me."
The old man pointed to the boy's ribcage, and then honed it on his heart.  Tikelan could feel a fuzzy, slight pinching feeling in his sternum, and he froze in fear.  The old man, still pointing, inched closer to Tikelan, and with a jerk, began tickling the boy.  Tikelan was thus dealt a dose of his own medicine.  He flopped on the ground, giggling and jerking as he was bathed in his own hysterical tears. He quivered on the ground like a fish dipped in hashish oil. Euphoria erupted within him, and he tried pounding the cobblestone in order to calm himself.  The epileptic, side-splitting laughter drove him in and out of consciousness.

When at last he gained control of himself, the old man was gone.  Instead, gathered around him was a group of destitute children.  Most likely, they had been watching him for some time, and they seemed disappointed that their entertainment was now over.  Pushing them aside, Tikelan leapt forward, squinting as he peered down the streets.  Tikelan thought he heard Cheega's rubbery, bouncy laughter echoing in the distance.  It sounded Tikelan's own laugh, though huskier, gruffer, and came from a place deeper in the belly, the soul.  The boy reached into his pocket, instinctively searching for a piece of crystallized ginger.  He opened the tin, and underneath the candies he saw a small strip of rice paper with a small inscription. 
"Ouroborous Acadamy, 2381 Shenoa Lane." it said.  Tikelan flipped the paper over and read the back.
"Shogi-Tikelan is the only student I will ever recommend.  He has no money.  Let him attend your classes for free.  I've gone off to wander and ponder in the forest."  Infinite gratitude, Cheega"
The boy bit into a piece of ginger candy, and winced at its spicy, bright tang.  His eyes watered as he looked into the sunset.  The poor children lost interest in him and retreated home.

Chapter 3

 

Tikelan had an almost identical experience at the martial arts school as he had at the acupressure school.  He took great delight in the dance portion of his martial arts, but when it came time to deal blows to his opponents, Tikelan tickled them instead.  His fellow students were baffled by his counters, and his instructor, Shogi, was enraged; yet, because the illustrious and mysterious Cheega had recommended him, he did not know how to direct his fervent feelings.  Usually, Shogi was a master at cooling a tempestuous temper, but Tikelan was showing the sensai his own weaknesses.  After class each day, Shogi would take his annoyance out on bricks and wooden boards.  His karate chops were fearsome, but he found that even though he was strong, if his mind was frazzled he could not break the boards or bricks, and instead he would damage his hands.  He had to bandage his wounded metacarpals, both to protect them and to hide them from the class. If they knew he succumbed to the fires of frustration like this he would lose much of his respect and authority. 
Whenever he was around Tikelan, his bandaged hands would flinch and shiver as though they were very cold.  The boy noted this, but instead of being humored by the enraged man, he felt sorry for him.  This went on for nearly two weeks before Tikelan could bear it no longer.  After all the other students had left one day, he crept back into the dojo and spied on his sensei.  Tikelan saw the man remove a piece of chalk from his belt, the one he used on the black slates in class.  On the brick he was preparing to smash, he wrote Tikelan's name.  He smirked fiendishly as he prepared to destroy the effigy. Tikelan, who watched from a distance, gasped in horror.  The sensei flinched, and quickly looked behind him.  The boy ducked behind huge sacks of rice, and so was not seen at first.
"Reveal yourself!" the sensei demanded.  He received no reply, and Tikelan remained quiet and motionless.
"This is my silent meditation time.  Who dares breach my peace?"
"You do not seem very peaceful to me, Shogi," Tikelan replied, without disclosing himself.  "You mind is no more still than a waterfall."
"Who is that?  Show yourself! I command you!"
"You must first learn to command yourself adequately before you attempt to command others, Shogi."
An impish sneer stretched and wrinkled the sensei’s face as he became aware of his own hypocrisy.  He knew that the voice was speaking truth, and this made his skin crawl; he profoundly disliked himself at that moment.
"I am the lead sensei at this school, and I will not--"
"Cheega is, and always will be, the lead sensei of this school.  You are his unsuccessful successor."
"Enough of this!  Either come out and fight me, or slink away in cowardice.  Which will it be?" Shogi cried.
"Neither. I never let people limit me to two choices, or to any number they prescribed."  Tikelan stood, and he stood tall.  He calmly strolled toward Shogi.  The sensei seemed surprised to see Tikelan, but not too surprised.  His eyes grew sharp and defensive as the boy approached and his left hand shot out and rapidly erased the chalk letters he had written on the block.
"I know that you wrote my name on that brick, and what that means.  You've probably been doing this for many days to help deal with your stress.  But I'm not mad at you.  No, I pity you."
The sensei could tell that the boy had pitied few people in his life.  Usually he could laugh at those who were angry, but he could not be tickled by Shogi's attitude.  "Before you flunk me,” Tikelan said, approaching the sensei, “I will graduate myself.  I did this before, at the Cortiva acupressure school, and it was a good choice."
"You cannot graduate yourself; you can only be graduated by a superior."
"I agree.  A superior, or higher part of myself has learned the graceful dance of the martial artist.  I will combine this dance with the skills I learned at Cortiva.  I will be the first tickle ninja."
This statement was so absurd, so preposterous that Shogi could not restrain himself.  His awareness was clouded by rage as he dove forward with his karate chop swooping.  Shogi heard thin whipping sounds in the air, and then the chaotic laughter consumed him.  All twelve of Shogi's tickle points were triggered at once, and he had no idea how.  As he began to crack up, to fragment and dissolve in to the Void of Hilarity, he struggled to understand the physics of Tikelan's lightning hands.  But the storm of laughter overtook him, and he was soon balled up into a fetal position. He jittered and shuddered like a Mexican jumping bean.  His cackles rocked his body, sweat and tears fell on his white kimono.  The pitch of his laughter rose and sounded infantile and piglike, until he squeaked and squealed himself softly to sleep.  He was hugging his knees to his chest and snoring when Tikelan left the dojo, never to return.

Tikelan returned to the village slums, determine to use his tickle ninja skills to better the community.  He was harassed by the same gangs that assaulted him before, but he subdued them each time without suffering injuries.  The ruffians hated being tickled more than being punched.  They despised Tikelan more each time he tickled them into submission.  The gang kept attacking him, and they kept being defeated.  Every night, the citizens of the town could expect to hear demented, unrestrained laughter echoing in the streets—yet another of the tickle ninja’s victims, paying the price.
All of this was celebrated at first, and the village was proud of Tikelan, but as the wild, loud laughter persisted, night after night, and week after week, people began to tire of the redundant racket. 
"I am glad those gangs aren't hurting him anymore," they said, "but isn't there a way that the tickle ninja can rid us of those gangs once and for all?  His tickling is an inventive way to fight back, but it only stops the gangs temporarily.  These ruffians need to be apprehended and turned into the law.  The court will send these villains to the fields where they can farm away the debt they owe our village."
Tikelan eventually overheard the collective sentiments of the village, and knew he had to find a way to snuff out the gang altogether.  He went on long walks thinking of how this could be done, but he could think of nothing practical.  He considered using fishing nets or a large boat tarp to restrain his enemies, but carrying these would be awkward and would slow him down.  Not to mention, these contrivances could be used against him in a fight.  He was a confident tickler, but the act of binding the gang members seemed beyond his capabilities. 
He became pessimistic, and his sense of self esteem plunged like an ostrich that remembered it could not fly.  He walked further and further, until he came to the ocean.  He walked along the shore, kicking rocks and seashells that were in his path.  He eventually came to a small hill of scrap wood, twisted metal, broken tackle, frayed rope, and broken lobster traps.  On closer inspection, Tikelan saw that there were remnants of boat hulls in this garbage heap, corpses of shipwrecked boats that had been dumped here.  Tikelan saw many nooks and crannies in this boat junk heap, many perfect hideaways.He skulked into the darkness and took refuge there.

His reputation was ruined, much like the boat rubbish surrounding him.  He sat here, among the useless, and felt right at home.  The only ones who bothered him here were the crows and rats who tried to steal the scraps of bread he sometimes brought with him. 
Inevitably, his hunger drove him back to civilization to forage for food.  He did this in the early morning hours and he would often cross paths with raccoons and possums who were on a similar mission.  As time passed, Tikelan began to smell and look like these nocturnal scavengers, and he grew to enjoy their presence.  In a way, they started to feel like friends to him, and then like family.  They began to share food with each other, and even sing together when the moon was full.  The animals would retreat to the forest as the sun rose higher, and once again Tikelan would be alone, and his spirits soggy.
Tikelan plodded through the village streets, his head felt nauseated, and his shoulders even leaden.  Only weeks before he had felt so proficient and masterful with his tickle tags, but now the mind and muscle powers he had attained at school were not boons, but burdens.  He carried his rare skills like an ox bears its yoke.  His eyes were similarly heavy, and would have continued dwelling on the wet stone streets if he did not have to navigate walking.  He only raised his eyes when necessary, to dodge a child or a stray chicken, a merchant's cart, or a water fountain.  He walked slower than everyone.  Old women carrying big bags of laundry passed him, men with wheelbarrows, children carrying gourds and turnips, even lame dogs and blind cats left him in the dust.

Weeks before, the townsfolk would have been concerned about his pitiful posture and sluggish walking pace.  But now, as he had not stopped the gangs, and merely made the members laugh hysterically night after night, the villagers had no sympathy for him whatsoever.  They had so much hope that he would restore peace and order to the village. Many people had even gone so far as to associate him with the gang, suspecting him to be their ally.
When Tikelan walked, he heard harsh, critical whispering sounds, felt the spray of sand and dirt thrown by children, felt spit spatter in his hair sent from the spiteful laundry maids two stories above.  It seemed that everyone despised Tikelan, and none of them more than his father.  Even though Teng-li wore a sickly gratified smile when he saw his son, Tikelan knew that his father hated him more than ever.  Teng-li seemed to be pleased in some cruel way that his son had lived up to his lowly expectations.
"See!  How right I was!" Teng-li would say.  "Now, I suppose the boy wishes he had practiced something practical instead of wasting his days in a daze.  We can only lay so much blame on his simian hands.  The boy should have listened to me.  It is no matter, though.  Feng, his brother, is becoming twice the man that Tikelan is.  If I lose one son, at least the remaining one is a success."  Feng said this, and things like this, time and time again, and his malicious delight was disturbing to behold, yet no one dared mention this to him in person.  His harsh words were silently resented by many, but his opinions still influenced the community and made others see Tikelan as he did. 

Tikelan walked and walked.  He saw peasants tending to fields, he saw the miller grinding rice, the merchant on his wagon, the candlemaker and tailor busy in their shops, landlords fixing their buildings, blacksmiths pounding away at their anvils.  Tikelan knew that if he were to undertake any of these practical occupations he would fail at them, but enjoy the act of failing.  He would mess up, yet feel like a winner.  People would loathe him for his weak work ethic, and force him to leave.  It seemed that no matter how many towns he visited, no matter how many times he tried, he would have to revert to the rare skills he had.  It seemed he was destined to be a Tickle Ninja, whether he wanted to or not.  This realization did not invigorate him in the least.

At the depth of his despair, a mist of tears clouded his eyes, and his vision was impaired.  He stumbled into the town butcher who cursed and pushed him to the other side of the street where he tripped over a scraggly, mangy cat, who hissed at him and scratched his ankle.  Tikelan did not cry out, but more tears filled his eyes.  Now, even the raggedly, unloved beasts of the street disliked him.  The blood trickled down his leg, but he did not care to clean it.  Let it bleed, he thought.  The tears fell from his eyes.  Let it rain, he thought.  Tear after tear, blood drop after blood drop fell onto the street, and through the teary film he saw a bunch of pastel, soft, heavenly colors on the street corner.  It appeared to be a street vendor with a small table of wares.  Tikelan wiped his eyes, but they were instantly filled with tears again.  For brief moments he could see the dark haired girl before him, and then the tears returned and she was lost in soft obscurity once more.  He took a few wary steps toward her, and a nervous self consciousness fell upon him.  He knew, between his bleeding ankle, crumpled posture, and the torrential tears gushing from his eyes, he was a pitiful sight indeed.  But the girl was not affected by his sad behavior in the least.  She appeared somewhat bored by it, wearing the same restless face she had worn all day.
When the girl did not react to or sympathize with him, it made Tikelan feel overly dramatic and weak; he coughed, sniffled his nose, and then pulled himself together and the tears began to dry.  He saw her now, a petite girl with long, thick dark hair.  It looked warm, heavy and comforting.  She was sitting at a small, round wooden table, whereupon her knitted goods were displayed: scarves, mittens, and Chinese finger traps. The table was piled high and it appeared that she had sold little merchandise.  Her sour, disenchanted face further supported this possibility.  But even with a glum expression, Tikelan thought she was gorgeous.  And because she sold knitted goods, Tikelan thought she might have a soft, nurturer's soul, but nothing in her body language supported this.


Tikelan glanced at the girl's long eyelashes then looked away.  His cheeks crimsoned, and his heart beat loudly, his abdomen tightened and slackened and crawled and it felt like a snake was shedding its skin in his gut.  Tikelan looked a Jaio's huge cold brown eyes, at the color looked like wood coated in ice.  These possessive eyes made him shiver, even though is cheeks were inflamed already.  The boy felt like he was having a fever outbreak, yet he knew these were romantic feelings; he felt more frigid pain and prickly panic at that moment than anything remotely warm or fuzzy.  He had never felt such profound affection, and he mistook it for a viral infection.  It hurt.  She guessed that he was obsessing over her, and she frowned her thick lips, and shook her head hastily.
"If you aren't going to buy anything, then move along.  You are loitering, blocking the way for my paying customers," she said dispassionately.
"Do you have a rag of some sort that I may wipe my bloody ankle with?" he asked, pointing to his wound.
"Why don't you get an old newspaper out of the gutter, or a handful of leaves?  I have nothing for you, loiterer."
"What if I were to buy something from you?  Then, might you help me?"
"From the looks of you, you have no money, and therefore no business coming here and talking to me." But Tikelan acted like he had not heard her, and instead of retreating he swiped a red and blue finger trap from the table.
"I have never seen a knitted finger trap.  How much is this?" he asked.
"More than you have, I'm sure," she retorted, attempting to grab the trap from him.  Tikelan dodged her hand, and then studied the finger trap closer; a crafty grin formed his lips.
"A drifter like you would not know what to do with that,” she said.  “You would get your fingers trapped and have to gnaw them off in order to get free."  The girl grabbed the trap from him and put it back on her table, but her eyes remained on the boy’s hands.
"Is that your way of trying to sell it to me?  It is working. Let me have it back. I want to try it," he said, his arms outstretched, his palms facing up.  The girl gasped, uttering something in a foreign tongue as she studied his hands.
"You! The monkey-handed one!  The Tickle Ninja! I have heard about you, and how you let down our village.  You were prophesized as the one who would rid us of Po-fang and his brutish gang, but they still run rampant, committing more crimes than ever before."
"Yes, my name is Tikelan, and I think you can help me stop Po-fang.  If your finger trap works as well as you claim, perhaps you can help me in detaining these hoodlums.  You see, when I encounter them, I can adequately subdue them for a while with my artful tickling, but I have no means for apprehending them.  I have considered nets, ropes, and tarps, but I don't feel confident enough with these options.  If you could knit some larger versions of these finger traps, and make them hand-sized, we might be able to do away with the gangs."
"And what would I get in return," she asked.
"Notoriety, high status in the community. I'm sure that this would stimulate your sales, and bring many customers to you in the near future."
"I...I have enough customers already, thank you." She looked around with an air of guilt mixed with gumption, and Tikelan could tell she was lying. "Besides," she went on, "if I were to associate with you, my reputation would be scarred for life."
"But if we succeed," he said, we both would regain popularity.  "It's obvious that you have made few sales, and that you are nearly as destitute and desperate as I am." Tikelan could tell that the girl was considering his offer, against her own will.
"May I please try that finger trap?" Tikelan said, pointing to the red and blue one she had taken from his hands.  The girl appreciated his politeness and a grin awoke the corners of her mouth.  "All right, Tikelan, but I warn you they are very well made."  She handed him the finger trap, and he was as grateful as one receiving a wedding ring.  He placed both of his index fingers in the trap, and this act felt like a very ceremonial and religious.  Tikelan looked at his fingers, caught in the knitted trap, and he became aroused.  He like the idea that this attractive yet bitter girl had put him in a constraint of her own making.  She now had power over him.
"I can't get my fingers out," he said, but did not sound frustrated, but rather elated. 
"I'm sure one with such artful hands can figure out how to get free," she said. Tikelan wiggled his fingers gently, pushing them towards each other rather than pulling them apart.  He found that the trap was loosening, but he decided to keep his fingers inside anyway.  He liked feeling subject to her command.  She lowered her eyelids and raised an eyebrow, for she knew that Tikelan was choosing to remain captive.
"And that is the way that it usually is in life," she said coolly.  "We deliberately ensnare ourselves.  We are like raccoons caught in traps who will not release the bait, and thus we keep ourselves detained."  Tikelan seemed to like these words, and he released his finger from the trap, and gave it back to its maker.
"The gang members are more foolish than you," she said, "and they will not know how to free themselves from such a trap.  They use brute force to solve all their problems, but this is one that will not yield to force."  Tikelan nodded enthusiastically, and his chin rose higher.  "I will try to help you, Tikelan.  But you must meet me somewhere in secret.  No one can know that I associate with Monkey-hand.  You must tell no one of our connection, unless you succeed."
"Very well.  It is agreed then," Tikelan said, a radiant smile shone on his face.  "Come to the seashore tonight.  Do you know where the boat junk yard is?"
"Yes...why?"
"That is where I spend my nights.  Will you come tonight?"
"I will come tonight," she said.
"What is your name?”

“Jaio,” she said.  “And may I call you something besides Monkey-hand, or do you prefer that?”

“My name is Tikelan, and I’d like you to call me that.”  She nodded assent and waved.

“Then I will see you in your palace tonight, in the boat junk yard, Tikelan.”

“What time?” he asked excitedly.

“People like should not use time, or be used by it.  No, of course not.  I’ll see you at the right time, not before or after.”  Tikelan smiled and nearly said something, but then thought against it. He waved back at her and then turned and walked back towards the sea, walking taller and swifter than he had in a long, long time. 

 

Chapter 4

Tikelan had seen her earlier that day, but he had not studied her closely.  As he waited for his crafty, cute guest to arrive, he tried to visualize her and found that his mental image was lacking in detail.  When she approached, he would spy on her, and fill in the vague details.  Tikelan found himself behaving strangely as he waited for her.  He did push ups, he swept up the cranny he slept in, and combed his hair with a fork.  Then he began pacing around the parameter of the boat junk pile, kicking rocks and sea shells in his path.   He must lapped the pile twenty five times before she arrived.
It was near dusk, and Tikelan heard the squeaky wheels of an old wagon, the rumble of it rolling over rocks and debris. She was singing softly as she moved the wagon along, a sweet, smooth melody in a foreign tongue.  Somehow the lacey, light song clashed perfectly with the loud, discordant wagon she pushed.  Tikelan darted back into the junk pile, scampering to the cubby he called home.  She went around to the back of the junk pile and parked her wagon, throwing a tattered gray tarp on top of it.  Without hesitating, she marched right up the junk pile, and headed directly for the cubby where Tikelan resided.
"I came," she said, her cheeks flushed, the sides of her head dotted with perspiration.  The girl strolled about the junk and inspected each piece as though it were priceless artifacts from a bygone age.  Jiao looked at warped, rotten boards of wood as though they were master paintings, rusty anchors as though they were marble statues, and frayed cords of rope as though they were made of gold.  Tikelan could tell that she saw the world in a similar way as he did.  They both took interest in the things most people ignored and demoted to the background.  They sought value in subtle aesthetic details, and they observed the world with acute curiosity.  He watched the girl before him with rapt interest.  Jiao was seeing the world, not merely looking at it.  She was not so quick to label and then dismiss, but rather to study and appreciate. She saw the small, the rainbows in oil pools, the curling, chipped paint, the scratches and dents, the rust and rot, the fingerprints, and all the clues that tied them to countless past lives.
After studying the junkyard at length, she found a sturdy sheet of steel to site upon, a remnant piece of a washing machine or dishwasher.  Carefully, she slid onto it, gradually applying her weight until she was sitting cross legged, spine straight and head raised slightly.  She sat in a disciplined posture of a meditation master, lifting her chin so that her jugular, throat, and neck tendons were exposed.  Tikelan watched these swell as she breathed evenly, and he longed to kiss her neck and make her goosebumps stand high.
Her hands were positioned on her lap fingers up and palms facing up as though she had just given an offering or was willing to accept one.  As she breathed, her hands rose each time she inhaled until it looked like she was holding an invisible baby in her hands.  Her lips mouthed mute words and then her thumb and index fingers pinched the air, but nothing was there.  Tikelan blinked, and in that brief space when his eyes were closed, she had removed the knitting needles that held her hair in a tight bun, causing the black strands to fall and splash around her shoulders.
Her thick black hair caught the moonlight and did not let it go quickly.  The light that fell on her hair seemed to stain some of it an aluminum gray luster.  Tikelan blinked rapidly, for he thought his eyes were deceiving him.  The girl was knitting a double helix pattern out of teal and ruby string, and after a while Tikelan could tell lit was a finger trap, similar to the ones she had been selling, or attempting to sell, earlier that day.
Tikelan stared at her, an expression of awe and worship glowed from his spellbound face.  He gazed at her mighty but nimble fingers, admiring their force and flexibility.  Her hands were intimidating to Tikelan because of their strength, yet she used them to make such soft and cozy artworks.  Tikelan felt a wave of love-struck delirium sweep over him.  His body seemed paralyzed as he watched the girl knitting the finger tap. He noted how she averted her eyes from her work, and gazed instead at the cloud formations.  She could have knitted blind-folded.  Tikelan guessed that she had learned to knit before she learned to walk.  Tikelan beheld the girl sitting cross-legged, posture erect, chin high, her soft neck exposed and he strong yet swift fingers working at hyper speeds.  She was knitting the largest finger trap that Tikelan had ever seen.  Not only long, but it was wide, and growing wider the more she knit, so that it started to look like a wine glass cozy, or a trumpet case of some sort. 
"What is that thing?" he asked in a soft voice. 
"It is what you asked for, a Chinese hand trap, and it won't take me very long to finish."
"I'm amazed at how strong and sure your hands are.  I'll bet you could crush a coconut with your bare hands."
"I don't know about that, but I can squeeze all the juice out of a grapefruit in less than a minute."
"I should love to see that some time," Tikelan said, eyebrows bobbing.  He grew excited as he thought about her spending her time in this way.  What other fruits and vegetables did she squeeze to demonstrate her hand strength?  Tikelan suddenly felt hearty and indomitable like a young mountain goat.  He had a zesty confidence in himself.  Yes, in the near future, he would be able to subdue and then apprehend Po-fang and his gang, and consequently win back a good reputation in his community.  Tikelan was certain that he could triumph, now that Jaoi had helped him.  With her by his side, Tikelan could take on anything.  He could build a schoolhouse, he could dig a well, he could invent new machines and solve complex physics problems.
Grinning in a winning way, Tikelan looked away from his fantasies and back to his heart's desire.  The hand trap she was making looked like the sleeve to a toddler coat, except one end of it was tapered down to about the size of a pencil in diameter.
"Are you done?" Tikelan asked, trying to understand how the contrivance would work.
"Halfway there," she said.  She commenced working again, creating the exact same piece as the first one, so that she would soon have a symmetrical pair.  With graceful hands, she brought the two halves together.  She eyed the space in between them, and then looked at Tikelan.  The uniting of the two halves suddenly seemed significant.  He wanted to kiss the girl's full lips and taste their sweet bounty.
She closed her eyes and began knitting the two halves together, and Tikelan felt the fractures in his heart healing.  The hourglass shape of the knitted piece started to flap in the breeze, and the girl's hair whipped about too, and Tikelan felt his body temperature rising quickly.  Tikelan approached the Jaoi and he stooped so that his lips drew close to hers.  Her eyes remained closed, though her industrious hands continued to forge the hand trap.  Tikelan kissed her, lightly and apprehensively at first, then heavier and more firmly as time passed.  She did not kiss him back, but she also did not resist his romantic advances either, she merely followed the lead of his lips, and she seemed willing to go with them wherever hey went.  Her concentration was devoted to finishing the knitting she was working on, and so she finished it quite quickly.
A tricky smirk curled her lips when she knit the last stitch and tied it off, and it seemed she had a crafty scheme in mind.  Her hands moved faster than Tikelan's, and she had the knitted hand trap on his hand in less than a millisecond.  Swept away in passion, Tikelan was absolutely oblivious of the fact that he was shackled in the softest handcuffs ever made.  With a craned index finger, she lifted the boy’s arms over his head. He let her do this, he was so absorbed in his rich, luxurious kissing.  Somewhere in the back of his head he reasoned thus: "She's letting me have my way with her lips, I will let her have her way with my arms."
Tikelan could not tell that the girl was fastening his arms to the belt loop on his pants, or that he was now officially her captive.  She moved her head back an inch so that she was just out of Tikelan's lip reach.  His mouth squirmed and moved manically like a blind baby bird searching for a worm.  All of a sudden, the bewildered boy came to his senses, and he saw how far away her lips were, and that his hands were restrained behind his back.
"Hey, wait! What are you doing?" he cried. 
"Calm yourself," she said.  "In order for you to use this hand trap on others, you must personally know its power first, so that you do not abuse it."  Tikelan tugged violently at the hand cuffs, and marveled at how unyielding and well crafted they were.  He became desperate fighting against the trap like they were boa constrictors that had swallowed his hands and threatened to consume the rest of him. Tikelan roared and puffed as he fought against the hand trap, the veins on his neck grew turgid and pulsated, and his face became pink and sweaty with rage.  He began biting at the hand cuffs in hopes of freeing himself, but all he managed was to wedge strands of yarn between his teeth as though he were flossing.  The girl tried to hide her amusement at this, but her chirping, high-pitched squeals escaped nonetheless.  The sound of her hysteric laughter and Tikelan’s peevish groans echoed in the junkyard, and from a distance a child in earshot was disarmed and clasped his mother's leg tightly. 
"Before you use this on others, you need to go through this, Tikelan," the girl said.  "This experience will help you respect your new power."
She turned as if to walk away, but suddenly halted. She turned slowly, her snarky smirk leading the way. She looked at the struggling boy, and then walked a step closer to him.  Like a flash, her fingers shot like heat-seeking missiles to his armpits and his chest, and she prodded and poked these tickle points and made Tikelan taste his own medicine, like Cheega had before.  Tikelan's body acted like it had been electrocuted and his explosive laughter maxed out and imploded, and for a second he acted like he was chocking, or had accidentally swallowed a pregnant moth that was giving birth in his lungs.
In this quiet space, Tikelan heard rough, rowdy laughter from far off, but not too far.  The advance of these newcomers shocked Tikelan out of his uproarious laughter and made him stop fighting against the hand trap.  As his mind grew more alert, his body relaxed and the trap began to slip off.  Jaio could see that he was anxious and this aroused similar feelings in her.  The hand trap fell to the ground.
"Use what I have made for you.  Restore order to our village.  Go, Tikelan!"  She knew, as well as he, that it was Po-fang's gang approaching.  Tikelan did as instructed and ran near the splintered remains of a boat stern. Tucking this in his belt loop, he climbed the stern and looked out at the sea shore and beyond.  From this height, he could see the pack of wayward boys waling toward the junk pile.  They were stumbling and bumbling, passing a bottle of sake around.  As usual, they were drunk, obnoxious, and more like vermin in behavior than humans.  There were five boys, and even from afar Tikelan knew all of them from previous encounters.  He guessed that they were staggering to the junkyard to finish their bottle and then wrestle with and curse at each other as they always did. Tikelan glanced at Jaio and then hopped down, rushing back to her side.
"There are five of them, and it seems they are drinking a lot."
"I'm not surprised," she said.
"Let's find a good hiding spot where we can wait while they intoxicate themselves further, and tire themselves out a bit wrestling each other."
"Ok. Is Po-fang with them?" she asked.
"Yes, he's the one holding the bottle most of the time."
"That may play to your advantage," she said.
"It may.  Even though they are impaired by drinking, there are still five of them," he said.
"I can help you," she said.
"I thank you, but we still have only one hand trap."
"I can only knit so fast," she said.
"I'm not blaming you.  It's just...I can only apprehend one of them at a time."
"Get Po-fang.  They follow and kowtow to him. Without him the gang will lose their adherence."
"And perhaps their adherents too."
"Very clever," she said. "Now, where is this hiding spot you mentioned?"
"Yes, there is a secret cubby down below.  It is a compartment in the hull of an old boat.  I think both of us can fit in there, but it may be a tight squeeze.  Once the gang reaches the junk pile, and starts climbing to the top, we will go there."
"Ok.  How will you know when to strike?"
"When Po-fang is slurring a lot. I will make my move."
For a moment, Tikelan and Jaio listened closely to the sloppy, disrespectful conversations of the gang.  The drunk boys mocked each other, pushed and kicked each other, and in no way acted like friends.  Tikelan wondered what held them together, besides the liquor and goods they had stolen.  Perhaps nothing.  But Jaio and Tikelan knew all the boys who had come.  These hoodlums had committed so many crimes, and so many people disliked them, they had household names.

Po-fang, their leader, was a hulking rock of a boy, without an ounce of fat on his body.  He seemed to be chiseled out of rock rather than born of a womb.  He was hard-bodied, but he was constantly seeking affirmation and attention from the gang, and so he appeared tougher from a distance than when one grew to know him. Po-fang often told stories that highlighted his bravado and machismo, but was constantly interrupted by his cronies.  He seemed frustrated that he could not retain his audience, and he would periodically slug his colleagues in the shoulder.  Often, he said, "Listen to me!"
Yao and Rong were brothers, and they never wore shirts, even in the coldest conditions.  Because of this they had lots of cuts and bruises on their backs and chests, but they wore these as badges of courage and signs of their hardiness.  These boys looked nearly identical, but Yao, the eldest, was slightly larger and more talkative.  Rong repeated much of what his older brother said, soon after he said the same.
Jinsong was clearly the lackey who was forced to perform many of the dirtier and more risky deeds.  He was taller than Po-fang, but ungainly and unsure of himself.  He was uncoordinated and often apologized for his lack of grace.  Jinsong just wanted an identity within a community, even if that community used him like a dirty rag.
Quon was the crazy one, who spoke seldom.  One of his eyes was bloated with glaucoma; it was fuzzy and blue and wolfish and it was hard to look at without feeling preyed upon.  His other eye was squinted and shrewd and seemed to make up for the uselessness of the other eye.  He consumed more psychoactive plants than food, and thus his demeanor was strange like a fish found deep in the sea, where light is scarce.  Anything that altered his brain chemistry interested him, and beyond acquiring and consuming these he had little interest or connection with the gang. 

The boys slowly and sloppily made their way up the junk pile, seeking the top.  If they could conquer no there province, at least this one would be there's to lord over.  Within the hidden compartment, Tikelan and Jiao found themselves more cozy than cramped.  Tikelan was in the front, closest to the door of the compartment, and Jiao was directly behind him, her chin resting on his shoulder.  It quickly became warm in there, and Jiao had to remove her thick sweater.  They were forced to press their bodies together, close enough where they could hear each other whisper, and detect each other’s scent.  One minute, they were vigilantly listening, and the next she was kissing and nibbling his neck.  Tikelan's eyes closed as he submerged in passion, floating in that brief romantic moment, totally ignorant of the actions of the gang.  There was not enough room in the compartment for Tikelan to turn around and kiss the girl back, so he had to accept whatever she was willing to give him.  Her lips, tongue, and teeth took a stroll up and down his neck, leaving a glistening trail in their wake.  Her mouth had found his ear, and it spent a long time acquainting itself. 
They forgot the proceedings of the gang, and were totally unaware when Yao approached them. He had heard their rustling and deep breathing from afar, and he paced directly to their hide out.  Swinging open the compartment door, his hand reached in and clawed at Tikelan.  But he suddenly felt a soft web ensnare his hand, and he jerked back to free himself.  This only made the hand trap close tighter around his wrist and fist.  Yao's knuckles cracked and a shriek of pain escaped his mouth.  Tikelan leapt out of the compartment and slammed the other end of the hand trap over the boy's head.  It was a tight fit, but with some struggling Tikelan managed to pull it down so that Yaos head was completely covered.  He tried to gasp and yell, but the trap muffled his voice.  Jaio threw her thick sweater around his head and tied it tight, to further mute his cries for help. But it was too late; the scurrying and shouting sounds above indicated that Yao's comrades had heard him and were running to his rescue.
"Quick," Jaio said.  "I will bind his feet, and you remove the hand trap. You will need it again."
"Yao! Where are you," barked Po-fang with suspicion. 

"I think there is someone else here. I think he is getting jumped.  Maybe it’s the police..." Rong said.

"Nah, the police don't care what happens here. They figure that if you are hanging out at this junk pile, you had better be able to defend yourself."
"Then he is getting jumped," Rong said.
"Good," Po-fang said, "I was hoping to beat someone down today.  I was starting to think I'd have to whip one of you guys to relieve my stress. This alcohol isn't doing the job.  I need a good workout."
The rest of the gang ran about searching for Yao, and meanwhile Tikelan and Jaio worked together, tying up Yao with some old boat twine. Jao was able to bind him quickly; her swift and strong hands knew well how to do this work.  When he was securely bound and tied to a rusty boat anchor, Tikelan ripped off the hand trap of Yao's head and hand.  The minute his head was free, Yao tried to holler, but Jaio rammed the sleeve of her thick sweater into his mouth and wrapped the remainder of it around his head to keep him quiet.
"Go, Tikelan!" she said.  "You have to catch Po-fang, now!  Try to separate him from the rest of the gang if you can, and then use the hand trap on him."  Tikelan, who obeyed few commands, sprang to action and sped off in pursuit of Po-fang.  Since Tikelan had lived here for nearly two months, he well knew the ins and outs of the boat junk pile, its shortcuts, hideouts, and weak points.  There was a rudder wedged between a snapped boat mast and a twisted row boat, and if it was forced just so, the mast would roll off and the row boat would fall, blocking the path that led back to Jaio.  Tikelan ran up to this, and jumping high in the air, his feet slammed down on it, snapping the rudder in two.  The mast groaned as it twisted and toppled, the row boat following it and together they fell to the ground, sand and wind blasting all around.  This effectively blocked the pathway, entrapping Jaio and Yao, but also protecting her from the gang. 
"What was that?" Po-fang yelled, reacting to the noise.
"Nothing," Jinsong said, "just this old junk heap settling, that's all."
"Could it be a bear?" Rong asked sheepishly.
"A bear?  Your mother read you too many stories!"
"I know that bears roam along the seashore. I saw some of their footprints in the sand once."
"Nonsense!" Po-fang said.  "Now give me that bottle!"
"What's that?" Jinsong said.  He pointed at the walls of the pathway, which were perforated since they were made of stacked junk.  One could see the other side through the cracks and holes in the wood, steel and rope.
"What did you see?" Po-fang asked, rushing to the wall and peeking through a porthole window that had been discarded in the pile.  "I just saw him too, that Tickle Monkey is here!" Po-fang whispered in disgust.
"The one who defends himself by tickling? We have crossed paths with him before," Jinsong said, appearing embarrassed.
"Yes, we have had to put up with that Monkey long enough.  It's about time we put him in the zoo, where he belongs," Po-fang said wrathfully.
"The only one going behind bars is you, and your gang, Po-fang," Tikelan said triumphantly, stepping out from behind an upended row boat.
"It is him!" Po-fang grunted, snorting out of his nose and scratching his chin violently.  He pounded the last gulp of the bottle and then hurled it at Tikelan, who easily dodged it, and caught it in midair before it smashed on the rowboat.
"Why did you follow us here," Po-fang asked, balling his fists.
"I should be asking you that," Tikelan said evenly.  "After all, this is my home."
"Some castle you have here," Jinsong said, hooting with laughter.
"Yes, it's a perfect hideout for a dirty monkey who let his community down," Po-fang added bitterly.
"But it looks like you aren't going to be able to live in cowardly peace anymore.  We have found you."
"This is a trap," Tikelan said, "and you walked right into it.  Now you will be captured in my web, and eaten alive by the law."
"You are a monkey, not a spider," Po-fang said.  "All you know is how to make people laugh, and maybe how to eat bananas and eat fleas off the backs of other monkeys. 
"Maybe I am a spider monkey," Tikelan said.  "Titles aside, you have walked into my trap, and you are about to be apprehended."
"Ha! We will see about that!"  Po-fang said.  He and Yao charged at Tikelan while Rong edged back, for he was too small and inexperienced to join this fight.  Fists flew at Tikelan and he was able to duck these and prod his attackers in their ribs and clavicles.  These tickle points sent a shock of wild laughter through the boys, and their lips stretched and their teeth gnashed as the chunky chuckles blasted out of their bellies.  Even though they were giggling wildly, they had partial control of themselves, since the alcohol had dulled their sensitivity to tickle tags.  Fortunately, Tikelan had another tool to help him.
The laughing boys threw punches at Tikelan, but because of their laughter and lack of coordination, Tikelan had no trouble evading them.  Tikelan walked backwards and the boys followed him, stumbling and striking at him with their fists.  Tikelan reached behind him and grabbed the hand trap that was tucked in his belt.  He held one end of it in each hand and prepared to launch it at them.  Suddenly, a vagrant steel wire that was sticking out of a broken lobster trap snagged the hand trap, flinging it out of his hands.  It landed on the ground, right before Yao's feet.  Po-fang looked down at this and then back at Tikelan.  He saw how much his enemy valued this, and Po-fang scooped it up.  Fear blanched Tikelan's face and then a smirk graced the edges of his mouth. 
"Don't! Don't put your hand in there," Tikelan pleaded.  "Those are my treasures in there.  My mother gave them to me before I left home!"
"Treasures, huh? What's in here?" Po-fang said, "Pearls, coins, rare stones?"
"What is that?" Yao asked, becoming jealous.  "Some sort of strange-looking purse?  Let me see that!"  Po-fang jerked it out of his comrade’s grasp and continued searching inside.  "I don't feel anything in here," he said.
"You aren't looking hard enough," Yao said, diving forward and grabbing the other end.  He put his hand in, and now they both had one hand in the trap. Greed made them paw around the interior of the trap for a moment and then look at each other, then at Tikelan.
"This is no purse!" Po-fang said.  "It's a trap."
"Yao and Po-fang both pulled back at once, which effectively cinched the ends of the trap tight.
"We're caught!" Jinsong screamed.  Tikelan snatched the end of the wire that had snagged the trap from his hands, and pulling this he pierced the hand trap in the middle and pulled the end back towards him and tied it around a thick steel beam.  Po-fang and Jinsong tried to attack Tikelan with their free hands, and they even tried kicking him, but Tikelan always was ready with a tickle tag.  As they chuckled uncontrollably, he grabbed a few more wires from the junk pile and bound their ankles together, and then tied their free hands behind their backs.  He was greatly relieved once he had securely tied Po-fang and Jinsong, and to celebrate he tickled them some more, and laughed along with them for a long minute.  The gang leader and his right hand man would not terrorize the village for a long time.
He suddenly remembered Jaio and his heart fluttered and uttered an excited song.  The idea that a small, soft, strong, and beautiful, bittersweet girl was contained deep in the crude junk heap thrilled him to the core, and he ran to her now.  With superhuman strength, he cleared away the junk that had blocked the patch back to her.  This done, he jogged to the compartment, but he only saw Yao, still tied with cords." He cried muffled words.  Tikelan removed the sweater that was in his mouth, and let the sweaty-faced boy speak. 
"Let me go. Po-fang is the one you want, not me! Don't tie me up!  I'm not your dog."
"Where is Jaio?" Tikelan said.
"She left, probably back to the village. Why would she want to stay at this junk pile with you?"
"To the village," Tikelan repeated, voice quavering.
"I don't know.  Let me free, and I will help you find her." Tikelan turned and ran back down the path, and then started climbing to the top of the junk pile, Yao moaning and swearing all the while.  

There she was, sitting on the steel panel again, her legs crossed and spine erect, her head raised high in a royal, proud fashion.  She appeared queenly and wise, as though she were presiding over the whole cosmos. Her body was motionless, but her hands were busy making another hand trap.  She looked the same as only an hour before, though she seemed more pleased.
"I suspected that you would need another one of these," she said, a victorious smile on her full lips.  "You can use it another time.  I don't expect that you will be able to defeat the whole gang in one night."  Tikelan smiled at her, focusing on the rose hue of her lips, the only warm tone in the whole junkyard. 
"No, it will take some time and perseverance to complete the job. I could use your help."
"Sure.  I will knit, and you will tickle and trap.  We will bring them to the courthouse one by one, until the gang is no more."
"Tonight, we have apprehended three of them, Yao, Jin-song, and Po-fang." Jiao kept knitting, her face serene and her hands industrious.  She was not smiling, but Tikelan knew she was very fond of him indeed.

Tikelan felt the fervent heat in his cheeks radiate outward, filling the crown of his head, his ears, neck, shoulders, chest, sternum, stomach and pelvis, down his legs and to the tips of his toes.  From far away he heard the call of sea birds, and the crashing of the sea, the fizz of sea foam, and he felt a kinship with all these things.

 

Chapter 5

Without Po-fang, the gang lost cohesion and foresight, but none of its members left.  More fights broke out within the gang, and they terrorized each other just as much as they did the village. There were about ten other members in the gang in addition to those who had already been caught.  It took Tikelan and Jao nearly three weeks to catch the rest of the members, and each one they got added to their score with the community.  Soon enough, people were proud of the Tickle Ninja once more.  They knew that he was working with Jao, as they were often seen together.  Besides, the village knew that Tikelan did not have the skill to knit the Chinese hand traps that helped him so much.
Word spread quickly about Jao, and her well crafted works, and soon she was selling more pieces than she could make.  She no longer needed to sell her knitted goods on the streets, and instead could work on them outdoors and in tea houses and then deliver them to her many customers. Everyone wanted to have a knitted piece from the local legend.  Her popularity was goaded further by rumors that she and Tikelan were lovers.  It was a gossip topic often on the tongue of the community.
She and Tikelan spend a great deal of time together, she knitting, and he studying bugs and bark with a magnifying glass he received as a present from Jao.  The youth flocked to them when they were in public, and they would learn simple tickle tags from Tikelan, and tips on knitting from Jao.

When the final member of the gang was caught, the village had a parade, and a great feast.  At the celebration, Tikelan and Jaio were publically affectionate for the first time, and they even kissed a few times in front of everyone. Tikelan felt blissful, and lofty, more celestial and proud than he had in his whole life.  At the height of the celebration, they were given a small coconut cream cake and two spoons.  They both took a bite, and mid-chew Tikelan noticed his parents in the crowd, about thirty feet away.And over their shoulders, another ten feet behind him, he saw Cheega, the old martial arts master.  Tikelan saw that his mother was immensely happy with him, while his father wore an expression that was a mix between guilt and pride.  His parents suddenly noticed him looking, and they waved and smiled wider.  He was glad to see them here, glad that they saw how joyful he was.  But he could not feel relief or closure, as he thought he might.  His eyes kept flipping back to Cheega, who gazed at him steadily in the distance.  Tikelan's eyes went from Jaio to his parents, then back to Cheega.  The old man did not seem charmed and vibrant like the rest of the people in that room, and this troubled Tikelan.
"Cheega!" he said, waving. He stood up, and pushed his way through the crown, heading straight for the stooped man."How were your travels, dear friend?  You were gone for nearly two months; how are you?"
"Distressing," he said roughly.
"Why Cheega?" Tikelan asked.  A sense of gravity filled the old man's eyes and his pupils dilated widely as before.  In his irises, Tikelan saw storm clouds, and flashes of lightning.
"Well, never mind the distressing parts of your journey.  You are home now, and this is a celebration.  Jaio and I have brought the gang to justice. We have restored peace to our city."
"There are more gangs than the one you dissolved," Cheega said.  "I saw this firsthand on my journeys.  I am proud of you, Tikelan, but I do not want you to be blinded or stagnated by your sense of self importance.  When you have powers like yours, you have a responsibility to use them constructively, and persistently."
"What are you saying?"
"I walked hundreds of miles in the last two months, and I visited fifteen villages much like our own.  In many ways these communities are identical to our own, including the problems they have with gangs.  These villages try to solve their gang problems with force, like we did for a long time until you came to our rescue.  These villages keep dealing with gangs aggressively, and so perpetuate the violence and polarization.  The unity of the gangs is strengthened when the village police target and attack them.  Both sides become increasingly fanatic and volatile.  They need a Tickle Ninja to come and break the cycle of fire versus fire that they are trapped in.  They need you to do for them what you have done for our village. 
"But they are not my people.  These are my kinsfolk," Tikelan said, extending his hand and gesturing to the people celebrating. "But these other villages are foreign to me."
"I've journeyed far and read much and then I sat and thought for a long time,” Cheega said slowly, carefully.  “I eventually realized that our kinsfolk are whoever we are kind to.  Whoever we are familiar with is family.  Our home is whatever we are."
"You want me to leave now, at the height of my glory?"
"Not tonight.  But soon.  After all, do you really want this to be the end of Tickle Ninja?  You want to just live a sluggish comfortable life, squandering your rare skills, and let them go to waste?"
"No, it’s just—" Tikelan began.
"It is not just.  It is not just for your talents to lay idle."  Tikelan bit his lip as he considered this.  He glanced back at Jaio.  He looked at his parents.
"If I go, can she come?"
"I would advise it," Cheega said.  "She may prove indispensable.
"I love her."
"Let her love empower you to help other villages.  This is the beginning of your quest, not the end.  Go first to Dejonbing, four hours west of here.  I will meet you there in two nights."
"Where?"
"Where ever we meet, that's where.  Now, go and enjoy your celebration.  Let your ego grow, but not so large that you cannot carry it."  The old man bowed low to Tikelan, and he could hear his back snapping and crunching.  He seldom bowed this low, and Tikelan was honored.  Cheega left then, and seemed to float as he moved across the street.  Tikelan went back to the celebration, where Jaio awaited him.  She had not eaten any more of the coconut cream cake.When Tikelan sat down, she spooned a bite of cake and fed it to him.  He ate this slowly, letting the sweet rich flavor melt on his tongue.  He and Jaio kissed long and luxuriously, and he put his arms around her waist.  They kept kissing, and Tikelan felt her grabbing his ring finger and pushing something on it.  He looked down and saw a Chinese finger trap, connecting him to the girl he loved.  Inscribed on the edges, she had stitched the word "With."









 


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