Anywhere But Here
Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at

Teen And Up Audiences
Archive Warning:
Creator Chose Not To Use Archive Warnings
F/M, M/M, Multi
Xiaolin Showdown (Cartoon)
Clay Bailey & Jack Spicer, Clay Bailey & Jack Spicer & Kimiko Tohomiko, Clay Bailey/Jack Spicer, Clay Bailey/Jack Spicer/Kimiko Tohomiko
Jack Spicer, Clay Bailey, Jessie Bailey, Chase Young (Xiaolin Showdown), Kimiko Tohomiko, Master Monk Guan (Xiaolin Showdown)
Additional Tags:
Alternate Universe - Canon Divergence, Heylin philosophy, This has gone off the rails, But rails are overrated, crossover Juniper Lee, it seemed like a good idea at the time
Published: 2022-05-30 Completed: 2022-06-26 Words: 58,608 Chapters: 6/6

Anywhere But Here


In a timeline where Jessie was the Bailey child who was sent off to the Xiaolin, Clay finds himself on a very different path with a very different outcome.

The Opening Lap

All three of them had crowded around the landing at the top of the stairs, just out of view, while the strangers talked to their parents. Jessie leaned out the furthest, because she was the least afraid of getting caught, but Clay was the tallest and could hear a little better over the pony wall. The strangers were monks, they said, and Jessie said they had some kind of talking snake with them. Clay couldn't see it but he was picturing a talking rattlesnake, or a smaller Jormungandr from when they were listening to stories during blots. Patrick stayed behind both of them, whispering demands to know what was going on and getting shushed repeatedly.

"They're talking about taking one of us away to school," Clay whispered.

"Like church school?"

"I dunno, there was something about fighting and maybe magic."

"Like Harry Potter?" Patrick scoffed like only a nine year old can. He'd decided fantasy was for babies and only science fiction that was for real life was worth his attention since giving up 4H for Science Olympiad.

"Shhh!" Clay and Jessie both hissed.

"Mama said they can stay the night," Clay said, "and Daddy'll answer in the mornin."

He looked at Jessie. They fought near about as much as it was possible for siblings with less than a year between them to fight, with Clay born just after the cutoff and Jessie just before so they ended up in the same classes at school and never seemed to get any breathing room from each other. But that also meant they knew each other well; Clay knew how badly Jessie chafed under their father's strict expectations, and Jessie knew how scared Clay was of never leaving and ending up just like their father.

Their mama called Clay to come downstairs and help make up the guest room they'd fixed up at the back of the barn last year, and he went right away because that was what he did. He thought about asking her what the men had said, what their talking snake had looked like, but they were still speaking quietly in the living room and if there was a talking snake, he hadn't seen it to be able to ask. In another world, maybe he'd have been brave enough to tell her what he wanted anyway, and maybe she'd have gone back to her husband knowing what her oldest needed, but in this one, his daddy yelling at him to stop hiding behind his mama was still fresh in his mind, and he worked quietly instead.

And in another one, Jessie didn't like what she heard about this school, and stayed quiet and worried about what was going to happen, but in this one she ended up picking a fight with her daddy instead because she was worried about what was going to happen.

In the morning, Daddy Bailey announced his decision at breakfast as if he had no idea anyone else could even know there had been a question. "Jessie, after breakfast you're gonna go pack. You're goin' to military school."

Clay and Jessie both shouted at that, but when Daddy Bailey had made up his mind, there was no arguing. Clay watched her go, the little talking snake she'd described turning into a huge dragon, almost big enough to be Jormungandr, and his daddy put a hand on his shoulder and the weight of it felt like he was tying Clay to the ground.

"She'll be fine, it'll be good for her. Sounds like she'll come back a proper shieldmaiden," he said, like he thought Clay was worried for his sister. "And I need you here, boy. Got a lot of work to do if you're gonna take over one day."

He lasted a month, doing all the odd jobs for cash he could think of, stashing away beef jerky and MREs from the emergency pantry and some of the camping gear they kept in the hayloft and whatever else seemed like the sort of thing you took when you ran away. Because suddenly the little pebble of fear in his chest had turned into a boulder, getting heavier by the day, and he needed to be anywhere but here.

The camping gear gave him an idea; he told his parents that he was going out to rough it for a couple of days, and yes he'd be careful and yes he'd take plenty of water and yes he was confident Thor'd watch over him, and Patrick had Science Olympiad anyhow so maybe his daddy'd actually go see him for once if Clay wasn't around. He didn't say the last part out loud but it'd be nice. Mama was worried, and Clay felt bad about how much more worried she'd be later, so he left a note in his teacher's desk at school, so by Monday morning they'd know he wasn't lost out in the desert or nothing.

Also that meant he had to go through with it. He was committed now. So early Saturday morning he packed up his camping gear and ate a good breakfast and raided the coffee can in his daddy's closet he wasn't supposed to know had emergency cash in it and kissed his mama goodbye. He caught a ride into town with one of the hands, and then a ride back out from Mrs Jeremy, who was so kind to drop him off conveniently near the highway when he told her that looked like a great camping spot, and then it was just a matter of hoping he could hitch a ride before someone he knew spotted him.

"You sure you're old enough to be out here hitching?" the old man asked him. "You even old enough to drive?"

"Yeah, I can drive," Clay answered, because he'd been driving the truck and the tractor around on the ranch for two years now, since he got tall enough to manage it, and if the man had meant to ask if he had a license he'd have said that.

The old man shrugged. "Hop in the bed if you wanna, kid, I'm headed into El Paso."

El Paso was definitely not far enough, but it had a Greyhound station that was big enough nobody asked too many questions and a bus leaving for Phoenix in ten minutes. Phoenix was even bigger, but he was pretty sure he wanted to get the hell out of the desert entirely within a week. He did okay in Phoenix, trading food to make friends but not trusting anybody much beyond that. A girl who was older and much more worldly told him she was from San Francisco, where the street kids didn't have to worry about dehydration much at least, and she was going to go back there later.

He remembered how his dad had taught him to blend in if there was trouble, and with these kids he stood out a lot more than he liked. First he got some different boots at a shelter, nondescript ones, and left the ones his daddy had bought him behind for someone else. He let the girl from San Francisco keep his hat, and settled on a baseball cap instead. He watched how the older boys carried themselves, but he wasn't sure he liked it.

When he couldn't take the sun anymore, he bought a Greyhound ticket to San Francisco. By now he'd gotten used to saying he was sixteen, and if people looked skeptical, it wasn't enough for them to call him on it.

San Francisco really was as different as she'd made it out to be, hospitably cool but damp in a way that felt foreign and kind of exciting at first. He was tall and strong and picked up lock-picking surprisingly fast, so he was good at making friends, and the kids up here seemed… not exactly friendlier, but more pack-oriented, and there were more shelters and more places to get something to eat and the librarians were a little kinder too.

The other thing about San Francisco is you could never really tell with the kids who was really sleeping out and who was just here temporarily, unless you were actually with them all the time. Sometimes somebody'd disappear because they moved on, or did something to end up in the system, and sometimes they'd disappear and you'd find out they'd basically been doing it on a lark and then went home.

Jack turned out to be the latter - after three nights announcing how tough he was and how he'd never go home, and two fights where Clay got him out of trouble, and one very weird argument with someone who wasn't completely visible on the outskirts of Chinatown, Jack pulled Clay aside. "Look, my parents are leaving town for a couple of months, do you want to crash at my place? The housekeeper won't rat you out if I tell her not to."

Clay squinted at him. "Why?"

"Why? Why wouldn't you want to hang out with me?" Jack asked him. "Also I like you, you helped me and you didn't freak out when you saw me talking to Wuya."

"Is that the ghost-thing?"

"Yeah. We're going to take over the world with her magic and my robot army. You in?"

Magic? Oh that sounded tempting, and worst case scenario he'd probably eat well and sleep somewhere nice for a little while.

"Sure, I'm in."

And at first that was all it was, keeping Jack company and carrying heavy things and getting used to the crazy magic ghost complaining about everything Jack did. Then Jack came home arguing with Wuya about someone beating them to something.


"Fucking monks, on a fucking dragon, like come on," Jack complained.

"A dragon?" That got Clay's attention quick.

"Yeah. I want to bring him next time, back up would be nice and he's taller than all of them," Jack told Wuya.

Wuya floated over to Clay and looked more closely at him than she had before, and it made him shiver a little. "What haven't you told me?"

"The reason I left home is on account of my daddy sent my sister off with some monks, riding on a dragon, to learn… well he called it military school but I was real sure it was magic they talked about."

"I thought the blonde looked familiar." Wuya had an impressive array of body language for a disembodied ghost, and he had no trouble reading her disdain. "I wonder… Jack, come here and let me borrow your hands."

"Ugh, I don't want to, that's creepy," Jack argued, but he did as he was told while he complained so she let him.

Jack stuck his arms out in front of him and Wuya floated down in front of his face, sliding her ghostly-tentacle-things into his wrists so she could swing his arms around like he was a puppet. Jack was mostly letting her, as far as Clay could tell - she didn't seem to be able to control more than his hands and wrists this way, but Jack wasn't stopping her from pulling the rest of him along.

Wuya grabbed Clay's knife out of his front pocket and opened it, beckoning Clay to stick a hand out.

"Yer gonna stab me."

"Just a little cut, so the magic works," she told him.

"I won't be much use for either of you with a cut up hand," he reminded her, but offered his hand palm-up.

"You're very trusting," Wuya told him as she sliced into his palm. "I like that." The cut was larger than he'd expected, but not deep. As blood welled up into his hand, she produced some kind of green fire from Jack's fingertips and drew sigils into the air over the cut.

"Don't worry, she did this to me once before too," Jack said, trying to lean around Wuya's semi-transparent form. "It just looks cool, and it healed pretty quick."

"It doesn't just look cool," Wuya snapped. The blood on Clay's hand had floated up into the air and was hovering about an inch above the cut, which was already closing itself as Jack had said. First it was just a ball hanging there, like a big shooter marble, and then it moved itself into some kind of jagged-looking triangle.

"They could have taken either of you," Wuya noted, "couldn't they?"

"I think they said Da- my father decided. Maybe could have been any of us, or maybe just he got to say yes or no. He didn't say much about it."

"Great. Now I've got two of you completely untrained." Wuya dropped Jack's hands and the blood splattered on the floor.

"You want me to clean that up?" Clay asked.

Jack shook his head. "Nah, what's an evil lair without some mysterious bloodstains?"

The first time they took Clay out with them, everything went smoothly, they didn't run into anyone, and he was almost disappointed.

The second time they did, and yeah, there was Jessie, dressed to match these other kids, waving her arms and making the ground shake. Clay paid a lot of attention to what she was doing, and when she challenged Jack for the magical whizbang, he watched in surprise as some kind of magic field warped the reality around them. Jack really wanted to win, and he and Jessie seemed pretty evenly matched one on one, so he wanted to even the odds. He made sure she caught sight of him at the last minute.

"Clay?" she said, stopping like she was frozen.

Jack swept in and grabbed the jeweled belt they'd been fighting over, and reality snapped back around them.

That first time he and Jack and Wuya left before she could recover, and the time after she asked him why he was on the Heylin side and he'd only really heard Wuya use the word a handful of times.

"I'm on Jack's side," he shrugged. Jack had had to fight a different monk that time, and lost, and Clay'd had to help him limp home.

Dang, these kids didn't pull their punches, did they?

In between fights he practiced the moves he'd seen Jessie doing, and got a little bit of results, and found it all the more frustrating for that. He caught Wuya watching him and at first she didn't say much.

He practiced with the shen gong wu they had, so he could help Jack better, and sweet talked Wuya into teaching him a little bit of whatever she did. She mostly had to do it by taking his hands, but it worked.

"Can you teach me what Jessie does? I've tried all the moves but I'm doing something wrong."

"You need a different teacher for that," she said, and Clay assumed she meant the kind of teacher Jessie and the others had.

There was another fight, and another, and Jessie mostly avoided him and he was okay with that. Then one where Jack was dragging them east to Texas and no he liked Jack but no way in hell was he going back to-

Aw hell no.

"-inside the house-" Wuya was saying, and as she and Jack discussed the object and the plan he realized what they were talking about.

"I'll get it," he said.

"What?" Jack asked.

"This is-this used to be my house. I know what you're talking about, it's on Daddy's favorite bolo."

"Okay but why does your dad have the Star of Hanabi?"

"We never called it that. He got it from his daddy, an my great grandpa was supposed to've found it in the desert."

Jack looked at Wuya and shrugged. "Let's try it."

"Can't go worse than the last one," Wuya rolled her non-existent eyes.

It could, though, because Clay broke in just fine (he'd learned to unlock the kitchen screen door from the outside ages ago) and even found the Star without much trouble while his parents slept in the near-dawn, but as he was leaving he near about ran right into Jessie.

"Clay, what the hell are you doing?" she asked, looking at the Star in his hands and her eyes going wide. "Did you just steal-"

"Ya think?" he asked, and she punched him hard enough the Star went skittering across the porch. They both reached for it and he felt the thrum of magic that set off, and Jessie challenged him to a Xiaolin Showdown.

He'd been mostly teaching himself, and had a year of wrestling at school. Jessie had been studying martial arts for almost a year by that point. She kicked his ass, and took the Star, and when he looked up his parents were watching them from the back porch.

He wanted the whole damn earth to swallow him up right then, and there was a rumble and it obliged, the ground under his feet cracking apart. He fell.

Later he thought about how it was Jack that got him out, not his sister or their parents. It was Jack.

Well fine then.

When they were back at Jack's house, Wuya watched Jack patching him up and shook her head. "That was dangerous. I need to get you trained."

"You said you can't train me, I thought."

"I can't," she agreed. "But I think I can find someone who can."

Year and a Day

Chapter Summary

The training begins.

“Wuya is coming, Master Chase,” the raven reported. “She is accompanied by two boys who fly with devices strapped to their backs.” She flicked her wings, dismissive of such devices.

“I will meet them in the throne room,” Chase said, getting to his feet and brushing the dirt off his hands. “Have refreshment ready in the morning room.” A simple gesture dismissed the rest of the dirt from his person, and replaced his outfit with a set of armor of the sort that Wuya would expect. It sometimes was beneficial to give an opponent what they expected, and while Wuya might not end up as an opponent in this round, she was always worthy of a certain measure of caution.

Chase rarely used the throne room, as it mostly served to impress the sort of weaker persons who visited from time to time, but it was always kept ready against unexpected company. He settled in the throne with a studied casualness, and waited for his guests.

"Dang," Clay whistled as they landed on the entryway and looked inside.

"Please don't embarrass me," Wuya told them both. "No arguing, no sticky fingers, and if he asks you questions, answer… well, not necessarily the entire truth, but no obvious lies. Understood?"

Clay had never seen Wuya quite this serious and he looked over at Jack, who clearly hadn't either, because he was nodding, wide-eyed.

The entryway was rough cave walls studded with crystals that seemed to Clay to be shining, creating light like torches would as they left the daylight behind, and gradually the walls smoothed out and the crystals began to make patterns, surrounded by intricate carving into the stone. The narrower cave opened into a much larger space with a raised platform in the middle, an elegant table with stools and food and drink neither of them recognized, and beyond it up several stairs was a throne.

There was a man on the throne, though Clay immediately could tell he wasn't human, exactly. He looked at Jack, who all but had hearts in his eyes.

Wuya left both of them at the back of the room and approached Chase, gave a little bob that might have been a bow and might not have been, and greeted him, thanking him for seeing her on short notice as if she had not planned to surprise him.

“What can I do for you, Wuya?” he asked mildly. There was something about his voice that reinforced that sense of his not being human, and Clay thought about all the stories and lessons he’d had over the years about how to treat a stranger because they might turn out to be a god in disguise. He wondered if the Allfather had the same peculiar rasp in his voice.

"As you no doubt know, not only have I been able to return to the world, but the shen gong wu have been activated and the dragons are pursuing them. I have found myself with two young humans in my retinue who need training. I can probably manage the smaller one even in my current state, as he is inclined to fire, but the taller one is strongly inclined to earth and you know my limits as well as I do. Would you like to have him?"

The man looked at him, maybe through him, and Clay saw that his eyes were golden, cat-slit and alien, intensifying the not-human sense. “What are you called, boy?” Not, he noticed, what is your name.

"These days most people call me Texas," he answered, trying to sound cool and not at all sure he was managing it. What worked with other lost kids seemed less likely to work on whoever this was.

“Texas it is, then. And are you a child of earth, as Wuya suggests?”

"I'm not familiar with that name, but I asked the ground to swallow me an' it obliged, and Miss Wuya did something with my blood that seemed to make her sure about it, so I expect I am, sir."

“You asked the ground to swallow you and it obliged,” he echoed, laughing a little. “I daresay that would suggest you’re an earth dragon, no matter what anyone else has to say. I wonder that the Xiaolin didn’t claim you for their temple, as strong as you are.”

"They took my sister instead," he answered.

“They took your sister, and your gift strong enough to call the earth to hand completely untrained. A foolish adherence to tradition. Two and two there must be, no matter what circumstances would suggest. Two and two, and probably they needed a girl, so here you are. Hmph. Well, their loss is my luck, and ‘tis an ill wind that blows no good, as they say. And would you pledge a year and a day to me, to train at my side, Texas?”

He looked at Jack, and at Wuya. Jack looked surprised and a little hurt, but Clay nodded to him.

"Is there any obligation beyond that, sir?"

He smiled. “Clever boy. No, not unless you wish it. Once your time is up, you may walk away with no ties to me, or you may choose to stay longer, but I swear that it will be your decision and no one else’s.”

"Then I accept," he nodded.

He offered his hand. “I am Chase Young, and you will be my apprentice.”

Jack squeaked.

Clay took the man's hand, not sure if he was meant to shake or if this was something else. There was a sense of something closing in on him, and he thought it must be the magic of the bargain he'd made and not anything else.

“What about your firebug, Wuya? Perhaps I am not the best qualified to train such a one under normal circumstances, but you are… not entirely yourself.”

Clay watched Jack closely, because the boy seemed about to throw himself at Chase and that was a bad idea. He reached over and took a firm hold on the back of Jack's collar.

"Yes, I noticed. It would certainly be easier if he had a physical teacher. What are you offering?"

“I could take him off your… hands, as it were, and let you borrow Maeve until you’re restored to your former glory.”

"Until I'm restored to my former glory, hm? I like Maeve, I will accept that bargain, but I can't commit on his behalf."

"I c-" Jack started, but Clay shook him just enough to quiet him.

He looked at Jack. “And what are you called, little spark?”

"I'm Jack," he answered lightly and Clay winced.

“Jack,” he echoed, nodding. “And will you give me a year and a day as well?”

"A year and a day to learn magic? Is that all it takes?"

“A year and a day is enough of a start to know if you’re worth teaching more,” he said dryly. “Again, it’s up to you to decide to stay or go.”

"I'm in," Jack grinned.

“Then you, too, will be my apprentice. Your first loyalty is to me and your second is to one another; let no one come between you and you will be unmatched.” He offered his hand.

Jack shook more aggressively than Clay had. "Now what?"

He waved a hand and a pair of fucking lions appeared. “Show the boys to their rooms, and then bring them to the morning room.” Orders given, he turned his attention to Wuya and asked her a question in a language Clay didn’t understand.

"Why'd you tell him your name?" Clay hissed as they followed the lions into one of the narrow hallways.

"Because he asked? Why'd you tell him yours?"

Clay scoffed. "You think Texas is what it says on my birth certificate?"

Jack shrugged. "You think Jack is what it says on mine?"

Clay got a sudden sense of - amusement? satisfaction? - that was decidedly not his own. Such children, a voice rasped, and he noticed one of the lions flick his tail.

"How… should we call you?" he asked the lions, testing.

I am called Chrish, the voice said. The tail-flicking lion looked over his shoulder. You can hear me?

"Either that or I'm a good guesser," Clay answered, only then realizing what Jack's confused look meant. "You can't hear the cats?"

"I hear them walking."

"Not like, words?"

"Should I?"

Clay, having no idea, looked to Chrish. Most people cannot hear us, he said. Master Chase will be pleased, I think.

"I reckon not," Clay shrugged. "As long as one of us can it should be good enough. And it seems like they can understand both of us."

"Maybe I can learn? Or maybe it's like parseltongue." Jack thought about it.

It is a kind of hearing. I do not know if it can be learned, but I do not know that it cannot. Would you tell Jack that this is his room?

“This one’s your room, he says,” Clay pointed.

“Is there a way to keep from getting lost?” Jack asked as he looked inside - something that looked like a bed, something that looked like a desk, a stool. Suddenly he realized he’d brought almost nothing with him.

Chrish’s tail lashed, and Clay got that amused feeling again. Time, he said. You will both learn your way in time. And the lair will usually guide you to Master Chase if you don’t have a proper destination in mind.

“He says we’ll learn, and if we get lost we’ll end up finding Mr. Chase.”

Jack nodded. “Where’s your room?”

“I’m guessing that’s next.” They both looked at Chrish.

He nodded and padded to the next door. This one will be yours. Clay repeated it to Jack.

“Do we need to, I don’t know, change or anything? The monks had uniforms.” Jack was hanging out in his doorway.

Chrish said, and Clay repeated, that they would find clothes in their rooms, and they should dress, and then he would take them to begin.

Jack picked out a uniform from the niche in the wall and brought it into Clay’s room to change. “I’d rather not be alone, if it’s all the same? Now that I’m actually thinking I’m realizing this is kind of a big deal.”

Clay nodded, and they dressed as quickly as they could. Jack’s was a little big on him, and he rolled up the sleeves. They met Chrish in the hallway and followed him to the morning room Chase had mentioned.


The morning room proved to be a fairly ordinary sort of room, once you got over the fact that it was furnished in antiques and didn’t have windows; there was a similar kind of room in Jack’s house that he called the sitting room, but they’d never sat in it. Chase was seated at a low table spread with fruit and pastries and a beautiful tea set, eating some kind of fruit with a spiky pink exterior and white inside that Clay had never seen before. He nodded in greeting as they entered, and gestured for them to sit. “Will you break bread with me?” he asked.

Jack sat down first, and Clay followed, nodding his head. "Thank you, Mr Chase."

He elbowed Jack. "Oh, thank you."

“It’s just Chase,” he said, chuckling. “I don’t stand on formality in my own home, even with my apprentices.”

"But that's what the cats call you."

“You can hear them?” he asked, clearly surprised.

"Yes sir. Or at the least I could hear Creesh," he answered, stumbling over the pronunciation. "Don't think I heard the other one say anything."

“Bhanu doesn’t say much,” Chase chuckled.

I’d be more surprised that he spoke at all than the boy could hear him, a new voice put in. Clay realized there was some kind of black panther curled up in the shadows under the table, nearly invisible until he looked.

“Indeed,” Chase agreed. “Well, that makes logistics simpler, at least. Less note-writing, even presuming that you can read?” He turned the last into a question, raising an eyebrow.

"Course I can read," Clay grumbled.

Jack nodded. "He's a little sensitive to people thinking he's a redneck, because he's got an accent. But I don't think that's what you mean. We can both read."

“Oh, good. I know general literacy has gotten much more common, but that doesn’t always mean that an individual person is going to be literate. What schooling have you had?”

"I've been kicked out of some of the most elite boarding schools in the world," Jack shrugged. "But I'm better when I'm studying what I'm interested in. Mostly robots so far."

"I was about halfway through sixth grade," Clay answered. "And I did boy scouts an 4H, so a fair bit of animal raisin, campin, knots and that kinda thing."

“Six years of school,” he mused thoughtfully. “Respectable enough for a farmer’s son, but it won’t be sufficient for a warlord’s apprentice. I’ll set some tests for you and we’ll see what you need to study. What about you, firebug? You’ve got a nobleman’s attitude and a working man’s hands, what sorts of book learning have you absorbed in between evictions?”

"Lots of math and science, especially physics and electronics, coding, history on three continents so different points of view, I'm only fluent in English, Mandarin and French but I'm able to get by in Cantonese and Spanish, and I can read German if it's mostly practical. Literature mostly bored me but I mean, I can bs an essay and I can freak out a standardized test taker at fifty paces so my numbers are good. My dad quizzes me on economics and business when he's in town but I don't see him that much so it's not a priority. Did you have more specific questions?"

“How’s your brush work?”

"Abysmal. I'm only calm when I'm soldering. I can keep trying but my last teacher despaired of me."

“Hm. Have you ever tried writing with a soldering iron?”

"No? Mostly I type. I'm not even sure how that would work."

“In lieu of a brush. It’s a tidy little trick, if you can get the hang of it, and if you get good enough with your elemental control, you’ll be able to write characters in the air in flame. Consider it a challenge. In the meantime, I will permit you access to my library. You can study whatever you will, but you will explain it to me on a regular basis, so don’t forget what you’re learning.”

"Thank you," Jack said.

"Both of us?" Clay asked.

“For you, I think a little more structure, at first. Do you learn best by reading, or hearing?”

"Hearing, or mostly doing."

“Then turning you loose in my library wouldn’t be very helpful, would it? No, we’ll need to find you a tutor. Diol, who might make a good tutor for our Earth dragon?”

The black cat lifted his head. I will consider this, he said.

“What about weapons or fighting? What manner of blade are gentlemen’s sons being taught these days, firebug? Foil? Epee?”

“I actually did some foil fencing at the school in France, and I did six months in military school with some marksmanship training but that’s the one I got expelled from for getting into the munitions. I’ve done tai chi off and on with my grandmother.” Jack paused. “Does that count?”

“It does. Better than I expected. How did foil suit you?”

"I didn't like all the rules about what counted and what didn't. Stabbing should be stabbing, you know? If I'm just dancing with a pointy stick I might as well be skating or skiing."

“Rapier for you, then. You’re small and likely fast, it should be a fine weapon. I assume you ride, if you fence; have you had a decent mount yet or has it all been ponies and elderly mares?”

Jack grinned at that. "For a little while, though she wasn't mine."

“What about you, Texas? Ridden anything more challenging than a plowhorse?”

"I got three gold medals in ropin on the last year of rodeo. Ain't professional or nothing but I thought I might someday."

“Well, aren’t you both full of surprises. Can you fight, or use a weapon?”

"I got my hunting license at nine. And I can throw a punch but I never fought anybody bigger'n me yet."

“Good, good. And what about magic, either of you? Did Wuya teach you anything useful?”

"She used my hands for… I think six specific things, four I saw more than once, one I've replicated. It was just a flash of fire, though, so I don't know if it qualifies as useful."

"I didn't learn nothing from Wuya but I've helped at rituals an I know my runes."

“Which runes, and what sorts of rituals?”

"Elder futhark, an' mostly community blots an' holidays."

“Viking raised? No wonder you had three dragons in one family; you’ve got magic in the blood. What’s your sire’s name, Texas?”

"You mean my family name, sir?"

“Your father’s name. I care not what the culture has dumped on you as an identifier; it’s wrong.”

Clay wondered if this was another test, and if he could endanger his father by giving up his name, and if he cared on the last one. "James, sir."

“An Irish name for a Viking, with a Spaniard’s name for his son,” Chase shook his head, laughing. “They said it would be a melting pot, and I suppose they weren’t wrong, Texas Jamesson, and here you both are. Are you as Irish-blooded as you look, sparkle, or do you have mysterious depths as well?”

"Sparkle?" Jack asked. "Um. My grandmother's side is all mixed up, they've been in Hong Kong as long as there've been white folks there. Otherwise, yeah, Irish and English."

“Which grandmother?”


Chase nodded. “So you’re English and Chinese in your maternal line, and then Irish on the other side - and every Irishman I met past 1650 or so had fey blood no more than two generations back, so you’re probably the same - maybe closer, as fair as you are. Excellent, both of you ought to pick up magic quick enough, even aside from the elemental work. If Wuya’d had her own body, you’d be halfway to being a witch-child already, and lucky enough that she wasn’t, at least for me. You’re probably better fit to alchemy anyway; it’ll suit the way you think. Texas, do you garden?”

"I've helped Mama with the beds since I could walk or near about, but we ain't that kinda farm so nothing so big as some of my classmates. Mostly just enough for Mama to put up in the fall and keep us fed."

“I bet herbs and potions will be just the thing for you. That, I can teach you myself, and you can take care of my magical garden, at least. Though if you like it, there’s quite a bit that likes to be tended.”

"Yes, sir, that I think I can do."

“I think you boys can do anything you set your mind to, although the firebug is going to have trouble setting to anything.” He smirked. “It’s the nature of the thing, you can’t help it. All right, enough questions from me; what questions do you have?”

"Can I ask what your- I reckon it's your nature, what it is? Is that rude? I don't mean to be rude but I don't want to guess an be wrong."

“I am the Heylin Dragon of the Storm-Tossed Sea, which is water on water with just enough wind to be irritating, at least that’s what my own master always said.”

"What's with the cats?" Jack asked. "They're in the stories about you but I've seen like three different explanations and none of them mention talking except in the way fairy tales do."

“Do the stories speak of my quest to be the greatest warrior born?”


“Do they say anything about what happens to the defeated warrior when I’m done with them?”

"There was one where you kill them and eat their hearts and one where you… ohhhhhhh. Are they trapped souls in cat form?"

“Are you trapped, Diol?” Chase asked, chuckling. The black cat came out from under the table, and Clay realized he had some kind of spots, like a cheetah, or - and then he turned into a man in warrior’s garb.

“Only when you choose to trap me somewhere,” he said, bowing slightly. “I assure you that I am not a trapped soul; I am an immortal warrior in service to Master Chase.”

“I’ve never trapped you anywhere! On purpose, at least. I didn’t know about the doorknob problem at first, you could maybe let that go after a thousand years,” Chase retorted.

"Hey I can hear you when you're a person, that's good. Like for emergencies," Jack said.

"Is 'doorknob problem' somethin to be concerned about or no?"

“Not any more,” Chase groaned. “You will notice that there are no round doorknobs in the entire Citadel, because cats, even those with human intelligence, have no thumbs. But there was a learning curve. A THOUSAND YEARS AGO.”

Jack snickered.

"Is there any other problems we ought to worry about? Anything likely to kill us or anything if we ain't careful or don't answer a riddle correct or something?"

“You should be safe enough in the Citadel so long as you don’t drink random things, or poke yourself with weapons. For the moment, you won’t be able to go anywhere that you’re not supposed to be, although that will gradually fade as you are able to navigate successfully on your own. Probably don’t try and sneak up on the watchcats, but they wouldn’t try and kill you on purpose. Again, for now, don’t leave the Citadel unescorted. If you need to go somewhere, we will discuss it.”

Jack and Clay both nodded. Diol turned back into his cat self and sat next to Chase.

“Any other questions?”

"No," they answered.

“Well then. Let us retire to the workroom and see what you boys can do.” He rose and led the way out of the room and down the hall, Diol keeping pace with him like a well-trained hound. Though, Clay supposed, maybe it was more like a well-trained bodyguard.

The workroom proved to be a large, high-ceilinged cavern, apparently entirely empty, but Clay could feel the hum of powerful shields the minute he stepped through the door. “Until I tell you otherwise, I don’t want you calling on your elements outside this space. The shields are set up to protect both the rest of the citadel and everyone in the room, for obvious reasons, and if you find yourself out of control, the safeword is ‘nevermore.’ If you say it, the room will dampen any active magic.”

Clay nodded at the instruction, taking it in, while Jack's eyes were darting around the room.

“Firebug, will you show me what Wuya did with your hands?”

Jack held his hands out and paused a moment before pinching his fingers, then twisting, then snapping, and a little flash of flame jumped up, almost taking out his eyebrows. He yelped and pulled back.

“It won’t hurt you if you don’t let it,” Chase said. “Take a deep breath and put your hand out again.”

Jack hesitated, but did as he was told. "Again," he said, repeating the gestures and willing himself not to move.

“Think of it as… dough, or smoke. Something you can manipulate that can’t hurt you.”

"The enemy's gate is down," Jack murmured. "It's not fire, it's just smoke."

“Red smoke. No pope yet,” Chase chuckled.

Jack pinched and pulled, drawing the flame out long and thin. He could feel the flame in between his fingers and Chase was right, it didn't burn. It was so weird and distracting but he fought to hold his focus.

“Excellent work, Jack,” Chase murmured, not wanting to distract him. “Can you add more to it?”

"I'm not sure," Jack said. "Wuya didn't show me that, but I can try?"

“Call it,” he said softly. “Or - blow on it, just a bit.”

"Like a campfire," Clay added.

Jack didn't have a lot of campfire experience but he'd certainly seen what wind could do to something he'd set on fire. He blew, slowly and deliberately, imagining himself like a welding torch, and the flame in his hands expanded out into a bubble.

“Good!” Chase smiled. “Can you direct it?”

"Like laying down a bead?" Jack asked, drawing a line out away from the bubble and slowly drawing a shape he knew well, the weld lines for one of his robot designs. By the time he finished he was exhausted and his hands were shaking enough that the fire was starting to sputter. "I think I'm done," he said, but waited for Chase's go-ahead.

“You may release it. Excellent work, you’re a natural.”

Jack sagged and Clay moved in to catch him, ignoring the flash of flames as they sputtered and went out. Jack leaned against him for a moment and then pushed himself back to standing. He smiled at Chase.

“Go get something to eat,” Chase said. “Chrish is at the door, he’ll take you. Texas, are you ready?”

"Yes, sir, if you'll show me how to do it," Clay said, watching out of the corner of his eye to make sure Jack made it to Chrish. He saw how the cat accepted his hand and propped him up a bit, and nodded, turning his full attention to Chase.

“Earth is below, beside, above, around, because we’re in a cave. You want to coax it to you, like a nervous animal. Your strength is growth.”

Clay stood for a long few minutes, trying to work out how to feel the earth around him properly, falling back into some of the energy visualizations he'd learned at rituals. It wasn't quite working because the shield-energy was overwhelming, and he didn't know how to reach out.

After what felt like forever but was probably less than five minutes, he dropped into a crouch and put his hands on the ground. At first it wasn't obvious he was doing anything, but Chase would notice his mouth moving, and eventually Clay would be focused enough on what he was doing that his whispers would get louder.

"C'mere, that's a good girl, can you come up for me? Jus a lil bit? There you go, good girl, ain't you a sweetheart. You wanna come up a lil more, like a good lil mountain?" The stone was crawling slowly upward, pushing together to do what he asked.

“Oh, very good,” he murmured.

"Let's do together, if you don't mind," Clay continued, laying his hands on the sides like he was working a pottery wheel, pulling the sides out and creating a bowl shape in the middle. "You wanna come up for me?" And he was holding a small stone bowl, not much bigger than a soup bowl.

He looked up at Chase. "Reckon this is yours, as it came outta your house," he said, holding it out.

Chase chuckled. “Oh, no, you’re the artist, it’s entirely yours.”

"Thank you." Clay turned it over almost reverently, looking at it. He wasn't sure if he was saying it to Chase or the cave or both of them. Probably both.

“How do you feel?”

"Good, I guess? Not gonna fall over like Jack did."

He nodded. “It’s a different sort of work, for you. Controlling fire is intense; controlling earth is slower, gentler, like the element itself. It will likely be easier for Jack to learn to weaponize his element, because your challenge will be to awaken the earth, but only just enough.”

"Or else you get earthquakes an' volcanoes or something?"

“Earthquakes, certainly. Volcanoes would be more fire’s demesne, but depending on where you were, it could happen.”

Clay nodded. "Fire seems like it's already awake."

“Inherently. My element is more like yours; it must be coaxed to action, but there’s no such thing as still fire or unmoving air.” He drummed his fingers on his leg. “Do you want to take a break? Perhaps meet my garden?”

"I'd like that." He didn't like not knowing his way around, and knowing he couldn't leave was starting to creep up on him, but the first one he could work on at least.

“This way, then,” he said, and led the way out of the cavern. “In passageways, lanterns on Eastern walls are green, on Southern walls are red, and so on. It’s easy to get turned around in here, or so I’m told.”

Clay wondered for a minute if Chase could read his mind. It seemed possible, but everything seemed possible at the moment, and he needed to start narrowing it down. "Did you know I was thinkin that, or were you just bein polite?"

“Not in the way that you mean,” he said, without clarifying which part. “But you feel itchy, and I thought it might help.”

"I ain't been sleepin out long compared to some folks I know, but you get skittish quick." He hoped Chase wouldn't have a problem with it. It felt safe to explain, anyway, since he was trying to be accommodating, in the same way trusting Jack had felt safe even when there was the threat of getting beat up or blown up or something.

“The human mind is infinitely adaptable, and quick to identify potential threats,” he observed. “Your home was no longer safe, the street is inherently unsafe, and therefore it will take you some time to recognize safety now that you’ve found it. I am strange, and this place is strange, and strangeness seems dangerous even when it is not.”

Clay nodded. "Jack is… not good at identifyin' threats. 'S how we met."

“He’s never truly known danger, I suspect. Gentlemen’s sons need not fear hunger nor cold nor loneliness; what have they to offer a threat? And likely he won’t realize the danger that Wuya would have posed him, as I snatched him out of her grasp before she closed her claws. But he will learn, in time, if he stays here.”

"What kinda danger was she? That thing she did with his hands I didn't much care for, and she sure yelled a lot for somebody couldn't do much about it when we ignored her, but she made me nervous."

“She is admittedly less of a threat in her current condition, but she is a powerful sorceress, and I have little doubt that all of her schemes are aimed toward returning to her usual state, embodied and in control.”

"You keep callin' Jack a gentleman's son but I don't reckon yer talking about his daddy's manners."

“Is that what gentleman has become? A description of manners, rather than manors?”

"I don't quite follow, but you're just sayin his folks're rich, I guess?"

“You were born in the New World, where respectability is about the weight of your purse rather than the lineage of your father, thus, indeed, being gently born is based in wealth rather than title.” Chase smirked. “His folks are quite rich, I daresay.”

"Yeah, pretty sure. He don't brag, I don't think, but he says it lots of ways I don't think he means to. An' the house is fancier'n anything I seen outside'a TV."

Chase nodded. “There is a way of being in the world that those who have never known care or sorrow reveal, and he reveals it. But he’s braver than I would have given him credit for, and clever, and more focused than most of his ilk, so we may make something out of him yet. He can’t help his birth any more than you or I could.”

"Oh he's plenty brave, an he's stuck his neck out for me. I'm real glad you took him too, I was kinda worried about sending him back with Wuya."

“I’m not the best suited for training him, but I’m better for him than she could be, and I hope to coax a friend to come and help.” He stopped as the hall ended, opening up and up and out and out until Clay wasn’t entirely sure they were still underground, except that he could feel earth overhead. “This is my garden.”

If he thought about the vegetables and fruit his mother grew outside the back door and out toward the barn, Clay could identify where he'd been able to pick out feelings from them, how he'd gotten along better with some of them than others, and a general sense of plants being alive that had been obvious to him at the time but other people didn't seem to get. This was something else, though, the whole space vibrating with energy and abundance, like everything was humming together and harmonizing.

"Why's it feel like that? Cuz of magic?"

“Yes, and it’s been tended a very long time. If you walked in the Imperial Garden in the Forbidden City, you might have the same sense. Or perhaps not; it has been some small time since I have done that. Old gardens have a life of their own, beyond an individual plant or bed, and very old gardens are like ancient forests that recognize and welcome the hand of man.”

"It's beautiful."

“Thank you. Come and meet it; it’s very excited that you are here.”

Clay did as he was told, walking slowly into the space, looking at everything to see what he could recognize and trying to feel the way Chase clearly wanted him to. "On account of it knows what I am?"

“Yes. We haven’t had an Earth dragon in the garden in a terribly long time.”

"Why's that?"

“My master respects my independence,” he said. “And thus, when he visits, he stays in the areas for guests.”

“Respectin’ you is good.” Clay looked over a plant he’d never seen before, with large, velvety leaves. “Do you mind me asking questions? I been figuring you’ll tell me when ta stop but you ain’t done that.”

“I will tell you when you ask a question I won’t answer, and if I tire of them for the nonce, but asking questions is how you learn.”

Clay nodded. "Are you gonna introduce me around?"

“Of course. We’ll start over here.” Chase led Clay through the garden, talking about all the plants. He named them, and in most cases he talked about what the plant was used for, or where it came from, or how it grew.

Clay paid close attention, wanting to remember as many as he could. Some of them he recognized, and if he did Chase would quiz him a little on what he knew, and a few times corrected but mostly expanded on his answers.

"Do you got favorites?" he asked when they had walked through most of the space, having lost track of time.

“These over here,” he said, leading the way through a low gate. “They’re the magical plants I’ve collected from around the world.”

"Magical plants?"

“Plants that are themselves magical, rather than plants that are useful for doing magic,” he clarified. “They’re very rare.”

"Do you use 'em or collect 'em just to have 'em?"

“Most of them aren’t inherently useful, but I do have a clipping of the Shining Diervilla in my room that I use in lieu of a night-candle.”

"That sounds safer, anyhow. What makes a magic glowing plant different from somethin' that pho- pha- that glows naturally?"

“From its own perspective, nothing, because glowing is its nature. Defining it as different is a choice made by humans, not plants. But for our purposes, it’s a classification, akin to noting which plants grow best in clay or sandy soil, or that thrive in shade or sun, or that produce fruits with stones or seeds.” He paused, looking at the tidy beds. “They all thrive here because the place is itself magical.”

"So they get all they need just on account of being here? What kinda tendin' d'you do then? Harvest, I'm guessin, an make sure they don't overgrow? You got pollinators in here?"

“Bees and butterflies. Birds are tricky,” he said with a shrug. “But yes, making sure they grow where they’re supposed to and not where they’re not, harvesting and pruning, talking and listening.”

He nodded. "I'd say I can handle doin' that for you."

“Excellent. Then you may take over, and I trust you will ask if you need help or have questions, hm?”

Clay was determined to live up to this - he'd never had an adult listen to his questions, it felt like, and definitely not answer them all without getting tired of him. It sounded like he'd be able to stay here at least a year, but he was hoping he'd found someplace he would want to stay. There was still a lot of year to get through first, though, and he'd certainly met adults who seemed okay at first, so he'd see how it went.

While Chase went to check on Jack, Clay was left in his own room to put the stone bowl on the desk.


After he checked that Jack was feeling better after his snack, Chase showed him to the library and let him wander whilst he pulled out his writing box and composed an invitation to his oldest friend and brother-apprentice. I have suddenly gone from no apprentices to two through a surprising circumstance, and I am hoping you might deign to help me with one of them. He is fire-aligned, and I’m finding it rather more challenging than I expected. Even the basics are completely different from my own inclination. Would you be available to come and lend your support and counsel? There was more, after that; the polite sorts of flourishes that Guan liked in his letters. He waited a moment for the ink to dry, then folded and sealed it and handed it to one of his raven-messengers for delivery.

It took less than a day for Guan to reply with a letter twice as long, wandering hither and yon before finishing: I am pleased to hear you have decided to take apprentices again after so many years. It would be my pleasure to visit and see what small wisdom I can impart to your student.

“We have a guest arriving in the morning,” Chase announced at dinner when the time had come. Clay and Jack had been there about a week at that point, and they were starting to feel comfortable in the routine. They rose early - Jack still complained about how early they had to get up, but he did it anyway - had morning exercises followed by breakfast, a few hours of studying, lunch, elemental work, a light mid-afternoon meal Chase called ‘tea,’ chores, dinner, and a little bit of free time before bed.

Jack and Clay both nodded, looking back and forth.

"You mentioned someone coming to help teach me, is that the guest?" Jack asked. He was not a natural at discipline, but he was still well within the 'novelty' phase of a new educational experience and expected he'd be fine for months if not the full year-and-a-day he'd promised. And that didn't sound like the sort of thing you get expelled from easily so probably this would work out well for him.

“It is,” he said. “It goes without saying that I expect you to treat him with at least as much respect and attention as you offer to me.”

Jack agreed, mostly because he was eager to keep learning more magic.

"Is he just helpin with the element lessons or's he teaching other stuff with you too?" Clay asked. He'd been reminding himself over and over that this was new and not to get comfortable, but it was hard for him not to trust Chase, with his answers and his simple rules that made sense and had explanations.

“I asked him to come and help Jack with his element work, but he may decide to teach other things,” Chase said. “We’ll see what catches his fancy.”

The guest was introduced to them as Guan, the Heylin Dragon of the Shifting Winds, and he and Chase spoke with enough half-sentences and jokes between them that it was clear to Clay they were close. Chase approximated the term into English as brother-apprentice.

"Is that what Texas and I are?" Jack asked.

"If you choose to be," Guan said. "It's a factual description and also a term of endearment, almost."

Chase nodded. “If you both continue to choose the path, you will likely consider yourselves to be linked in such a fashion. Guan and I spent many years training both side-by-side and opposite one another.”

Clay felt like he'd been set up opposite his siblings since they were born, competing for attention and feeling like someone had to fail for someone else to succeed. He didn't want that with Jack; their strengths had seemed so opposite that he didn't think it would come up. But the way Chase talked about it seemed like he meant something else by it, maybe something more like how he'd felt about the kids he knew in 4-H or youth rodeo who all worked together but still someone had to win at the end of the day, and he hadn't really thought about that being a close relationship before. He tucked that thought away because there wasn't much he could do with it right now.

“The Heylin path of strength and harmony is that of the equal-and-opposite; our best teaching and learning is done with opposed elements, rather than the double-parallel path of the Xiaolin. Your partner’s weakness is your strength, so you are able to support and protect one another no matter where the attack comes from. There is a children’s game with this principle, where one thing defeats another, but is weak against a third,” Chase added, doing that thing where it felt like he was reading Clay’s mind again.

"Rock Paper Scissors?" Clay asked.

"Lizard Spock," Jack added.

"Do they always talk like that?" Guan asked Chase.

“Always,” he assured Guan. “I can only follow their conversations with one another about half the time.”

"Seems like a good sign. Okay, let's get started."

Having Guan join their training session was even more helpful than Chase had considered, because not only could Guan help the firebug with his individual work, they were able to teach techniques for working together, both for fighting and for creation. In an echo of the stone bowl Clay had created during his first session, he and Jack created a fired ceramic bowl during an intense joint work session that thrilled all four of them.

Guan ended up staying off and on for the entire year, coming and going on a schedule Clay couldn't quite track, assuming there even was one. Everything else about living and training with Chase was an orderly schedule, daily and by a lunar month, and those months marched by like water in their teacher's hands.

Clay said something about how it was hard to tell but by counting he was pretty sure their year was going to be up soon, and he wondered when Chase would say something.

"Oh man, that'll be nice, I miss the internet," Jack said casually.

"You ain't stayin?"

Jack cocked his head. "I didn't really plan to, I just figured I'd learn the thing and then go back to world domination, right? Besides, don't we have some monks you want to put to shame?"

And yes, Clay remembered being skittish about the commitment in the first place, about making sure of the bargain he was making. But he liked the garden, and he liked his teacher, and he liked the way he was treated here. He wanted to stay, but he wasn't sure if he would want to stay if Jack left.

He didn't argue right then, but he chewed on it for a week or so, until he knew Chase'd have to say something soon and ask what they planned to do.

“Your year-mark approaches,” Chase observed as they were both working in the garden, Clay pruning and Chase doing something esoteric to the magical plants that he couldn’t quite figure out.

"Yeah, I been thinking about it," Clay acknowledged.

“I fully intend to offer an extension on the day,” he said. “But I wanted to warn you ahead of time, in case you hadn’t considered the possibility.”

"You talked to Jack about it?"

“I will be later today, but circumstance put you in my path first, as is fitting.”

"Why fitting?"

“Wuya offered your teaching first, after all.”

"Oh I guess that makes sense. Thank you. How close are we? I wasn't sure my math worked out."

“At the full moon, three days hence, you will complete your term.”

Later, Chase ran across Jack in the library and mentioned the same thing to him.

"You actually want me to stay?" Jack asked. "I figured you'd be glad to get rid of me, teachers are always glad to get rid of me."

"You have done what I asked of you, and you are learning quickly. Why would I send you away?"

"I set Guan on fire two weeks ago."

"He was not injured, and you said that was not your intention."

"Well, yeah, but…" Jack changed the subject. "I still figure I should go home and see if my parents noticed I'm gone, and I'm working on taking over the world, and I miss the internet."

"What is the internet?" Chase asked, genuinely curious.

"It's a way to talk to people and look up basically anything. Like a library that has everything, not just books and movies but like people's diaries and dumb jokes and infinite cat pictures."

"I would enjoy cat pictures. That seems like the sort of thing I'd like to add to my library. How would I do so?"

Jack sputtered at that, then spoke of equipment he'd need to purchase and Chase agreed that the next day he would take Jack and they would purchase the equipment. "I never asked because I thought you wouldn't be interested. You're kind of old fashioned," Jack told him.

Chase laughed and agreed that he was definitely old-fashioned, but not necessarily intentionally.

"There's other stuff I miss, mostly building. I miss my bots." Jack admitted now that Chase had made it clear he should be honest. "I can tell Texas really wants to stay."

Chase nodded noncommittally at that. "I cannot make his decision for him any more than I would make yours, but hobbies are something you would have more time for going forward regardless. The first year is meant to building relationships - with your element, your teacher, and your opposite-apprentice."

"That’s a different word than you normally use. Usually you say brother-apprentice." Jack picked out the syllables of the word carefully, not sure if it was Middle Chinese or a different Mandarin dialect or something only slightly related.

"Not all apprentice pairs are as close as you and Texas, or even myself and Guan. Traditionally, apprentices are chosen for their elemental affinity, as well as intelligence and whatever other traits a master-dragon is looking for. The fact that the two of you came together is unusual, but you came nonetheless and with elements of a good match to pair as opposites."

"So we'll have, what, free periods?"

"Were you expecting me to ride herd on the two of you forevermore? You will have more freedom to come and go, within reason, if you wish, and more time to work on your own projects. Assuming you progress well, eventually I will be more of a consultant than a strict instructor, unless you choose to pursue the more esoteric levels of training in Heylin philosophy, but that decision will come in time."

Jack went away with a lot to think about.

Three days later, when Chase and Guan both stood before them and Chase asked formally, "Texas Jamesson, your year and a day obligation to me is completed. I would offer you the option to stay, should you like it. What is your decision?"

Clay steeled himself not to react as he said "Thank you for your offer. I will follow Jack."

Jack blinked at him, he'd totally expected Clay to want to stay. "Really?" he whispered. "Why?"

"Because you came for me an I don't forget my debts," Clay whispered back.

Well that settled it, though Jack had already mostly decided, so when Chase asked him the answer was easy. "Oh, I'm staying." He said it casually, watching Clay's face, and the obvious relief on the taller boy's face made him sure he'd done the right thing.

"Excellent!" Chase and Guan smiled at each other. "Now the interesting work begins."


Chapter Summary

A second year of training, and some changes.

“Would you like me to write to your parents and assure them that you are well and being properly educated?” Chase asked Jack during one of their morning study discussions.  In his second year, they met less often and more often because Jack wanted to talk about what he was learning and where he might discover more about it - history, or context, or progression to the next set of ideas.

“That might be a good idea,” Jack shrugged. “I don’t know how you’d explain it? Like I thought about emailing them when I finally got the internet working but I didn’t know what to say so I just didn’t say anything.”

“They wouldn’t understand an apprenticeship?” Chase shook his head.  “Is this one of those rapid transitions of the modern world again?”

“They might, though it’s mostly used for hands-on jobs now. I’d use probably “private tutor” or “internship” if I was doing it, depending, but I’m also not sure how my parents would react to being told I’m studying magic. They might decide it’s not a good idea and I should come try something else, though maybe they’d just be glad I wasn’t wasting tuition money getting expelled anymore. It was more the awkward of suddenly disappearing for a year without, like, telling anyone.”

“I will compose a letter, and do my best to couch what we are doing in a way that they will accept, and you can review it before I send it.  Does that suit you?”

"Sure." Jack hesitated. "I'm assuming it's a non issue since you didn't even ask if I had parents when we got here but if they don't want me to stay you won't make me leave, right?"

“I will not. You have pledged yourself as my student, and it means much to me.”

Jack nodded, satisfied, and went back to what he'd been working on.

To Jonathan and Dorothy Spicer, from Chase Young, Heylin Dragon of the Storm-Tossed Seas, greetings.

Please forgive my forwardness in writing to you without introduction, but I wished to share your son's progress and reassure you of his general good health.  It has been my great good fortune to have him under my tutelage for the past twelvemonth, and he has determined to continue for at least the next.

As I am certain you are aware, your son is extremely gifted, and brought the goodwill and ready progress that he brings to most new endeavors to his training.  Once the novelty faded, however, he found enough challenge and success to continue along the path of his apprenticeship and has indeed proved to be well-suited to the Heylin way.  I have had many apprentices, and he has proven to be one of the most dedicated and most eager, and his hard work and natural talents have allowed him to progress further in a shorter amount of time than any others I have had the pleasure of teaching.

If you have further questions or wish for more regular updates of his progress, please do not hesitate to respond to this missive.

I remain, sir and madam, your obedient servant,

Chase Young


To Chase Young, Heylin Dragon of the Storm-Tossed Seas, Lord of Wú Chù, Keeper of Souls Lost to the Waters,

Please forgive any lapse in manners on my part. I was introduced to formal manners as a child by my mother and grandmother, but have not returned to those circles since I was a young woman. Your reputation precedes you such that I am as honored you have taken my son in as your apprentice as I am relieved to hear he is safe and well and has found a place where he thrives.

I would appreciate more regular updates from you, as well as hearing from him if he is interested in writing. Jack heard stories from his grandmother as a boy, and she collected many stories that he had access to in her library, but I neglected his education as he seemed inclined more towards physical and mundane interests and talents.

Please address future letters to me alone, so as not to trouble his father.


Dorothy Spicer nee Dorothy Chan Farrell Duan Xi

Of the Line of the Scald-Crow Dragon of Mag Mell

"Your mother would like to hear from you," Chase told Jack later that afternoon.  Once Jack had figured out how to make the internet work, he'd created a workspace for his robotics projects and then spent most of his free time working on building small creatures that combined magic and science in a way that excited him beyond anything he'd ever done before.  So far, most of his creatures didn't really do anything - they changed color, or played music, or found his headphones in the pile of random wires - but they were very satisfying as a proof of concept.  He was in there now, working on a little rabbit that located the source of foul smells, and he was so surprised that Chase had come into his lab that he almost dropped it.  Not that Chase wasn't welcome in his lab, but he'd never come in before, and in fact deliberately avoided both of his students during their free periods so that they felt comfortable working on whatever they wanted to.

"Really? Why, is she worried you kidnapped me?" Jack snickered. "Okay, sure, I can send her an email. Does that mean they got your letter and they're actually okay with me being here?" He was at least 90% sure he'd gotten emails from his mother before, he should be able to find it in the archive somewhere. He had half-expected Chase wouldn't hear back at all, and been at least a little afraid his dad would demand he come home, and a little afraid his dad would instead say he was more trouble than he was worth and not to come back at all.

"Indeed, she's very aware of the honor of your being chosen as my apprentice," he said, chuckling.  "Were you aware that you have a Heylin bloodline through your mother's kin?  Or did your grandmother's stories seem as nothing more than stories to you?"

"She is?" Jack nearly dropped the little rabbit again, and set it aside for later so he didn't drop it for real. "I don't remember my grandmother ever saying that, anyway. All of her stories were long-ago-far-away fairy tale stuff, and when I asked too many questions she'd tell me some stories were meant for when I was older. Every time I got kicked out of school I know she'd campaign to have me come live with her, and my parents always nixed it, and then she died." Sometimes he'd felt like she was the one who got him, and he'd always hoped if he kept getting expelled, eventually they'd run out of schools and have to send him to her, but she'd died right before he got kicked out of the last one, so there was no way of knowing whether this would be the time he managed it.

"Long ago, far away tales about the Scald-Crow Dragon of Mag Mell, perhaps?" he inquired, arching an eyebrow.  

Jack paused and thought about it. "Tethra, one of the kings of the Formorians before Balor, lord of their underworld on account of the Irish gods killed them all, something something. I was young enough that I mostly liked the raiding stories with Cúchulainn."

"Naturally," he chuckled.  "Younglings are always after the bloodthirsty tales.  Well, she claims a lineage I know, and I can see the echoes of it in your magical signature.  She is pleased enough to have you here, and wants to hear of your work and your progress, and also asks that you write to her."

"Huh. Okay, sure, if she wants. Is there anything I shouldn't tell her?"

"She's your mother; I imagine you know what she would find distressing.  Otherwise, I trust you to know what is meant to be shared.  You have a good sense of when to keep your mouth shut, much as you might pretend otherwise."

"Just checking."

"Then I will leave you to your work."  He departed with a nod.

Jack's first email to his mom was a short Hi Mom, Chase said you wanted me to write to you. I'm definitely not kidnapped and I'm learning a lot. Love you, Jack.

Her responses started out short as well, asking him what he was learning, what he thought of Chase, who else he was meeting. She told him a little bit about the family history, bits at a time, and just tried not to scare him off. She hadn't known what to think, when he'd disappeared, and what the housekeeper had told her about the ghost and the older boy who'd been staying in the house worried her when she found out.

"My mom said to say hi," Jack told Clay one morning over breakfast.

"Your mom?"

Jack nodded. "I've been emailing her. She wanted to know who the ghost and the older boy in the house had been and I told her you're my best friend and you helped me out."

Clay found himself a little dumbfounded. "You can tell her I said hi back." He'd been working on speaking more like Chase and less like, well, a kid from Texas, but he wasn't sure how far he'd gotten.

He looked at Chase, half-afraid instructions about writing his own parents would be forthcoming.

"I offered to write a letter of introduction to Jack's parents some time ago, to assure them that he was safe and well.  I am more than willing to do the same with your family of origin, if you like, but it would be entirely your decision, and you could review any letter I would write before I send it."

Clay stewed over it for the rest of breakfast, watching Jack and Chase talk, and finally when they were finished eating he decided he didn't know what he wanted so he might as well get another opinion. "Do you think I should?"

"I think you left for a reason, and chose not to return, and that says something.  Whether you have spent time enough away that you are prepared to make an attempt at a relationship once more is up to you, but I will neither encourage nor dissuade you from making that choice, now or later."  Chase frowned, and then added, "It might aid your decision to know that Guan and I are in discussion with the Xiaolin master about possibly letting the pair of you meet with his four apprentices in companionship or friendly challenge, depending on the occasion."

"... I'm not ready to have a relationship, and I don't know if they care, but it'd probably be good to let them know I ain't dead and see if they want to say anything," he allowed. "If you or Guan've talked to my sister at all you probably know my birth name ain't Texas, huh?"

He shrugged.  "I didn't ask you for the name your parents gave you when we met; your name is what you choose it to be.  If you would like to be called by that name, I will do so, and if you do not wish to be called that name, I will inform the Xiaolin master that your name is Texas and you should not be called any other.  I don't use the name I began with, and I don't require that you do so either."

"I've been thinking about it a lot, mostly because Texas is a nickname people gave me for where I was from, and where I'm from ain't- isn't who I am anymore either. I'd like to earn a name, eventually, but I don't think I have one I'd like better yet."

Chase nodded.  "For now, you can bear it as a reminder of what you chose to walk away from, as you seek one to show where you are going."  He chuckled.  "When I mention you to my master, I call you Stone, for your gift."

"I like that way of thinking of it, and it's used by people I care about, so it makes sense to keep it for now."  

“Then so be it.  And I will write a letter for your family of origin, to advise that you are well and safe, and pledged to my service, and you may see it before it is sent.”

To James and Grace Bailey, from Chase Young, Heylin Dragon of the Storm-Tossed Seas, greetings.

Pray forgive my boldness in writing to you without prior direct acquaintance, but I have some small intelligence to share with you that I hope will ease any awkwardness.

It has been my great good fortune to have your eldest son in my care for the past twelvemonth, learning to make best use of his great gifts and otherwise receiving an education proper for a gentleman.  He does well, and I am pleased to report that he has determined to continue his training with me.

I am certain that it pained you to have to choose between your three talented children for placement amongst the Xiaolin, and thus you will be more than pleased to discover that he has found his own path to mastery.

If you wish further report of his progress, or would like me to share your good wishes, please do me the favor of replying to this letter.

Your obedient servant,

Chase Young


Mr Young,

He's an ungrateful thief and if you want him, you do what you want with him.

James Bailey

Chase burned the letter and didn’t mention it to Clay, only telling Guan that the Heylin had gained another fatherless son.

"Based on what his sister has said, I'm not surprised," Guan sighed. "I'm glad they stayed."

“As am I.  I have never understood fathers and sons, but they’re both better off with us.”

"Speaking of, Feng has said tomorrow would be a good day to bring them together. He has some idea about surprising them, which I'm not sure I agree with, but he very much likes his surprises. He said nothing about whether I should keep it a surprise from our students, so I am inclined to tell them."

“Agreed.  Their interactions with the monks have been fraught enough without… playing games.  I hope he understands the importance of using Texas’s chosen name, rather than his given one?”

"He will introduce them when we arrive, and has agreed to make it clear that is the name they should use."


“To begin,” Chase explained the next morning, just before they were set to leave, “you will each meet with your equivalent member on the Xiaolin team.  We thought it best to limit the interaction at first, and permit it to become more complicated if it goes well, rather than plunging headlong into all six of you together and hoping it doesn’t burn down.”

And that was how Jack found himself sitting at a small stone table with a petite blue-eyed Japanese girl who only bore a vague resemblance to the angry monk he’d fought what felt like a million years ago.  “Master Fung says I’m supposed to basically act like I’ve never met you before,” she said, “so hi, I’m Kimiko.”

"Hi, I'm Jack. Nice to have never met you before?"

She laughed.  “Likewise?  I mean, you do look a lot, um, better? Than you did when you were taking orders from Creepy Ghost? So I hope this is working out for you?”

"Pretty much anything would be an improvement over her, but I'm learning a lot, and Master Chase and Master Guan keep me busy. Are you, um, learning a lot too? God, I'm sorry, I don't know what to say."

“Yeah, we’re doing a lot of training, and of course we’re still trying to collect the Shen Gong Wu when they activate.  You guys… don’t seem to do that?  Also it’s so weird that Master Guan is training all of us like we’re not coming from totally different places.”

"I don't think I've ever heard Master Chase interested in Shen Gong Wu. It makes me wonder how off her boat Wuya actually is, but who knows, right?" Jack moved his fingers across the table like he was practicing his brushwork. "Master Guan seems to just like teaching, I don't think it matters who's doing the learning. Does Wuya still bother you guys?"

She rolled her eyes.  “All. the. Time.  Like we can’t go a week without her popping up with her new redheaded chick trying to get whatever-it-is that’s awakened.  Master Fung says she’s in pursuit of power to restore her to her own body, so maybe that’s why?  Master Chase has plenty of his own power, since he’s all ancient and immortal and whatevs, so I can see why he’d treat them like they weren’t important.  Also Master Guan is basically an adjunct professor, am I right?”

Jack laughed at that. "Yeah, I guess so. Trying to get enough credit hours between two different college courseloads. I'm glad she has some company, anyway, she seemed better when she was talking to people and not just being a disembodied head."

“Weirdest Futurama character ever,” she grinned.  “And what is her thing with redheads?  Like did she order the new one from Amazon, or did she just go hunting for a redhead to replace you?  Is it a fetish? Or does she just… like redheads?”

"I really don't know, she didn't mention- wait, what's the redhead's name, do you know?"

“Maeve?  I think?  Something like that.”

"Ohhhhhhh. Master Chase kind of traded her to Wuya for me, I think. Not permanently. I wasn't paying the best attention then but she used to be a cat."

“Ohhhh,” Kimiko echoed.  “Got it.  So that’s how come Master Guan always knows what she’s up to, I bet Maeve’s reporting to Master Chase and he’s passing it on.  That makes sense, and also is kind of weird, but what’re you going to do when you’re dealing with a bunch of ancient weirdos?”

"Well that's one way to keep her busy, anyway. Kinda closes the loop. So... " Jack looked around. "Um, what do you do for fun?"

“Play Goo Zombies, mostly.  Listen to Raimundo and Omi bicker and watch Jessie beat their asses at… everything, basically.  Play with code.  Wish the internet was better; that’s a hobby all by itself.”

"I used to play Goo Zombies all the time, but I got out of the habit while we were in the first year. Master Chase kept us on a pretty strict schedule. I've got more time now, and I got internet installed so now Master Chase can have all the cat pictures he wants. Do you have satellite out here?"

“I wish,” she groaned.  “I have my phone and my tablet, and the only reason they work as well as they do is because Dad and I developed a thing to improve connection over long distances.  Which is actually proving to be cool in developing nations, so bonus helping the world.”

"Very Xiaolin," Jack laughed. "It took me like two weeks to get the satellite internet up and running in Nowhere, which felt like forever. I'm surprised you can't get it here."

“Oh, I could if the master monks would let me!  They think it’s a distraction and I’d be better using my time on productive things.  And also - you got satellite internet in the Citadel?  How did - like - that doesn’t seem like it would be possible, since it’s not an actual place on the planet?”

"I- um- hadn't really thought of that as a limitation," Jack shrugged. "It gets magic sunlight, why wouldn't other kinds of energy reach it?"

“I thought satellite required an actual visual connection between the receiver and the position of the satellite?  That’s why you lose satellite TV when it rains too hard.  So I would just assume that a lack of actual sky would be a problem… but there you are, getting internet in an underworld, so guess I’m wrong.”

"Maybe some time Master Guan will bring you to us instead and I can show you the setup?" Jack offered. "I'm not sure if that's something they'd let you do."

“That would be bitchin,” she agreed.  “I’ve never been in an underworld before, obviously, so I’d love to see it, even without the reality-defying tech work, but that makes it even better.”

"I'm sort of surprised that's never come up for you guys, it seemed like you were always all over the place."

“Probably it’ll happen, but it hasn’t yet.  Unless Master Monk Dashi didn’t hide any Wu in underworlds, which is also possible.  Dojo says there’s one in a side universe that messes with your chi, but it hasn’t woken up yet.”

"Well I'm sure it'll be a good time when it does." He shrugged.

“What’s Jessie’s brother like?  She’s so… assertive, I’ve always wondered what it would be like living in a house with her as a kid.”

"Texas is like, a really big teddy bear, honestly. Sometimes I sneak up on him in the garden and he's like, baby-talking the plants."

“Oh my god, that’s adorable!  Do you - do you want to meet the others?  I think Jessie and her brother are probably still talking but Omi and Rai are probably trying to figure out if they can get close enough to the building to eavesdrop without getting caught and are driving themselves nuts.”

"I'm not sure I believe he and his sister are actually talking. They're probably just avoiding looking at each other. But yeah, I'm up for it, and I haven't gotten my ass kicked yet so I think this is going well."

“I got to be the one who met you because we’re both fire but also because I could be trusted to behave myself,” she admitted.  “But the boys’ll be fine if I tell them to.”  She jumped to her feet and led the way out of the room, drumming a staccato rhythm on the door next to their room as they passed it.  “Letting Jessie know we’re all cool,” she added, flashing him a smile.

"Oooh, code, that's a good idea, I wish I'd thought of that," Jack said as he followed her. "Do you guys miss having an easy target?"

“That’s all Jessie, she’s wild about secret codes and private signals and all that.  And no, I was kind of worried that we’d kill you accidentally, so I’m glad that you’re both not getting underfoot any more and also getting trained so you’re less accidentally killable if something happened.”

"That's a little condescending but I deserve it." The thing about Jessie's secret codes seemed like it made sense from what he knew about Texas's home life, considering how messed up it sounded, but it felt personal to say anything about it.

“Wuya didn’t have any business dragging an untrained kid into this, even against fledgeling monks,” she said, turning a corner and opening another door into what appeared to be a perfectly ordinary living room, like they’d suddenly gone from an ancient stone temple to a random suburban tract home.  “Guys, this is Jack, he’s the Heylin fire dragon,” she announced to the two monks sprawled on the floor, playing Goo Zombies on the television.  “Jack, that’s Raimundo, Xiaolin Dragon of Air, and Omi, who’s water and who’s about to get eaten if he doesn’t turn around right now, watch your six for crying out loud.”

"Hi," Jack said, completely expecting them to continue ignoring him as Omi mashed the controller in response to Kimiko's instruction.

"You and Jessie done having your fun?" Raimundo asked without turning around.

“Dunno about Jessie, but Jack and I ran out of idle small talk and then we got bored, so here we are.  You wanna grab a controller and help save Omi’s butt?” she asked Jack, going over to the box where spare controllers were kept and plugging two more in.

"It's been forever since I played but I'm happy to try," Jack grinned, taking the controller and perching on the arm of the couch.

“You can’t be worse than Omi, dude,” Raimundo declared.

That was where Jessie and Clay found them ten minutes later, shouting at zombies and laughing at each other like they’d been friends for years instead of minutes.  It was so obviously the opposite of the experience she’d just had with the one person on the planet she should be able to talk to that Jessie kind of wondered where she’d gone wrong.

Problem number one is that I wasn’t born all cute and chatty like Kim, she thought, which was maybe kind of depressing but there it was, and she jerked her head at Clay and sat on the couch, scooting over to make room for him.  “Omi, watch out for that zombie,” she said.

Clay sat on the floor near Jack's feet, feeling awkward and out of place. "Maybe next time you'll get to talk to Jessie," he said to Jack while they waited for a screen to load. "I bet she'd be happier to talk to anyone else."

“Jessie’s never happy to talk to anyone ever,” Kimiko said, glancing over her shoulder.  “Wanna play?  We’ve got more controllers, or Omi’ll give you his because he only plays when everybody else is doing it.”

“I am not sufficient at zombies,” Omi announced.  “They are always beside me.”

"I've never played," Clay shrugged, "so you have to be better than me."

“Pretty sure that’s not possible,” Kimiko said, scooting over to sit next to him and handing him her controller.  “That one moves the camera, and this one moves you, and this button is your weapon, that one’s jump, and that one’s dash,” she explained.  “Rai’ll run shotgun while you’re figuring it out.”

Clay kept getting frustrated with the number of things to do at once, moving the camera instead of himself and ending up staring at the wall or something, and Kimiko found herself leaning in to help him and eventually she was sitting in his lap, running the camera and shooting while he moved his guy.

Despite the initial awkwardness between Clay and Jessie, the initial foray was declared a success and it became a regular feature of their training; Guan would bring them along when he was going to train the Xiaolin and send them home at the end of an afternoon's fun or, later, training.

The first time they sparred, Clay was paired against Kimiko and Jack with Jessie; Guan and Fung both were unsure about pairing the siblings again. This proved to work much better, as Jack and Jessie were well-matched and Jack lasted nearly ten minutes before she pinned him. Clay and Kimiko fought to a standstill for twenty before Guan declared it a draw, and Jack couldn't help but notice the smile on Kimiko's face when they parted.

Then they played capture the flag against Raimundo and Omi, and it was clear that their strength was working together - they trounced the other boys easily.

They mixed up the assignments every time, and how well Jack and Clay did in their individual matches varied but two on two they always won.

"Let's not leave anyone out today," Guan said after some time. "All-in, Xiaolin versus Heylin."

"Finally!" Raimundo laughed. "It's about time we kicked your asses like the old days. You guys must have pissed Master Guan off."

Jack and Clay just looked at each other and nodded. They wouldn't go down without a fight that would make Chase proud either way, but they were definitely going to make Rai eat his words.

When Guan asked them later what had happened, both boys shrugged. "Raimundo said he wanted an ass-kicking like they'd given us before we were trained," Jack said. "If he didn't want his ass kicked, he should have been more specific."

"Hey, I said your asses, idiota," Raimundo grumbled.

"I must have misheard you then, sorry," Jack shrugged, smiling at them. "Good match though."

"Yes, but next time you will not be mastering the element of surprise," Omi boasted with a matching grin.

"Yeah, that'd only work once," Clay agreed.


"Hey Chase, would the monks ever come visit us here instead of us going there?" Jack asked one day when another conversation with Kimiko had him remembering he'd offered to show her his internet setup.

“I don’t think there’s a reason why they couldn’t,” he said slowly.  “Some people find being here… unpleasant, thus my habit is to visit others.  Is there a reason you’d want them to come here?”

"I was telling Kimiko about the satellite internet and she was curious how it worked, so I thought it'd be fun to show her."

“Ah!”  He smiled.  “In that case, and I will also let Texas know, I believe you have both progressed enough that it would be appropriate to permit you to invite the occasional guest.  If you would like to invite someone else, please let me know and we can determine when would be a good time, but you may certainly invite Kimiko whenever you have time to spend with her.”

He said you can come any time I'm free, pretty much, Jack emailed Kimiko. How much downtime do you guys have? Also he said sometimes people find it creepy here fyi.

lately we have a lot of downtime, tho it depends on what’s activating, natch.  also you just gave me a reason to wear my cute goth outfit lol

Nice. I've got like 2 hrs now or we can do it tomorrow? Oh and no tag alongs without warning ok?

It was about 20 minutes before he got a reply.  now is fine if ur still avail, i’m clear to go solo

Can you get here looking for me or do you need directions?

I’ve never tried to jump to a person rather than a place this will be fun

Jack stood in the entryway and texted her a picture. Does this help?

The air - rippled, and then seemed to rip asunder, revealing a vibrant image of the Xiaolin Temple.  Kimiko stepped through and it melted behind her.  As promised, she was wearing an elaborate gothic loli look.  “That was much easier, thank you,” she said.  “Although I want to figure out whether you can focus on a person rather than a place at some point.”

“Oh now that’s cool,” Jack said as he watched it close. “Maybe you could play hide and seek in the woods outside the temple? It might help to start someplace you know well. Come through here, we’ve got to go up to get to the satellite setup. Don’t get lost, the cats probably won’t eat you but I didn’t ask.”

“That’s an awesome idea, I’ll have to suggest it to Jessie.  Also I’m pretty sure Master Fung would be real pissed if I got eaten.”

Jack laughed as he took her into the large chamber where he’d first met Chase. “Well I’m sure you’d put up a good fight anyway. This is where Master Chase entertains guests, but you’re my guest instead of his, so it won’t be anything fancy unless you want it to be. Which, you’re all dressed up anyway, so hopefully that’s not a disappointment. You look really good though.”

“Thanks!  And no, I just like clothes and I spend the vast majority of my time in a uniform, so I’m always looking for an excuse to dress up, and it seemed appropriate for visiting an underworld.  So far it doesn’t feel creepy, though, just magic.”

“I’m not sure why some people think it feels creepy, I didn’t ask Master Chase,” Jack shrugged. “Okay up this way is the… outside, I guess, where I set up the satellite.” He brought her out onto a small stone balcony where a satellite receiver was set up, pointing toward… well it was definitely pointing up. There was a small solar array next to it, and a knotty mess of wires that eventually braided together into a single thick bundle before snaking inside into the walls.

“Texas convinced the walls to let the wiring go inside them,” Jack said. “I’m not entirely sure what source the solar array picks up but it’s definitely measurable. I’ve been experimenting with making it more efficient at collecting what’s really there instead of what’s basically side effects.”

She nodded.  “That’s amazing, but it makes sense to me - sunlight is just a specific kind of energy, and if this has a similar wavelength, because light?  I can see how a solar array would work.  Do you have to worry about sunburn when you’re outside?”

“I’m pretty sure our usual warding would take care of that? I haven’t gotten a sunburn, anyway, and we didn’t really go outside much before we could ward to Master Chase’s satisfaction. But if I wasn’t careful, maybe?”

“Maybe you could ask - unless you’ve got a spectrometer? Spectrograph? I can never remember which one is which.  You know what I mean, a thing you can measure the light with.”  She laughed.  “Sorry I’m a giant nerd when you get me going, you probably don’t actually care what the light’s made up of.”

"I do though, that's what I'm working on basically? Just from the other direction. I don't have one though."

“I wonder if I know someone who’d be willing to loan me one,” she mused.  “Although first I’d probably have to figure out which one I needed.”

"That can be a problem for future us," Jack said. "Do you want the tour?"

“Definitely.  Lead the way.”

Jack felt confident leading her through the halls, mostly because he could feel the lair telling him what areas were appropriate to show her and which were off-limits. Most of it was off-limits, unsurprisingly, but the place was large enough that it was no real loss. He started with the room he'd taken over as his workshop, since it was near the balcony, showing her some of his little projects, and they ended up at his room and Texas's, where his brother-apprentice was sitting and reading a book.

"Hiya, Kimiko," he nodded when they came to the door.

“Hey, Texas.  Nice room.”

"Thanks! I've been working on fine control by doing relief carving but I'm starting to run outta wall. I bet you see Jessie doing stuff like that all the time too."

“Never, but I bet she’d love it.  She does a lot of landscaping and stuff around the temple, but this is really cool.  I’ll mention it to her, unless you want to do it yourself?”

He thought about it. "You know, I think I will next time I'm there, thank you."

“You should ask her about her bonsai work, too, I swear that’s the only thing that gets her talking.”

"It's so hard to know what to say to her so I really appreciate it," he smiled. "Maybe I'll see if Master Chase can recommend something I can bring her from the garden."

“She’d like that too.  She loves her garden.”

“What’s she like best, do you know? Or I can ask her next time I’m there.” He thought about it some more. “Did Jack show you the garden?”

“No!  Mostly just his workshop, which was amazing, but I’d love to see the garden too.”

“He don’t spend much time there, so that’s not surprising,” Clay said, leaving his book on the bed as he led both of them to the entrance Chase had used to show him the garden the first time. There was a slow descent into the garden from there with a great view, which made him think it was for guests, but Master Chase had few enough guests that he’d never found out for sure.

“Oh, this is gorgeous,” Kimiko said, stopping in the entrance to take it all in.  “Also, I swear that hall wasn’t there when Jack and I walked by before.”

"Lair's got a mind of its own sometimes," Clay mentioned as he started down.

"Yeah, you probably couldn't actually get lost if you tried," Jack agreed. "It wouldn't let you."

“That seems handy,” she said.  “Our temple is such a rambling old pile, it’s easy to get lost until you get the hang of it all, and even now there are places it usually takes me two or three tries to get to.”

Jack laughed. "Easier to sneak off though, I bet."

“Ha! Yeah, except for all the nosy old monks that have nothing better to do than try to catch you somewhere they think you’re not supposed to be.”

"Master Chase is a lil too hands off for that," Texas said. "No point in sneaking, really."

“And it’s just you two and him in the whole enormous Citadel?”

“Master Guan sometimes,” Jack answered, not specifying how much sometimes was, “and the cats. Why, how many monks does your temple have? I feel like I’ve only seen the four of you and Master Fung.”

“You stay in our living and training space when you visit, is why. There’s 72 monks that live there full time, not counting us.”

“What do they do? Monk stuff?” Texas asked.

“As far as I can tell, they mostly spy on us.  Sometimes they come over and give us boring lectures about stuff. I love to learn, but even I have a hard time staying awake when one of them is droning on and on about history or the appropriate behavior of young monks or what some random person did a hundred years ago.  How Rai and J- um, people - shouldn’t make out.  And probably monk stuff, meditating and whatever.”

"Yeah I think the cats are better company," Jack concluded. "Less lecturing and sometimes one or two of them let me give them tummy rubs. They're probably also spying on us though."

“I’m pretty sure every cat everywhere is spying on their people, even if they’re not magical.”


Clay made good on the thought she'd given him, finding an excuse to talk to Jessie about her garden next time they were at the temple and letting her talk his ear off once she got started. The time after that, he brought her a desert willow sapling "for your bonsai collection". He didn't point out they'd had two in their yard growing up, that would have been crass (as Teacher Omeyo would say) but he was pretty sure she'd understood.

After that they talked more, even if it was just about plants or rocks, and he noticed she would call him Texas instead of dancing around saying his name.

Jack had invited Kimiko to come back and she did. Sometimes the two of them worked side by side in his workshop, and sometimes they commandeered the warded training room to work on fire tricks together. They were both competitive perfectionists and so pushing each other was fun. Guan occasionally sat in to observe.

And if occasionally Kimiko came home from these visits without going anywhere more than Jack or Texas's rooms, well, who would notice?

Chase started teaching them fertility magic, mostly about plants, but the first lessons were about controlling fertility in people and animals. At no point did he suggest the topic was related to anything that was occurring in their free time, as he considered it their own to do as they saw fit.

Jack mentioned offhandedly to Texas that he wasn't sure why Chase was suddenly teaching both of them this, and Texas just stared at him until he figured it out. Jack took that as an excuse to mention it to Kimiko next time they were spending time together, mostly curious if it was something she'd learned at the temple.

“Let’s just say that I can’t imagine Master Fung trying to explain anything like that,” she sighed.  “You guys learn all the cool stuff.”

"Do you want me to show you? It seems useful, like, in general."

“Yes, yes I do.  It’s - something that would be good to share with my cohort, y’know?  For reasons.”

"Well sure, Jessie likes- gardening. It's useful for gardening." And then ended up spending most of Kimiko's visit recreating what Chase had taught him, and then wondering out loud about other applications.

“It makes me wonder about endangered animals who have a hard time reproducing.  Like pandas?  They’re notorious for it, but I bet there are others.”

"Oh, that's an interesting idea. I was thinking more domestic stuff but I bet conservationists would be all over that."

“I wonder how many people can actually do this?  Here are the six of us, plucked out of the world, but how many kids are left sitting in small towns in Connecticut who could’ve done it too?”

"I don't know? We ended up with Master Chase by accident, almost, but it turned out my mom's side of the family is all descended from some other ancient Heylin or something? It was a whole thing. But I have no idea if Texas's family is anything like that, and there's at least two of them! Like, he and Jessie have a little brother, there's a good candidate, right? But I know Heylin only train in pairs so I don't know if Master Chase would like, recommend him to another master who's looking for new students or what." Jack shrugged. "But if your master had been willing to take an extra one, I might not have ended up here with Texas, so I don't know if I should complain."

"That's so funny," she said.  "I have Heylin on my mom's side too, and Xiaolin on my dad's, so maybe that's why I ended up at the Temple and you ended up here.  But maybe there's another universe where Jessie and I are Heylin and you and Texas are Xiaolin!"

"That's a such a weird thought. Like I know Texas could have gone to the temple but I can't even picture him there, you know?"

"Right?  Jessie fits in so well with the rest of us, I can't imagine having anyone else.  Also being the only girl would be super weird."

"That would probably suck. Texas never talks about what it was like with his family," Jack shrugged. "Maybe she was the obvious choice? Like is it supposed to be luck or fate or what? It just seems so arbitrary."

"I don't know, Master Fung's never said.  We wouldn't have known about Jessie's brothers if she hadn't told us.  Rai has siblings too, but he didn't get to hear the conversation with his parents so he doesn't know if he got picked over anyone else, and Omi and I are only children."

"Oh hey, you mentioned having Heylin on one side, do you know what dragon you're descended from? I was doing a little genealogy on my history and it's fun."

"No," she sighed.  "My mom died when I was little and I haven't seen that side since."

"Would you mind if I looked into it? I don't know if I can find anything but I think it's interesting to hunt."

"No, that'd be awesome!  I'll email you the names I know from Mom's side, and maybe that will help."

"Oh definitely! Thank you."


Some two or three weeks later, Chase finished a visit to Jack in the library by asking what questions he hadn't been able to answer, and Jack looked up from the notes he'd been making. "When we discussed the dragon my mother's line is descended from, you said you could see an echo of him in my energy signature. How do you know what to look for?"

“I knew him?  He introduced me to Maeve, in fact.”

"Darn it. I was hoping there was a way to like, check my work on Kimiko's genealogy."

“Kimiko’s genealogy?” he echoed, raising an eyebrow.  “Master Fung said she was descended from a Xiaolin Dragon of Air some two or three generations back.”

"Yeah, on her dad's side. She said her mom's side is Heylin, but she didn't know much about it. She gave me some names to work with, and I did some scrying too, and I think her mother's line comes from Kiyo, the Dragon of the Burning Temples, which I think is not the best translation but I'm working on it." He pulled out another notebook and flipped it open. "Do you want to see my work?"

“Indeed,” he said, leaning over to peer at the notebook.  “I never had the pleasure of her acquaintance, but I believe Guan knew her, or at least corresponded with her for a time.”

"I should ask him, then. Maybe he can see that… echo or whatever." Jack smiled. "Next I'm gonna take all this research I did and all the stuff that goes with it and build a Heylin so I don't have to start from scratch if I want to go digging around a third time."

Chase chuckled.  “There are some records of the lineages around here somewhere, though they’re all in incredibly archaic Chinese, at best.  It’s been some while since I was researching it.”

"Oh, I'll look for them. I need another project."


"So I got you a present!" Jack said when he and Texas arrived at the temple for the movie night Raimundo and Jessie had decided to put together. He handed Kimiko a hardcover booklet with a sewn spine. "I figured I'd bind it up nice for you instead of just handing you a stack of paper."

"You're giving her something that doesn't plug in?" Raimundo asked him as he walked by with snacks. "Weird."

“I read books,” Kimiko retorted, rolling her eyes at him.  “What - is this my Heylin ancestry?”

Jack grinned. "Yep! Names and dates most of the way back, and when I could find other information I've got that copied in too. Nice wide margins so if you learn other things you can add your own notes. My brushwork isn't great but this is some of my best because it was important."

“This is amazing, you’re the best,” she squealed, throwing her arms around him and giving him a kiss.  

"I'm glad you like it," he kissed her back, quickly, aware Raimundo and Omi were staring a little. He dropped his voice. "There's a calling card sort of sigil I found for her, if you ever need it? I would rather you told me if you wanted to use it and we can try together. But it's in there."

"Kimiko, when did you and Jack begin to court like Raimundo and Jessie do?" Omi asked.

Rai and Jessie both blushed a little, and Texas laughed at his sister. "Was that supposed to be a secret?"

“Worst-kept secret ever,” Kimiko laughed.  “They’re subtle like a dust storm.”

"Like Slue-Foot Sue riding a tornado," Texas agreed. Jessie punched him in the arm, but she didn't mean it. Neither one of them was quite sure when they'd decided to be siblings again, but it was better for both of them than the awkward ignoring each other, and had made Master Fung more approving of the Heylin apprentices.

“To answer your question, Omi, about a month,” Kimiko said.  “Though I don’t think we’re courting like they are, I think we’re courting an entirely different way.  More discreetly, for one thing.”

"We ain't all got whatever kinda place you take yourself off to," Jessie rolled her eyes. "An we're discreet enough, none've the monk's've said anything."

"Where do you take yourself when you go?" Omi asked. "I have wondered this myself."

“They do live somewhere,” she pointed out.  “Well, technically they live Nowhere, but it’s a Nowhere you can visit.”

"We can visit? I didn't know we could visit!" Raimundo looked over. "How come you've never invited me to visit?"

“It’s because I’m prettier,” Kimiko said with a grin.  “Sorry, Rai.”

"Um, I don't know if everyone can visit?" Jack hedged. "I asked permission for Kimiko, because we were discussing something."

"Visitin's complicated," Texas agreed.

Raimundo rolled his eyes and Omi looked sad. "I would like very much to see something I've never seen before."

"Why don't you ask Master Guan next time, and we'll see what he thinks?" Jack suggested. "Besides, it's time to start the movie."


"The monks would like to have their next lesson here rather than at their temple," Guan told Chase. "Master Fung has also opined that he would like to accompany them as you did the first time the boys went with me. How social are you feeling, exactly?"

“I can entertain a guest for a few hours, certainly,” he said.  “I did suspect that this would be an eventuality when we began.”

Guan nodded. "Then I will arrange it. I think it will be good for them, as they've not seen much in the way of other worlds at this point. I'm also curious how they will react to it. Jessie is very curious about her brother's stories of the garden." He paused before adding. "Kimiko mentioned offhandedly that she's been in your library. She is becoming… very integrated."

“She is,” he concurred.  “Do you think there’s cause for concern?  I admittedly didn’t think about romantic entanglements when I agreed to their working together, though in hindsight I likely should have.  The boys were close enough that it didn’t occur to me that either of them might be interested in anyone else.”

"I'm not sure. Thus far there's not been any issues with your boys, and she and Jack push each other in ways he and Texas, or the other monks, do not. She has received a bit of teasing from her fellow monks, but no more than the others in her cohort who are involved with each other. My primary concern is that her interests seem to be sharply split between her Xiaolin work and the things she has been learning with Jack, though of course that is only your concern if and when it affects you or your apprentices. Perhaps I am only borrowing trouble."

“Well, I suppose time will tell.  Should we bring it to Master Fung, or would it be better to wait and see if there’s anything to your fears?”

"I may be worrying too much, so I would let it go for now unless he has concerns."

“Very well, I will endeavor to do so.  But I might ask some leading questions and see what I learn.”

"I would be very interested to hear what you thought afterward."


Guan spent several days with the monks in preparation for the visit, giving them a more in-depth study of otherworld manners and making a few other visits as well - to the yin-yang sideland to discuss chi balances, and to the remains of Atlantis, which Dojo conspicuously skipped. When it was time for their group work, he brought them through the formal entrance to Chase's lair, which Kimiko had not seen since her first visit.

Omi looked around with excitement as they made their way down the hall, talking excitedly to Master Fung. Kimiko seemed to be keeping a close eye on her cohort's reactions, her face carefully neutral. Raimundo and Jessie walked side by side, speaking quietly to each other. They both looked uncomfortable, he noted, but neither was hanging back; they each encouraged the other onward, and he appreciated again how well-matched they seemed.

Chase and his apprentices were standing in the throne room, in what Guan appreciated as a casual formality. Chase greeted Fung and the two of them went off to have tea while Guan led the six students to the garden, Dojo riding on his shoulders.

"Texas requested that he be allowed to show you this before we begin," Guan said to Jessie, and stepped back. Texas walked the others through the garden, pointing out his favorites and mentioning to Jessie things that reminded him of home. They ended the tour at a mossy open space away from the bulk of the garden.

"Now then, we'll be doing pairs work today, but I'd like to try something we haven't before. Texas, Jessie, how do you feel about the two of you working together?"

Both of them looked a little unsure about the idea, but Jessie stepped up. "I'm game if he is."

"I ain't- I'm not saying no if you're saying yes," Texas smiled at her.

"Opposite you, let's have…" Guan pretended to consider it, "Jack and Kimiko to start."

The first round was difficult for the siblings, as Jack and Kimiko had experience working together and Jessie found the earth of the Lair responded to her more slowly than the earth she was used to. Afterward, Texas spoke to her quietly, but more confident than she'd seen him talk to her before, and by the time Omi and Raimundo stepped in opposite them, she was feeling a little more confident. She still had a hard time anticipating what her brother was doing, but she knew Raimundo a hell of a lot better than she knew Jack, and she was starting to get a sense for what was different down here, so the second round was a lot closer.

Jessie watched closely when Omi and Raimundo were opposite Kimiko and Jack - mostly on Jack. The next time she and her brother were up, she started snapping quick instructions the way she realized she'd always seen Jack do; Texas started responding with his own, and soon they were able to move without getting in each other's way, and Guan smiled as he chatted with Dojo and watched them figure it out.

Afterwards, Guan took them to a room the boys frequently used for training in the finer detail work and had Texas and Jack take the lead teaching smaller, less dramatic uses of their elements. There was some awkwardness here - Jessie clearly still bristled at her brother telling her what to do in other contexts, Omi didn't see the point and wanted to make that clear to Guan multiple times, and Raimundo didn't seem interested in focusing. Near the end, Chase and Fung joined Guan at the back of the room, watching for almost half an hour before they allowed themselves to be noticed.

"Omi," Chase said coolly, "can you tell us the purpose of this exercise?"

"It does not seem very useful, Master Chase. Why make art when we could be training?"

"Why make art, indeed.  Jessie, have you discerned why one would make art rather than focusing strictly on the art of war?"

"Fightin's fun but it gets kinda boring after forever, an art's another way of stayin' on top've yer element?"

"A valuable point.  Raimundo, would you add anything?"

"It's fun. Makes me think about different ways I can use air."

"Very good.  Kimiko?"

"Art is fundamental to our humanity," she said, thinking about some of the conversations she'd had with Jack and Texas.  "And play is fundamental to clear thought.  If we only do things because they're practical, we lose track of ourselves and our connections to each other."

"Are you sure you're not one of my students?" he asked, arching an eyebrow at her.  "Excellent answer, Kimiko.  Texas or Jack, anything to add?"

"There's not really a difference," Jack shrugged. "We should be thinking about how we relate to our element in everything we do, shouldn't we? The same way everything else we learn is connected, like ice skating and gymnastics."

Texas nodded. "I found the art a lot easier when we started. Working small and fine means I'm trusting the earth and it's trusting me in return, and I learn better that way. It's easier to listen when I'm doing something like this."

Chase nodded.  "Thank you, gentlemen, I appreciate your insight.  There is no single answer to the question, because there are a thousand answers.  Art speaks to our humanity, our need for beauty in our lives.  It can force a shift in perspective, and make us slow down and consider our surroundings.  It gives you a chance to spend time with your element in a new way, to experiment with and listen to what it wants to be when you're not using it against an enemy.  And, as Raimundo pointed out, it's fun.  And fun is important too."  He smiled.  "If you come again, Omi, I'll take you to the water gardens and teach you how to create a fountain."

Omi nodded but didn't say anything.

"I believe it is time to return to the temple, my students," Fung said. He turned to Chase. "Thank you for your hospitality today."

Guan left with them, but returned in time to take dinner with Chase and the apprentices. Afterward, the boys went off and Guan set his bowl down with a sigh. "Did you have a good time with Fung?"

"It was an interesting conversation," he said.  "He has also seen changes in Kimiko, and made me an interesting proposition."

"A proposition, hmm? Do tell."

"He asked if I would like to take her on as a student on a half-time basis."

"That is… without precedent. Of course, so is the way in which we are teaching the boys. What do you think?"

"I admit to being intrigued.  I wanted to consult with you about it, and I plan to ask the boys, but she does have an excellent lineage on top of being a powerful dragon in her own right.  I might also write to Master Hannibal and request his perspective."

"I think she would benefit, certainly. I wonder how it will affect the cohort as a whole, but I suspect Fung is concerned she will leave and sees this as a way to ensure a complete cohort at least half the time. I'm not sure about the elemental balance of adding another fire dragon, but she seems to gel well with both boys." Guan paused. "I would be very interested in hearing what Master Hannibal has to say."

After dinner, Chase settled at his desk with his correspondence.  There were some small matters of business that needed his attention that he was able to dispose of quickly enough, and then he allowed himself the indulgence of his best paper and brushes to write to his former master.  He described the broad strokes of the situation easily - he wrote to Hannibal every fortnight, and often described his apprentices and their work in some little detail - but slowed to consider the details.  I think you would like Kimiko, he wrote after chewing on the handle of his brush for a few moments.  It was a dreadful habit, but one he'd never been able to break himself of, and he'd given up trying several centuries prior.  She has a clever mind, and is keenly observant in ways that remind me of you.  In any other situation, she would be a delight to teach, but I wonder if this strange half-opportunity, when I already have a strong pair of students, might prove more frustrating than otherwise.  Guan observed that this is entirely without precedent, and I wonder if you are aware of any reason why no precedent exists - or even if there is one that is no longer spoken of.  I am eager for your counsel.

He signed it, as he always had, Your affectionate student.

Three days later, Chase brought the boys with him when he went into the village below the citadel to address the souls there. Texas spoke with a former oil rig worker that he'd struck up a friendship with, and Jack walked the perimeter of the village. He'd been wondering what he'd find if he went beyond the village into the wilderness.

The man who walked out of the trees surprised him. He was taller than Texas and wore his hair long and loose like Chase preferred. His clothes were loose and faded, his skin was dark and his hair was darker and his eyes were like the night sky. He didn't look drowned.

"Hail, traveler," Jack greeted him.

"Hail, young man," he replied, grinning. "Do you know if Chase Young is about today?"

Jack nodded. "He was in the center of town last time I saw him. I can take you, if you like."

"Oh, I know the way, but you can keep an old man company."

Jack nodded again and fell into step next to the man, who began telling him how much the village had changed since the first time he came here. Jack wasn't sure what to make of him, but Chase had drilled politeness into him. If he was a welcome visitor, he would feel welcomed; if he was unwelcome, he would not be left unsupervised.

The visitor hung back when he reached the cobblestone circle at the center of the village, watching as Chase finished speaking with a sailor who had committed suicide by leaping from the large commercial ship he'd been serving on. It was more common now for the dead to come to Chase in ones and twos and fours, less in large numbers, though there were still days when crowds waited for him.

When they finished, the dead man took the cup Chase offered him and drank from the fountain in the center of the circle. His eyes cleared, and then his form faded to light and winked out as his soul was sent to the land of rebirth.

The visitor, Jack noted, had a hint of proud smile around his mouth. He was pleased to see Chase working.

Chase scanned the crowd, looking to see if anyone else was waiting to speak to him, and then caught sight of Jack and the visitor.  “Master!” he said, striding across the square with his hands extended.

"It's good to see you," the visitor, who Jack realized must be the Master Hannibal he'd heard about, greeted him. "I thought it was about time I met your students for myself before answering your questions, assuming you have time for an old man these days."

“I always have time for you,” Chase assured him, squeezing his hands.  “But you’ve met one of my apprentices already; this is my Spark.  We call him Jack of the Crows.  Jack, this is my own master, the Heylin Dragon of the Wandering Earth.”

"It's an honor to meet you, Master Hannibal," Jack said, bowing deferentially. Texas saw that something was going on and came over as well, waiting a step outside where Chase could see him.

“And here is my great Stone,” Chase added, gesturing for Texas to join them.  “He is called Texas, and shares blood with the Xiaolin Dragon of Earth.”  He introduced Hannibal to Texas as well, watching to see how the young Earth dragon would react to his elder.

Texas bowed as Jack had, and his eyes travelled from the man's face down to his bare feet and back up again. He'd gotten in the habit of picking up his sister's energy signature when they were together, and found himself prickling against Hannibal's; it was a strange feeling, and intimate in a way he thought must be rude, and he pulled himself back. The impression he got from Hannibal was not like Chase or Guan, who were more than they appeared, but of someone who was, at this moment, entirely what he appeared to be, but also somehow something else entirely.

He looked from Hannibal to Chase, who was smiling and confident, and found he could trust his master's confidence and relax as well.

“Will you come back with us?  Guan should be back any moment,” Chase asked, suddenly anxious that his master might disapprove that they were still apprentice-close after all this time.

"As long as it's not an inconvenience, I would like that," Hannibal answered. "I wouldn't mind resting my feet and talking to both of you boys. It's been much too long since I saw you both at the same time."

He called them boys, Jack mouthed to Texas, who made a face like he was silently laughing.

“You are always welcome in any home I have to offer,” Chase said.  “Please, let me offer you a drink and a meal, and we will talk.”

"Then I am honored to accept," Hannibal nodded, and let his student lead him up to the Citadel.

Chase settled his honored guest in the Lotus Pavillion, which had a beautiful view of the pond, and hurried to make sure that the cats understood what was desired.  They did, of course; all of them had been with him long enough to have had several meetings with Master Hannibal, and they knew how demanding Master Chase was when entertaining the man.  

Guan arrived into the middle of the rush, and Diol informed him what was going on. He hurried to wash up and change before dinner.

"Are we serving?" Texas asked.

Chase started to say no, then considered.  “Yes,” he said instead.  “I believe you are ready.”

He and Jack looked at each other and nodded. "We'll be dressed and ready in five minutes," Jack said, and they sprinted to their rooms.

When Chase returned to the Pavillion, Hannibal was half-reclined on the cushions, reading a paperback romance novel with a terrible painting on the cover. "Ah, there you are. Come keep me company, I'm sure your people have everything in hand. I want to hear more about what you're doing these days."

Chase sat beside him, smiling.  “I haven’t done much since my last letter; just the usual rounds like you saw today.”

"You've mentioned the activities, and how you feel the boys are learning, but you haven't told me what you're doing here. You're teaching in a pair, your apprentices are training with Xiaolin dragons, you've got any small number of people incredibly curious about the rumors, Chase." He leaned on the table, his chin in his hands like a teenage girl asking her best friend to spill about a crush. "I love the chaos of it but I know you, you've got ideas."

“Jack is fireborn, and I didn’t think I was best suited to teach him in the beginning.  I asked Guan to come and help get him started, and, well, he never left.  He leaves, of course, he has his own work to do, but he is always home for dinner if he can manage it.”

As if on cue, Guan entered and greeted his master much as Chase had, though a bit more awkwardly since Hannibal didn't feel like getting back up again. Guan seated himself next to Chase, opposite Hannibal, and added, "It works better than we expected it to, honestly. There's so much to pairswork that you can demonstrate much more easily than you can teach."

“Training with the Xiaolin was his idea,” Chase added.  “Although I supported it from the beginning, even if it seemed a bit peculiar.  Texas’s bloodsib seemed a strange wound in his heart, and we thought to repair it if possible so it would not fester.”

"They are not likely to ever be close, but it seemed to have done well to calm his anger," Guan agreed.

Hannibal nodded. "Good. The middle ground is the best place in a situation like that. Do you know if she feels the same?"

Guan nodded. "I believe so. They get along well enough, but she is very close with her cohort."

Before Hannibal could reply, there was the click of a latch opening, and first Texas, then Jack, entered in formal robes with the opening tea service and first course. Texas prepared and served the tea while Jack set out small bowls and baskets of fruits.

Chase watched with pride, noting that each detail was correct and Texas’s hands were smooth and steady, which had always been his greatest challenge while pouring.  Being watched made him nervous, he’d always said.

Texas stepped back, waiting for instruction, while Jack disappeared back into the hall to prepare with the cats for the next course.

"Speaking of the cohort…" Hannibal trailed off.

“She’s of Kiyo’s get on her mother’s side,” Chase said.  “Air dragon on her father’s, which burns her all the brighter.”

"Does she have Kiyo's temper?"

“It’s less fickle, I think.  She burns for truth and fair treatment, and it’s no wonder Fung chose her, but she’s also brilliant and restless, which is why I think he came up with the idea.  I think he fears to lose her to whatever she sees as a challenge.”

"It's a reasonable concern, given how much weight they put on a single group of four," Hannibal nodded. "But it leaves you with the question of balancing three."

“Balancing three, you say, as if a triangle isn’t the strongest shape.  Shall I fetch a stool for you, or do you still remember when you taught that lesson to me?”

"So you don't need an old man's opinions!" Hannibal laughed. "Texas, can you fetch me something stronger than tea? I know there's got to be some good alcohol here still."

“Diol, take him to the cellar,” Chase said.  “I wondered, in truth, why three wasn’t common, and I thought you might have an idea.  I know what I’ve observed, but what I don’t know is if it’s unusual, as I’ve never looked before.”

"A triangle - or a square for that matter," he nodded at Guan, "can be much stronger than a pair, but any time you introduce more people, you introduce more options for complication. You and Guan clearly teach well in tandem, and I'm pleased to see your relationship remains stable, but adding a second teacher could end in complications much more… dramatic, in some cases. We are not a line of teachers and students known for our calm demeanors.

"But you've already gone past a triangle, the traditional one being a master and a pair of apprentices. So tell me again how you see these students balancing."

“Two fire dragons, male and female, challenge and response, held in check and grounded by the most powerful Earth dragon I’ve seen, present company excepted.  The boys are brother-apprentices in the same way that Guan and I were, and the girl connects with both of them.  I know the danger of three is always that you will have two and then one, and that doesn’t seem to be an issue here - meanwhile in the Xiaolin cohort, it’s two and one and one, and fire and water are the unconnected points.”

Hannibal nodded. "So her loyalty to the Xiaolin is merely idealistic, you'd say?"

“She cares for them, in the Xiaolin way, counts them as friends and comrades, but there is no one to give her true anchor, as the Earth and the Air are well-matched in their own way.”

The door opened again, and this time Texas carried a bottle and glasses, and Jack (with some assistance from Diol) had the roasted bird and the rest of the meal. Again Texas poured, offering some to Guan and Chase, and took the standard position waiting.

Hannibal looked at him, and then back at Chase.  "You want to do it, do you not?"

“Yes,” he said, surprising himself with his own certainty.  “Is it a terrible idea I will regret for a century?”

"Not inherently," Hannibal shrugged and finished his drink. Texas moved in smoothly to refill it and Hannibal nodded in appreciation. "It's been ages since anyone's done anything this interesting, and it sounds like you've thought it through. At some point I'd like to work with your earth dragon one on one, but I want to see how this works out first."

“As you will,” Chase said, “as long as Texas is amenable when the time comes.  As for my decision, you know how I adore being grist for the gossip mill,” he added dryly, “so here I am being flamboyantly iconoclastic once more.”

"Now then, I'm a tired old man who needs to retire for the night and finish my book. Tomorrow I'd like to meet your challenge, and see them work together."

“I think that can be arranged,” he said.  “Chrish, please show Master Hannibal to his rooms?”

Hannibal stood and smiled at both Chase and Guan. He took the bottle from Texas's hands as he followed Chrish from the room.

“Come and join us, boys, I’m sure you’re starving,” Chase said.

Texas opened the door to let Jack in, and then the two of them sat where Hannibal had been reclining.

"What did you think of Master Hannibal?" Guan asked them, forcing his face to stay serious.

The boys looked at each other and then back at their teachers.

"He is… not what I'd expected," Jack offered.

"I often hear that said about him," Chase said, mouth quirking.  "When you are as old as human civilization, you have less concern for social niceties."

Guan laughed. "I doubt very much he was ever concerned about them at all except when other people made it necessary."

"His energy feels different from anyone I've met," Texas offered. "And not just because he's a master or because his element is different from yours. I think I could recognize where those came together, but he is… not that."

"How old were you when he took you on as students?" Jack asked.

"His energy feels different from anyone I have ever met, Texas; I am not entirely certain that he began as a mortal being as the rest of us did.  What he might be, I can only speculate, and it always felt a touch rude to do so.  He is my master, and taught me everything I know and everything I value, and that is enough for me.  As to your question, Jack, I was nine or ten, though it is impossible to know for certain."

"I was twelve," Guan said and turned to Chase. "Haven't you told them this story?"

"I have not," he admitted.  "They've never asked me before; I suppose meeting the teacher of your teacher makes you more aware that once he was a student like you."

"Tell us?" Jack coaxed, looking back and forth between them.  

"There's not much to tell on my part," Chase said.  "I am from the city that is now called Nanjing, and I assume I was born there, though I do not know when or under what circumstances.  In my earliest memories there is a woman I presume to have been my mother; father I have none, nor a name other than what Hannibal gave me.  I was very young when she died, young enough that I have no memories of her death, only a time when she was there and then a time when she was not.  I had no other family, and I lived on the streets with other children in similar circumstances; we shared what we had and taught each other what we knew, which was little enough, but I learned how to beg and how to steal, and I was small and swift and adept enough that I became a fairly skilled pickpocket.  That was how I met Master Hannibal; I noted him as a stranger in the city and I tried to lift his purse.  He caught my wrist, lifting me off the ground to look at me, and I realized I had made a terrible mistake; he was a stranger in truth, but he must be a mighty noble and I would surely be put to death for my arrogance.

"'And what manner of creature is this?' he asked me, and he sounded more amused than angry, and I hoped that I might live after all.

"'A very small one, my lord, of no consequence to anyone,' I said, and I trembled and waited for the blow to fall, for at least I would be flung to the cobbles and left to find my own feet in the crush, and if I were very unlucky I would die there anyway, trampled to death by the market-day crowds.  But he did not slap me, or drop me; instead he asked if I had a name and I told him I had not.

"'Little enough consequence that you've not been given even a name, something even the hunter's hounds have?' he said, and I am certain that he doubted me.

"'The hunter cares for his hounds, and there is no hunter to care for me,' I said.  'The other children call me Chase, for I am fleet of foot and always the first to run after what I want.'

"'Chase you shall be, then, and if there is no hunter to care for you, I shall bring you with me and you shall be my hound.  How does that suit you?'

"I was afraid, I'm not ashamed to admit, but I asked if he fed his hounds each day, and he told me that they ate three or four meals a day, which seemed to me an unimaginable amount of food.  'In that case,' I told him, 'it suits me well enough.'  

Chase took a breath.  "And henceforth I was his hound, and when I was tame enough to stand and speak and bathe myself, I became his apprentice, because he needed a second one to pair with Guan, and he saw my power through the filth and the fleas, and he was kind enough to draw me out of the gutter and place me here."

"I went to the Xiaolin temple originally," Guan said, "but I was mouthy and the monks' understanding of two-and-two was not as flexible as it is now. We were not only two yin and two yang-aligned but those were expected to align with our gender. I had turned up in their divination, but I refused to act as the young woman they expected. Within a few months they found a replacement, deciding it was better than waiting, and then the question was what to do with me.

"Master Hannibal came to the temple - he's never said how he knew, but he must have known, I think. I knew the monks were afraid of him, and so he fascinated me and I sought him out.

"'You're not another monk, but you are not of the world,' I said to him, and he laughed.

"'So you are the troublemaker,' he said, looking me over, and I told him that I did not make anything, I simply existed and that was troublesome. He asked me questions, and told me a bit about how different his education would be, and then asked, 'Would you like to be my student, and leave the Xiaolin behind?'"

Guan stopped to eat and eventually Jack said, "Are you going to finish the story?"

"Well I said yes, obviously."

"I went all the way back to 'Chapter One: I Am Born,' and you only told how you met Hannibal," Chase groused.  "Here we are again, where I am working twice as hard to cover the ground you scarcely notice."

"How we became his students is what they asked," Guan shrugged.

"Guan was a minor nobleman's younger son," Chase said, rolling his eyes.  "He has never yet stopped believing that details were for servants and women."

"It's never stopped me," Guan pointed out.

Jack and Texas ate while they teased each other a bit longer, and then Texas mentioned, "There was something you wanted to talk to us about."

"I don't believe we actually specified that," Guan laughed.

"They're not wrong," Chase said.  "But first, I would like to know what you've pieced together from what you've overheard."

"It's something to do with Kimiko," Texas said, "and you were talking about threes."

"They're not going to kick her out, are they?" Jack asked.

"No, but I'm curious why you think they might."

"She's spending a lot of time with us, and I heard you commenting she sounded like one of your students. I know Guan said they're not as strict as they were when he was a kid, but…"

"Master Fung asked if we would be interested in having her train with you boys half time.  What do you think?"

“That would be amazing!” Jack grinned.

Texas nodded. “I like having her around, and she fits with us well. But would it make the relationship with the other monks awkward? Do you think they’d dislike it?”

“Let Master Fung and I worry about that,” Guan said, “But it would be arranged so that she still does the same things with them; this would be essentially extra training for her. I’m not sure if you boys realized but they have very different training requirements.”

“I’m in favor,” Texas agreed.

“Well then, it sounds like we’re all in agreement,” Chase said.  “Guan, I will leave it to you to work out the logistics.”

The last step was to make the offer to Kimiko. When he dismissed the monks the next day, he called her back. “Kimiko, wait a moment, I need to speak with you.”

“I told you that you are too full of distraction,” Omi said. “I will be happy to help you attain better focus.”

Kimiko bit back the urge to tell him to fuck off.  If she was in trouble, yelling at Omi wouldn’t help, and if she wasn’t, there would be plenty of time to do it later.  The thing where he acted like he was better than all of them at everything was getting really old.

“Kimiko, you’ve been spending a lot of time with Jack and Texas, and we’ve noticed how you seem interested in what they’re learning and pick it up quickly. Master Fung suggested - and Master Chase and I agreed - that you might like to try being Master Chase’s student alongside them on a part time basis. What do you think?”

“Really truly?” she blurted.  “I would love that!”

“It will be in addition to your work with your fellow monks, so you would be taking on more work. I don’t think that bothers you, but I want to be clear.”

“I’m not afraid of working hard, Master Guan.  I’ll do my best and make you and Master Fung proud.”

“I know you’re not. You’ll do great. You’ll come to the citadel after your noon meal and spend afternoons with Master Chase.”

“Thank you,” she said, eyes shining, and gave him an impulsive hug before she turned and dashed out after her cohort.


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Double Time

Chapter Summary

Kimiko has to negotiate changes in her friendships as she works out what she wants.

For the most part, Kimiko was happier and busier than she’d ever been.  She thrived in an environment of high expectations, and she loved learning and training, and she took to the Heylin training style with an ease that confirmed to everyone involved that it was the right decision.

The trouble, in as much as there was trouble, was that she had very little downtime that overlapped with any of her friends.  She was training with her cohort in the morning, while Jack and Texas were working on their own projects, and then she was training with Master Chase in the afternoon while Jessie and Rai and Omi were doing chores and relaxing.  Once the training was done for the day, the boys had dinner with their masters and she ran off to do her own chores and snatch a few hours of sleep before she started again at sunrise.

Which meant she wasn’t doing anything with her cohort but work, and she wasn’t doing anything with the Heylin apprentices but work, and she realized after a month or so of this that she hadn’t actually gotten laid the entire time.

"Master Chase," Jack said to him one evening when she'd left, using the title because he wanted to make it clear this wasn't just him asking because he missed playing, "it seems to me Kimiko is not getting much time in her schedule to do, well, anything but lessons and I am concerned."

“Are you now,” he said, stopping to look at Jack in the very disconcerting way he had when he was paying full attention.  “Tell me more.”

"Please don't tell her I said anything; I know she can handle it. But she works there and then she works here and then she goes to bed. I haven't had her in my workshop since we started, and I'm pretty sure she hasn't been in your library either, and she loves your library. And she was the one who explained that day about why play is important, I know she knows it matters."

Chase nodded.  “You have an excellent point,” he said.  “I will consider how best to handle the situation; thank you for bringing it to me.”

Later that evening, as he and Guan were sitting by the koi pond and enjoying the quiet, Chase relayed what Jack had said.  “Somehow I didn’t consider that training half time here and half time there leads to only training and no time for anything else,” he admitted.  “And that is not a good balance for anyone, no matter how gifted.”

"I could speak to Fung about her evening chores; it sounds like she's skipping dinner over there more than I like. But I'm not sure how else to balance it without taking her away from something the Xiaolin consider necessary."

“Ordinarily,” he said wryly, “a free day each fortnight comes in the third year, but we’re not that far off from the boys’ oath-day, and I believe Kimiko is already in hers.  Perhaps that might be a help?”

"On this side, at least, it might." Guan frowned. "I should see if Fung would be willing to implement such a thing."

“They don’t have a tradition of - of course they don’t, never mind.  Xiaolin training is shorter-lived, and thus has no concern for sustainability.”

"They're close to wudai but that's not based strictly on the time spent studying, it's also granted by their master, and then things will change somewhat. But if Fung has a timeline in mind, he hasn't said as much."

Chase nodded.  “You can discuss it with him, and in the meantime I will have oath-day discussions with the boys and see if they have considered the longer term yet.”

"I also need to find out if he has divined for their wudai reason-for-being yet; I believe they've mostly accomplished the collection of the Shen Gong Wu that are going to activate. It seems like that would be useful to know when planning Kimiko's education."


“Texas,” Chase said, joining him in the garden the next morning.

"Good morning," he answered. Chase didn't always join him now that he mostly had the garden well in hand, but it was a pleasant surprise when he did.

“Walk with me, would you?  We have matters to consider and I think the weeds will wait for the nonce.”

"Of course," he said, standing up and asking the stray dirt on his hands to hop back where it belonged. "What is it?"

“We are about three weeks from your oath’s end, and I was wondering if you had considered what you wanted to do at that point.”

"Jack and I've talked about it some, but what would it look like? Is it just a year at a time, until… what?"

“It is one year at a time for the first five, which is traditionally considered the apprenticeship period.  Then it is the Journeyman’s Choice, which is for the next five years, but the scope of the oath leaves much room for individual decision-making.  After that depends greatly on what your ultimate goals are.”

Texas nodded. "And I take it you're welcoming us to stay?"

“Nothing would please me more,” he said.

"Thank you." Texas looked up. "For everything you've offered us. I don't know what else I'd have done but I don't think I'd like it."

“I was a child of the streets a very long time ago, but fundamentally not much has changed between then and now, I would guess,” he said. “I am very glad you were brought to me before you had to make such decisions, and you have more than earned your place here.”

In their second year, Texas had begun to find himself an identity that was not built around his loyalty to Jack, or to anyone for that matter, although he had no shortage of loyalty to Jack and to his teachers. It was easier now to imagine choosing something different than what Jack chose, though he knew Jack would stay.

“Third year students are given a day off each fortnight to use as they please, and may visit others outside as they have time,” he said. “There are other small perks, but those are the major ones.”

"So we could visit the Temple or Jack could go shopping on his own?" Texas thought about it. He wasn't sure there was anywhere he particularly wanted to be but he'd thought about wanting to help Kimiko with her chores on occasion, and sometimes it might be nice to gather new plants for the garden.

“Yes, and you could as well, if you wished.” He paused, then added, “As my student, I am responsible for your care and maintenance, including making sure you have shoes that fit. If your clothes are ragged or ill-fitting, it reflects poorly on me. Please permit my cats to assist you, hm?”

"I didn't mean to-" Texas stuttered. "I just, I'm fine. I didn't mean to reflect poorly on you. I'll… should I do that today?"

“Diol, let Tyrole know that he can work his magic,” he said with a chuckle. “I am sorry for not noticing sooner.”

"Thank you for making me aware," Texas nodded. He still didn't want much, but within the week he had jeans again, and soft cotton and flannel shirts, and boots that fit, so that the first time he and Jack went to visit Kimiko in their downtime, they both had casual clothes to wear.

“I didn’t know you believed in shoes, Texas,” she teased, kissing him on the cheek. “I thought you were working on the barefoot-monk aesthetic.”

Texas blushed and Jack stepped in. "We get actual time off to go and do things now, so he has to dress normally on occasion. Congrats, you're the first person we wanted to visit."

“I’m honored,” she said. “It looks good on you.”

"Thanks," Texas grinned. "What are you up to today?"

“We just finished morning training, so usually it would be lunch and then running off to afternoon training, but…” she shrugged. “I haven’t had to figure out what to do with myself when I didn’t have something I had to do in a while.”

"We could join you for lunch," Jack suggested, "or we could all go somewhere together if you have the tiger claws."

“They’re in my room,” she said. “But if we’re going anywhere, I’m going to change first.”

"I believe it's early morning in Paris," Jack grinned. "Should we get breakfast?"

“I like the way you think,” she grinned back. “Be right back.”


They wandered around Paris, getting fancy pastries at a bakery and stopping in at various shops.  Kimiko and Jack both spoke French, and spent money with an ease that made Texas’s head hurt.  She made him try on a leather jacket in one boutique, declared that she loved it, and bought for him over his protests, even though it cost more than his mama had spent on school clothes for all three of them the last year he’d been home, and he was pretty sure that French money and American money were about the same.

“Don’t even worry about it,” she said as they left the shop.  “I like to buy things for my friends.”

He couldn’t not worry about it, but he could at least not say anything.

“I should probably get going,” she sighed after a couple of hours, looking at her phone.

“What’s up?” Jack asked. “Or is it just time for dinner?”

“I need to get started on my chores soon if I want to be done in time to make it to dinner,” she said.  “It’s a whole thing, lately.”

“What kind of thing?” Jack asked, and “Can we help?” Texas offered at the same time.

She shrugged.  “So the rule is that you have to finish your chores before you can have dinner, which is normally totally fine, except that I don’t have all afternoon to get mine done, which means I don’t always make it.  And now Omi’s been lecturing me on the importance of completing my responsibilities and all this crap, which, ugh.  But since Master Chase gave us the afternoon off, I actually have time to get everything done before dinner without scrambling.”

“That doesn’t really seem fair,” Texas grumbled. “What does Omi think you’re doing all afternoon?”

“You could eat dinner with us and then do your chores,” Jack offered.

“He knows what I’m doing but he thinks nothing is more important than my responsibilities as a Xiaolin dragon,” she said to Texas, rolling her eyes.  “Like he seems to think my training with you guys is some kind of game or something, I don’t know.  I think he’d keep me from doing it if he could.”  She looked at Jack and added, “Well, that’d be one solution, but I thought dinner with your master was a special thing.  I wouldn’t want to intrude.”

“I don’t think he’d want you not eating, though, and you’re his student too,” Jack said. “I’ll say something at least.”

“We’re free to visit in our downtime during the day too,” Texas said. “Like I said, I’m happy to help and it seems like a fair exchange to me since you help us with lessons and everything.”

“I appreciate the offer, I really do, but I think having help would be more likely to piss off the others than anything else.  But I’ll talk to Master Fung and see if we can work something out.  It’s okay most of the time, but there are some days that it’s just really hard.”

When they sat down for dinner that night and Chase asked how their first day off had gone, Jack recounted the day while Texas was still distracted.

“I get why she doesn’t want help but I still wanna help her,” Texas said at the end, frustrated enough that his accent was creeping in. “And I understand she accepted the terms but I don’t… I don’t know what they’re gettin out of it, it doesn’t make sense to me. What don’t I understand?”

“It sounds to me,” Chase observed, “as if they are opposed to Kimiko training with us, but they either don’t feel like they can object or their objection has been overruled.”

"Master Fung prefers to be hands-off in what he calls interpersonal matters," Guan added. "It's up to her and her fellow monks to divide up chores, and they could choose to help her or to bring her dinner, and they are choosing not to make it easy for her."

"Aw, that's even worse! They're supposed to be her friends!" Texas complained, and then forced himself to calm down. Jack put a hand on top of his, applying pressure to help him focus. He apologized and excused himself, and Jack followed quickly.

Guan sighed after they went. "I know I said Fung was buying himself more time with her but I'm starting to think rather than keeping her in the group he's buying himself time to find his next cohort. The other three are working themselves in circles, and Jessie is about to be promoted to wudai, but they don't have a reason and I suspect at this point Fung isn't going to find one."

“Do you think they’ve finished?” Chase asked, sitting up a little straighter.

"If not, they're on the cusp." Guan looked defeated. "I really thought we could do this, that both sides would benefit from it. Now I don't know what to think."

He hesitated and then looked at Chase again. "You have a plan, don't you?"

“Guan, I always have a plan.”  He smirked, but said no more.

"Is this one of those plans where it's imperative that I don't know what you're doing?"

“Not really,” he said.  “You know my greatest issue with the Xiaolin way has been the wastefulness of it; they pour years into training these children, and once their purpose is filled, it’s on to the next group and the next purpose, and most of them are perfectly fine to go back to the world and be ordinary people again, but you see these dragons from time to time that are incredibly gifted, that would benefit greatly from more training and a higher calling.  You’ve heard my rants about that before.”

"So you think we may as well just wait them out?"

“I’ve had a room prepared for her,” he said.  “I did it last week, more as a hedged bet than anything, but I won’t have her gifts wasted and her potential lost just because the Xiaolin are done with her.”


Kimiko slid into place just in time for dinner to start, giving a triumphant smile to the others.

“Where were you this afternoon?” Jessie asked.  “Off with your boyfriend?”

“I couldn’t find anybody after lunch, and they showed up, so we went to Paris,” Kimiko said with a shrug.  “Where were you, anyway?”

“Dojo took us to Beijing,” Omi said.  “We shopped until we fell down.”

“Oh,” she said, and then looked at Jessie.  “I told you I had the afternoon off, didn’t I?”

“Yep, but you ain’t seemed interested in hangin out with us lately, so I figured you didn’t much care where we went.”

“I haven’t been hanging out with anybody, Jessie, you know that.  I’ve been training, and any time I’m not training, I’ve got chores,” she protested.  “Half the time I don’t even get through them all before dinner’s over.”  Looking at Jessie was like looking at Texas through a wavy mirror, and all she could see was him offering to come and help her with her chores.  Jessie had never done that, even though Kimiko had helped her plenty of times before she started training with Master Chase and didn’t have time any more.  

“You made your bed, you get to lie in it,” Jessie said.

“What, are you jealous that I’m doing extra work?” she snapped.

“What, would you rather hang out with my brother than me?”

“You know what he said when I told him I needed to get back so I could finish my chores before dinner?  He offered to help me.  He doesn’t even live here!  He doesn’t benefit from me cleaning the bathroom or mopping the hallway or anything else I do, but that was his first response.  Meanwhile you’re all sneaking off together and you apparently expect me to - what, sit around and wonder where you went?  Was this supposed to be some kind of punishment?”  She looked around the table.  No one would meet her gaze.  “It was, wasn’t it?  You wanted to punish me for - what, exactly?  Having other friends?  Learning extra magic?  You and Rai have each other, and that’s fucking great, I’ve been nothing but supportive, but apparently I’m just supposed to be quietly single because the fourth member of our cohort thinks sex is a box you check on a form?  Or what, exactly?”

No one said anything.  

Kimiko stood up and grabbed her bowl.  “Fine.  I’ll be in my room, if anybody actually wants to acknowledge that I exist.”  She stalked out, head held high, and managed not to start crying until she was back in her room with the door locked.

U up? she texted Jack a while later, after she’d calmed down and washed her face.

always Jack replied you should be asleep the way you work lately. whats up?

can’t sleep, everything is stupid

want to come over?

If i can do it without pissing off anybody else

def won't piss me or tex off

think master chase would care?

i dont think so i told him i was worried about you

ok then ill be there in a few

Kimiko picked up the Golden Tiger Claws, looking around her room.  She put them back down, pulled a bag out from the corner of the room and shoved in her laptop and tablet and all her charging cords, everything off the top of her dresser, and some of her clothes.  Maybe she’d be back, but maybe not.  Tonight she was feeling very unsure about anything.  Slinging the bag onto her shoulder, she grabbed the claws again, ripped a hole in the world, and stepped into Jack and Texas’s room.

In the morning she woke up with Texas on one side, snoring, and Jack on the other, his arms around her. She dozed while the boys woke up and looked at each other.

"Let's all go to breakfast and see what Master Chase says," Jack said with a shrug.

“Surprise, third apprentice?” Kim said, laughing awkwardly. “I hope he’s not upset.”

"I don't think so," Texas said, his rhetoric voice firmly back in place. "He wouldn't teach you if he didn't think you were worth teaching."

“I know. I’m just feeling a little… unsettled, I guess.  Like, what else have I got horribly wrong about people in my life."

"Well, you know I'm a huge nerd, right?" Jack asked. "Let's get you to Master Chase and he'll get you settled, I'm totally sure."


"Good morning, apprentices," Chase said as they came into the breakfast room.  "There appear to be more of you this morning than there were last night."

"Yeah, funny story," Jack said.

Texas put his hand on the small of Kimiko's back, expecting she'd want to speak for herself.

She started to say something, then changed her mind and said, "I'm no longer training with the Xiaolin dragons.  I would like to be your apprentice full-time, if I may."

"If my other apprentices agree," he said, "it would be a pleasure to accept your oath.  Gentlemen?"

"Of course!" Jack said, and Texas said "yes, definitely" and both boys grinned wide at Kimiko.

She beamed back, and Chase offered his hand.  "Then I bid you welcome.  I will meet with you after breakfast to see where there may be gaps in your education and determine what your level should be, as you're obviously not a rank beginner, but neither have you had a full two years of learning with me as your brother-apprentices have.  It will be an interesting start, but well worth it I daresay."

"Thank you, Master Chase," she said, feeling better than she had in ages.


Kimiko, who’d also had a prep-school education and a love of learning, didn’t have many gaps in her knowledge.  There were a few things here and there - she’d had dancing and embroidery rather than fencing and marksmanship, and although she’d practiced some of both of those things in the Xiaolin Temple she wasn’t where he wanted her to be - but mostly what she was lacking was what Jack and Texas had been taught at the very beginning, the most delicate elemental control.  Master Chase assigned Jack to work with her, both to see how they handled teaching and learning, and because he felt it would be easier to master that level of control with another dragon of the same element since she wasn’t starting from nothing.

It reminded Jack of when he and Kimiko had first started hanging out together, when he'd been telling her about the little projects he worked on and she'd had amazing questions that made him think around things in different ways. He showed her the exercises he'd been taught, and then she asked about angles he hadn't even considered, or other applications. She was relentlessly practical, and had a second and third use for virtually everything they worked on.         She brought a sculptural element into her fire-brushwork, using depth and texture in ways that hadn't occurred to Jack, and as always, she pushed him to be better, even at the things he was teaching her.

“Have you ever tried to melt sand?” she asked him thoughtfully.  She was using her fingers to bend metal, treating a heavy-gauge jewelry wire like it was playdough, thinning it out and wrapping it around a citrine that Texas had been playing with.

"Like, making glass?" Jack asked. "Not much, a little bit."

“You can add things to it to lower the melting point, if you want to actually make glass - at least, when glass is made, that’s what they do - but if you can get a single strike point hot enough, you can make a pseudo-fulgurite.  I was only able to do it once, because everybody freaked out, but I’ve always wanted to try it again.  I kept trying to get Raimundo to try and work with me to see if we could manage magical glassblowing, but he never would.”

"Why'd they freak out?" Jack asked, though he was trying to get out of the habit of doing that because half the time the answer just frustrated both of them anyway.

She shrugged.  “Because if you demonstrate that you can set stone on fire suddenly everybody’s worried about you accidentally burning the building down.”

"I'm pretty sure even you can't get a point that hot by accident and you're stronger than me. But that can't happen in here anyway, there's a… magical failsafe that keeps you from hurting yourself if you trigger it." It had been a while since Jack thought about it, actually.

“Yeah, it took me weeks of work to get to the point where I could do it at all, but sure, let’s worry about Kimiko burning the building down despite the fact that I haven’t lost control of my element once I had any training at all and never be concerned about the fact that Jessie rattles the glassware every time she gets mad.”  She shook her head.  “I wonder if Master Guan would try magical glassblowing with me?”

"I bet he would, but if he's busy we could try it the old fashioned way. I've played with glass rods some but I've never tried actual glassblowing." The idea of Jessie rattling the glassware was weirdly foreign to Jack; he couldn't imagine Texas having that problem even when they were new at this.

“That sounds fun.  I didn’t even think of trying the regular way?  But we have so much more access to artistic materials here than I was used to at the temple, and eventually I’ll get used to it.”

"We can get sand from the lower levels where the baths are. I assume different sand would work differently but I never looked into it, but that's something we can try if you want to."

She grinned.  “Well, let’s try what we have and see how it goes, shall we?”

Guan was happy to help them experiment, but he expected them to take the lead, and he also encouraged them to work manually because it gave them a better understanding of how the glass and the fire would react.

"Have you considered bringing Texas in to work the sand?" he suggested as well.

“I haven’t,” she said, “but I’ll ask him and see what he thinks.  Jessie told me that sand is hard to work with, but… well, things are different here.”

"Jessie's strengths are not her brother's, either," Guan nodded.

“If you’ve met one earth dragon, you’ve met one earth dragon?”

“You and Jack have different talents too, I’m sure you’ve noticed. It’s like speaking a language; accents, vocabulary, all of that will vary depending on the speaker and how it was learned.”

“That makes sense,” she said.  “And when you bring training into account, it’s like… the difference between attending an arts-focused school versus a science-focused school.  What you do, and what you can do, and how easy it is, depends on both your innate abilities and how you think about them.”

“So you speak fire with a Xiaolin accent?” Jack laughed.

Kimiko laughed and nodded.  “And I started out at what was essentially a military academy, so a lot of the way I think is based around tactics and strategy and how it can be used for practical purposes.”

“And I went to liberal arts school.” Jack nodded. “Let’s get Texas and go down to the pools, have you been there yet?”

“Not yet,” she said.  “Every time I think I’ve seen everything there is to see, there’s something else.”

Texas was at a table set up on the mossy space on the edge of the garden, mixing with a mortar and pestle, when they came looking for him, and he was happy enough to set aside what he was working on to join them on their walk down into the deep caverns further underground.

Kimiko caught his hand and twined their fingers together. “Is it always like this?”

"Like what?" he asked. "It's a little more damp down here, yeah."

She laughed.  “I meant - I don’t know.  Quiet.  Peaceful.  And with masters actually encouraging you to try new things instead of telling you to stick to what you’ve been taught.”

"Yeah, pretty much. If they wanted us to stick to what we've been taught they wouldn't still be teaching us." Texas nodded.

"And we're not saving the world or anything, learning is why we're here," Jack added.

“That’s true.  There’s not much room for experimentation when you’re constantly fighting to keep the world from falling to the forces of darkness.”  She sighed.  “I don’t miss that, either.”

"I wonder what Wuya's even up to," Jack said aloud. "Maeve isn't back so she must not be done with whatever, right?"

“Oh, she was always whining about getting her body back,” Kimiko said.  “She was super pissed when Rai got the Reversing Mirror.  I never did understand why, she was mostly incoherently screaming the whole time.”

"I mean, she spent a lot of time incoherently screaming when I was with her, I'm pretty sure it's her native language. What does the Reverso Mirror do?"

“It reverses things.  Attacks, shen gong wu… Jessie said it was the ‘I’m rubber and you’re glue’ of Shen Gong Wu.”

“Maybe she had a plan to reverse whatever made her ghosty. That’s what she was always working on.”

“Oh!  There’s a wu that makes you able to walk through stuff!  I was totally pretending to be Kitty Pride with it,” she laughed.  “The… some kind of tail.  Squirrel tail?  Dragon tail?  Serpent’s tail!  That was it!  If you had that and the reversing mirror, you could probably make somebody who could normally walk through stuff solid again.”

“Would that make her human or just a physical ghost?”

Kimiko gave him a very confused look.  “What would the difference be?”

“She was all tentacles and mask, no body, last time I saw her. That’d be weird.”

“Oh, that’s just a projection,” Kimiko said.  “If she got her body back she’d be her original shape.”

“That sounds like something she’d want then, yeah. I don’t know if her plans have changed much but it’s probably for the best Raimundo got it instead.” Jack shrugged. “Hey Texas, how are you with sand?”

“I ain’t- haven’t built a sandcastle since I was little, but sand’s kind of like mud or loose dirt, all tiny bits, so it’s different than moving rocks. More… holistic?” He wasn’t sure that was the right word. “You have to reach out to the whole thing an’ keep it all in mind, big picture. I get the impression from Master Chase that it’s like thinking about earth like it’s water. So what, do I just hold it while you heat it up?”

“Let’s try it that way, and see how it works,” she said.  “We may want to take it upstairs, where it’s less damp; I’m not sure how hot we can get down here.”

“Makes sense, sure. How much do you want?”

“I don’t think we need a lot to start, just a couple buckets’ worth.” Jack looked around for buckets, but Texas smiled and said “Let me try something.” He knelt down and drew the outline of a square in the sand, then started pulling brick-shaped blocks of sand out of the ground near it and stacking them on the square. Once he had a neat little stack of bricks, he reached around both sides of the square, shook it loose and pulled the whole thing up like it was a serving tray.

“Won’t keep forever but it’ll get us upstairs,” he said, turning back the way they’d come in.

“You’re a genius,” Kimiko said.  “I still want to see the pools, though, don’t forget.”

“Oh, right,” he said, setting it back down.

“The best view is over here,” Jack said, walking her through where the space opened up into a larger cavern with crystals glowing like stars in the ceiling and reflecting in the still water. “If you keep going back that way eventually you end up at the bathing pools, and if you go this way you end up where the water flows down from the Lotus Pond.”

“Oh, wow.  This is beautiful,” she said.  They stood there for a little while, absorbing the space.  “Is the water cold?” she asked eventually.

“It gets a little warmer as you go toward the bathing pools but mostly it is, yeah,” Texas said with a grin. “Not that the cold bothers you.”

She laughed.  “No, it does not.  I suppose I should have asked the second question first - can we swim here?  Or is it just for looks?”

“We can swim if we want, but uh. We should stick to just swimming if we do. Master Chase is particularly aware of the water in the citadel and what is… um…”

“He knew we had gotten carried away,” Texas stepped in. “I’m pretty sure he mostly ignores stuff like that but he asked us not to make a mess on account of they don’t flow very quick.”

Kimiko giggled.  “I can imagine how mortifying that conversation was.  I’m reminded - there’s this big pond out behind the Temple, and on warm nights we used to sneak out and swim in it, and Jess and Rai found this really dark spot and were getting handsy, and Omi kept asking what they were doing because he could kind of tell, but he didn’t understand it, so he was asking me, and I can’t describe to you how much I didn’t want to be having that conversation.  I ended up telling them that if they didn’t get out of the water I’d send Omi to ask them what they were doing.  I’m pretty sure they ended up fucking in the bushes.”

Jack laughed, but Texas just turned red. "Come on, that's still my baby sister," he said, which just made Jack laugh harder until he tripped and fell in the nearest pool, and then Texas laughed too. "Well I guess we're going in."

“Sorry, Texas, but I’m just not willing to spend the rest of our relationship pretending that your sister wasn’t fucking Rai at pretty much every single opportunity, because otherwise I’d just end up stopping halfway through a story and creatively editing the rest, and it was hard enough when I was only spending a few hours at a time with you.”  She slipped out of her clothes and dove after Jack, laughing.

Texas stripped and followed her in, helping Jack up so he could get out of his wet clothes. Or more like helping Jack out of his wet clothes, which Kimiko also seemed happy to help with.

"I'll get used to it, I figure," he said once Jack's clothes were a sopping pile on the ground. "Can you dry those or do you still need me to wring 'em out first?"

"Let them drip a little, at least," Jack said, "unless, Kim, how are you at toast?"

“I’m excellent at toast,” she said.  “That’s one of the weird little things I practiced a lot at the Temple, because there wasn’t a toaster unless you count a toasting-fork like we were in some kind of Regency novel.  And Jessie, like Texas, doesn’t believe it’s actually breakfast unless there’s toast.”

"You think you can dry them? It's just like toast, only you have to sustain the low heat while the water evaporates. Did you do laundry like that at the temple? Texas washes and I dry but he's gotta wring it out for me to do it right."

“Sure, I can dry them.  I did laundry sometimes, but usually it was Omi and Rai, because he never had to worry about scorching the cuffs if he got distracted.”  She laughed.  “I’m faster, though.”

"Laundry'd be easier if we had a water dragon, for sure," Texas said. "I'm not sure if Master Chase does his laundry or if the cats do it. Probably the cats, because they do most everything, but I end up picturing them doing it as cats every time I think too hard about it."

“Tigers like water, so maybe they do,” she suggested, still laughing.  “It’s easiest if you hang wet clothes up and then think about how it feels to sit in a patch of sunlight, although Omi usually pulls a bunch of water out first, so wringing them out would make it go faster.”

"I can just wring 'em," Texas said, reaching for them.

"Well fine if you don't want it to be a challenge." Jack snickered.

"Most things are more challenging when there's a sopping mess involved, no glory in making it hard, you know Master Guan always says that."

"He usually says that before he makes it harder," Jack added.

“They’re your cuffs,” Kimiko said doubtfully.

"I don't care," Jack said. "Scorches look hardcore."

“If by ‘hardcore’ you mean ‘like you don’t know how to roll your sleeves up when you’re welding,’ sure.”

"Okay but long sleeves are a habit from when I didn't know I could be fireproof."


Chase looked up as the three of them came to breakfast, calmly regarding them. It was Guan who spoke first.

"Well done, Kimiko. That is usually not accomplished until late in the journeyman stage of your education."

She flushed. “I couldn’t have done it without Texas,” she said.

He smiled at her. "I'm genuinely pleased how well both of you boys have turned out to be at teaching others, but Kimiko, having help doesn't lessen your accomplishment at all."

“I’m less afraid of losing control now,” she admitted.  “Although it felt like a trust exercise more than anything else.”

"I do not believe I am familiar with the method you used. I'd like to hear more about it at some point."

"I can show you the book we started from," Texas offered. He was blushing but he'd determined not to be embarrassed. "Jack and I have been working it for a while. It just seemed like Kimiko needed something different." He looked at Kim. "I feel like you had the complicated part, I just got to have fun."

“I find that the best pair-work feels that way; where each partner feels like the other is putting in the greater effort,” Chase observed.  

 "I'd been really frustrated with it but now I want to try again," Jack said with a grin. "Kim, do you think you could help me with it?"

“I could certainly try,” she said, blushing again.  

“Sex magic would be an interesting avenue for you to explore,” Chase said mildly.  “Such books are generally written with an assumption of male and female pairs, and changing those assumptions can lead to some fascinating dynamics and differering results - I’m intrigued at what you might accomplish if you challenge the idea of a pair being the fundamental starting point.”

All three apprentices stared at him for a long, silent minute.

“The books are from my library, you know,” he said, arching an eyebrow.  “I’m aware of what you’re reading, and also I didn’t originally order them for no purpose.”

Texas spoke first. "You've always kinda danced around stuff like that and I think we figured you didn't want to… but you were just giving us privacy, weren't you?"

“Of course,” he said.  “I recognize that sexual intimacy is often an uncomfortable topic for young mortals, and once I ensured that you wouldn’t end up with unintended consequences, I left you to your own devices.  If you’d rather not discuss it, I will respect that, but if you’re just reflecting human social taboos, I can clarify that they aren’t necessary here.”

Texas looked at Jack and Kimiko. "I think we can get over that, what do y'all think?"

Kimiko nodded.  “I’ve always found it a little weird, to be honest,” she said.  “It’s okay to talk around sex, but not about it.”

Chase smirked.  “I told you she was Heylin by nature,” he said to Guan.

"Well in that case…" Jack looked between Chase and Guan. "I had a ton of questions about how everything we found seemed rooted in conflating receptive and projective pairwork with female and male bodies specifically and I'm wondering how you've worked around that, like, does it matter if it's anal?"

Chase laughed.  “Receptive and projective, despite what some people would have you believe, is more connected to energetic style than anything else, and it’s actually not directly related to penetration - also, despite what some people would have you believe.  If you can believe it, if you’re looking through books working from the Xiaolin perspective, you may stumble across a few that require not only receptive and projective be directly associated with male and female bodies, but include specific elemental association as well.  During that period, Kimiko, you would never have been selected to be a Dragon of Fire, as it was believed that women could not embody fire or air, only earth or water, the so-called “receptive elements.”  That didn’t last long, for obvious reasons.

“All of that said, not only are receptive and projective not always associated with a particular body, it’s also possible for some people to switch back and forth, depending on relationship and need, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case for all three of you.  Some people, in fact, don’t seem to have a… natural state, is what it’s generally referred to, and exist in a permanent state of flow where they will echo or oppose their environment as appropriate.”

"So like genderqueer for elementals," Jack snickered.

"We do tend to be pretty flexible with each other," Texas said. "I think what we did last night worked that way, because Kim, you were definitely projecting and you being able to do that was the important part, you didn't flinch away from it."

Kimiko nodded.  “I’m naturally projective, and I know that because Omi told me approximately six million times that it wasn’t appropriate for a woman to be projective and it meant that he was forced to be receptive and I needed to stop.  Although Jessie always told him to fuck off, so.”

Texas snickered at that. "Yeah that sounds like her."

"I clearly need to add more theory work to their lessons if Omi is worried about being forced to be receptive," Guan muttered.

`“I think he was just looking for a reason that wasn’t the fact that he’s just naturally receptive,” Kimiko said.  “He’s a water dragon, for crying out loud.”

“And everyone knows water dragons are naturally receptive?” Chase asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Aren’t they?  Or is that one of those things that people believe for some reason?”

“The word you’re looking for is ‘tendency,’” he said.  “Water dragons tend to be receptive, as do Earth dragons.  Fire and air tend to be projective.  Those are more true than the old adage about women being receptive and men being projective, but there are always exceptions.”

"Would you refer to Jessie as receptive?" Guan asked.

“Jessie’s not receptive to anything except chocolate cake,” Kimiko said.  “And getting propositioned by Raimundo, I guess.”

"Raimundo is quite good at switching, but Jessie is definitely inclined toward projective," Guan nodded. "Omi fights his nature, but he's young enough that I wasn't concerned about it."

"There’s nothing wrong with being receptive,” Chase grumbled.  “Half the world is receptive.”

"I'm receptive!" Jack added cheerfully. "I mean I can swap but. I think Texas and I both lean receptive."

Chase nodded. “Two receptive students tend to work well together, particularly when there is opposite energy from other arenas.”

"We take turns being in charge. But Kim is really good at being in charge."

“I like being in charge,” she admitted. “But I’m happy to step back when someone else needs to lead.”

"That is how a cohort leader should work," Guan pointed out. "No leader is best to handle every possible situation." He stood and made his apologies. "I need to see the monks today, Maeve suggested Wuya has plans for the temple and I would like to keep an eye on how they are working as a team."

Jack scootched closer to Kim and whispered "probably badly."

"I don't believe Kimiko needs me to pretend they don't exist."

“No, I’m fine with you continuing to teach them,” she said.  “They’re still my friends, even if it ended badly.”

Guan nodded. "I think they feel your absence, and I hope in the future there will be reconciliation, should you want it."

“I’m not ready yet.  But eventually I might be.”

"I'm glad to hear it."

Guan wasn't back at dinner, which wasn't unusual, and the apprentices just assumed he was busy when they didn't see him for a week, but by two weeks they'd started to wonder. Texas and Jack remembered him being gone longer when they'd been new apprentices, but it had been a year or more since he was gone longer than a fortnight. Still, they didn't worry. If there was a problem, Master Chase would know.

The three of them were spending a free afternoon trying to get Jack to embody his element, which was largely an unfruitful but very pleasurable way to spend a few hours, when Chrish discreetly coughed from outside the room. Texas extricated himself and slid the door open.

There is company in the throne room. Your presence is required quickly.

"All of us?" he asked.

"Texas? Who is it?" Kimiko asked.

"Chrish. He says we're needed in the throne room for guests." He turned back to the cat. "Formal robes?"

No. Sooner, fast as you can. It is Xiaolin guests.

"Xiaolin guests?" Texas echoed. He grabbed his jeans and threw Jack his shirt from the floor. "Come on, Chrish said ASAP."

Kimiko pulled her shirt on, ran her fingers through her hair to make sure it was all more or less the same direction, and took off running in the direction of the throne room without bothering to put on shoes.

The lair sent them as directly as possible, so the three of them arrived in just a few moments. None of them were wearing shoes, and Jack had put his shirt on inside-out.

"I really don't like going in there like this," Texas muttered, trying to smooth his hair down.

“You’re fine,” Kimiko said.  “Jack, your shirt’s inside out, you might want to fix it.  Chrish, can you give us a situation update?”  The lion was sitting at the door, tail lashing.

There are two monks, the small one and the one who is your sister, Chrish said, and Texas repeated that it was Omi and Jessie. They are very upset and Master Chase would like you there as they are looking for you.

“Looking for us?” Texas echoed.

“They’re looking for us?” Kimiko frowned.  “Why - I guess we’d better go find out why, huh?”

Jessie was pacing in front of Chase, and she looked up the minute they walked in. "You two know Wuya as well as anybody! You gotta know where she is."

"Wuya?" Jack shook his head. "We haven't seen her since she left us with Master Chase. You guys were the ones she bothered all the time, not us."

"How'm I supposed to believe that? You're all on the same side, ain't you?"

"Heylin isn't a side," Jack started to say, but Jessie reached for his shirt. He flinched, thinking she was going to punch him, but she stopped herself and sighed. "She's got Rai an I don't know what she's doin with him, an I don't know who else can help."

“What do you mean, she’s got Rai?  It’s not like she could kidnap him, Maeve wouldn’t do that,” Kimiko protested.

I was dismissed, Maeve said as she walked into the room.

"See, it is Wuya's companion!" Omi yelled.

"She just said she was… Wuya sent you away?" Texas turned to her. "Why would she do that?"

She said she no longer needed me spying on her, and the terms of the agreement would be fulfilled soon enough.

“What agreement?” Jessie demanded.

“Did Raimundo take any Shen Gong Wu with him when he left?” Chase asked suddenly.  “Have you checked the vault?”

“Oh shit,” Kimiko said.

"He didn't leave, he-" Jessie hesitated. "Omi, did you check the vault?"

"It had not been disturbed or broken out to, so I did not go inside," Omi said, then asked Chase, "Why?"

“The Reversing Mirror and the Serpent’s Tail are missing,” Kimiko said.  “You can go check, but that’s what you’ll find.  He probably took the Sword of the Storm, because obviously, but those are the ones Wuya needs to get her body back.”  She groaned.  “That was supposed to be a fucking hypothetical conversation, universe, what the fuck.”

"Oh shit," Jack agreed. "Okay we can figure this out. Maeve, do you think she'd still be where you left her?"

Unlikely, if she doesn’t want to be discovered.  But she occasionally mentioned a backup hiding spot, though she never took me there.

“I know where she is,” Chase said, shaking his head.  “Jessie, when was the last time you saw Guan?”

"Week ago? Maybe a skotch more? I figured he'd come back here, ain't he?"

“He hasn’t come home,” Chase said, despair edging his voice.  “She’s taken him to Shangri-La.”

"Okay so where's that?" Texas asked.

“I don’t know,” Chase responded, sitting down heavily.  “It’s - Guan has to bring you, it’s his land, as this is mine, and it cannot be found by natural means.  I - I may be able to scry for it.  She must have used Raimundo to - trick him, I suppose.”  Diol was pressed against Chase’s legs, and his searching hand found the jaguar’s head.

"Like she's holdin him hostage?"

"Or he was playin at bein a hostage," Texas added, but at Jessie's angry look he kept talking. "But it don't matter, we gotta figure out what we can do to help 'em."

"You mean it?" Jessie asked, and for a minute Texas felt like her big brother again like he used to.

"Are you going to help us?" Omi asked Kimiko.

“Of course I am, if you’ll have me,” she said.  “You were kind of a jackass to me, Omi, but you’re still my friends.”

"We'll get your boyfriend back," Texas told Jessie. "Okay, Master Chase, what else can you tell us about Shangri-La?"

“Where it is, I hope,” he said.  “I must consult with the Fountain of Hui.”

You have that?” Dojo demanded, sticking his head out from under Jessie’s hat.  “Sheesh, it figures.”

"He only keeps the useful ones," Jack said.

“Only the toys that can find any answer,” he agreed.  “Chrish, please show our guests to the Lotus Pavilion and bring them refreshments.  I will return shortly.”

Jessie and Omi followed the big cat, and the apprentices hung back to walk behind them. Again the lair made a more direct path than usual, so there was very little of interest between the throne room and the Pavilion. They sat down and Omi patted Jessie on the back and said something the others couldn't hear yet.

"Jack, fix your dang shirt," Texas said before they went in, and Jack peeled it off and put it back on correctly.

The refreshments were lovely as usual, but it seemed like Jessie and Omi were not much in the mood to be refreshed.

"How, um. How're you liking it down here?" Jessie asked Kimiko as she poked at a bean bun.

“I like it a lot,” she said.  “The philosophy is very in line with the way I think about the world, and we’re encouraged to experiment and ask questions, which you know is my weakness.”

"That sounds… I ain't much for philosophy. But it was more interestin when you asked questions." She looked at her brother. "I wouldn't've figured you were much for philosophy either."

"I am and I'm not," Texas shrugged. "But I like it here."

"Have you ever-" Jessie started and stopped, shaking her head. "Anyhow. So what do we know about Wuya once she gets the wu she wanted?"

“She can get her body back,” Kimiko said, “and she’s a trained Heylin witch.”

"So… magic? Martial arts? What's Heylin witch training, is that like what you are doing?" Omi asked.

"Definitely magic," Jack said. "She was strong enough as a ghost that she could do magic just using my hands."

"I ain't convinced she wasn't usin' your energy," Texas pointed out. "But she's gotta be strong or Master Chase wouldn't have looked so worried."

“It’s not what we’re doing,” Kimiko said.  “This is Heylin dragon training, you know that, Omi, and it’s not that different from Xiaolin training from kind of a big-picture perspective.  The relationship between master and apprentice is different, and the path is different, but we’re still learning how to embody our elements and work together.  Heylin witchcraft is an entirely different school of magic, mostly taught along family lines and not based in elemental energy at all.”

"I think we'll have the advantage of her being newly embodied, hopefully that'll mean she's off her game, hopefully Guan and Rai will help when we get there. If it's Guan's land then he should be able to do a lot, I'm guessing that means she's still got something over on him," Jack was thinking out loud.

“Are you familiar with a raccoon trap, Jack?” Chase asked.  He hadn’t been there a moment before, Jack was fairly certain, but now he was.  He hadn’t walked into the pavilion, he was just.  In it.

Instead of trying to describe it, Jack held his fist out in front of him and splayed his fingers a couple of times. "Like, your hand's stuck because you won't let go, right?"

Chase nodded.  He looked much less worried and much closer to the inhuman entity Jack had seen the first time they’d met.  “No one can use magic in Shangri-La without its master’s permission,” he said.  “Wuya could leave, but not while keeping Raimundo and the Wu close at hand.  I think she’d forgotten that particular aspect of the land until she was within it, and then… raccoon trap.”

"It sounds like one of those riddles like how do you get the goat and the wolf and the cabbage across the river, except Guan is the wolf and Raimundo's the cabbage. Also why does a farmer even have a wolf anyway?" Jack looked at Texas and Jessie as if they might dignify him with an answer. They didn't. "Wuya gets to be the old goat anyway. Or maybe she's the farmer. But-"

Texas put a hand on Jack's shoulder and he stopped talking.

“Rai’s definitely the cabbage,” Kimiko said.  “Cheap, easy, not smart.  Sorry, Jess.”

"Eh, you ain't wrong," Jessie sighed.

“Shall we go to Shangri-La, ladies and gentlemen?  Or would you prefer to discuss what I’ve got in my pockets?”

"What do you have in your pockets?" Omi asked.

Chase sighed.  “Someone explain that to him on the way, please.”


Meanwhile in Shangri-La, Wuya was shrieking angrily, Raimundo looked sick, and Guan was reclined with his feet up, reading an Italian book of educational philosophy.

"Raimundo, have you eaten?" Guan asked, ignoring Wuya entirely.

Rai shook his head.

"Well I wasn't expecting guests but I expect there are still some edible things around here. Go take a look, won't you?"

He stood up hesitantly, watching Wuya, but when she didn't stop him he ran off.

"Did you underestimate me or overestimate yourself?" Guan asked her. She did a very impressive job of huffing at him.

"Why do you even care, Guan? Why do you play their games and teach these brats? If you like them so much, take them as your own apprentices."

"They do useful things, like keep an eye on you," he shrugged.

"You don't need to care about what I do."

"Of course I do. I like the world."

Wuya huffed and went to find Raimundo.


"We almost there?" Jessie asked.

“Yes,” Chase said, glancing over his shoulder at her.  “It’s not like going to a physical place, though; the path is imprecise and non-linear.”  He stopped for a moment, listening to something no one else could hear, and turned into a side tunnel Kimiko hadn’t even noticed.

Rather than leaving the Citadel as she’d expected, Chase had led the way toward the level with the bathing pools and then deeper still, until the smooth walls turned into textured rock and the only light was the glowing sphere Chase had created.  Kimiko was trying hard not to think about bats or cave-ins or goblins.  While she was fairly sure goblins weren’t real, she was currently following her master, the immortal guardian of an underworld, through a series of dark caves on the way to a magical land that nobody could find, and getting attacked by goblins would really be the least surprising thing about today.

Texas's skin was prickling like he was itchy, and he noticed Jessie scratching the back of her neck as well. "I think that's on account of we're underground but it's… magical underground," he said, looking for words she'd understand too. "I think it means we're getting close." Jessie nodded.

Chase stopped again, and started running his fingers along the wall like he was looking for something, humming under his breath.  He made a pleased sort of noise and then something went thunk and the wall swung open into a lush garden.  “Welcome to Shangri-La,” he said, and gestured for them to proceed.

(Elsewhere, Guan smiled.)

Jessie rushed ahead, with Texas and Omi right behind her, looking for Raimundo. The garden was overgrown but not wild, as if everything in it just couldn't stop growing. Everything seemed brightly colored after the lair, even if Texas couldn't put a finger on whether any of the colors were actually different than Chase's garden.

"You remember when we played hide an seek with the tiger claws?" Jessie asked Kimiko. "You were the best at finding people, you think you could do something like that to find Rai even without the claws?"

“Maybe?” Kimiko thought about using the claws, the moment of considering a place and the feeling it had.  The Citadel smelled faintly of the ocean, and it was always just a little bit cool no matter the weather, and sounds echoed a little in some rooms, and those were the senses she’d use to find it.  Then she thought about Raimundo, how there was always a slight breeze when she stood next to him, the sound of his voice as he cracked a joke, the look on his face when he caught sight of Jessie coming into the room.  She took that Rai-sense, and asked the place they were standing in where is this feeling, and followed the pull that resulted.  It was easier than hunting with the tiger claws, tugging at her like a magnet.

Jessie followed right on her heels and if it was another little stab in her gut that working with Kimiko again felt good, she ignored it.

Jack felt Wuya's presence close by, and he heard her yelling before he could say anything. He pulled Kimiko and Jessie back. "Rai's with her."

“Guan isn’t distressed,” Chase observed.

"Wuya is," Jack noted. "So maybe we should wait before we barge in?"

"Naw, I'm gonna kick her ass," Jessie pulled away from him.

“That might prove amusing to watch.”

Jessie was running ahead whether they liked it or not, and Texas followed like he'd never stopped taking care of his little sister. They couldn't quite make out the arguing until they were almost there, so they turned the corner just as Raimundo snapped at Wuya, "Aiya, I let you talk me into leaving because I wanted room to think, if you're just going to yell I'm wrong all the time I'll go back to Jessie!"

Jessie froze in the archway, making a noise like she'd had the air punched out of her.

Raimundo looked around like a rat between a cat and a snake, but there wasn't another exit.

Wuya just smirked. "You sure you don't want to help me get out of here, Rai?"

“Really, Wuya?  You’re still manipulating children to get what you’re after?”  The at your age went unsaid, but it hung in the air.

"I'm not a child," Raimundo snapped automatically.

“Wuya is nearly two millenia old, Dragon of Air.  There was a time when I was a child to her.”

"You're still a child," Wuya grumbled. "The two of you playing keep away when all I want is what's rightfully mine."

“You lost it through your own folly, Wuya, and you have not yet seemed to come to terms with the depth of your wrongdoing even still.  Even now you are pushing raw emotions to gain a favorable response.  And yet.”  Chase frowned, drumming his fingers on his arms.  “And yet, you were gracious enough to bring to me my beloved apprentices, who have proved bright and brave and of whom I could not wish any better.  As such, I would offer you a boon, if you wish it.”

Wuya looked at Jack intensely enough that he wanted to flinch, and then at Texas, and he could see a flash of regret on her face that she had given them to him. Then she looked at Raimundo, who didn't meet her gaze, and she frowned. "Very well, Chase. I am pleased you have enjoyed the boys' company and I accept your boon. I should visit some time and check on their progress. But for now… I cannot leave with the body Raimundo helped me recover, as Guan is keeping me here. Get me back to earth as I am now, in my physical form, so I may return to my own plans, and I will be happy to leave these children alone for a while."

"How about you stay here an' I punch you hard enough to make you a ghost again," Jessie threatened, moving to stand next to Raimundo. Omi followed her lead, standing on the other side of him, and Raimundo looked confused but relieved.

“You may have your body and depart with it,” Chase said, nodding at Guan as he made a gesture with his right hand.  Kimiko elbowed Jessie and shook her head, gently but insistent.  “Your freedom is your boon, take it and go.”

Wuya disappeared, and Kimiko burst out laughing.  Chase turned around and smirked at her.  “Caught that, did you?”

Kimiko nodded.

"Caught what?" Jessie asked.

“Oh, you wouldn’t - right.  Um.  Master Chase is left-handed?”  Blank stares.  She laughed again.  “Dominant hand is for the opening of ways, the loosing of bonds.  The other hand is for closure, binding, endings.  He gave her a body but he blocked her from her magic.”

“She didn’t ask for it, in fairness,” Chase said.

"Well that'll be fun," Jessie laughed now too.

“No one can use magic in Shangri-La without permission from its master,” Chase explained.  “That was the raccoon trap I alluded to before; she could leave at any time, but not with the body she’d just made and not with the Shen Gong Wu she so cleverly had stolen for her.  Raimundo could leave at any time, and he brought the Wu in thus they would be considered his, but it wouldn’t do her any good unless she could convince him to restore her again.  Thus she was trapped here, with a body but without access to her magic, and what she requested was that I release her physical form as she was in that moment.  Powerless.”

"Where has she gone?" Omi asked.

Jack shrugged. "You can probably hear her screaming from three countries away by now, wherever it is."

“Likely she has returned to the coven she built, though I do not know how long they will tolerate a scheming witch with no magic, even if the witch is the original Queen of the Coven.”

Jessie looked at Rai. "You ready to come home?"

"I'm not- not yet," Raimundo said. "Wuya lied and it was a bad idea to go along, sure, but she wasn't wrong that I needed some space, you know? And Master Guan said I can stay here for a little while, at least, and see about getting my head straight."

Chase looked over at Guan and raised an eyebrow, then tilted his head.  Guan responded with a not in front of the children blink.

"Maybe we oughta give them a minute," Texas said, taking a step back. "You want us to wait on you, Jessie?"

"No, I think we're done for now, sounds like that's what he wants." She waited a minute, to see if Rai would say anything, but he held his ground. Omi frowned and walked away first, reaching back to pull Jessie along after him.

“You kids wanna send us to somewhere? Because this place is the middle of nowhere, and I don’t even know which way is up,” Dojo grumbled, sticking his head back out from under Jessie’s hat.  Kimiko wondered if he’d spent the entire confrontation asleep.

"May we please be escorted back to where we can get home?" Omi asked, and Guan gestured, creating a door in the air that appeared to open right onto the central pavilion of the Xiaolin Temple.

“Door to door service, not bad, Guan,” Dojo commented.

The two monks and the dragon walked through the door and vanished, leaving the rest of them staring at each other.  “Well, that was fun,” Chase said.  “Shall we take ourselves home as well?  Guan, will you be home for dinner?”

"Not for a few days, I think," he said, looking at Raimundo. "Then we will re-evaluate."

Chase nodded.  “Don’t forget to write, hm?  I’d like to know next time you’re holding people hostage without having to hear about it thirdhand.”

"I didn't expect her to hold out that long, to be honest, and by then it seemed silly," Guan said.

"Hey, Kim?" Raimundo asked. "Can I ask you something?"

“You just did, but you can ask me something else.”

"When you left, did you know it was the right thing? Or did you figure it out later?"

Kimiko took a deep breath.  “I knew staying was the wrong thing, which sounds like the same but didn’t feel like it in the moment.  It was only when I got to the Citadel and Master Chase offered me a formal apprenticeship that I knew that it was the right decision.  I - think it’s both knowing that you’re going and knowing where you’re going that gives you the sense of making the right choice.  You have to make the choice first.”

"Thanks," he said. "And- I know we hurt you. I'm sorry."

Kimiko hugged him.  “That means a lot, Rai.  It worked out for the best for me, but it wasn’t great having to get there.”

Chase turned a doorknob that hadn’t been there a moment ago, and opened the door to the library.  “When you’re ready,” he said, and stepped through.

Jack followed immediately, like he couldn't put space between himself and anywhere Wuya had been fast enough, and Texas hesitated, looking from Kim to the space where his sister had been. “You okay?” she asked, squeezing his hand.

"Yeah," he turned back to the door. "I got my family here, why wouldn't I be?"

“Change is hard,” she said.  “It’s okay to feel that.”  She twined her fingers with his and they walked through the door together.

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Seismic Shifts

Chapter Summary

And one day you finish your training and everything changes.

The shift at the end of an oath-year had always been very clear. Master Chase would remind them ahead of time, but the day of, after morning chores they'd speak with him formally and oath again for another year. The end of their fifth year did result in Chase modifying the oathmark they all carried on their energy, indicating that he named them his completed apprentices, no longer under his protection but instead representatives of his teaching.

As a result of Jack's genealogy work, Kimiko had reached out to her mother's side of the family. Most of them lived in the United States, and many of them were at least familiar with elemental magic; when Kimiko introduced herself as her master's apprentice, they had known what it meant and welcomed her.

Kimiko’s cousin Juniper was an earth dragon, who had a year left on her apprenticeship to Amhuluk, the Heylin Dragon of the Sea-Salt Cliffs, who was water-aligned. Their work on trying to rebalance the elements of the western United States left room for exactly the sorts of projects journeywork was meant to be for, and Juniper had suggested they start by visiting her and her master. Chase had formally written to Amhuluk when Kimiko and Jack had mentioned Juniper's suggestion. All three of them would be welcome, the dragon had replied, based on Chase's recommendation.

Kim and Jack were excited about wildfire control and remediation, working with the land to manage controlled burns, and also about living with Juniper and having a city for their home base instead of Chase's citadel. Texas was glad they were excited, and he liked Juniper well enough. She was the first earth dragon he'd worked with since he'd last seen his sister and they fit together easily. It'd be comfortable, he figured, though he wasn't sure how he felt about city living, especially back in San Francisco.

Master Hannibal arrived shortly before they were to leave, to congratulate his own apprentices on a job well done. He brought gifts for two of them - for Jack, a book tracking Heylin genealogy that had been compiled at least six hundred years earlier, and went back farther and in more detail than anything else he'd found, and for Kimiko, a bell cast by her ancestor, whose use had been lost "because Chase has told me you love nothing more than a question that needs an answer".

"What about Texas?" Jack asked, feeling bold.

"Ah yes, what about you, Texas?" Hannibal asked. "What do you need?"

"I've got everything I need," he answered.

"Well, come keep me company while I walk and we'll see if we can't think of something."

Hannibal took him down into the village of the drowned souls and then further out than Texas had wandered before into the wilds of Nowhere. They talked about philosophy, and what Texas had learned, and what he was doing next. He kept waiting for Hannibal to ask him again what he wanted, and he wracked his brain trying to think of something suitable and failing, so he decided he would distract Hannibal with questions instead, and Hannibal told him how he traveled most of the time, preferring to keep an eye on everything and yet responsible for nothing. Texas found himself talking about what it had been like living on the streets, what he'd liked about it as well as the problems, and all the times he'd gone rough camping before that.

"I am ready to give you your gift," Hannibal announced as they neared the citadel again.

"Oh I don't -"

"I insist," Hannibal said. "I am giving you the gift of a choice."

Texas hesitated. "What, sir?"

"San Francisco will have your friends in it, which is no small thing. But I have been watching you, and it seems to me like you're not going there because of any real passion you have. Your journey's work should be something you're doing because you're excited to go further in your Heylin studies, because you still want to learn more and be more. If you don't have that passion, there is no shame in leaving to do something else after your apprenticeship."

"With all due respect, Master Hannibal, that isn't much of a choice. Are you suggesting instead of going with the people I care about I just don't do anything… I don't even know what else I'd do. I'm sure Master Chase has told you I don't have anywhere I'd choose to go back to."

"Hmm, you make a good point. It's not much of a choice, is it? Well then, let me go further. If you'd like, I would be your journey's master and you can travel with me and see the world as I see it."

"What is it that you do when you travel?"

Hannibal laughed. "Whatever I want, of course! I like to talk to people, try new food, see what there is to see. I look for patterns to see where things ought to be, and help them along."

"Is that like… when Master Guan told us how he met you, he said you showed up just when they were replacing him in the Xiaolin Temple."

He nodded. "Wouldn't it have been a waste if he'd gone home to become some bureaucrat? And if I just happened to have another child who needed to be taught…"

Texas nodded. "Makes sense."

"Being in the right place at the right time, knowing it's the right place, that's a sense you can develop the same as aim or balance. I think you've got to have a knack for it. You found Jack, you ended up here, you've got good instincts."

"Jack found me," Texas insisted, but quietly.

"Did he?"

He was silent.

"Look, you rescued each other, you came up together, you built yourself a family. Nothing wrong with that, you love him, you love the girl you both saved from the Xiaolin. But you don't owe him anything. You both put in the work, you both carried each other sometimes. He's got a lot he wouldn't have if you hadn't found him, too.

"And right now I can see the boy who didn't think he'd get any further than Glen Rose, about to tell me he doesn't want to go anywhere except where his family says they're going."

"How'd you even know-"

"You don't have to answer me right now. Go talk to your people, get some opinions if you want help thinking through it. Maybe you'll decide I'm just a crazy old man and you really want to go to San Francisco. That's good too, that means you made the choice intentionally."

Texas looked at the ground for a minute, and when he looked up he was alone.

He went back into the lair with his head spinning, not sure what to think or who to talk to first.

“His is not a settling presence,” Chase said quietly, and Texas realized he’d stopped halfway through the garden.  Chase was sitting under a tree with a book in hand.

"Oh, sorry, I'm not paying attention. Master Hannibal, uh, he made me a journeyman offer."

“And will you travel with him?” he asked, with that air of gentle amusement he got sometimes, like there were no surprises in the universe.

"I haven't answered him yet," Texas said. Of course Master Hannibal had told him, or discussed it, or something like that. It didn't really matter, did it? "Do you think I ought to, then?"

“I think it’s your decision,” he said.  

"That was Master Hannibal's point, I reckon. But as your student- or your former student, I guess- I'm seeking your advice."

“There are those who choose the community over the self, for whom service is a way of showing love, and who are strengthened by the bonds with others.  There are others who walk alone and who are strengthened by solitude and do not need to share an experience in order to enjoy it,” he said.  “Neither is better than the other.  And sometimes, you can choose one and come to the other later.  You are young, and there will be time to explore more than one thing before your journey ends.”

He nodded. "I don't figure Jack and Kim are the kind of people who'd hold it against me, I know that, but it's hard to think about leaving them."

“Hold space for the thought that separation does not need to mean forever.  Paths that split may rejoin further along, and those that run parallel for a time may end up at very different destinations.  Such are the vagaries of life.  But for my part, Guan and I have had our separations and meetings many times, and coming together is always sweet even if the last division was bitter.”

"Hard to picture you two fighting," Texas laughed, "but I guess brothers have to sometimes."

“We had to discover who we were when we were not together,” he said.  “Sometimes that need is hard to acknowledge, and sometimes it comes for one before the other is prepared for it.  It can be a hard truth to hear from someone beloved.”

"... Can I ask which of you left first?"

“He did,” Chase said quietly.  “And though I understood later, and even walked away myself a time or two, it ripped at me.  I had no one, you understand, only my master, who was sending me away, and my brother, who could not seem to get away from me fast enough.  I did not know how to be a person without someone to hold me to it, I thought.”  His hand tightened in Diol’s fur.  “But that does not strike me as a fault in your relationship with your own heart-sibs, hm?”

"Naw, if any of us isn't sure how to be a person it's probably me. I take your point, though. I'm not sure who I am without Jack and Kim and this is a chance to find that out and do it on my terms."

He nodded.  “Considering the challenge of your journeying years should bring you joy.  I think, when it is time to make your choice, you will know which path is set with joy and which is set with… usefulness.”

Texas thanked his master and went in search of Kim and Jack now.

Jack was already in the library, checking his new reference against his existing sources and updating his database.  Kimiko was poring over a book of maps of the national forests, putting tape flags down seemingly at random.

"Whatcha trackin?" Texas asked Kimiko as he came in.

“Elevation changes,” she said.  “And distance from open water.”

"I love watching how excited you are about this work," he told her.

“I keep getting surprised by how much I enjoy it.  It’s like a weird little puzzle, and I can’t wait to start fitting it together.”

Texas decided he wasn't going to find a good opening so he might as well just say it. "So I was talking to Master Hannibal and he offered me to come and travel with him for my journeywork."

“Oh really?” she said, smiling up at him.  “Wouldn’t that be a weird experience.”

He nodded. "It's not what I was planning on at all but I'm thinking I want to do it, if you and Jack don't think you'd miss me too much."

Kimiko stopped what she was doing and studied him thoughtfully.  Every so often she’d look at one of them and he’d see a flash of something he couldn’t quite explain or place, like those times when Master Chase made a comment that reminded them that he was incredibly old.  Kim wasn’t incredibly old, she was younger than he was, but she still had that quality sometimes.  “I’d miss you terribly,” she said, “but not enough to want to stand in your way.  This,” she tapped the book, “and what we’re going to be doing in SF?  There’s a place for you if you want it, but that doesn’t mean you have to take it.”

"Man, I knew you'd find a way to one-up me again," Jack laughed. "That sounds like a great opportunity if you want it. I'm not sure if I remember how to not have you around all the time, but I'm sure I'll figure it out."

Texas smiled at both of them. "Thanks, y'all. I'm kind of excited about doing something really different." And he did. He was worried about it too, but he figured Chase was right - if he tried it and he didn't like it, it was clear he'd be welcome with Jack and Kim again.


His decision, though, meant they were suddenly in their last week together, and then the last few days, and then the last day, and the last night.  “I wasn’t sad to leave home,” Kimiko said, pulling off her shirt and hanging it on its peg on the wall for the last time, she thought, “but I’m sad to leave here.  Excited, but sad.”

"I've lived here longer than I've lived anywhere, I counted," Jack flopped backwards onto the bed. "I think I've forgotten how to move."

"You only do that when Kim and I are done with you," Texas laughed. He didn't have much to pack even now, and was only taking what he could carry comfortably, though Hannibal had gifted him a bag that was bigger than it looked when he accepted his offer. Jack and Kimiko had sent a lot of things on ahead to Juniper's house, and so the rooms felt empty, reminding him of when they'd first arrived.

“It’s weird,” she said, sliding out of the rest of her clothes and dropping to the bed beside Jack.  “I lived in Tokyo longer, but most of the time I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

"My parents moved while I was away at school three times. Once when I got kicked out of this school in Rhode Island I got a taxi from the airport and got the address mixed up and I didn't even know I'd unloaded on their housekeeper for like ten minutes and then the lady of the house walked in on me pouting on her couch."

“They couldn’t even be bothered to send somebody to pick you up?  And I thought my dad was prone to ignoring me.  He at least always sent his secretary or somebody to meet me at the airport.  What assholes.”  She paused.  “Are we close enough that I can call your parents assholes?”

"In their defense by that point I'd fucked off and rescheduled my own flights home at least twice," Jack shrugged. "But you can call them assholes if you want. Just not to their faces, ok? And my mom's not bad, really, both of them are just busy with other stuff most of the time."

“I only call people assholes to their faces when they’ve actively earned it in the moment,” she said.  “And never people I want to make at least a moderately good impression on, like, oh, my boyfriend’s parents.”

"I told my mom you're not coming after all and she said to tell you her offer still stands," Jack said, looking up at Texas.

"I'm not even a minor, can you do that?"

"Yeah, you can adopt anybody you want," Jack shrugged. "Probably it'd be easier now that you're not a minor because your legal status wouldn't matter. But I'll tell her you said thanks but no thanks again."

“If your mom adopted him wouldn’t that make you brothers?  Or has being called brother-apprentices for so long numbed you to the general awareness of the not-brotherliness of your relationship?”

"Technically, yeah, but I don't make it a point to remind my mom all the time. I think for her it's more like, her way of trying to thank him for taking care of me when she wasn't there?"

Kimiko nodded.  “It’s a sweet gesture, that I’ll give her credit for.”

"It meant a lot, especially when she did the first time," Texas added. "I just don't think I'm ready to have parents again. Teachers is as close as I want to get, and I learned more from Chase than I did from my dad anyhow."

Kimiko nodded.  “He’s… a good substitute,” she said.  “For a lot of reasons.”

"I wonder if this is what graduating from college feels like," Jack said.

“Probably,” she said.  “Maybe we can try that too.”

"I was going to go into engineering, but I don't know if I'd want to anymore. What would you study?"

“Not sure.  Environmental science, maybe.”

"Oh that sounds up your alley."

“I have been lying here naked for like fifteen minutes and nobody’s so much as leered at me; are you both tired of me, or what?”

"I don't usually like mixing horny with melancholy," Texas said, reaching over to stroke her hair. "I'm willing to switch, though."

“There’s an Eagle-Eye Cherry song appropriate for the moment, and I really need to be distracted from thinking about it.”


It was eighteen months before they saw him again.

The wedding was for a cousin neither Kim nor Juniper particularly cared for, but the invitation had been sent and it would be more complicated to refuse than they decided it was worth. The event itself wasn't too bad, but if one more person asked Kimiko when she and Jack were going to get married she would impale them on the nearest serving fork. Jack's idea to get engaged just to put them off was sounding better by the minute.

"Are you going to spike the punch?" Jack asked her when they had a quiet moment at the table. He'd learned about the family tradition of spiking the punch at weddings the hard way, just a few months after they'd moved to San Francisco; that one had at least been a fairly harmless spell that left everyone making animal noises when they tried to speak, but he'd quickly heard enough stories to be worried about it.

("Why does anyone even drink the punch?" he'd asked.

"Because if you're strong enough, it doesn't affect you, and if you just avoid it, people judge that too," Juniper had explained.)

Kimiko shook her head. "I thought about it but I was busy working all week, I didn't have time to get anything together."

"Me either," Jack said, looking back toward the refreshments. He hadn't really thought about it, except in a passing way. A few cousins had circled around the punch bowl, but it didn't look like anyone had made a move yet.

"Don't worry, I already got it," said a voice behind them, and they both snapped around immediately because Texas was standing there.

"You did?" Jack asked.

He nodded. "Master Hannibal dared me to."

"Dared you," Jack repeated, laughing. "Of course he did. What are you doing here?"

Texas shrugged. "I'm not entirely sure whether he was invited or not, but we're definitely here for the wedding. He's handling his whatever, though, and I'm free to mingle, so move over, I wanna mingle right here, there's too many people everywhere else."

Kimiko scooted closer to Jack to make space for another chair. “You look really good,” she said as he sat down.

"You're just saying that because it's been a while," Texas laughed. "But both of you are a sight for sore eyes, I gotta say. How's city life treating you?"

“Can’t complain, except about how people keep asking me when we’re getting married.  All these aunties and their expectations,” she said, rolling her eyes.

Jack shrugged. "At least they're not trying to fix us up with anyone else."

"Hey, actually, I think I want some air. Y'all want to come outside with me?"

“I’d love to,” she said. “I think there’s a patio over that way?”

The three of them stood and made their way around the more crowded center of the room. People parted for Texas without acknowledging him and almost without realizing it.

"Now I know this's an imposition, with me in the middle of what I'm doing and not able to stick around, but I was wondering how you'd both feel about getting engaged, all three of us. I know it's not so easy, and you'd probably want to put off any ceremony until I was done with my obligations to Master Hannibal," he winked, "and there'd be some small print to discuss. But I love both of you and I'd sure like to put rings on you before I have to go again."

Kimiko beamed and threw her arms around him. “Yes, definitely yes, we’re not engaged yet because we didn’t want to do it without you,” she said.

Jack hugged him from the other side. "We've gone back and forth on it so many times, but now you're stuck with us."

Texas pulled two rings from his pocket, perfectly smooth circles of stone. "I was hoping these wouldn't go to waste." Jack's was black and sparkled faintly in the evening light.

“I missed you so much,” Kimiko sighed, leaning against him as he slid the ring on Jack’s finger.

"I missed you too," he said as he reached around to put her dark red ring on her finger. "How's it feel?"

Texas twisted a ring he was wearing on his own finger and a jolt went through Jack like he'd accidentally hit a live wire. "What is that?"

"Making sure I'll know if you need me, and you'll know if I need you."

“What beautiful magic,” Kimiko said, admiring her ring. “You must’ve worked on these for ages.”

"Master Hannibal introduced me to some folks from Fafnir's line who still do crafting magic they've passed down. I picked up a little something." Texas sighed in relief. "I'm glad you like them."

“It’s perfect.”  She hugged him again. “How long can you stay?”

"He said he'll be back through in a week or ten days if I wanna stand still that long," he grinned. "Oh and when I'm with him folks call me Outis, but I figure I'll always be Texas to you. He's real into names though."

“I’ll call you whatever you want me to call you,” Kimiko said.  “As long as I can still call you Texas in bed.”  She grinned.

“Any time,” he threw an arm around each of them. “You want to go back in and watch the fireworks, or head out?”

“What did you do?” she asked, eyeing him.  “Spike the punch has rules.”

Texas held up his hands. “It’s just honesty, as far as Hannibal told me. There’s some specific secret he’s after but this way anybody he’s talking to, it’s plausible deniability why they’re telling him things.”

“Honesty at a wedding?” Kimiko whistled.  “Yeah, let’s get out of here before everything blows up.  I think we should find June, too.”

They went back in and Kimiko could already feel the energy of the space changing.  She scanned the crowd, looking for Juniper and her brother-apprentice Jake, who’d been talking to the bride the last time she’d seen them.  They weren’t there now; the newlyweds were nowhere in sight, which she felt was probably a good thing.  The official parts had finished just before Texas and Hannibal had shown up, and she didn’t know them well enough to guess whether they’d actually left or were taking a break away from the crowd.  She caught sight of Jake and headed in his direction, hoping June was still nearby.

“Hey, guys! Hey… Texas, right? I haven’t seen you in forever! I forgot how tall you are. How’d you get invited? I thought you didn’t really, you know, family.”

“Oh I wasn’t invited,” Texas said breezily.

Jack kept scanning the room for Juniper. “Where’s June? We were thinking it was time to head out.”

“She’s talking to her grandmother. Not sure about what, but Grandma Jasmine asked her when she was going to get married again and she asked if she could talk to her privately for a minute. I know she hates getting asked that, but usually she just shrugs it off.”

“Oh no,” Kimiko whispered.  She glanced at Jack.  “Which way did they go?”

“Down that hall, you just missed her. I’m sure she’ll be back soon though. You can wait with me,” he said with a flirty tone, and Jack couldn’t tell if he was talking to him or Kimiko.

“Keep an eye on him,” Texas told Jack. “Kim, you forgive me if I come with you?”

She nodded, grabbing his hand and half-dragging him in the direction Jake had pointed.  “I just hope she didn’t have any of the punch and I’m overreacting, but,” she panted, “everybody thinks June and Jake are brother-apprentices the way Jack and I are and they’re not and… neither of them are eager to disabuse anyone of the notion yet, at least 0not until they’re not reliant on their families for everything.”

Texas followed her as fast as he could, nodding and trying to think ahead to what he could do to help.

“I’m nineteen,” Juniper was saying as they rounded the corner.  “Nobody gets married at nineteen any more, even if I did want to marry Jake, which I don’t…”

“Don’t want to do right now?” Kimiko added helpfully, “because you’re both so young.  Right, June?”

“I…” she trailed off, looking a little horrified.  “What’s going on?”

“We’re heading out, and I wanted to see if you wanted to come with.”

“Oh.  Yeah, um, that sounds like a good idea.”

Juniper’s grandmother looked very confused, but she smiled at Kimiko.  “And who is this?”

“Oh!  This is Texas, Grandmother Jasmine.  My Earth Dragon.”

“Ah!  We’ve heard many things about you, Texas, it’s nice to finally meet you.  Two Fire Dragons just can’t be a stable pair,” she said, shaking her head.  Juniper rolled her eyes and caught Kimiko’s hand.  

“Let’s go?” she suggested.

Texas bowed as formally as Jack had ever seen him. “It’s my honor to meet you, Grandmother Jasmine. If you wish to celebrate an engagement for the moment, I’ve recently had the joy of Kimiko and Jack accepting my offer of marriage when my own work allows for it.”

“Congratulations!  What lovely news,” she said, smiling at them.  “There’s just something about a wedding that makes you want to see every young couple happy.  That’s the only reason why we ask, Juniper, we just want you to be settled with someone who loves you as much as your Jake does.”

“I know, Gram.  I love you.”  She hugged her grandmother and started to walk away.

“Now, don’t rush off before I see your ring, Kimiko,” the old woman scolded.  Kimiko held out her left hand and admired the ring in the fluorescent hallway light.  “Oh, that’s just beautiful.  Very fine work, Texas; I imagine you did it yourself?”

“Yes I did, ma’am, thank you for noticing. Only the best for my firebugs,” he smiled at her. “I appreciate you noticing that we’re stronger for being the three of us. Kimiko told me some people have been pushing her and Jack to marry, and I’d have hated to miss them. You’re so right about how important it is to want to see folks happy with the right person, and not just married for the sake of marrying.”

“Hm, very true.  Very true.  Perhaps our Juniper will find someone even better suited to her than young Jacob.  I forget that it’s not like it was when I was a girl, where everyone assumed you’d marry your pairbond if you were lucky enough to have one.”

“Juniper is already lucky to have such a wise grandmother on her side, then. She’s one of the most careful people I’ve met, I’m certain she’ll take her time and make the right decision. Does she get that from you?”

Grandmother Jasmine looked almost as surprised at hearing Juniper described as careful as Juniper did but she smiled.  “If she’s got any sense of caution, it comes from her mother’s side of the family,” she said with a laugh.  “The Lees are not known for our tendency to deliberate on things before we do them.”

“If you’ll excuse us, Grandmother Jasmine, we wished to have Juniper and Jake come celebrate our engagement with us.”

“You go right ahead.  Have a nice time, don’t forget to drink water.”  Grandmother Jasmine headed off in the other direction, leaving the three of them staring at each other.

“Holy shit, how did you know,” Juniper gasped.  “It was like I couldn’t stop the words that were coming out of my mouth.”

“We were talking about leaving when the energy in the room changed, and Kim said something about the punch and we ought to find you,” Texas said, leading them both back to where they’d left Jack and Jake, who was babbling even more than usual but Jack was literally holding him in place so he couldn’t go off to talk to anyone else.

“Can we please get out of here,” Jack begged.

“Oh god yes,” Juniper groaned, grabbing Jake by the arm.  “Come on, Jake, let’s get out of here before one of us does something we’ll regret tomorrow.”

The five of them wandered out into the San Francisco dusk. Jake looked to Juniper. “Man, whoever got the punch this time is vicious. Did you yell at your grandmother?”

“No, thank the great Dragons Kimiko stopped me just in time.  It was like I couldn’t stop myself from saying exactly what I was thinking, and I almost outed both of us,” she groaned.  “We cannot keep this up for much longer, J, it’s killing me.”  She slapped her hand over her mouth, horrified.  “Somebody please gag me.”

“You can talk about it in front of us,” Jack said. “It’s okay, if we were going to care we’d have cared before now.”

“I didn’t think it bothered you, Ju, I’m sorry,” Jake told her, pulling her closer.  “We’ll work out a plan, I promise.”

“Maybe we can help?” Kimiko suggested.  “Let’s go get something to eat that wasn’t made in a hotel kitchen and we can talk about it.”

Which was how they were still at Denny’s at 3am, talking about all the ways life got more complicated after you finished your apprenticeship and suddenly everyone expects you to suddenly pivot into being an adult.

“Making me glad I missed out,” Texas laughed. “Okay so what have I missed?”

“I’m taking classes in environmental science at UC Berkeley,” Kimiko said.  “Part-time, but they’re meshing well with what I’m doing out in the world.”

“I’m not in a degree program but I took an anthropology class last semester that was really cool,” Jack added. “I’m working my way through all the Grandfathers and Aunties in our circle who will let me, working on my database. The firefighting work is good work, and I love working with Kim, but that’s kind of my passion project.”

“June and I are basically doing the same thing as we did before we finished last season, only with less supervision,” Jake said. “I remember all the reasons we had for staying put for at least a year or two but I’m not sure I agree with them anymore.”

“It’s one of those things that make logical sense but is emotionally unsatisfying,” Juniper said.  “And it’s really hard, which is not what I expected, because it’s not like it’s different than six months ago.”  She sighed.  “Can someone explain to me why ‘brother-apprentices’ means you’re fucking, and not like, I don’t know, actual siblings?  Because that has never made sense.”

“I think we’re the last ones who should try to explain that,” Jack laughed. “I think that’s got to do with how we think of closeness.”

“So can I ask a dumb question?” Texas asked. “What’s the worst that happens if you tell the truth?”

“Jake gets disowned and my parents attempt to get me locked up because I’m clearly mentally ill?  Or maybe the other way around, depending on how they’re feeling that day.”

“You’re over eighteen, I don’t think they can lock you up. It’s been a while since I went to the runaway support here in SF but I’m sure I remember that. So… what happens when you get disowned?”

“We lose our housing and our support in a wildly expensive city, with no mundane marketable skills and no one in the local magical community who would be willing to hire us to do so much as walk their dogs?”  Clearly Juniper and Jake had given this some thought, even if it was entirely fear-based catastrophizing thought.

"And you definitely don't know anybody in SF who'd put you up?" he asked, looking at Jack and Kimiko.

“We live with them,” Kimiko said, laughing.  “Although we don’t have to, we could absolutely find another place to live and share it with you, if worst came to worst.  The thing is, June, I think you two have worked this up in your head into some huge thing, and I don’t know that it actually will be.  From what I’ve heard, and seen, and from what Master Chase has said, it’s not actually all that common for apprentices to stay together past the first journey year, even assuming they start out together.  Even if the two of you don’t actually want to go as far as explaining to your parents your sexuality or lack thereof, there’s nothing stopping either of you from finding a different journey experience.  Master Chase said your journey path is supposed to be about joy, not… what was it, Texas?  Utility?”

"Yeah, something like that. It's about figuring out who you are when you're not somebody's apprentice, and it sounds like you two haven't even gotten there yet."

Jack nodded. "I know Kim and I got asked plenty of times, and it's annoying but it was never… personal feeling? Is that the right way to describe it, Kim? The assumption isn't really about us as people, it's about reinforcing membership in the community, in a way."

Kimiko nodded.  “It’s like when you’re a kid and you’re talking to some random grownup and they always ask the same questions.  How old are you, what grade are you in, do you like school.  They don’t actually care about any of those things, it’s just small talk that grownups make with kids.  At our age they ask what you’re majoring in and if you’ve got a boyfriend and if you’re going to marry him, and then once you’re married they start asking when you’re going to have kids, or if you’re going to have another kid, or how old your kids are.  It’s just crap old people ask younger people because they don’t actually know how to have a genuine conversation.  It just feels fraught, because you don’t want to disappoint anybody by saying that you’re not getting married because you don’t want to.  And also Jake is gayer than a bag full of rainbows.”

"Am I really that obvious?" Jake asked, groaning.

"To me, yes," Jack shrugged. "But if you're that obvious to your family, they're not going to be surprised when you come out, you know."

“Unless you flirt with boys in front of your relatives, they might not know,” Kimiko pointed out.  “But you live in SF, bastion of queer culture, do you really think they’ll be that upset?  Or surprised?  I mean, everyone knows we’re a triad, nobody’s said word one about it.  June’s grandmother was thrilled that we’re engaged.  We’re engaged, by the way, Jake, so stop flirting with my fiance.”

"Oh come on, it's just for fun," Jake said. "It just seems… like such a huge thing, and you're probably right that it's not that important to everybody but my parents are pretty traditional and you know my grandfather. It seems like a big risk right now, when we can just sit tight a little longer."

"What changes if you wait a little longer?" Texas asked.

"We could - I could be more established, I guess?" Jake didn't want to admit that he had no more timeline for a mysterious better time than he did for deciding what to do as a journeyman, and also he was starting to realize those were related.

“I think,” Kimiko said slowly, “the question that you maybe need to ask is, who is the most harmed if you wait, and who is the most harmed if you don’t, and what might happen if you choose a different path from the one you think you’re being shown?”  She leaned against Texas and stared into her coffee cup.  “We all thought we’d journey together, and then that changed the week before we were supposed to leave, because Texas found a different path.  Maybe you ought to look around and see if there’s a different path for you.”

Texas played with her ponytail while she leaned on him. "I can confirm there's a hell of a lot of out there if you want to try your luck somewhere else. It was hard making that call and walking away from Jack and Kim, probably the hardest thing I've ever done because I wasn't angry when I was doing it. But it was the right thing."

"So if we wait," Jake looked at Juniper. "The ones being harmed are us, I guess. And if we don't, our families? But probably not all of my family. My sister, she probably knows. What do you think?"

Juniper nodded.  “I think they’re right, and I think we could both benefit from having some separation from our community and their expectations.  Even if we both end up coming back, there’s a great big world and we’ve only seen a little fraction of our own backyards.”

"What do you want to learn about?" Texas asked.

"... I don't know," Jake admitted. "Amhuluk tried to talk to us about stuff like that but I was pretty shitty at listening and he expected us to be pretty self-directed so I self-directed myself right into a corner."

“What do you like learning about?” Kimiko asked.  “Or what do you enjoy doing, besides flirting?”

He groaned and put his head on the table, narrowly missing a syrup spill.

"How about you think about it for a couple days?" Texas said. "It's not today or never."

“You could always do an old-fashioned traditional journey, like Texas is doing,” Kimiko pointed out.  “Do some traveling, meet some people, learn some stuff, see if anything catches your attention.  Maybe you can’t decide what you want to do because you haven’t actually learned that the thing exists yet.”

“That actually sounds kind of fun,” Juniper said.  “I’m going to think about that too.”

"If you come up with an idea, I can ask Master Hannibal if he can make a recommendation, if you need one," Texas offered.

“I appreciate that.  You’ve given me - us - a lot to think about.”

“Now can we go home?” Kimiko asked.  “Jack and I haven’t seen Texas in eighteen months and we’d like to demonstrate that he shouldn’t stay away that long next time.”


It was late morning when Texas woke up, but Kimiko and Jack were still asleep. He wiggled his way out of the bed and dressed before going downstairs. The only person awake appeared to be Juniper's grandmother, who was sitting at the kitchen table doing the sudoku in the paper and drinking tea.

"Would you mind if I made breakfast, Grandmother?" Texas asked formally in Mandarin.

She smiled at him, a laugh in the corners of her eyes. "As long as you cook better than your intendeds, yes."

"I do okay," he said. "I know my accent is terrible. Do you prefer English?"

"For terrible, you do fine," she said and then switched, "I was still a girl when I crossed the ocean to apprentice with Amhuluk, and he doesn't bother with Mandarin, so I'm just as comfortable with English and Chinook."

"How did you come to Amhuluk, if you don't mind me asking?" he asked as he started breaking eggs for french toast.

"He had a Yamhill boy that was a very strong water dragon that had been sent to him, and he put out a call for a match, which used to be more common than it is now. My grandfather recommended me, and the boy and I were a good match, so here we are." She raised an eyebrow at him. "You certainly are Varuna's assistant, aren't you?"

"I'm afraid assistant might be overselling me," he laughed, "but I've learned from him that it's good to listen to the stories of others."

By the time he served her the first of the french toast, the others were wandering downstairs. Jake was in a hurry, as he had overslept for some plans he had, and Juniper stayed a bit before she reminded her grandmother she had a doctor's appointment they were going to today, and by the time Texas was ready to start on the dishes it was just the three of them in the kitchen.

"Oh good," Texas said when the door shut. "No more people."

"We're not people?" Jack asked, mock-offended.

"No, you ain't," he grinned. "You're my fiancees. Is there a dishwasher around here or is someone gonna dry while I wash?"

“I’ll dry,” Kimiko volunteered. “We keep trying to convince Grandmother Jasmine to get a dishwasher but she hasn’t given in yet.”

"She keeps saying she doesn't want to change anything," Jack added. "I'll put away."

Texas nodded. "So speaking of, I'm wondering if we shouldn't work out the terms of our engagement, make sure everything's on the table and nobody's disappointed."

"Do we need terms?" Jack asked. "Aren't we just… engaged? I'm not worried about dowries or anything."

"I think everybody's got assumptions about what engagement means, and I want to make sure we agree," Texas said. "For one, I don't know how long Hannibal will want me with him, and I sometimes feel like I might be doing this more time than not for a long time. Are you two okay with that?"

"Yes and no," Kimiko said slowly.  "We're all in our journey periods right now, and yours involves actual significant journeying, which is fine.  I'm okay with that.  But the thing where you're completely gone without a word for a year and a half?  That's not great.  I need either more visits or more communication between visits, or both."

Texas nodded. "I can definitely do more communication, and let you know if I'm going to be off the grid, and I'm thinking I'll be able to do more visits. I didn't really mean to be gone so long, time kinda got away from me and Hannibal's not much for keeping track of things like that."

“That’s all right, then,” she said. “Jack, I don’t mean to speak for you.”

"You're not speaking for me," Jack said. "You're just answering the question. And I like the idea of more communication. Do you know what you might have in mind, like, what a long time is, though? Do you think you'll eventually settle or should we think about it like we're planning to be mostly self-sufficient together?"

"I really don't know," he shrugged. "Let's suppose it's ten years or more. How's that feel?"

Jack looked at Kim. "I'm suddenly aware we've really just had everything on hold, relationship-wise. We haven't talked about much long-term at all."

“You’re right - I think we’ve been shoving the future into a box and labeling it ‘we’re too young to worry about this yet’ and focusing on right now.  So... well, I don’t want to be engaged for ten years, even if we’re still long-distance the whole time.”

Texas nodded. "Okay, so we'll plan on a wedding in the next couple of years, that's fine by me. You think there'll be any issues with that, family-wise or anything else? Jobs? Kids? Do you want kids?"

“I do but I’m willing to wait ten years for that, if I have to.  I want my kids to have three parents all the time.”

"Does that mean you'll stop doing super dangerous fire work where you're gone camping for a week or two at a time?" Jack asked her.

“I still don’t know, love.  If it’s my calling?”

"I mean, you're the one who said all the time."

“There’s a difference between a weeklong business trip and six months, don’t you think?  I meant,” she gestured vaguely, “not this.  What it looks like exactly, I don’t know, and maybe I’ll be doing entirely different work a decade from now, and maybe I’ll have the forests to the point where I don’t have to go out into the wilderness and walk 50 miles to get somewhere, and maybe I’ll know the places I need to go and I can just tiger-claw there in the same way that I get home when I’m done.”

"Okay, so we're all not quite sure what we'd want in ten years," Texas said, suddenly very aware this was an argument they'd had many times without him. "Are we all three of us willing to table it and get married anyhow? I am."

“How do you feel about me doing ‘super dangerous’ fire work?” Kimiko asked him.  

"Is it? Super dangerous, I mean? You can turn into fire when it suits you, what's dangerous out there?"

Jack sighed. "I realize Kimiko is incapable of relaxing when she's working but I still worry that in the middle of, oh, I don't know, a wildfire, there is some actual danger."

“And I think I’m more likely to get mauled by a bear than have trouble from my actual element,” she sighed.  “Maybe a tree might fall on me?”

"Those are actual dangers too! And you're not on paths or anywhere you're going to get found, and I've seen those maps you make before you go out but the chances of finding you if there's a problem are just- I know it's important to you and I know you're amazing and I just want you to acknowledge that my fears are maybe a tiny bit valid occasionally."

“Bears are afraid of fire,” she pointed out, “as we’ve discussed.  And…” she sighed.  “I know you worry, and your fears are very real to you, but I’ve never felt genuine danger any time I’m out there.  The worst thing that’s ever happened is that I got lost for half a day, and I didn’t want to give up the walking out I’d done at that point, which is the only reason I didn’t come home immediately.  And then I did, and everything was fine, except that now you’re worried about me every time I’m gone without you.”

"Okay," Texas said, "let's… let me think for a minute."

"Are we scaring you off?" Jack said, only half-laughing.

"No. I've known you both long enough to know how you argue. You just haven't had anybody mediating, I'm guessing. Clearly eighteen months was longer than I should have been."

“June thinks I’m right and Jake thinks Jack’s right, so yeah.”

"Jack I'm gonna say this with love, okay?"

"... that's not a great opening."

"Have you thought about talking to a professional? That sounded like a lot to be having in your head by yourself."

“Thank you,” Kimiko said.  “That’s what I’ve been telling him, because he gets… like panic thought-spirals, way out of proportion to what’s happening.”

Jack sighed. "Fine, if you both think it, I'll try it, okay?"

“I love you, and I don’t want you to suffer every time I’m out of your sight.  I feel like we’re getting there, not just when I’m gone to the woods.”

"I get lonely when you're gone and Texas is always gone and yeah, I guess I get up in my head." Jack frowned. "And I feel like I can't worry about Texas because if I start I'll never stop. At least you come home after a couple of days."

“You can come with me, but I don’t know that would actually help,” she said, giving him a kiss.  “Every time you came you seemed to find more stuff to worry about, rather than seeing how comfortable I am out there.  And I’m sure it’s not deliberate, it’s just… your lizard brain breathing panic in your ear or something.”

Texas put the last dish in the drainer and dried his hands before putting his arms around Jack. "What else would make you less lonely? That might help too. Don't you hang around with June and Jake, and have other friends?"

"I like June and Jake well enough, but Jake likes to flirt and it makes Kimiko uncomfortable so I always feel guilty spending time with him."

“I don’t like that he flirts with you in front of me, I don’t want you to avoid him,” she said.  “I just don’t like feeling invisible.”

"Why do you feel invisible when he flirts, though? You could be in my lap and he'd flirt. And maybe I worry if I let him flirt when you're not there I'll like it too much, I don't know."

“I feel invisible when he flirts because… I don’t know, flirting with someone in front of their girlfriend is super disrespectful, especially if you know she’s not comfortable with it?  Like I’m right there and he doesn’t care? Doesn’t even make eye contact with me?”

"Do you want him to make eye contact with you while he's talking to me? I think that'd be even weirder." Jack sighed. "Okay so. I guess I need to find a therapist and new friends also. What else is going on my list?"

“Occasionally looking my way, or acknowledging that I’m in the room instead of just talking to you?  Yeah, that would be super weird.”  She rolled her eyes.  “Whatever, I’m sure it’s fine.”

"Have you two thought about not living with the specific guy you don't like flirting with Jack? I'm sure this arrangement is great and I know you were just telling them last night you'd put them up if they got disowned but Jake sounds like maybe he's not so great."

"Therapist, new friends, new apartment. Man I wasn't expecting being engaged to have so much homework."

“June is great, and part of the reason she’s still here instead of off journeying is because her grandmother can’t really live completely alone, she needs help with the house.  Jake’s a closet case with shitty manners, but he’s fine as long as Jack and I aren’t in the same room at the same time.  He’s totally fine with me when I’m by myself, but Jack walks in the room and it’s like he forgets I exist.”

"So what do you think he needs more, someplace else to be or a boyfriend?"

“I think he needs to get out into the world so that he can figure out that the stakes aren’t as high as he thinks they are,” she said.  “Honestly I think he flirts with Jack because he’s safe, and he probably doesn’t even realize he ignores me when Jack’s around?  But it never fails to piss me off.”

"You should let me flirt back, I think it'd scare him off," Jack said, "and if it didn't, well, I'd be less lonely when you're gone."

Kimiko stormed out of the room.

Jack, in fairness, looked a little surprised that he'd said that out loud. Texas checked in with him and then went looking for Kimiko.

"Kim?" he let himself into their room. "You want to talk or you want to be alone?"

“What’s there to talk about?” she asked from under the blanket.  “Nobody actually wants me if I’m not physically here, apparently, and it’s not enough that I have to put up with some dude flirting with my boyfriend, but also he’s not shutting it down because he’s interested.”

"Now that wasn't the most decorous sentence I've ever heard out of Jack's mouth but I don't exactly think that's what he meant, and he felt like a right idiot the minute he realized he'd said it if that helps any." Texas sat on the bed next to her. "And I can actually think of someone I want to introduce Jake to, that might solve the immediate problem if he's interested. But I think you're worried about something else, too. Talk to me about feeling invisible, wildfire."

“It’s like when Rai and Jessie started dating and I lost both my closest friends at the same time.  To each other, which somehow was worse, and then they all started hating me, and maybe it’s just that there’s something wrong with me, and nobody actually wants me, I’m just what you do until something better comes along.”

"Aw geez, Kim, I'm sorry that's what came up for you. I can't imagine what Jake'd have to do to get Jack to ignore you, though. Unless something crazy's changed since I've been gone I know he loves you a hell of a lot. So do I. And I can't imagine anybody being something better than you."

“I don’t even know, because I thought I understood our relationship but I guess I was making different assumptions than everybody else, and that’s my fault, but what else am I wrong about?”

"That's the funny thing about assumptions, I guess, is half the time you don't realize you're making them until you talk about them."

“Or you find out they were wrong because something happens to demonstrate it to you.”

"What do you want, Kimiko? What's your ideal endgame, you think?"

“I don’t know,” she said, “because what I want isn’t fair, and I don’t want to do that to anybody.”

"I didn't ask you what you thought was fair, I asked you what you wanted. Even if I can't give it to you, I'd like to know if we're going to get married and all that means."

“I don’t want to share either of you with anyone outside the three of us,” she said softly.  “I never have.”

Texas nodded. "Thank you for saying it. And I don't think Jack really wants to do anything with Jake from the sound of it. Have you two been pretty well matched together with me gone?"

“Aside from the same two arguments we have every month or so,” she sighed.  “And everybody who keeps telling us that fire dragons can’t form a stable pairbond and also when are you two getting married, because those thoughts are somehow compatible in people’s heads?”

"Jack said he felt like he'd forgotten how to live in a city with people and he still hasn't relearned it yet. So I think making new friends'll be good for him in more than one way. You think we can talk him into doing more classes, or is there something else that'll get him out of his head?"

“I think he needs to go out and do something physical, because he tends not to unless I push him.”  She pushed the blankets off and sat up.  “The last thing he needs is more stuff to think about, he needs to go… I don’t know, buy a skateboard or something.”

"Is that the second argument? Or were you just meaning dangerousness and Jake?"

“My life is dangerous and Jake is flirtatious.  Doing physical stuff isn’t an argument so much as he literally forgets unless someone’s around to remind him since he doesn’t have Master Chase asking him about it at dinner every night.  Not that he actually did it every night, but you know what I mean.  He doesn’t have accountability any more, so he forgets.”

"That's something we can work out before I leave, I think. And I'll deal with Jake. And, if it's important to you, wildfire, I'll try being strictly yours and Jacks and see how it works, okay?"

“Maybe it’ll get you to come home more often,” she said with a wink.  “You know, I didn’t expect you to show up and try to fix all our problems.”

"I can stop if you want. I just want you to be happy."

“I didn’t say that, I just don’t want you to think we need to be rescued.  I dunno, probably you don’t actually think that, you just like to make things easier for people.”

"Yeah, I mean, that's what I'm learning? How to see what needs to be connected, or fixed, or adjusted, and to do it. And Jake needs fixed anyhow."

“I’m a project now?” She laughed.  “Maybe come fix me, hm?”

"I'm the project," he said. "I need to be reconnected to you and Jack, clearly."

Kimiko grabbed her phone.  U can come up if you want, texas is going to eat jake and make everything better

When Jack looked in two minutes later, he asked "Well that's one way to get him to stop being a closet case."

"What?" Texas asked.

"Kim said- ohhhhh. Did you mean literally? That works too."

“I meant literally,” she giggled, “although I don’t think he’s really going to, and definitely not the other way.”

"Okay, what's the plan?"


Six months later, and five months after Jake had picked up and moved to Seattle for a too-good-to-turn-down journeywork offer that seemed to come out of the blue, Kim was out hiking and Jack and June were keeping each other company, which lately seemed to end up in meetings of the Kimiko Mutual Admiration Society.

"Have you ever thought maybe you should tell Kim you have a crush on her?" Jack asked.

“I don’t work like that,” she pointed out.  “I’m not with the liking of people.”  She didn’t want to admit that the not-liking-of-people didn’t seem to apply to Kimiko, and that she’d spent a surprising amount of time wondering what it would be like to kiss her.  “And even if I suddenly was, she’s very, um, attached.  To you?”  The appropriate reaction to someone wanting to kiss your significant other was to get mad; she’d watched enough TV and books to understand it intellectually, at least.  Kim herself had always been irritated by Jake flirting with Jack.

"You wouldn't know, because by definition you're not here for it, but Kim talks about you the same way you talk about her. I think she'd be open to it. And I already share her, I'm not bothered by it, especially if it's you."

“Aren’t allosexuals supposed to be possessive of their partners?”

“It’s an option, but it’s not a requirement.” Jack shrugged. “I love her but I like you and I think you’d be good for her, she takes not having Texas around harder than I do in some ways.”

“That’s why she’s always out in the woods, you know.”  June didn’t realize that was true until she said it, then it seemed obvious. “It’s the strongest connection to earth energy she can access.”

Jack filed would avoid me to spend time with fake Texas away as an unhelpful thought to unpack with his therapist later. He'd been working on identifying unhelpful thoughts like that and cutting them off at the knees. "Well I'm not asking you to try dating just for her sake, but I think she'd be interested if you did want to try it, that's all."

“Maybe I’ll ask her when she gets back, then.”  

June fully intended to ask Kimiko when she got back, but she discovered that she couldn’t actually talk about it with her somehow.  Anything else in the world seemed to be fair game, and they spent plenty of time talking about everything and nothing, but somehow June never managed to bring up how she kind of wanted to kiss her.

So instead Jack thought maybe he'd poke it from the other way around and see what happened. Next time Kim was talking about June that same way, he asked her if she thought maybe she had a crush on her.

Kimiko blinked at him. “Oh. Yes, absolutely that’s what that is. Wow, I feel dumb, I’m sorry for dumping that on you.”

“You’re not dumping it on me. You’re supposed to share your feelings with me, why would you feel bad about that? The question is what you’re going to do about it.”

“Nothing?  She’s my friend, and I don’t want to mess that up, and also I’m engaged.  To you, in fact.”

“I happen to know she also has at least a squish on you, and also I like her just fine so what’s the problem?”

“I - but - we’re - exclusive? And even if you decided to give me the go-ahead for some reason, Texas isn’t here to.”

Jack pulled out his phone, clicked through and showed her where he’d texted Texas two weeks ago to tell him how adorable Kimiko’s squish on June was, and Texas answered that he wanted to know when she finally made a move.

“You’re both fired,” she muttered.  “You talked about this to each other, but not me?”

“I’m talking to you about it right now. I’ve tried bringing it up kind of subtly and it never worked.”

“You did not,” she protested.  “When?”

"I think the best was when you were talking about June being so great to work with after you two made that whole dim sum spread that one Sunday and how you can't cook without her and I said anybody would be lucky to work with her but you seemed to be really attached, and you got kinda flustered and changed the subject."

“Ugh, why am I so oblivious?” she sighed.  “And she really likes me?”

“At least as much as she likes anybody - I’m not sure what she’s interested in exactly but she’s interested.”

“And you really don’t mind?  You’re not just saying it because you like to encourage me?”

"Clearly the therapy is working if you're worried I'm encouraging you to do something I think is a bad idea." He laughed. "I really don't mind, no."

She kissed him, a peck at first, and then slower and more thoroughly.  “I love you, you know.”

“I love you too,” he kissed her, leaning in. “I want you to be happy, and when you’re with her you’re happy.”

“I am,” she admitted.  “I haven’t had a really close girl friend since Jessie got infatuated with Rai, and I missed it.  June’s not at all like Jessie, for all that they’re both earth dragons; she’s much easier to get along with.”

“I got the impression that’s not hard,” Jack laughed.

“You’re not wrong,” Kimiko laughed.  “But I was twelve and she was cool, so.”

“Not criticizing,” he threw his hands up. “You’ve got a type and the type is earth dragon, nothing wrong with that.”

“Also you.  Maybe you’re the exception that proves the rule?”

"Texas had already rubbed off on me by the time we started hanging out?"

Kimiko snickered.  "I'm still secretly thirteen years old, and I'm attracted to earth dragons and geniuses, I think."

"Nothing wrong with that, nothing at all. So does that change how you feel?"

She took a deep breath.  "I'm going to go talk to her.  Wish me luck?"

"Good luck." Jack kissed her on the cheek.

She went down the hall to June's room and stuck her head in the open door.  June was sitting on her bed, reading a book, and she looked up at Kimiko's footsteps.  "Hey," she said.

"Hey."  There was a long silence.  "Jack said you have a crush on me," she blurted.  June started to look extremely embarrassed, and Kimiko jumped to add, "It's okay!  So do I!  On you, I mean.  Um."

"Jack told me that too," June admitted.  "I've been trying to figure out how to bring it up, but I'm not good at - talking to people.  That I like."

"I don't think anybody's actually good at talking to people that they like," Kimiko said.  "Remember how bad Jake was?  And if Jack hadn't made a pass at me I'd still be single, because I just don't notice when people are flirting with me."

"Me neither.  How do you know if somebody's just being friendly, or if they're trying to be more than friendly?  It was easier when I thought I was totally ace because then I didn't have to try and figure any of that out, ugh."

"Good thing we've got Jack to interpret for us," she laughed.  "Can - can I come in, first?"

June put a piece of paper in her book and patted the bed next to her.  "Please do."

Kimiko sat down next to her, and they stared at each other for a while.  Finally, Kimiko leaned over and kissed her, which turned out to be less weird than she expected, and then it wasn't weird at all.


finally, Jack texted Texas.


Congrats, was waiting on Kim's phone when she finally got around to looking at it later.

You're both fired, she sent back.

Love you too.


It was another month before Texas was able to come back through SF, and he surprised them at home this time, so he could just settle in for dinner like it was no big deal.

June was in the kitchen, with Kim acting as sous chef and Jack providing teasing commentary from the breakfast table.

"You got room for one more?" he asked as he sat down, having apparently not bothered to knock.

“Texas!” Kimiko shrieked, dropping her knife and coming over to give him a hug.  

"Hey there Wildfire," he picked her up and set her in his lap for a hug. "Are you keeping busy?"

"My girlfriend is teaching me how to cook," she reported happily, snuggling against him.  "She doesn't want me to subsist entirely on granola bars while I'm in the woods, or something like that."

"Good for you," he told her. "I'm glad somebody else is taking that one since I'm not here to remind you. How're you liking having a girlfriend?"

"It's very nice, I can see why you liked it."

"Vast improvement over just Jack by himself, isn't it?"

Jack laughed. "I'd be offended but I know I'm better in combination with someone else."

"We have fewer ridiculous arguments between June talking sense into us and Jack's fantastic therapist, all praise unto her.  Hopefully June won't get tired of intervening with our bickering and leave me for someone who's less ridiculous."

"I don't think you're ridiculous, and I bet she doesn't either," Texas looked up at June. "Do I need to give her back so you can finish cooking?"

"Unless you want to come over here and chop onions instead," June said, laughing.  "And I'm very fond of my ridiculous firefly and wouldn't have you any other way."

"I can chop onions if you need a break," he said, sliding out from under Kim.

"I'm not going to fight you on onion-chopping, that's for sure.  It's the worst."

"It's definitely not my favorite thing to have to do," Juniper agreed.  "I tend to buy a big bag of them and chop all of them at once when the weather's nice and we can open all the doors and windows, then freeze the leftovers to use when it's too hot or too wet."

"So you found a reason to miss Jake after all?" Texas winked at Kim. "He's pretty happy up in Seattle, he's actually going out, these days."

“Amazing,” June said.  “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you helping him get a spot up there, Texas.”

He shrugged. "The witch I introduced him to up there, she works for the county doing environmental monitoring and pollution tracking, he's just what she needed."

“I feel like we could use a database for people and projects,” Kimiko said.  “What do you think, Jack?  Something searchable, where you could post for help?”

"Oh I like that idea. It wouldn't get everybody but I bet it would get a lot of people who don't know what kind of help would help them. Like Indeed but for magic."

Kimiko nodded.  “I was thinking LinkedIn, but maybe starting with Indeed and then looking to expand later would make more sense.”

"We can just add features as we see a need for them, but just letting people list what they need help with and other people can see it and make suggestions would probably be really useful to start." Jack had his phone out and was making a list of ideas and features off the top of his head. "I can put out an email to the folks who use my database and see if they have a use for it or can think of someone who does, to get feedback."

“That’s a great idea.  Even if only some people use it, it’s got to be a better system than relying on somebody who knows connecting with someone who needs to know.”

"Putting me out of a job is one way to keep me around," Texas said as he finished cutting up the onions.

“Even better,” Kim grinned.  “Let me know if you want help with the code, Jack.”

“Thanks, Texas.  If you want to measure out one-cup servings into plastic bags, I’d appreciate it,” June said.  

Texas stayed busy, measuring the onion, bagging it and stacking them neatly in the freezer for June, while Jack and Kim discussed the best way to organize the database.

June finished making dinner and handed Texas the first plate with a smile.  "Helpers eat first."

"Well I reckon Kim helped you more than I did so I'll just serve this one," he grinned at her and set the plate in front of Kim. "Thank you for dinner. How are you doing without Jake, June? Things feeling simpler or are you worrying about what folks would think of you and Kim now?"

"It's so much better.  I didn't realize how much effort supporting him took until I didn't have to do it any more," she said, fixing more plates.  "And everybody just thinks Kim and I are besties, because they know she's safely attached to two men, and therefore we couldn't possibly have anything else going on."

"Well that's convenient, as assumptions go," Texas nodded. "Glad you found a way to make that work for you." He served and waited for June to sit before he sat back down. "Master Hannibal says I should stay as long as I want this time - I think he's wondering if I'll settle or if I'm going to want to take myself off again."

"Really?" Kim squeaked.  "That's awesome!  Do you think you're ready to settle, or not yet?  Or is it too early to tell?"

"I'm not sure," Texas said. "I want to give it an honest try and see how I feel in a couple weeks."

"Well, we're happy to have you as long as you want to stay," June said.  "What have you been up to lately?"

"I met some Russian selkie-types, and Master Hannibal and I helped a fire demon who'd gotten himself bound up kind of the way Wuya was, and there were these drop bears in Australia asked him to help them trick some farmers who were getting up in their space," Texas looked like he was ticking them off in his head. "You'd like the fire demon, Jack, he liked playing with electricity and doing fancy stuff with it, it reminded me of some of your work."

"Oh, huh," Jack said. "Did you give him my email? I got an email like two months ago from somebody in Cambodia who said you'd given him my name."

"Nice! He'd never gotten online before, I wasn't sure if he'd like it. And I know you've been working on your databases, because I've started running into folks who've heard of you before I tell them about you." He turned to Kim. "How about you? Making progress in the woods?"

 "Slow but steady," she reported. "This summer has had the fewest uncontrolled wildfires in something like a decade, according to the news."

"That's amazing," Texas grinned at her like he couldn't see anything else in the room. "You're both so damn brilliant, how did I get so lucky that you put up with the likes of me?"

"I tell them that all the time, and they don't believe me either," June said, shaking her head.  "They make the rest of us feel slow and plodding in comparison."

"Says the woman who's easing pressure on the most dangerous fault lines in the world," Kimiko said, laughing.  "And the man who's exploring the world and helping drop bears and rusalkas and… and Jake."

They all burst out laughing at that.

"Now I'm just wandering around crashing on peoples' couches, mostly," Texas said. "The drop bears were very nice hosts."

"Did you like Australia?" Kimiko asked.  "I've had a couple of people suggest that I visit and see if I can make any recommendations for their bush fires."

"Yeah, except that once you get out of the cities it reminded me of Texas and I wasn't expecting that. I think it'd be fine going knowing that though. I'd love to take you some time."

"I would love that.  We could all go - Jack, think about the stories you could get, and June, I'm sure the land is amazing."

"So much for settling," Texas said. "But sure, I'd love to travel with all of you if you're up for it."

"I haven't gone anywhere that I couldn't hike to in what feels like a million years," Kimiko pointed out.  "I'm perfectly happy to settle in general, but I'd like to do a little bit of wandering too."

"I'll take you anywhere, anytime, Wildfire."

"You say the sweetest things, Texas."

This fic has been converted for free using AOYeet!

Little Earthquakes

Chapter Summary

Sometimes things change so slowly you don't notice.

Texas had been in town about a week or so, just spending time with everyone. Jack was dragging him around to places they'd never been when they were kids, weird stores on the other side of the bay, just trying to show him a side of the city that didn't have history for him. June was visiting her grandmother daily, making sure her recovery was going well, and sometimes Texas went with her. Kimiko took him out to see some of her favorite places out in the wilds where she did most of her work. When it wasn't just the two of them, they sat around talking, or went to nearby places, never anything particularly complicated or fancy.

The four of them were piled on the couch watching a movie one night after Kim had taken him hiking all day, June in the middle, Texas on the left and Jack on the right. She was laying her head on Texas's shoulder, and Jack had Kim's head in his lap as she laid across the three of them. June had one hand casually resting on Kim's hip and the other around Jack's back.

Texas rubbed Kim's feet and wondered if he was reading the room correctly. He decided to go for it, and kissed Juniper on top of her head.  June leaned into him, smiling.

"You like that?" he asked her.

"Mm-hm.  'S nice," she said softly.

"Just checking," he said and kissed her again, on the forehead this time.

"This is so nice," she murmured.  She sounded half-asleep, or blissed out in the way Kimiko got if you rubbed her back long enough.

"You're a toucher, aren't you?" Texas asked.

"No," she said, almost automatically.  "I mean… here, yes.  If it's my people doing it.  Not with just anybody."

"Nothing wrong with that," he said. "I like touch too, but I know it's not the same for everybody."

"You feel very safe, you know?  Just touching you makes me feel very safe, and comfortable, and happy."

"Kim and Jack liked to call me their heatsink," he said with a laugh. "I feel like I've learned mostly the opposite with Master Hannibal, but just being comfortable with folks is what I like best."

"The earth feels very stable until you start working with it," June observed.  "And then you realize how responsive it is, how it takes everything that's poured into it and holds it until it all comes rattling out.  It's better for everyone if it can be coaxed to let things go a little at a time, instead of building it all up inside.  Shivers, instead of convulsions."

Texas nodded. "That's what you do, right? Coax things into letting go a little, relaxing a little, so they stay stable?"

She nodded.  "It's my calling, I think.  And it's helped keep your firebugs from burning each other alive, a time or two."

"I appreciate that. And do you get to relax a little too?"

"A little at a time," she said with a smile.  "I let things out slowly."


The next morning, Texas caught Kim in the living room after they'd had breakfast. "You got a minute today, Kim? I wanted to ask you something but it might be kinda prickly."

“I’m all yours.  What do you need?”

"I was wanting to see if we can re-open relationship negotiations, but I didn't want to start as a group if you're still at a hard no."

“I’m open to talking about stuff, sure.  I’m in a better place than I was, in a lot of ways.”

"I'm thinking maybe I'll take you all out to dinner if you're okay with that? I know a guy who owes me a favor and he's got a restaurant with these private kind of booths, and I never get to treat you or Jack."

“That sounds delightful, I would love that.  Should I dress up?”

"Please do. I'll tell Jack and June. Can you be ready by six thirty?"

“With bells on.  Metaphorical bells.  Probably.”

At six thirty, Texas was waiting for them in the dress shirt and pants he'd worn to the wedding he and Hannibal crashed, and Jack was wearing a studiously casual dress shirt and some black leather pants Texas had never seen before and immediately wanted to peel him out of.  Kimiko was wearing a little black dress that teased her cleavage and was short enough she probably couldn’t bend over without flashing the room, and Juniper was wearing a dark pink floral-print dress the same color as the streak in her hair that clung to her chest and flared out to her knees.

"Between the three of you I think I'd rather order in," he grinned at all three of them, "so we'd better get going before I change my mind. I've never done this with three people before so stay close. We're going to walk there, sounds good?"

Texas started walking, holding Kim's hand, keeping June and Jack's presence behind him tight in his mind, and between one step and the next they went from the front walk of Jasmine's house to a busy street in the heart of the city, two doors from the high rise with the restaurant he was taking them to.

He let out a heavy breath. "Phew. Think we'll take a car share home, that's something I wanna practice more before I do it again."

“That was amazing,” Kimiko said.  “You’re incredible.”

"It's kinda like what you do with the tiger claws, but gentler. Master Hannibal taught me, he uses it a lot."

She nodded.  “Could I learn how to do that?”

"I'm not sure, but I can try and show you and we can see. I think it's more an earth skill but if anybody can make it work otherwise it's gotta be you."

“Awesome.  I bet June could learn it, if it’s an earth skill.”

"Oh yeah, probably she can easy." He took them inside and up in the elevator, and tried not to look anxious while he was in the elevator and failed.  Kimiko squeezed his hand and smiled at him.

Texas had a whispered conversation with the maitre d' and then two minutes later someone came out from the back and introduced himself to the rest of them as the owner, and he was so glad to see Texas again, and he had the very best spot picked out for them and would they like the special menu.

Kimiko and Juniper were both beaming as they sat down, admiring the view and the restaurant and each other.  “This is so nice,” Kimiko sighed.  “It’s been ages since we went anywhere fancy.”

"So what's the special menu?" Jack asked, once the owner had disappeared.

"That means you don't pick, but you get whatever the chef likes best or if she feels like making something really extra." Texas said. "I already told him yes."

“Didn’t your parents take you out to eat when you were a kid?” Kimiko asked him, slightly mystified that he wasn’t familiar with the idea.

"Not really? I wasn't really the kind of kid you took places." Jack shrugged. "I was kind of feral, in the 'won't sit still' way."

“How are you supposed to learn to sit still if you don’t get taken places where you have to?” June asked.  “I got dragged to all kinds of things, because that’s the way kids learn.”

Kimiko shrugged.  “Spoilers: kids with amazing parents and excellent home lives don’t usually decide to permanently leave home at twelve, no matter how cool the opportunity.  Anyway, you’re one of today’s lucky ten thousand that got to learn what a special menu is, Jack, nice job.”

"Yay, lucky me," Jack deadpanned.

“Also you get to associate them with this amazing date, rather than being bored out of your mind while your dad talks business with strange men in suits, so that’s a plus.”

"That's definitely a bonus."

Texas waited until the drinks arrived and then explained, "I wanted to bring y'all out today first because it's fun and I like spending time with you, but also because it seems like our relationship's looking a little different and see if we're all on the same page. How's that sound?"

“Dangerous,” Kimiko said.  “I like it.”

"So we've got one obvious change, and that's you, June. How're you feeling about all of this so far?"

June smiled.  "It's nice to have you home, and I'm glad you're not having to rush off again."

"I'm glad to be here too so far," he smiled.

“Also my master used to go on and on about triangles being the perfect configuration, but squares are pretty great.”

Jack laughed. "We were kind of a square before Kim joined, with Master Guan, so I'm pretty partial to them too."

"Are you thinking we should be closed at four?" Texas asked. "I was hoping we could be open some, if you're okay with that now."

“Did you have someone in mind?” June asked, tilting her head.  

"Not so much as when I first went out I kept some company because it was fun and felt good and I didn't ask beforehand, and when we did talk about it, it got put down for no. But some of the problems then don't seem to be problems anymore, so I wanted to ask about it."

“I thought you were staying?” Kim said softly.  

"I'm trying it on," Texas said. "I'm not sure how it'll work out, how I'll feel in a couple of weeks. And it wouldn't be fair to tell you I'm leaving and also I'm gonna want to re-evaluate how our relationship works on the way out the door."

“That’s fair.  I just - I don’t know.”

Jack put his hand on Kim's. "What are you worried about? That he won't come back?"

“Kind of.  A little.”

"I didn't understand so much when I started, Kim, but there's something about this path that once you're on it, it starts working on you. But you and Jack, you're the only anchors I've got. Maybe that I ever had. Whether or not I kiss somebody else ain't gonna be what changes that."

“I think - I think I’m more like June than I realized,” she admitted, “because I don’t understand wanting to kiss someone that you didn’t already care about.  I don’t - well, I don’t ever think about touching people I don’t really know.  It’s why I was stuck when Jessie and Rai started dating each other, because I definitely didn’t want to kiss Omi, even assuming he wanted to kiss me, and… well, there wasn’t anybody else until we started spending more time with you two.”

"For me it's kinda the opposite. I didn't think much of it when it was just me and Jack, and then you were amazing and fun, and June feels so different and moves in a way that's familiar and I like that, but I also just… I like talking to people, and I like learning about them, and I like making people feel good in all kinds of ways, and maybe that's touch and maybe that's helping them and maybe it's just letting them feel seen for a little while. And some places, that casual kind of feeling about sex is common, and it was so different the first time I ran into it."

She shook her head.  “I hear you saying it, and I know people… think like that?  Most people, even?  I just… don’t understand it.  I think that’s why the idea of being open scares me, because, for me, it’s not possible to just.  Have sex with somebody.”

"Can I make a comparison and you can tell me if I'm off base?"


"When we started having free days and I'd go places with you and Jack, it was really uncomfortable at first because you both knew how to… exist in all these places, and you spent money like it was nothing because it was fun for you to see your friends happy, and growing up I'd never known anybody who could just buy whatever, because they wanted to. But I got used to it, mostly because I could tell it was how you took care of people."

“But I take care of people that I care about,” she said.  “I… well.  I have bought stuff for random strangers, when they needed help, but it’s not something I go out looking for, or that I’d do on a regular basis.  Is that… the same?”

"It's not random strangers, not really, it's just people that I like. I'm not… cruising in public restrooms or going to sex parties? But even when I was a kid before I met Jack, I had… you have a lot of friends, because you're not sure who you'll need or who will be there when you need help, and you help everyone else too. And you don't know how long they'll be around, or if they'll be there long enough to pay you back one for one, but it doesn't matter. Maybe this is the only time you'll ever talk to them, but right now they might as well be one of your best friends because they're the one who's there and needs you right now." Texas sighed. "I'm sorry, Kim, I'm not any good at explaining this."

“It’s okay,” she said.  “I… I think this is just one of those things about you that I don’t understand but I accept, because it’s you, and I love you, and.  Um.  Use protection.”

Texas burst out laughing. "I love you."

"Very practical," Jack grinned.

"So I have one other maybe awkward question. You all know each other better than I know June, I think is clear enough. Do you want me to follow your lead on anything like rings and announcements, if you're leaning that way? Because it takes me, oh, four or five years of knowing someone full time to be getting engaged to them and you're definitely ahead of me there even if I stayed."

“I’m not in a hurry, and I don’t need external validation,” June said.  “You take as long as you need to get to know me.”

“Um, I’m pretty sure you did not know me that long full time before you proposed to me, Texas.  Jack, sure.  But we spent a lot of half-time or less together during the vast majority of our relationship.”

"I'm not good at math," Texas shrugged.

“Also you’re a terrible liar.” Kimiko smiled. “But. Whether we invite June as a participant or not, do you have an idea of how much longer our engagement will be?”

"I suppose that depends on how settled I get, and how settled you need me to be before we get official."

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Kimiko said, “and I don’t know if your being settled should really be a requirement?  Some people travel all the time as part of their job - you see that a lot in boarding schools, both parents have jobs that take them all over the world.  I’m actually thinking that the rest of us may end up doing some traveling, too.  I’ve been talking to people who are interested in what I’ve been doing in the forests here and may want me to come give them some suggestions on how to replicate the process on their own lands, and I know Jack’s been corresponding with a bunch of people but there are others that are hard to get a hold of via email, and June’s been thinking about the rest of the Ring of Fire.  And I’d want to be some kind of settled before we think about having kids, but that feels like an entirely different conversation.”

"Then I'll marry you whenever you want," he smiled. "I'd love to marry you. Are you thinking about legal or community or magical or what? All of the above?"

“All of the above, although I think the outside has weird rules about how you can only be a pairbond, so we may have to figure that out.”

"I guess we can do two and two, so adding June makes it easier there," Jack said.

“Assuming June wants to marry us,” Kimiko pointed out.  

"We're not in a hurry anyway, so we can worry about it later," Jack shrugged. "Let's just do the real ceremony when we're ready and we can do paper when we need paper. What we need paper for might change how we want to do it."

“Good point.  We can cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Texas wondered briefly who he would even get married as if it was on paper, let alone to.

“That would be one solution to your outside citizenship problem, if you can’t get it sorted before then,” June pointed out.  “Jack and I are both natives.”

“Oh, that’s true,” Kimiko said.  “I didn’t think about that.”

“Technically I have dual citizenship,” Jack laughed. “How many do you want to collect?”

“Technically I do too,” Kimiko said, “my challenge has been getting the outsider government here to admit it.”

“Anyway,” June said, “we can figure all of that out later.  Right now, I need someone to help me eat this, because it’s too rich for me but it’s too good to leave any of it behind.”  She took a forkful of her dessert.

“I’ll come to your rescue,” Texas offered, digging in.

“My hero,” she said, beaming at him.  She patted his knee under the table.

He squeezed her hand while feeding her occasional bites of her own dessert, and found himself walking out of the restaurant a while later with their fingers still entwined.  She cuddled up next to him on the ride home, watching him laugh with Kimiko and Jack without saying much herself.  

June managed Jack and Kim with as much ease and confidence as he did himself, he noticed, which meant that when the two fire dragons went upstairs together and left them alone on the couch, it had to have been deliberate on her part.  “Are you all right?” she asked, tucking her feet up under her and leaning against his shoulder.

"Just a lot to think about right now," he answered. "When I came I thought I'd be staying a while, and now I'm thinking about all y'all wanting to travel, and staying put's turned out to be harder than I thought."

“You didn’t like it when we were talking about paperwork,” she observed.  “Can I help?  I know quite a few immigration lawyers; Kim’s working with one of them, in fact.”

"That's about the least of my problems," he laughed a little. "I don't know if anybody I used to know is still in the business of helping homeless folks with paperwork but I know where to go if I wanted it."

“Ohhh,” she said, nodding.  “Is that why you never talk about your time before meeting Jack?  You don’t have to answer if it’s uncomfortable; say the word and I’ll never ask again.  Or even give me a meaningful nod.”

"It's… I figure some of it's gonna have to be fair game if we're gonna be any kind of serious," he said. "So now's as good a time as any if you have questions. An yeah, that's where I was before I met Jack."

“The only thing I know about your history is that you have a sister that Kim used to be friends with.  They’re incredibly reticent about you.”

"And I appreciate that about them. Kim probably knows my legal name, but she's never once let on, even. Short version's I ran away from home after my sister went off to magic monk training, and all things considered I wasn't sleeping out very long before I met Jack. I've only seen my parents once since and it didn't go well and I don't think I'll do it again."

“Is that why Jack’s mom wants to adopt you?  She’s so funny, she asks about you every time she comes over.”

"Yeah, I reckon it is. She seems to think I helped Jack out, though the way I figure it he helped me a lot more."

“Maybe, but he was also in a better position to help you, I’d imagine.”

He shrugged. "He didn't have any reason to trust me, and he did, that's the important part."

“Have you met Jack?  I cannot envision his young teenaged self being actually untrusting of anyone he took a liking to.  Authority, definitely; groups of kids his own age, probably, but a sweet-faced country boy with an accent?  Never.”

Texas laughed at that. "Hey I didn't say that was remarkable, just that it's what made me stick with him."

“Clearly you needed each other, and the city brought you together.  It does that, especially for our people.”

"Which is funny considering neither of us knew it at the time. But if we'd had, it wouldn't've needed to, would it?"

“Exactly.”  She leaned up and kissed his cheek.  “And Jack’s mom may have been born Outside, but her instincts are still Heylin.  Family is family, and we belong together.”

He pulled her a little closer. "I know she means well by it, so it doesn't bother me. I'm just not interested in any more parents."

“That’s a perfectly reasonable position to have too,” she said.  “There are official filial obligation-type reasons I live with my grandmother, but… let’s just say there are less official, less filial ones too.”

"What was it Kim said at dinner? Kids with amazing parents don't usually leave home at twelve no matter why?"

“Yeah.  She’s not wrong.”

"Anything I need to know so I don't step on toes?"

“My baby brother is a golem, but that’s pretty much it.  My parents are fine, they just… after Ray-Ray died and they rebuilt him, they were never quite.  We didn’t get along very well.  My older brother went into service on the East Coast and I haven’t seen him since.”

"I can see how that'd be hard on a family," he nodded. "Good thing you've got your grandmother, then."

She nodded.  “Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have come back either, to be honest.”

"No wonder people look at you a bit funny. At first I thought it was just me, or that it was because Jack and Kim didn't grow up here, but I see you get it too, and now that I'm thinking about it, Jake probably did and it's no wonder you two got so worked up."

“Yeah, it’s a whole thing - studying with ancient masters is incredibly prestigious, and it used to be highly respected, but kids who leave tend not to come back, and so it’s kind of viewed with suspicion now.  I went, and I came back to do my filial duty for my grandmother, but I think there’s an expectation that I’ll leave when I’m done, and I don’t know that they’re wrong.  If for no other reason than why would I want to stay when everyone’s treating me like I’m going to leave anyway?”

"Yeah, no winning there."

“It’s definitely a first world problem - this is what I’m complaining about?  People aren’t making me feel welcome enough?  Maybe I’m just uncomfortable because I’ve been gone and now they think I’m stuck up and standoffish, but I don’t know what to do about it, either.”

"I don't figure it's a first world problem, June. You were part of the community and you went away and now they don't know what to do with you, and that's not your fault just because you did something you wanted to do. Maybe it's nobody's fault, but that don't make it yours."

“I’m not saying that it’s my fault, I just don’t want it to sound like I’m the victim.  Anxiety can look like rudeness from the outside, and maybe we’re all nervous.”

"I think we- we all see different things to be nervous about. Nothing puts me more on guard than when something's plainly wrong and nobody's seeing it, or when someone's worried about all the wrong things, and this is another kind of that."

“Maybe I should have you come with me next time I go to a picnic or a birthday party or something.  You’re really good at making people comfortable.”

"I'd be happy to. Some of it's just reflecting back at them what they expect so they relax a bit, and some of it's just listening."

"I don't suppose you could teach me how to do it?"

"Sure, if you want to I'm happy to try. You already kinda do it, it's pretty similar to keeping tabs on folks you care about."

"Oh, really?  I've never thought about it as something I could use with… other people."

"It takes more thought when it's other people, you have to pay attention or use a little magic to pick up on what they're feeling if you don't know them well, but the idea is the same. It's just more work, and some folks find it harder. It's not too hard for me though, just something I have to turn on."

"I love the way you think," she said.  "It's just such a different approach to things."

"Aw, thanks. I like the way you talk about things, June. Like with you I can kinda put all that down and I don't have to manage you?"

"I'm pretty self-managing," she agreed with a smile.  "But I know what you mean - with some people, you have to watch what you're saying, and check in with what they're thinking, and if you lose track it can go right off the rails.  Jake was always like that.  Kim and Jack aren't so much, except with each other."

"They weren't so much back with Master Chase either, I don't think. Not sure how much of that is a new place and how much is not having all that structure."

"Don't underestimate the fact that you were with them all the time when you were apprentices, and you're not now.  You have a incredible knack for saying something at the exact right moment to distract them from whatever's just irritated one of them.  I mean, I'm sure it's actually a very practiced skill, not just a knack, but you know what I mean."

"Little of both, I guess. I feel like life's easier for everybody when folks get along, and most people want to get along if you put the option in front of them. But with Jack and Kim they're on the same wavelength so much of the time I think they hurt each other easily when they don't because you spend that much time with someone who gets you that much, it's kinda jarring when they don't. And Jack, he'll overexplain given the chance like he thinks he's just not explaining right, and Kim, she's had a lot of not being listened to, so when they get out of alignment they fly right off if you don't nudge 'em back. I'm sure you know that, I'm just talking about it on account of I never get to really."

"Yes, exactly!  To both things, really.  It's so nice to have someone to talk to who really gets it, and Jack has an incredibly bad habit of saying something that's just a little bit ill-advised, and then just digging himself in deeper and deeper trying to explain why he didn't mean it like that, and meanwhile Kim just wants an apology.  And both of them have these tender places that the other will just… accidentally stomp on."

"The important thing is that they trust each other enough to get hurt, and I think they know that too or they'd pull back enough that it wouldn't happen. But they stay open." Texas thought about it for a minute before adding, "Jack said his therapist thought they might do well in couples counselling and he wanted my help bringing it up to her. I think he's right, especially talking about it with you, because they hurt each other kinda because they trust each other and there's gotta be a better way to do that. They could learn to redirect themselves, I think they just need someone to tell 'em how to do it."

June nodded slowly.  "You're right - I think Jack's getting some good tools from his therapist, but Kim doesn't know how to respond to them?  So possibly getting counseling together could help them both get tools… I'll mention it to her and see what she says."

"Thanks, I think she'll hear it best coming from you. She's so smart and so used to figuring things out on her own."

“And there’s just not a good way to hear ‘we should try couples counseling’ from the partner you argue with the most, no matter how well-intentioned.” She thought for a moment, and added, “From you, she might take it as a failing.  Like she’s disappointed you in some way.”

Texas nodded. "Exactly. And I think as soon as she tries it, she'll pick it up and understand why it's just another skillset to learn like anything else."

“I’ve been to therapy too, so maybe that will help convince her as well.  Sometimes when you’re struggling with something, you call a professional.”

"Yeah, that'll definitely be good for her to hear. She respects the hell outta you."

“I know.  It deeply confused me at first, but I’ve gotten used to it.”

"You ought to be used to it, you're very respectable," Texas laughed.

“I’m a respectable young woman of good breeding, ask anyone.  I’m very marriageable.”  June giggled.  “Fortunately I don’t live in a Jane Austen novel, so that’s a little less important than it might otherwise be.”

"Should we head upstairs and be a little less respectable, then?"

“By all means.”


“June suggested that you and I try couple’s counseling,” Kim said hesitantly a few days later. “Not because there’s something wrong with our relationship, just. We might benefit from some help with our communication.”

Jack nodded slowly. "Actually my therapist had mentioned something like that too, I think it's a good idea. I love you and I want to not accidentally hurt you so it makes sense to me. What do you think?"

She visibly relaxed. “I think it’s a good idea too. I don’t like fighting with you, and I don’t feel like it’s fair to June or Texas for them to have to be mediating between us all the time.”

"Do you want me to follow up on my therapist's recommendation or do you want to be the one who finds a couples therapist?"

“Does your therapist know we’re poly?”

"Yes, but I didn't think to ask if she took that into account when she recommended the counselor. I can call the counselor's office and ask more questions."

“Okay. You check on that, and if it’s not a good fit I’ll look for someone else. Somebody who’s married out, maybe?”

They did end up going with a couples counsellor who'd married out but was unhesitatingly okay with the poly aspect, because that seemed more important. The first session was hard, and they both came home with some homework and some bruised feelings.

“Is it supposed to be hard?” Kim asked, dropping on the couch with a groan.  “Because that was hard.”

"Singles therapy is hard too," Jack said. "It's like going to the gym, I guess. Working muscles I haven't used much otherwise."

"Did you get something out of it, though, or does that take time?" Texas asked.

“Yeah, I think we did.  At least enough to feel like we should keep it up?”

"I think so too." Jack grinned at Kim. "Thank you for wanting to do it with me."

“Likewise,” she said.  “You’re worth it, you know.”

"You're worth it too. I want to take good care of you and make you happy. I like knowing we're on the same page."

“Me too.  I feel like we’re - almost too much alike in some ways, and then wildly different in others, and those two things tend to collide in upsetting ways.  But this will make it easier.”

"I like the ways we're alike. I mean, you get me in ways Texas doesn't. You keep up with me, which nobody else does, and I value that so much."

She smiled.  “Yeah, you’re the first person I’ve ever met who even bothers to follow me when I go off on a coding tangent… I love that about you, and about us.”

"It's been a while since I got to focus on just you. June's great and she makes you so happy, and it's amazing having Texas back but... " Jack slid closer to her on the couch. "It was nice having an hour that was just about us, too?"

“It was,” Kim agreed.  “Maybe the counselor was right about date nights.”

"It seems funny to go dating when we've been together for so long but as a way where we just focus on each other it makes more sense," Jack nodded.

“Exactly.  Maybe that’s a thing we all need to do with each other, individually?”

 "That's a good idea for all of us, we can trade off date nights."

"What do you think, Texas?"

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” June said, leaning against Texas, “but why are you still here?”  He’d been in the household full-time for a month, and over the past few days she’d noticed him getting increasingly distracted and occasionally seen him stopped still as if he were listening to something.

"I told Kim I'd try to stay, so I'm trying," he answered. She wasn't wrong- if he wasn't worried about Kim's feelings he'd have left days ago.

She patted his arm.  "We talk about your true work being your calling, but I've never seen anyone else who was being literally called to it.  Kim will understand."

"I'll talk to her about it when it's a good time," Texas said.

But somehow it was never a good time, and another two weeks went by.

"Where are you supposed to be right now?" Kimiko asked, after she'd caught her breath again.  "I can tell it's not here."  

"South Africa," Texas answered automatically and sighed. "I'm sorry, Kim. I know you wanted me to settle, but I just can't."

"It's okay," she said.  "I saw you trying, and I see how hard it is to fight that call to go.  It's… when I need to go out and work an area,  I'm starting to feel that pull, like the forest itself is asking for help.  I don't think I could ignore it for very long."

He pulled her into a tight hug. "You let me know when you're ready to go somewhere and I'll be here, okay? Otherwise I'll be back in a bit."

"Take as long as you need, love.  We'll be here.  And you'll know if we need you."


It was nearly a year before he turned up again, but Texas had gotten good at staying in touch and Jack had talked him into getting an Instagram account as well. He was sitting on the front step when Kimiko got home one afternoon, watching the sun start to dip. Her eyes widened as she realized he was there, and she ran up and all but bowled him over.

"Heya, Kim," he greeted her. "Lil bird told me you might need a ride somewhere."

"...How did you even know that?" she demanded.  "Never mind.  Yes, I've been talking with some folks in Australia about their brush, but I hadn't actually decided to go yet."

"You sure?" he grinned. "Nah, I can wait while you figure it out. It's good to see you, baby girl."

"You too.  You look amazing, and I'm not just saying that because I missed you."

Texas stood, picking her up and setting her down. "Let's go inside and get reacquainted."

Kim took his hand and they went into the house together.  "Look who I found!" she announced as they came in.  

June stuck her head out of the kitchen.  "Texas!" she cried, delighted.  "I'd come hug you but I'm all over flour," she held up her hands, "but give me a few minutes and I'll be in a cleaner place."

"Don't rush on my account, I'm not leaving right away," he laughed. "What're you making?"

“Bread,” she said happily. “And fried chicken for dinner, but the bread is why I’m covered in flour.”

“She’s a baking fiend,” Kim said affectionately.  “Every time I turn around she’s experimenting with some new thing.”

"Oh, fried chicken, my timing is perfect," Texas said. "I knew you liked cookin but I didn't know you baked, June."

“Last time you were home, I didn’t,” she said.  “I’ve just been watching a lot of Food Network and it seemed like it would be a fun challenge, and it is.”

"I love comin home to a surprise," Texas kissed her and sat down. "Where's Jack?"

“Basement,” the girls said together, and laughed.  “He’s got some kind of workshop set up down there for doing mysterious things and making banging noises.  We call it the man cave.”

"How're y'all doing? Counselling worked out?"

“We’ve officially graduated,” she announced proudly.  “And it’s been almost two months since we’ve had an actual argument, and we managed to stop it from turning into a full-blown fight, even.”

“And I wasn’t even home!” June called from the kitchen.

"I'm proud of y'all. So how's your woods going? Gotta be good if you're thinking about going elsewhere."

“Really well.  I’ve mostly been doing maintenance at this point, and I’ve got some contacts at the Forest Service who are ready to take over that.  I might have to come back from time to time and make adjustments, but the whole area is significantly less dangerous than it was even two years ago.”

"That's so amazing, Kim, really. You're something special."

“What’ve you been up to?  You kinda went radio silent there, the last week or two.”

"Something kinda different Master Hannibal asked me to do, but it's the kinda thing where your hands are busy the whole time and no pictures. Can I tell you about it later when I'm more settled in?"

“Absolutely, no rush.  You should ask June about her fault lines.”

“Fault lines aren’t interesting conversation to anyone,” June called again. “Not even me.  You want to flip the basement light?  Dinner’s about ready.”

Kimiko jumped up and walked over to a switch on the wall, flipping it on and off a couple of times, then coming back and sitting down next to Texas.  “Lightswitch rave is the only thing we’ve found that will consistently get Jack’s attention when he’s working on Mysterious Projects,” she explained.

"You used to do something like that with flickers back when we were studying," Texas said. "Makes sense he still responds to it. Hey June, you sure you don't wanna tell me about your fault lines?"

“You know how Ents are slow?  Fault lines are even slower,” she said. “Coaxing them to do anything takes weeks.”

"Hey what's for - Texas!" Jack yelled, almost jumping over the couch to hug him. "What are you doing here? I missed you!"

"Getting climbed on, apparently," he answered. "And picking up Kim, I think."

“And getting here just in time for dinner, as usual,” June put in.  “Come get your plates.”

Texas grinned. "That's my favorite superpower, you know." He stood up and waited for Jack to climb gracelessly down onto the couch before they went to eat.

“We end up with a lot of leftovers, because I always cook as if you were going to show up,” June said.  “Although we’re also prepared for any random guest who drops in, which happens more often than you would think.”

"Why's that?"

"At least some of it's my fault," Jack said, "I'm still interviewing people for Project Black Sheep, for one, and inviting older folks to dinner seems to go over better a lot of the time. And June's been doing kind of the opposite of what you do, because people just show up to ask her to fix things sometimes."

“Sometimes I can even do something about it,” she said.  “A lot of the time they just need someone to talk them through the issue and they figure it out on their own.”

Texas nodded. "It's amazing how often that's true of folks. Do they even work out why they're here or is it just folks you meet by coincidence?"

“Used to be a lot of the latter, but now the people I’ve helped are sending other people my way, so it’s a lot of ‘my cousin said you helped with his complex problem, can you help me too’ and the like.”

"Guess you're stuck helping whether you like it or not," Texas laughed.

"Oh she likes it," Jack said. "She's so good at people."

June set her chicken down and wiped her mouth. "I'm not, though, except I paid attention when Texas told me how he listens when he does what he does and I applied it."

"Don't sell yourself short," Texas told her. "Most people won't learn to listen even if you do teach them."


Later that night, Texas was giving Kimiko the short version of his ride with the Wild Hunt when they slowly came to notice they couldn't keep their hands off each other. More than usual, even.

"You ever get the feeling you're coming up to a point where you're making a decision you can't take back, but once you make it you know you were always leading up to it?" he asked her after.

“I felt that way when I left the Temple,” she said.  “In the moment, it seemed very sudden, but afterward I could point to the things that pushed me in that direction, and they went back to even before I was chosen as a dragon in the first place.  I couldn’t figure out whether I was looking for confirmation that I’d made the right choice, or actually hindsight being 20/20, but Master Guan used to talk about how every choice you made built on every other choice, back to the beginnings of time, so maybe there’s something to that.”

"I feel like, and maybe it's just because I'm here to collect you, but if you come with me you're committing to something. To something like what I do. And I guess I don't want you to do that without saying it out loud."

“I’ve always loved traveling,” she said.  “It was my favorite part of hunting for Shen Gong Wu, and I’ve really missed it these last few years.  Going into the woods is close, but it’s not the same as being out in the world and meeting different kinds of people and getting to know different kinds of places.  I think that was one of the things that bothered me when you came back the first time and told me about all the adventures you’d been having, because I couldn’t have them too.”

Texas nodded. "What… happened six weeks ago?"

Kimiko laughed.  “Oh, you felt that, did you?  Um, I went into the woods and when I finished what I was doing, I realized that I hadn’t brought the Golden Tiger Claws.  I thought about what you’d told me and June about the way you walk, and I realized that home was just - right over there,” she gestured sort of vaguely, “and I could get there if I wanted to.  So I did.”

He hugged her tighter. "I'd wondered, because it hit you so hard when I left an Master Hannibal'd said it wasn't supposed to. And I've met… well not many, but a handful of other folks who do what I do, and one was a set, a couple, and so I thought maybe. But I guess I wasn't sure I should get my hopes up either. I don't think you could do this if you didn't want to but I also wouldn't want someone who didn't want to stuck doing it."

“I definitely want,” she said.  “You know, I always wondered why I missed you so much more than Jack did - he’s always happy when you’re home, but it doesn’t seem to bother him when you’re not, even though you were together longer and you were so close when we were apprentices.  This maybe explains that.”

"I guess it wasn't because I was gone, it was because you weren't."

“Hey, that also explains why I wanted to go have adventures with you rather than having you stay home,” she said.  “Because, um, I wanted to go have adventures with you.”

Texas laughed. "So this isn't a surprise for you at all, sounds like."

“We’re back to decisions that make sense once they’re made, I think.  You asked me if I was going when you got here and I wasn’t sure yet, but now I can point to all the signs it was coming.”

“Oh that reminds me, did you ever get your passport mess straightened out? I was thinking about it about, oh a season back I met a travelling woman who’d lost her papers, back when that was a thing you could do, and she’d just stopped existing to the outside; she tried once or twice but they never could find her records somehow. I didn’t think much about it at first because I’ve never had much in the way of paperwork but now I’m wondering if that’s your problem.”

"No, and I'm in such a frustrating place.  The US won't acknowledge that I'm a citizen, and Japan won't renew my passport unless I show up in person, except that I can't actually show up in person because I don't have a current passport, so they won't let me in the country."

"So I gotta ask, how much does that actually bother you, right now?"

"Well, it was why I hadn't committed to going to Australia, but now it seems much less important, or even relevant."

"Yeah, ain't like you're going through the airport."

"Exactly.  It takes all the paperwork worries off the table."

"It makes some things a lot simpler," Texas said, kissing her, "and some harder. How are Jack and June doing? I expect they can feel it, especially June."

"They're… they've been like we are right now.  I used to feel like I was the primary partner of each of them, and a lot of their relationship was based in how they both loved me, but in the last couple of months they've been really connecting strongly.  He hasn't given it to her yet, but Jack bought June an engagement ring."

"Oh that makes me happy to hear, I didn't want to worry about them being left hanging. I'll see if I can't nudge him tomorrow so he asks her before we go."

"Ooh, yes, I want to see that."


"Hey, Jack, got a question for you," Texas pulled him aside in the morning with a kiss. "Kim said you bought a ring for June."

"That's not a question," Jack smirked and sipped his coffee. "But yes."

"It's not the question, no," he laughed. "I was wondering when you're gonna ask her."

"I- soon. Probably."

"Soon enough that I'll be here when you do?"

Jack bit his lip.

"What's stoppin you?" Texas asked.

"Can we go downstairs so I can work while I talk?"

"Of course, I want to see this man cave of yours."

Jack snickered. "It's not-"

"It's fine, I know. Let's go talk." Texas followed him downstairs, where he'd set up three separate workstations, one with circuitboards and electronics, one that was clearly designed for high-temperature work and warded tightly enough that Texas could see it without looking, and one with a laptop and tons of notes for his genealogical and magical research.

Jack sat down at the ceramic tabletop and pulled out some glass blanks, stretching them and twisting them like they were clay, while he talked about the last few months, how he thought he and Kim were doing really well but she felt somehow distant lately even when she was there, and how he and June had gotten a lot closer but he wasn't sure if he should ask her or if Kim 'deserved' to.

"Kim told you about Australia," Texas said, and Jack nodded.

"I thought maybe she'd ask June before she left, but there was the passport issue and she kept pushing it back."

"You should ask her," Texas told him. "Before Kim and I leave."

Jack tensed where he was sitting, and the glass - well, if it cracked, it flowed back together so quickly it didn't shatter. "You meant it when you said you're here for her. Not just to drop her off."

"Pretty sure this is a conversation you should have with her too," Texas said, "but yeah, it seems that way."

"I had a feeling?" Jack sighed. "She's been getting this distracted kind of look, like I've seen you have. I thought maybe it was just the woods and that was why she was out there so much."

"Can I ask you for a favor then?"

"Always," Jack answered automatically.

"I wanna be here when you give June the ring. I want to know for sure you're both okay before I take Kim anywhere."

"You don't have to make it a personal favor just to get me to ask her," he laughed. "Sure. I'll ask her tonight, okay?"

"Now what's this you're working on over here-" Texas poked at the tiny army of metal animals on the other desk.


“Good morning!” Kimiko said as June came into the kitchen.  “You want some tea?”

June beamed.  “Tea sounds fantastic.”  

Kim added extra water to the electric kettle, settled it on the base, and flipped it on.  “How was your night?”

“It was… really good.”  She held out her left hand, showing off the new silver ring.

“Oh my god!” Kim shrieked, and hugged her.  “I’m so happy for you!  For both of you.”

“Thank you!” she said, hugging her back.  “I’m glad he did it before you left.”

Kim grinned as she pulled mugs out of the cabinet.  “He’s been thinking about it for a while, and Texas told me he was going to nudge him so that he would.  We were expecting him to do it at dinner, but he must’ve decided he didn’t want to put you on the spot.”

June laughed.  “I think he just chickened out, but it’s fine.  I don’t need a fancy proposal.”

"Lucky for me," Jack said as he came into the kitchen. "I'm not good at fancy or on-the-spot." He kissed both of them.

"Still, I'm sorry I missed it," Texas said as he came in.

"Sorry," Jack laughed. "I didn't want to lose my nerve. It was easier in the dark."

“You proposed in the dark?” Kim demanded.  “Literally?”

“Literally,” June agreed.  “I didn’t get to see my ring until this morning.”

“You’re lucky she likes you, Jack, I would not be impressed.”

"I thought you'd like, turn the light on, not that I'm complaining."

“Pretty sure it’s your responsibility to turn the light on when you’re giving someone a gift,” Kim observed dryly.  “June doesn’t want to feel like the girl who’s making sure her engagement ring is nice enough before she accepts.”

"I could do it again but I don't have a spare ring so you'd have to give that one back," Jack suggested. "Or wait a bit til I can make another one."

“You’re not getting it back,” June said, laughing.  “This one’s all mine.  You’ll have to come up with another way to propose in daylight, if that’s what you’re planning.”

"Do you want me to propose again? I know Kim's just giving me a hard time. I mean, Texas proposed to us while setting a wedding on fire and that didn't bother her."

“That seems to me like an excellent example of what you’re committing to by accepting his proposal,” June observed.  “If I marry you, am I going to get awkward questions in the dark?”

"Possibly, yeah. Sometimes I spend all day getting worked up about something and finally when the options are ask or stew in the dark I can finally do it. But I'm also working on not doing that, but asking you to marry me is about as important as it gets." Jack tried to look serious and wasn't sure he was succeeding. "The price of marrying me is you're stuck with me. Is that a ticket you're willing to buy?"

Texas snickered. "He's not wrong, June, he's a handful. But I think you love him for that same as I do."

“You’re absolutely right.  I’m delighted to be stuck with you, dear.”

"Lucky me," Jack nodded.

"Lucky all of us," Kim said.  "Are you going to be okay without me, then?"

"I think I'll manage," Jack said, looking shyly at June. "Besides, you won't be strangers, right?"

"Definitely not.  You know me, I always have my phone."

"And I'll have Kim reminding me to charge mine," Texas grinned.

"Yes, you will," Kim laughed.  


"You figured out what you're bringing?" Texas asked, standing in the bedroom doorway. Now that Jack and June felt settled, he'd got that pull back and he was thinking about leaving again, but he didn't want to rush Kimiko. On the other hand, she had a lot of experience camping light at this point, so she probably didn't need much help, either. He was curious to see what she'd bring.

Kimiko nodded.  “Laptop, chargers, extra batteries, clothes and toiletries.  My camping stuff, unless you don’t think I need it.”

"I don't bother, usually. I'm used to sleeping rough, though there's some spells I learned to make it easier to be out in the elements, keep yourself clean, that kind of stuff. You can bring what you want, though, and if you don't need it there'll always be someone who does."

“I’ll bring it, then.  Maybe I’ll decide later on that I don’t want it, but I’m at least starting out this trip a domesticated human.”

Texas laughed. "Maybe you'll domesticate me after all."

“Well, at least for now, you’re attempting to turn me into a migratory human, so we’ll see how this works out.”

"You let me know when you're ready to go, alright, darlin?"

She looked around the room.  “Tomorrow morning?” she suggested.

"Sounds good to me. You want June tonight or Jack?"

“You think we could cram all four of us into the big bed?”

He grinned. "I think it's worth a shot."


“Does it count as crashing a wedding if we’re invited?” Kim asked, holding up an envelope.

It was a save-the-date, announcing the wedding of Jack Spicer and Juniper Lee. Someone with terrible brushwork had struck through the RSVP instructions and changed it to read "you are invited to show up whenever you please but not too late".

“Unless someone stole it and sent it to us in secret?  Although I don’t know why they wouldn’t invite us, considering that we introduced them.”

A day later, a second one appeared, this one accompanied by a neat note in Juniper's handwriting noting that it would be rude to invite them but their presence would be appreciated as a surprise for Jack.

Kim burst out laughing.  “They’re each trying to surprise the other,” she announced.  “That makes it even funnier.”  She looked at the note again.  “Why is it rude to invite us?  Is that one of those weird rules of the road again?”

Texas nodded. "For something like a wedding I think it's bad luck, because if someone shows up it's good luck, so you're forcing it. Forcing it's always a bad idea."

“Am I ever going to understand that like you do?  Or am I different enough that the rules aren’t the same?”

"Maybe you will, you got time. Or maybe you won't and that's okay too."


The reception hall reached a dull roar with all the conversation before Jack noticed enough to pay attention.

"- five sacred dragons is unheard of-"

Five? Jack looked around in confusion. He'd seen Master Chase and Master Guan together several times over the evening, and Juniper had finally introduced him to Master Amhuluk, so that was three, but who were the other two-

Then someone familiar caught his eye and he forgot all about it. "Texas! Kimiko! You came!" he called, all but running across the room and launching himself into a hug while June followed at a sensible pace. "It's late enough I was starting to worry. June, look who showed up!"

"Now don't be like that," Texas said, hugging him back. "How could we miss crashing a wedding we got two invites for?"

“Sorry we’re late, there was a thing,” Kimiko said, joining the hug.

“I’m so glad you made it!” June squealed, jumping into the middle.

"You both look amazing. Are you able to stick around for a little while?" Jack started dragging them towards the head table, where two extra chairs had casually been left off to the side for no obvious reason.

"You ain't got a honeymoon planned?" Texas laughed.

“We were hoping you could join us for it,” June said, taking his hand. “We haven’t seen you in forever.”

"Yeah, it's more like a vacation if you're here," Jack nodded.

Texas grinned at Kim. "What're you thinking, Wildfire? You got anywhere to be?"

“Nowhere urgent,” she said, grinning back at him. “You know I’m a sucker for soft beds.”

“I’m glad that you made it,” Chase said, and they all turned. “Lady Kimiko, Sir Texas.” He offered a gracious bow, and Jack had attended enough formal teas on the Lotus Pavilion to recognize the greeting of equals. “I’m honored to recognize Blazing Forest and Open Skies.”

Kimiko bowed in return, a little deeper, former student to former master.  “I’m honored to be recognized by the Storm-Tossed Sea,” she said.  June blinked and blinked again as Kim - Lady Kimiko, her brain supplied, flickered from her normal appearance to a creature that was still beautiful, still elegant, but undeniably not altogether human in the same way Master Amhuluk was.  The dress she was wearing, which had been the same blue of her eyes, was suddenly a marvel of living flame, colors flickering from orange to white, overlying the blue that had been there before.  

Texas had bowed as well, the same angle as Kimiko but a little looser. "We'd meant to visit, but you know how it goes." There wasn't anything about him that changed, exactly - nothing so dramatic as Kimiko, but had he ever been? - but there was that same cast to his features that he shared with Kimiko and Chase and Amhuluk, and something dark like stars in his eyes, and he was somehow not as formally dressed for a wedding as he had seemed a minute ago.

Kimiko gave up on formality and hugged him, and as he hugged her back, he murmured, “I am so proud of you, Dazzle.”  She beamed as he pulled back and said, “I have received many gratifying reports of your work, and I am well-pleased with your progress.  All three of you are more credit to me than I deserve.”  He flashed a grin.  “Everyone wants to know what I did to end up with such impressive students, and I am forced to admit that when you start with high-quality materials, it is easier to end up with a high-quality result.”

"You say that like I don't owe you every opportunity I've got," Texas nodded, "but your words are heard and much appreciated. We got other plans tonight but we really will come by and catch up, assuming you're not keeping too busy for company these days."

“I’d be delighted to see you whenever you have time,” he said. “No rush; I know that early days can be challenging.”

Very soon it was late enough that Jack and Juniper could make their goodbyes and disappear up to the very nice hotel room with the very large bed they had optimistically reserved. Texas and Kim were already there, Kim lounging on the bed and Texas using up all the hot water in the shower. June asked her to help with her dress and Jack went into the bathroom to wash his face.

"Congratulations," Texas said when he stepped out in his towel.

"Congratulations to you too," Jack said. "How'd that happen?"

Texas shrugged. "Just does, far as I can tell. Slow enough it sneaks up on you."

"I noticed nobody seemed to realize they'd met either of you before. I think that's the first time my mom's ever not tried to adopt you."

He nodded. "You and June won't ever, I know that. But I ain't even sure if my sister'd know me now."

"In fairness your sister hasn't seen you in years, she might not recognize you anyway, but point taken." Jack smirked. "Come on, let's go start our honeymoon."


“I made you something,” Kimiko said. The climb had been worth it, ridiculous as it was, because the view was incredible. There were practical reasons to want to look down on the forest, and she’d certainly take advantage of them in a few minutes, but first they sat down and looked at the trees and the sky and the distant shine of the river.

Texas looked at her, and the view was incredible for him too, but he only smiled at her. "What is it?"

She reached into her jacket, unzipped a small interior pocket, and pulled out a gold band. “I thought it wasn’t fair that we all had one that was given to us and you didn’t.”

He grinned wider and held out his hand for her. "You're so sweet, Wildfire. It's beautiful. When'd you make it?"

“I’ve been working on it in spare moments for months,” she said, sliding it onto his finger. “Longer than that, actually; I started before I left California.” It was much heavier than it looked like it should be, shimmering with yellow and white and pink. “It’s… well, there’s no such thing as Damascus gold, but I started with three colors of wire and braided them together, and then flattened them out… and I’ve been folding and flattening and folding, trying to make it stronger.”

"It's amazing. But of course it is, you made it." He put his arm around her and held it out so his hand was next to hers, where the ring he'd given her sat. "It's a good pair."

She nodded. “It suits you.”

"Yeah, it does." He kissed her.

"So," Kimiko looked out at the big world below them, "where are we going next?"

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