Disclaimer – Blatantly not mine. Neither is the line from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

A/N – Written for Sparksearcher. Sorry it took so long, babs. Title comes from a line in Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery: "My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes."

Continuity – I have to admit that I haven't seen beyond the Season Two finale, but this fic takes the basic concept of Omi-returned-to-the-temple and goes off at a tangent from there, so it should follow on from Season Two, but it's not strictly spoilery, because everyone who watches the show knows that he and the other Dragons are reunited after every crisis. It's like killing a character in a Marvel comic (and this is especially true of the X-books): You know they're going to come back at some point. You can predict that it'll happen and be correct every time. The trick is just guessing how.

A Perfect Graveyard of Buried Hopes.

© Scribbler, November 2005.

It was Raimundo who first voiced the idea. It had just been a throwaway comment like he always made, little more than a joke that went over Omi's head.

"Man, I wish we could just, like, talk to Grand Master Dashi and get some answers on how to fight Evil instead of busting our butts solving riddles all the time."

"I have talked to Grand Master Dashi in person," Omi had replied proudly. Then his forehead creased. "But … I do not think talking to him would rid us of riddles. He likes riddles."

"Maybe he should've used the Shen Gong Wu to feature in Batman, then."

"Bat-man? Is this some legend of your culture?"

Of course, that was a long time ago, when those who knew the Xiaolin Dragons still believed they could defeat Evil. Even Jack Spicer, for all his posturing, had suspected Evil was forever doomed to failure while they were there to fight it.

They'd been wrong, of course. They were strong – so strong – but there's always a situation where the strongest isn't strong enough. It how the universe balances itself out – there is always someone stronger, grasshopper. The Xiaolin Dragons could and did defeat Wuya, the Heylin forces, and even Chase Young, each battle making them stronger, tougher, better. Yet while they congratulated themselves, a far more sinister enemy waited in the wings, scrutinising their progress like a scientist scrutinises bacteria in a petri dish. This was an enemy so strong, so potent, that the first time they faced it Kimiko had been knocked out and woken up three weeks later with her mother and father at her bedside in a Tokyo hospital.

Her mother, never the biggest advocate of her calling as a Dragon, had tried to convince her not to go back to China, but Kimiko couldn't knowingly leave her friends in the lurch like that. This was bigger than anything they'd faced before. She could feel the realisation bubbling up in her mind, hot and unwelcome, like a blister in the early stages of a long hike. Her sixth sense had improved immensely since she started her training, and sat in her bed, surrounded by beeping machines and anxious parents, it told her that she was needed elsewhere.

"I have to go," she told them endless times.

"But why? Why must you put yourself in danger? You're just a child, Kimiko. There are adults enough to deal with things like this."

Daddy wasn't quite as vociferous, but Kimiko could see in his eyes that, for once, he agreed with his wife. They didn't agree on many things. Mr. Tohomiko was a perpetual child with a head for business and technology. Mrs. Tohomiko was a social butterfly who clung to tradition like a pit-bull with a locked jaw. That was when Kimiko sneaked a look at her medical charts and realised just what injuries had sent her home instead of to a local hospital.

"We just care about you," Daddy said once, when Mommy was out of the room getting coffee from the machine down the hall. "We've supported you since you found out you had this … gift, but as parents, there are some lines we're unwilling to cross." He never used to hesitate when talking about her fire abilities. He used to sound so proud of her.

"I still have to go, Daddy. The guys need me. We're a team. It just … it won't work with one Dragon missing."

Still recovering himself, Dojo couldn't come to fetch her, so she flew on one of Daddy's private jets. Mommy pressed something into her hand before she boarded, and when Kimiko looked at it she saw it was a protective charm Mrs. Tohomiko made a special trip to the local shrine to get.

"Glad to have you back," Raimundo said when she limped up the temple steps.

"It is good to see you returned to us," chimed Omi.

"You sure you're healed enough to whup butt so soon, girl?" That from Clay, who hadn't missed the bags under her eyes and the way she winced when she leaned too far to one side. His slow manner concealed the fact that he rarely missed things. Ever.

"Sure I'm fine. You really think you three can defeat that … whatever it was without me? Pfft, I don't think so."

"I think we just got insulted, guys." Raimundo moved to block her way. "I changed my mind. Go home. Shoo! Scat!"

"Ah, put a cork in it, Rai."

"Hey – ow! Not the shoulder! Why always the shoulder?"

"You'd prefer I kick you in the nuts?"

"Uh, shoulder's good."

The Shen Gong Wu weren't useless, but employing them against this new enemy was rather like putting a small band-aid over the stump of a severed leg. Omi was heartbroken the day the Orb of Tornami shattered. Kimiko herself wasn't much better when the Star Hanabi fizzled out and crumbled into dust in her hands.

Relationships changed. Old enemies became allies. They had to, because if they didn't then they were all dead anyway. No point in trying to rule the world if there's no world left to rule. They fought when they had to, prepared themselves the rest of the time, and adopted that cautious perspective favoured by battered spouses when they're waiting for the rattle of keys in the lock.

Summer turned into Autumn, and Autumn into Winter. The leaves changed colour and fell off the trees, replaced by a sparkling rime of frost. The Dragons stayed at the temple because the enemy never destroyed the place, nor made any attempt to. They felt safer there, though none of them put it into words. The temple was a haven they could drag themselves back to and lick their wounds. Despite their promises to vanquish it, the enemy remained unvanquished.

It wore them down, meeting them at the sites of new Shen Gong Wu and attacking while they were already embroiled in Showdowns. Even Master Fung could not explain how it slipped past the spells of combat. Showdowns were supposed to be protected from outside interference until they were finished, but many were the times one of the Dragons would turn around to find a sinuous piece of living shadow bearing down on them. There was no warning – never any warning – and the attacks were swift, fierce and devastating.

New Wu had to be collected, and as the recipients of the Xiaolin legacy it was their duty to collect them before anyone else could, but it became progressively more dangerous each time. For every Wu they found, they lost another – either by having it destroyed or burn out on them. They came home wincing with battered pride and injuries aplenty. Clay's leg twinged in the cold weather, and sometimes when Raimundo flexed the fingers of his left hand they made a curious popping noise.

"But how is this possible?" he demanded. "The Shen Gong Wu are magickal. They're not supposed to just break like cheap plastic!"

"I cannot account for why the Shade is able to cause the Shen Gong Wu to fail in this manner," Master Fung replied. He always had such a calm voice – a take-charge voice, like he could and would solve your problems for you. "You must all be extra vigilant and cautious in your use of them until I am able to find some explanation in the scrolls of past Masters."

They called it 'the Shade' because they had no other name for it. The Darkness was just too melodramatic, and Shadow sounded like some 1940s comicbook superhero. It appeared as just an piece of floating darkness, some bit of nothingness that sucked light into it like a wormhole in Star Trek. And it struck so fast that they couldn't ever ask who or what it was. It didn't talk, didn't justify why it was singling them out or why it wanted to destroy the Wu, so that they had to draw their own conclusions until it really didn't matter anymore.

Ironically enough, Katnappé was the first to fall. She never switched sides, so they didn't see her last battle, only found her afterwards next to the newly activated Wu. Jack had to tell her family. They didn't see him for a week after that, and when he reappeared he had dark rings around his eyes that had nothing to do with make-up. He didn't even like her, he told them – constantly. Ashley was just some bimbo daughter of his parents' bimbo friends. Sure, she'd been his ally a couple of times, but he'd never looked on her with anything but irritation, and maybe a little grudging respect despite the cat puns. He wasn't sorry she was gone. That just meant less competition for the newly activated Shen Gong Wu, and fewer people to rob him. Eventually Omi gave up trying to make him admit differently.

"You're all idiots," Wuya sniped the day before the Shade swallowed her essence and ended her existence the way Dashi never could. "You should go looking for the master of this creature so we can get back to normal. Jack visits this temple far to often without trying to demolish it. Being around you Xiaolin warriors is making me queasy – and I don't even have a stomach!"

Kimiko started to dream after that. Usually she didn't dream much, unless something was preying on her mind. Nightmares happened, of course, but as for dreams? Nu-uh. When the girls at her old school gathered in the mornings before registration and recited their dreams from the night before, trying to figure out the deeper meaning and whether it meant the boy in the next class fancied them, Kimiko used to find herself huddled at her own desk with nothing to contribute. She'd play with her PDA instead, listening to their prattle and telling herself it was silly, childish nonsense.

Now, however, her dreams were clear and sharp as a razor. Every time started the same – the crunch of leaves underfoot, the snap of branches as she made her way to an unexceptional strip of grass, grown long and wild from inattention. For every person they lost, friend or foe, she saw a headstone there. It never failed. She remembered every one when she woke up. Eventually they became a neat little row, each next to a neat rectangle of turned earth. Without fail she went to them and laid flowers, even when she knew they hadn't even had graves – even when she really didn't want to go into that exposed spot, with its fringe of shabby trees and long grass. She even went to Tubbimura's, and woke up with a bad taste in her mouth like rancid milk.

They did look for the Shade, but they never found it before it found them. The creature just appeared and disappeared of its own volition. It had no master.

Master Monk Guan got further than they had when he heard of their plight and came to help. He was experienced in magical phenomena; he tracked it's magickal wake, then told them to run when it attacked them in a box canyon not far from Chase Young's fortress. They heard him yell out, and they heard the yell cut short.

Against all sense and orders, Raimundo went back for him. Neither of them came back, though someone else returned wearing Raimundo's skin and brandishing the useless Sword of the Storm.

"Miss me, little Omi? You look taller than last time."

"This is not possible," Omi said. "You are playing a trick, my friend. I am laughing on the inside. But this is not a time for revelry. You found Master Guan's … you found Master Guan?"

"The dead guy? Yeah, he'd back there. But you're saying you really don't know me? And after all I did for you last time. Tch. Kids today. No respect."

"Rai," Kimiko snapped, "give it a rest."

The eyes that met hers were not the eyes she'd been meeting for the past two years. "He is resting, sweetcheeks."

Dashi didn't remember everything from 1500 years ago, so their new mission became keeping him safe while his memories came back so he could fight and finally defeat the Shade before they lost anyone else. And they all vowed that they would lose nobody else.

Omi used the return of Grand Master Dashi to deflect the pain of losing his closest friend. Kimiko often looked in to see the two sparring. It looked just like any scene from before their lives went down the toilet, except that Raimundo had never known those moves before, never been that fast before, and never had such complete control of his element as Master Dashi did. It was this shared element that had guided Dashi's spirit into the mortal world again when he sensed he was needed, and pure coincidence, he said, that Raimundo had vacated his body at just the right moment for him to take over.

Kimiko wasn't sure what to believe anymore. Naturally suspicious, she watched Dashi through narrowed eyes as he moved around the temple, going about his days and shrugging off the awe of everyone there. Behind him trailed a morass of emotion he didn't even try to provoke. The generic monks admired him. Dojo was torn between him and Master Fung. Speaking of whom, even Master Fung was noticeably intimidated.

This was Grand Master Dashi, man of legend and folklore. He had laid the foundations for the entire Xiaolin Temple. He had defeated Wuya. He had created the Shen Gong Wu. And now here he was, suddenly back on earth and fighting another enemy to help save the world. He was the best weapon they could have hoped for.

For her part? Kimiko would have preferred Rai.

She missed him terribly; missed his stupid practical jokes and irresponsible attitude. She missed having him around to poke fun at her, even though he was still around in a technical sense. It just wasn't the same. The first day was horrible and empty, and she sat on her futon with her proud neck bent and her face pressed so hard against her knees it squashed her nose.

When she dreamed of Rai's headstone the dream changed a little. She crunched across the leaves and pushed aside the naked branches. She approached the glade with the graves and the rectangles of turned earth. Every step echoed her thoughts – don't be here, don't be here, don't be here.

But he was there. Raimundo Pedrosa, Dragon of the Wind, his headstone read. She laid the flowers and then hunkered down beside it.

"It wasn't ever supposed to be like this," she said, like she was divulging some great secret. "We're just kids. We're supposed to worry about homework and dating and zits, not saving the world. You know what I'm talking about, don't you? Being Dragons … it was supposed to be a game – an adventure. We were supposed to come back each time and learn from our mistakes. Moral modern fairytales – only with more butt-kicking. Not this. It wasn't ever supposed to be like this."

The imaginary wind whistled through the imaginary trees, in a world where it was always twilight, always Autumn, always the season of death and dying, crunchy leaves and storing food for the cold months to come.

"Raimundo, you jerk," Kimiko whispered. "You big fat jerk."

No reply.

Then she knocked her fist against his name, not smacking it like she'd smacked him when he said or did stupid things, but gently rapping her knuckles, like you might punch the shoulder of a departing friend: So long, and thanks for all the fish. She walked away and didn't look back at the long line of graves. It all felt very final.

She awoke in a cold sweat, breathing hard, cheeks wet with tears she couldn't remember shedding. Stifling the impulse to bawl like a baby and wake the others, she shoved her knuckles into her mouth. They tasted like lichen and dirt.

Time didn't stop. Life went on.

"You okay, Kimiko?" Clay asked one day when she fell off a wooden pole in training because she was so tired and bruised her ribs.

"Fine. Why wouldn't I be?" she replied bitterly.

Clay looked hard at her, then hunkered down, scooped her into his arms and carried her to the monks who manned the infirmary to get checked out.

"I can walk," she protested.

"I know."

"Put me down, Clay. I don't need any help."

"I know."

When it became clear he wasn't going to do as she said, she grumped and muttered, "Dumb lummox."

"I know."

That night she got out her mother's charm and put it under her pillow while she slept. The dream didn't come. She didn't know whether to be pleased or disappointed.

They called Raimundo's body by Dashi's name. On Omi's recommendation, they made Jack Spicer an official Xiaolin warrior when his house blew up. They fell into a surreal world that they had to call normality because … well, it was. They tracked and fought and lost and, occasionally, they won – but only when the Shade failed to show up. Master Fung got new wrinkles, and Dojo awaited every new Shen Gong Wu with distress because this time, next time, every time might mean he lost another of his charges. He even worried about Spicer.

Grand Master Dashi trained and meditated and loafed in the scroll room, reading up on what had happened to and in the world during his long absence. He wasn't a real help around the temple, especially not in the day-to-day chores, which surprised everybody but Dojo – and, perhaps, Omi – but he became the reason they survived the Shade's advances. With every new trick and spell and piece of magickal know-how he remembered, they got one step closer to seeing out their teens.

"You don't like him much, do you?"

"Huh?" Kimiko looked up from the Shen Gong Wu Vault to see Clay standing a few steps above her. The Vault was full of Wu she didn't recognise anymore. She felt incompatible – out of place. "Who?"

"Grand Master Dashi."

"Sure I like him. He saved my life just last week."

"Naw, that don't mean you like him. That just means you're grateful to him. Maybe respect him, too. But you don't like him."

For a second she considered arguing. You didn't badmouth the greatest Xiaolin warrior who ever lived. It just wasn't done. She even got as far as opening her mouth before she heard an echo of laughter she'd never hear again and hung her head. "Is it … is it really terrible that I don't?"

"Not really." Clay shrugged. "Can't like everyone. Reckon you'd be dumb as a bag of hammers if'n you liked an' trusted everyone you ever came across – Grand Master or not."

"But he's Grand Master Dashi - "

"I know." Something in the way he said it made her stop.

She licked her lips. It had been months. They didn't say it very often. "I … I miss Rai…"

"I know that, too." Soft, gentle, nothing like the Dragon of Earth, just a person, a boy fighting a man's battle. Clay sat down on his step and took off his hat. "Didn't have a lick of sense in him, an' done mistreated my hat sumthin' awful, but … well, y'know."

"Yeah." She played with the edge of a Wu that looked like a cat's paw after being dipped in formaldehyde. "It's not the same."

"Reckon Omi thinks so? Or Jack?"

Kimiko thought of the way Omi followed Dashi around, the way he'd crept out of bed just to look in on him for the first few nights. She thought of Omi's smile, which had never been so nuanced before Dashi arrived. And she thought of Jack in his new uniform – Rai's old spare – and his face when the Shade drove half of the snapped Monkey Staff through his shoulder. "I … think so." She didn't sound sure.

Clay just nodded.

The Shade kept coming. They fought, and rallied, and fought again, gradually forgetting a time when it had been any different. News eventually got back to the families of those who still had them, and they pleaded with their children to come home where it was safer. Clay and Kimiko both refused. Jack made excuses. Dashi went to Brazil with Dojo, and Raimundo's family never contacted the temple again.

Omi's eyes changed. Kimiko didn't know when, but she noticed it after that. They were still all Omi, but every so often they would fill with a pale, vacant sort of pain – usually right before he went to the training area and beat the tar out of whatever came to hand. She didn't know what to think about that.

"I am perfectly fine," he said stiffly when asked if he wanted to talk. "I do not need to talk. I need to train so I can defeat this monster."

"You can't beat it on your own, Omi - "

"Please, do not tell me what I can and cannot do. I am a Xiaolin Dragon. My limits are only what my mind makes them to be."

"Cute kid," said Dashi, arms folded. "Enthusiastic." The inflection made it interchangeable with 'obsessive'.

He always called Omi 'kid'. Sometimes he called Kimiko and Clay by it, too – and once even Master Fung found himself on the receiving end of the epithet – but more often than not it was Omi whose name was replaced. 'Kid'. Youngster. Child.

Raimundo hadn't been that much older than Omi.

The pattern didn't change much, but it had to in the end. Patterns always change in the end. In some cases, it's the end of the sameness that brings about the end-end.

The Dragons' pattern broke audibly, like a mirror shattering. One cold morning Dashi sprinted out of the scroll room and pronounced loudly to their training session, "Ladies and gents, I do believe I have it."

"Have what?" Jack wobbled on his perch, a hairsbreadth from falling off again.

Dashi's smile was sharp enough to cut. "Just the means of defeating that Shade. That's all."

"Say what, partner?"

It hadn't been easy, he told them, but he'd cobbled together a mixture of Eastern and Western magic that 'should do the trick'. Dashi had travelled far into the West when he was alive the first time, but a lot had happened in 1500 years. New sorceries had sprung up, while old kinds had changed. He remembered a purer kind of magic than existed today, but modern magic had more finesse (it had to be subtle in order to survive the Age of Science). It was only by combining the strength of the past with the sophistication of the present that, he believed, they had a shot at ridding themselves of the Shade once and for all.

"But," he was at pains to warn them, "this kind of magic is potentially very, very dangerous."

"Even more dangerous than the Shade?" Omi asked.

"Possibly. It's untested. And it's big – too big to give any accurate results in small experiments."

"So … the only test big enough is using it against the Shade itself," Kimiko surmised, unsurprisingly shrinking problems down to their component parts and slotting them back together in ways she understood.

"Basically? Yes."

"Isn't that kind of … risky?" Jack raised his hands. "Not that I'm questioning your judgement, oh no no no no no – no siree. But, uh … yeah. Tom Cruise sitch."

"Excuse me?" Both Dashi and Omi blinked.

"Risky Business?"

Dashi hoisted an eyebrow. "I have no idea what you're talking about, but this is unquestionably some risky business. Now, I'll be frank; it's not the only option we have. Give me some more time and I could probably put something else together. No promises on how much safer it'd be, but it might be preferable to fooling around with Ley Lines and whatnot for this puppy. I have to appeal to some pretty powerful spirits for this, some of whom I haven't talked to in a while so there's no telling how cooperative they'd be – though I think one of them owe me money. But in the meantime - "

"In the meantime, we've still got the Shade to worry about." Kimiko frowned.

Jack scrubbed at the back of his head. "Man, talk about a rock and a hard place. And to think I spent so long thinking you dweebs were all wise and invincible and junk." They were few and far between, but Jack still had his Evil Boy Doofus moments.

"Yes, well, that's not actually the most dangerous part. For you, anyway. Using the magic is going to be dangerous mostly for me – it'll be using my body as a conduit, and while I'm making sure my molecules don't disassemble themselves, I won't be able to protect you from the Shade."

"We can dodge pretty good," Jack mused. "I've had a lot of experience with running and hiding."

But Omi's eyes read the true nature of what Dashi was saying. "You are going to summon it here. You are going to bring our most terrible enemy into our home in order to vanquish it."

"The temple's spent the better part of fifteen centuries absorbing white magic. It's the best hub I can think of for what I plan to do." A falter then – tiny, but more human than usual. Dashi had crinkles Raimundo didn't earn. "Sorry, kid."

"It is … all right," Omi said slowly, distantly, even grimly. "If it will destroy this creature, I believe it is perfectly all right."

Kimiko watched him and felt her heart clench.

"You think he can do it?" she asked that night. She'd crawled through into Clay's personal area (they never called them rooms because there wasn't any), and sat with his blanket around her shoulders and her mother's charm in her hand.

"Who? Dashi?" Clay scratched the back of his neck. He had strong hands and a thick neck. Kimiko had never really noticed them the way she did now, when it was kind of pointless because they might all be dead tomorrow. "Maybe."

"Less than wholehearted response, there."


"Yeah." She nodded. "It is that."

"Why? You thinkin' he can't?"

"I'm not sure what I'm thinking anymore."

"Cheer up, girl. It might seem better by this time tomorrow."

"Or it might seem worse."

"Hoo-wee. Regular bundle of sunshine, ain't you?"

"Mrrf, I'm sorry, Clay." She rubbed at her forehead with her fingertips and pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. The charm jabbed. "I didn't mean to keep you awake just so I could whine."

"Meh." He shrugged. "Probably wasn't gonna sleep anyways."

"I just … I guess I just wanted some company. Omi's barely left Dashi's side, and Jack wouldn't wake up if a hurricane hit the temple." Plus, she wanted someone she could show her weaknesses to without feeling pathetic. Clay understood about saying things without saying them. He understood people more than he let on, and he could be trusted with secrets.

"Although he has improved in the last couple of months," Clay acknowledged of Jack. "Considerin' he ain't got no powers like us an' gotta use just the basic Shen Gong Wu. Never thought that guy could kick my legs from under me, let alone hold his own in battles like we done had. More surprisin' than a ballet-dancin' steer."

"Yeah. Jack's come a long way."

"Sure has."





"Do you think we'll win tomorrow?"

"I … I don't rightly know."

Kimiko nodded. "At least you're honest."

Clay's one visible eye focussed somewhere in the middle-distance. "Reckon it might've been nice to see Jessie an' my pappy again. Just in case, y'understand."

"Yeah. I understand." Her grip on the charm tightened. "You getting homesick on me, cowboy?"


She raised an eyebrow.

"Well, maybe just a little. A very little. We're talkin' smaller than a flea's kneecap - "

"You don't have to justify yourself to me, Clay. I think … I'm not sorry I didn't give in and go home while I had the chance, but … I dunno. I had the option. And I didn't take it. So I feel like I'm not allowed to want my parents now. Ngh, this would be so much easier if we still had the Golden Tiger Claws."

"Reckon so."

"Any regrets?"

"About stickin' around? A couple. Nuthin' that'd make me change my mind if I could do it over, though."

If they could do things over …

If they could do things over, she would've clocked Raimundo, knocked him out so he couldn't go back to help Master Monk Guan. Except that it was only Rai's stupidity and misplaced courage that had allowed Dashi to come back, and it ewes only through Dashi's return that they had a chance of surviving the Shade's onslaught. It was like a line of dominoes – no, like a line of gravestones in mushy ground. One slipped, toppled, knocked against the next, and then they all toppled in a specific pattern. Take one away, and what would happen to the rest? Would they stay upright, or would they all succumb to the mushy ground eventually? Would they just fall in different directions, instead of one after the other?

If they could do things over … could they really change anything? Really?

"There was a boy in my class at school," Kimiko said softly. "Before I came here. He wanted to be a painter. Pretty good, too. It was a school for child prodigies, you see. I was drafted in to bulk out the computer technology department. He used to come over to our building sometimes, and we'd sit and have lunch together on the bench outside the front entrance. I don't even remember his name now, but he had a little gold hoop, right here in his earlobe. I thought it was so cool. So I told him so one day, and when I did he kind of leaned towards me, and I thought 'Hey, I'm getting my first kiss out of this!' Except I hadn't been expecting that. My stomach went all jumbly, and I didn't know what to do – which way to put my head, whether to close my eyes, if I should breathe out into his mouth or not. I felt so stupid and … and young, and I just … I bolted. Clean out of there. Just left him on the bench on his own with his mouth puckered. Then a couple of days later I accidentally set fire to my teacher's favourite bonsai tree and one thing led to another and I ended up here. I never apologised for … whatever. Offending him by running off. And I never got my first kiss after all. If there's one thing I'd change if I could do things over, that'd be it."

Clay didn't question her choice. He didn't tell her she was ridiculous, or point out the myriad other things – worthier things – she could've chosen to change: Places she could've been, lives she could've saved, disasters she could've prevented. Clay, after all, understood about saying things without saying them.

He leaned forward, hair falling into his eyes. "I ain't 'zactly the man of your dreams, but … maybe I'd suffice? I ain't never had a first kiss neither, y'see. Might be nice to see what all the fuss is about 'afore we're barbequed. Or not."

Kimiko tightened her grip on the protective charm and spent a moment considering this.

But only a moment.