EDIT 05/11/12- Editing is done! And that includes editing out half of these ranty authors' notes. XD

Time lapse is 6 months, but I think you can figure that out on your own. XD

Enjoy! (it feels so good to get to say that again...)

The Beginning of the End

Chapter 7.1

"Wow…" Chase shook his head slowly, squinting a bit to make out the outlines of the other Apprentices in the late-night darkness. "It's hard to believe it's been six months."

After fumbling to ignite a flimsy paper lantern with the Star Hanabi, Guan held the dimly-flickering light up in front of him and agreed, "It is, isn't it?" Since it was long past their curfew, all four friends had squeezed into the Fire Apprentice's little corner section of their sleeping quarters to keep out of Master Chang's impressive hearing range. Their hushed whispers were concealed well enough by the walls and thin paper screens, and this was the last chance they would have to prepare.

"Well, you know what they say," Dashi hissed, his trademark grin looking even wider than usual in the glow of the dancing flame. "That time flies when you're having fun."

Wuya snorted quietly. "And exactly what part of the last six months would you consider 'fun'? Grueling is more like it."

"I hope you aren't complaining about our missions again," Dashi interjected, sounding genuinely annoyed. "At least when we're on missions, we're actually doing something." He tapped his fingers against the wooden floor impatiently. "What I hate is all the meditation Master Chang has us doing now. I can't sit still that long, it's boring!"

"I like meditation," Guan countered, looking a bit peeved himself. "It's the only time I have during the day to focus on self-development and what I need to work on learning." When the Wind Apprentice shot him a half-skeptical, half-revolted look, he added, "Plus, it's the only time that I get a break from having to listen to you and Wuya's constant bickering."

Raising an eyebrow, Dashi pointed out shortly, "You spend more time arguing with her than I do." From the opposite corner, the dark-skinned girl fidgeted irritably, as though to remind her stubborn male companions that she was, in fact, still in the room.

Guan pursed his lips, unable to think of a clever retort, and opted to remain silent. The truth of it was that the other boy did have a point. In the last half-year, particularly the time shortly after their initial defeat, the Fire and Earth Apprentices had frequently been at odds- her quick temper and his tendency to get sanctimonious made them clash like water on rock. Although Chase often attempted to play mediator and keep the peace between them, he was still too quiet and gentle to really be effective, and they occasionally grew so angry with each other that they stopped listening even to him. On the other hand, Dashi had taken to disappearing completely, sometimes skipping days of training at a time, and if asked where he had been, his only excuse was that he was 'working'.

"Feh," Wuya griped, as only one who was as well-practiced in negativity as she was could, "I'm still sick of missions. It feels like we're going on the same one over and over again."

"Well, we did deliberately disobey Master Chang's explicit orders, not to mention ran headlong into a situation that was utterly over our heads and nearly got ourselves all killed," Guan pointed out fairly. "We probably should have expected something of a…" He fished for an accurate word for a moment before finishing, "…a demotion."

"I don't care!" she snapped, making a rather unpleasant face. "If I have to knock off one more cyclops' head, I'm going to just be sick."

None of them even attempted to argue this time, because the Earth Apprentice made a valid point as well- most of their infighting in those first few months had, in the first place, stemmed from the agitation caused by sheer boredom. However, it has taken several unnecessary injuries and a good deal of extra stress for them to realize that venting that boredom by constantly sniping at each other was definitely not helping matters; even if the missions were repetitive and tedious, they couldn't afford to waste time and energy on what Wuya later and rather appropriately dubbed 'silly pissing-contests'. After that, they had come to a sort of mutual agreement to keep their attitudes to themselves and quit taking their frustration out on each other, and although it was difficult, and the arguing by no means completely ceased, they had finally begun to regain some sense of being a team.

It was around that time that the idea of returning to challenge the hydra again had started to resurface, at first only in the occasional doubtful, muttered remark. They grew bolder through time and training, however, and the mutterings eventually grew into excited late-night planning sessions that left the young warriors exhausted but exhilarated- the return of confidence and, even more importantly, of an objective, felt wonderful. And when half a year had finally come and gone, they had decided they were ready for a fresh attempt.

Dashi was still snickering to himself over Wuya's moodiness, but after a moment, his face grew more serious and he changed the subject. "So, is everything ready for tomorrow morning?"

"I assume so," Guan said mildly, shrugging a shoulder. The fact was, he knew perfectly well that Dashi had rather emphatically declared himself to be in charge of the planning and preparations for their little adventure, and that the cocky boy was only asking around for a chance to show off. He knew better than to indulge him.

Wuya, however, did not- either that, or she was already too hot-and-bothered to care. "I wouldn't know, you're the one who decided to be Mister 'I'll-take-care-of-everything' in the first place," she grumbled, snatching up the worn pillow from Guan's sleeping mat and chucking it at the golden-skinned boy.

Grinning infuriatingly, the Wind Apprentice blew a puff of air at the flying pillow and invoked his elemental abilities to magnify it momentarily into a barrier of wind, causing the thin sack of feathers to flop uselessly to the floor before it reached him. Then, just as predicted, he replied self-assuredly, "And so I have, my dear Wuya. Like I said, just trust me."

By then, if the Earth-elemental had been capable of steaming at the ears in her anger, the entire room would have been in a fog. However, instead of arguing, she merely tossed back her wavy red ponytail and muttered defeatedly, "Alright, whatever." She leaned over suddenly and yanked hard on his ear, ignoring his surprised squeak of pain, and hissed, "But stop calling me that!"

"Quit your silly flirting, you'll wake up Master Chang," Guan ordered irritably- they, of course, paid no attention whatsoever. Frowning slightly, he turned to the youngest Apprentice, who was staring distractedly at the simply-decorated paper wall-screen through a curtain of dark hair. Gently placing a hand on his narrow shoulder, the older boy inquired worriedly, "Is something wrong, Chase? You haven't said a word since we got here."

"Yeah, what's eating you?" Dashi asked, as if noticing for the first time that the reticent Water-elemental was even there.

Sighing softly, Chase raised his head and said slowly, "I don't know, really. It's just…it feels so strange, talking about actually finishing this whole…thing." At the other young monks' blank stares, he shook his head and elaborated, "I mean, we've been working and training towards this one objective for so long. What will we have to work for once we've won?"

Dashi blinked. "That's an odd thing to be worried about."

Rising to her feet, the Earth Apprentice padded over to the edge of the screen, peeking out to ascertain that the coast was still clear. Once she was satisfied, she returned to her seat and began slightly hesitantly, "Well, I do see where he's coming from." She frowned to herself; what she failed to comprehend was why the younger boy was so worried about it. Out loud, however, she continued, "We've only been pushing ourselves like we have because we've been obsessing over all this- we're just going to get lazy again once it's over."

Raising an eyebrow, Guan seized the opportunity to poke fun at his semi-friendly rival and pointed out, "True, but you've always been lazy." Moments later, he too received a flying pillow in the face, along with a sizzling glare.

Chuckling quietly, Dashi shook his head and said only half-jokingly, "Don't worry, Chase, I'm sure we'll manage to find something else to work ourselves sick over." He had to fight with himself to refrain from adding 'or at least you will- you always do', and the expression on Guan's face told the Wind Apprentice that the older boy had been thinking the very same thing. Picking up the wayward pillow and lightly tossing it back to its proper place at the head of the sleeping mat, he added sagely, "After all, with each step down the road comes new holes in said road that must be jumped over before one can proceed."

Three pairs of eyebrows shot up.

"Well…" Guan mused in a mixture of amusement and disbelief, "that was one of Master Chang's sayings, until you mutilated it." He glanced over at Chase, who had again withdrawn into complete silence, and felt a nagging suspicion that his younger companion had not voiced all that was troubling him.

"So?" Dashi countered a bit sheepishly, seemingly unaware of his friend's dissatisfaction. "Doesn't stop the saying from being true." Yawning, he got to his feet and said, "I don't know about you, but I'm completely exhausted. Besides, if we actually want to be functioning tomorrow, we need sleep."

"Wisest thing he's said all night," Guan muttered to Wuya.

Dashi twitched. "So, good night all, and I will see you way too early in the morning." After an exaggerated mock-bow, he shuffled out past the wall-screen.

"I've about had it as well," Wuya grumbled crossly. Offering a discreet smile to Chase and a curt nod to Guan, she too left for her own bed, and after a moment of silence, the Water-elemental murmured a barely audible goodnight and did the same.

Sighing quietly, the only remaining Apprentice crawled over to his sleeping mat, adjusting the abused pillow and pulling the thin blanked up over his legs. Reaching over into the opposite corner, he picked up the paper lantern and quickly blew it out. Immediately, the room grew utterly pitch-dark, and the only noise that could be heard was the faint chirping of crickets from outside the temple walls. Restless and wide awake, the Fire-elemental tossed back and forth, striving in vain to find a comfortable position. For a moment, he considered feeling around for the lantern to light it up again, but decided that it wasn't worth the effort, and again closed his eyes in his fruitless search for sleep.

Not ten minutes later, he was brought back to awareness by a faint but persistent knocking on the wall next to him. He squinted at the figure's barely visible silhouette- too short to be Dashi, and not nearly enough hair to be Wuya, so it had to be Chase. Besides, only Chase would consciously try so hard to be polite that he would knock on the wall in the absence of a door. Just that tiny gesture that was so very characteristic of his partner both amused him and warmed his heavy heart and, smiling fondly, he inquired, "Chase? What are you doing up?"

"Oh!" The younger boy sounded surprised and embarrassed, but in an overly-innocent sort of way, almost like a child caught with one hand in the cookie jar. "I…erm…" Guan's mouth twisted into a tiny smirk- even though he couldn't see Chase very well, he could practically hear his face turning red purely through his voice. The stammering Water Apprentice soldiered on. "Can I…ah…can I sleep with you tonight?"

Guan was taken aback; after all the hesitation, he hadn't really known what he was expecting the other boy to say…but it most definitely had not been that. "…Why?" After a moment, he began in a poor attempt at slyness, "I do seem to remember something about chastity in the rules of the Xiaolin order, but if you insist-"

"Not like that!" Chase burst out hurriedly, obviously flustered. "I only meant-"

By then, Guan was almost laughing outright- he knew he really ought not to be amused by his poor friend's distress, but it was difficult not to be. "I was only teasing, Chase- you know that I know what you meant. …But really, why?" He reached out, tugging on the other boy's sleeve when he felt the fabric of it between his fingers. The Water Apprentice moved to sit against the wall next to his companion, but as soon as he did so, he pulled his knees to his chest and let the curtain of soft, dark hair fall into his face again, still resolutely silent. Recalling the younger boy's similar behavior earlier, Guan frowned and asked a bit tentatively, "Is something troubling you outside of the things you told us earlier?"

Chase appeared somewhat surprised at being asked this directly, but then admitted reluctantly, "Sort of." As he continued to speak, his voice grew stronger, and Guan was surprised to hear a resentful undertone behind his words. "It's just…I've been thinking. Perhaps I've done too much thinking. I didn't say anything earlier because I didn't want all of us going into battle tomorrow thinking these things." When he felt his friend's much larger hand come to rest over his own, he sighed and continued, "I've begun to believe that we're…I don't even know…blowing this whole situation out of proportion."

Guan's worry gave way to genuine curiosity, and he inquired slowly, "What do you mean, out of proportion?"

For the first time that evening, the Water-elemental turned and looked his companion directly in the eye. "Look at us. We're supposed to be Xiaolin Warriors, defeating evil for the sake of doing good and protecting the common people. But now…we were defeated once, and we took it so personally. That in itself isn't so bad, but we took it personally for the wrong reasons. Our only objective in wanting to engage this creature again is to make ourselves feel better, to alleviate the shame." He shook his head in frustration. "But see, that's what I mean- yes, we messed up, but there didn't have to be that kind of shame in one defeat. We just…we turned it into so much bigger of a deal than it ever needed to be. And now, tomorrow morning…we won't be doing any real good whether we win or not. It feels…petty." His soft voice was pained, and Guan realized that it was because he was disappointed in himself, because he had felt that same shame, that same obsessive desire for revenge. True, Chase was proud and always wanted to improve himself, but he was the kind of person who genuinely desired to do good in the world, and the shame he now felt was for his own selfishness.

Before he had any real idea of how to respond, Guan found himself saying, "…I know. I never really sat down and put all the pieces together, but I think I've known that for a while now. To be honest, I'm just looking forward to having the whole thing over with and being able to move on with life. But you're wrong about nothing positive coming from this." The Water Apprentice let out a tiny, skeptical noise, so the older boy continued, "Look at how wise you've gotten."

The statement itself was simple, yet when Chase tried to reply, he found himself overwhelmed, struggling to hold back the tears that had been threatening to fall for the weeks upon weeks of stress and doubt. These tears, though, were tears of relief, and all he managed to choke out was, "…Thank you…"

"You were the one who gave me confidence in myself…so many times. I've never had it on my own," the Fire Apprentice admitted. "I'm glad to be able to give even just a little of that back to you."


Suddenly struck by an extremely disconcerting thought, Guan turned sharply to his smaller companion, gripping his narrow shoulders firmly so that he could not turn away. "Chase, I want you to promise me something." When Chase, who had been caught off guard, gave a tiny, wide-eyed nod, he went on, "I know you feel we shouldn't be fighting this battle tomorrow, but the fact is...we are. So I want you to swear that you're still going to fight as hard as you possibly can and take care of yourself." The fingers clutching the Water Apprentice's shoulders were trembling now, and his voice carried a hint of desperation. "You practically said it yourself- this battle isn't worth dying for, and I…last time was so close…"

"I know…" The younger monk allowed his eyes to slide shut and, after a momentary pause, assured his friend the tiniest bit hesitantly, "…Of course I promise."

Noticing that the Water Apprentice's entire frame was quivering slightly even as he spoke, Guan asked bluntly, "Are you afraid?"

Shaking his head, Chase said slowly, "No, that's not it…" This time, his tone made it clear that he was telling the truth, and not lying to preserve his precious dignity as he had done when asked similar questions in the past. "A little nervous, maybe, but not afraid."

"…Well, I suppose that makes sense- we probably all are." The smallest of discreet smiles made its way to Guan's lips as he asked his final question, "But then, why did you come to me tonight in the first place? I don't think you really intended to start that whole conversation."

"I…" The Water Apprentice's voice was barely even a whisper, his eyes downcast, and for the first time in years, Guan was struck by the fact that Chase was almost three years younger than he was. On a day-to-day basis, it was certainly noticeable, but even so, the gap had never felt all that significant to him before. Suddenly, though, fourteen-and-a-half and seventeen seemed so much farther apart. He ran a hand through Chase's hair as the younger finished quietly, "...I just didn't want to be alone."

"You're not," the Fire Apprentice answered, stroking the other's collarbone gently with one of his thumbs and mentally reassuring himself of the same thing. Pressing a kiss somewhere into his companion's hair in the darkness, he smiled and said, "Come on, you know we both need sleep."

In grateful acceptance of the invitation, Chase cuddled closer and closed his eyes, hoping to escape to the realm of sleep for a few hours before the coming of the dawn.

End Chapter 7.1

Continued in Chapter 7.2

Feedback is always very much appreciated! (Honestly, I really want to know who's still reading this...)