It was hot and stuffy in Miss Stock's classroom, but then again, it was always hot and stuffy in Texas. The AC unit that the principal had just scrounged up at some second-hand shop sputtered and coughed, doing nothing more than stirring up the warm air. And all that effort for only two people.
Clay stood in front of Miss Stock's desk, glancing towards the door. By now, the other children had run off to the busses, because not even the spectacle of a kid being told off by a teacher was enough of a draw for them to stay longer in school than they had to. Clay wished that Miss Stock would hurry up. If he missed the bus, then it would mean that his dad would have to drive all the way to school. On top of everything that had happened today, Clay did not want a long ride home made even longer by inescapable disapproval.
"Do you know why you're here?" said Miss Stock from behind her desk, hands folded in a sharp steeple. Clay stared straight ahead at her perfectly fake, red nails that clacked whenever she was losing patience. Looking up would have meant certain death, like looking into the face of Medusa. Miss Stock rarely got upset, and she had never gotten upset with him. If he didn't look up, maybe he could pretend that she wasn't upset with him now.
Barely able to speak louder than the AC, Clay mumbled, "Yes'm." The red nails were suddenly making him think of blood, blood running down the claws of harpies. He focused instead on the kitschy cat paperweight that held down today's spelling quiz. The little kitten was curled up in a ball of soporific contentment. "'Cuz I punched Joshua inna nose."
"Clay," said Miss Stock, speaking with all the wisdom and authority that teachers held over children, "why did you punch Joshua in the nose?"
Because during lunch and recess, he always sat alone. Because he was by far the tallest and the widest kid in class. Because he could hear the others spread rumors about him being held back a grade or two and he couldn't tell if they thought he was listening or not. Because he felt embarrassed and uncomfortable talking to people and he didn't understand how everybody in class could hold conversations so easily. Because he was a farmboy, and that was considered rather backwoods even in a state that was generally thought of as backwoods. Because he had to wake up early every morning to do chores before walking an hour to the bus stop, then stay up late doing chores until he barely had time to go through homework and sleep. Because his daddy frowned whenever he read books at the table, turned off the TV when he wanted to watch figure skaters perform in the Winter Olympics, and loudly proclaimed that every single one of his interests were utterly useless and silly. Because he had started reading in secret when everybody was asleep to avoid having to deal with the constant disapproval, which of course cut into the precious little sleeping time he had. Because lately, he had started getting into fights with Jessie and he never understood why. Because two days ago, when he went out to refill the feeding troughs as usual, he found Suzie lying motionless in the dirt and his ma held his hand tight and his daddy talked to him about death and he hadn't really eaten much since then. There were many reasons, all of them a tangled mess in his mind, a knot of stuff that was the foundation of his very being and definitely something that his eight-year-old brain couldn't put into words.
"'Cuz he called me fat," Clay said. This was only part of the truth. Joshua and friends had been calling him names for a while now. And actually, it had been 'fatass.'
Miss Stock sighed and folded her hands so that they looked less sharp and stern. Clay risked a glance up. Her brown eyes weren't as cold and hard as he expected, but they weren't soft with sympathy either. He liked Miss Stock, really. She recommended books to him and told him interesting little factoids and didn't look at him like he was an idiot when he asked questions, didn't tell him to stop asking questions, didn't avoid answering questions. But there were times when he just felt uncomfortable around her and he didn't understand why. It was like…certain things she said…or…something in the way she treated him…? But that couldn't be it, because Miss Stock was nice. Maybe he was just weird or something.
"Clay, I didn't expect this from you. You're normally so much better than this," she said, and Clay's mind was weighed down by another anxiety. "You're a very smart boy. Why did you punch him?"
A repeated question. Clay struggled to think of another answer. "'Cuz I didn't know what t' do," he said, his voice muffled with shame.
"Well, violence was not the answer. You should have thought a little more, Clay, and then you would have realized that it doesn't matter what Joshua says or thinks about you, don't you think?"
Sticks an' stones may break my bones but words'll never hurt me. The words rose to his mind automatically and chided him for his foolishness. At the same time, he couldn't help but think about how much pain in his life came from words alone. But maybe that was because nobody had ever thrown a rock at him before. If he had ever broken a bone, he would have surely felt real pain. The pain of words was just his imagination or something, fake feelings, faint echoes of what pain really was.
"I shoulda jus' ignored it, then," he mumbled.
"Or come and told me," Miss Stock added, her voice finally softening, which indicated that he was about to be let off soon. "Violence is what people do when they aren't smart enough to figure out the best solution to a problem. You want to be smart, don't you?"
Clay nodded numbly. Of course.
"Then act like it."
Adjusting to temple life was rough. It wasn't the training regimen; life on the farm inured him to little sleep and hard work. It wasn't the climate or the cuisine. It wasn't that he was homesick. He missed Texas, sure, but he practically leapt at the chance to gain experiences beyond farmlife. Daddy had said 'no,' just like he had said 'no' to college, 'no' to pretty much everything that Clay had wanted to do. But just this once, Daddy relented (and thank god for that; Clay would never admit this, but he partly wanted to go just to get a little breathing space from Daddy).
What was rough was that the people who were supposed to be his teammates thought so little of him, and he was aware of every snide comment they made. About where he came from. His weight. The way he talked. The way he ate. His intelligence.
If Chase Young hadn't been around, life would have been almost intolerable. No offense to Master Fung and all, but Chase was approachable and Chase didn't condescend. Chase told stories about his travels, about his past, ("You're fifteen hunnerd years old?" Clay had remarked with surprise. Chase grinned and held a finger to his lips. "Not quite.") about his adventures and about the lore of China. Chase practiced Tai-Chi, just like him, and was as eager to teach as Clay was eager to learn. Chase joined them during missions whenever he wasn't busy, but didn't interfere often. He stood back and observed and told them how they could have done things better and told them the things they did right. Chase seemed genuinely interested when Clay talked about animals or literature or mythology or whatever he happened to want to talk about. Chase never called his interests silly and even thanked Clay for telling him new things.
Clay tried to talk to him as much as possible. It got to the point where Omi was visibly jealous whenever Chase talked to Clay instead of him. Which was kind of cute, up until Omi made a point to show him up whenever possible to reclaim Chase's attention. (This lead to a good, long, philosophical talk about people and human interaction and the concept of 'sonder.') It got to the point where, one time at dinner, after Omi left to do some more training with Chase, Raimundo tauntingly asked if he was in lo-o-o-ove.
As Raimundo rubbed his leg, yet another victim to one of Kimiko's kicks, Clay mulled over the question. "I reckon I'm 'bout as sharp as a mashed 'tater when it comes t' love, but I don' think this is it."
Raimundo dropped his smile. "I was joking, dude. You didn't have to answer that seriously."
Kimiko wasn't smiling either, but for a different reason. She stared intently at Clay's impassive face, chewing on her finger. "Clay…you know if there's something you want to tell us, you can tell us, right? We'll accept you no matter what. You don't have to be afraid of us."
"Uh, what?" Raimundo said, his hands clutching the table tightly. This conversation was not going the way he expected, nor the way he wanted. He looked around in a panic, as though he was ready to bolt as soon as things got drastically serious.
Clay's face twisted in embarrassment, but he continued to look straight at Kimiko. "I ain't gay."
Silence fell like an anvil, hard and painful. Kimiko had turned a bright shade of red. Raimundo was tense, trying to command himself to abort, abort, run away, flip the table or something, but finding himself frozen. Clay quietly continued to eat, his hat pulled low over his face.
"I'm so sorry," Kimiko finally blurted out. "It's just – you – sometimes when – the way you – "
"I like Chase," Clay said, trying to explain even when his brain told him that he was digging a hole in awkwardness straight to the awkward core of the awkward planet. "I jus' think he's nice t' me an' he don't mind talkin' t' me an' I'm never a bother or nothin'. 'Sides, he's too old fer me."
Raimundo recognized an attempt to escape the awkwardness event horizon and laughed desperately. "You got that right, man! Boy, that sure was a conversation that we'll never speak about again, so how 'bout this food, huh?"
Kimiko, on the other hand, recognized something in the words that Clay had used, something in the way he had said it, something in the small smile he made when he talked, a smile laced with sheer gratefulness for things that she realized she took for granted. "Clay…uh…were you…happy in Texas…?"
"Oh my god," said Raimundo, and he flipped the table.
A few months after Clay moved to the temple, Guan appeared.
It happened as they were returning from New York (had its upsides, he supposed, but too many cars, and the smell…). Right as Dojo was about to land in the temple grounds, he was quite suddenly struck by some sort of spear…harpoon thing. As the blade dug itself under his scales, as the dragon screamed in pain, it was only then that anybody noticed the stranger standing on the roof of the vault.
The blade was attached to a chain, which was now retracting back into the man's weapon, taking Dojo down with it. Omi, who had immediately dropped down to the chain in attempts to wrench it out of Dojo's belly, could only focus on clinging on for dear life along with the rest of the monks as all five of them crashed into the vault. The ground shuddered when Dojo landed, blood gushing out of his wound, and it was a struggle for each of the monks to stand up again. The stranger was not similarly inconvenienced, and simply pulled his weapon out again with a sickening sound. Dojo let out a deep moan as his wound was made bigger.
Omi was the first up and he launched himself into an attack, no questions asked. He lasted a few seconds before the man sent him flying with a well-placed palm strike.
Raimundo and Kimiko got to their feet, but hesitated. If Omi wasn't even able to make him sweat, then they weren't likely to be able to do much at all. Clay was the last one to stand, and without thinking, he tore his neckerchief off.
"Dojo," he cried out, leaning against the dragon's side. He couldn't tell if Dojo was even still conscious at this point. The rubble beneath his feet was slick with blood, which kept pouring out on his arms, his face, his pants… "Shrink down! Shrink down!"
There was no verbal response, and Dojo did not move for five long seconds. But then a familiar shiver ran down his serpentine body, and he shifted to lizard size. With the wound in a more manageable size, Clay quickly tied the red cloth around Dojo's body. His mind ran down what little medical knowledge he had, but the things he came up with seemed to slide right out of his ears as he stared down at the dragon in his hand and his neckerchief darkened with blood.
"Which one of you has the Serpent's Tail?" The stranger didn't quite ask the question, so much as demand that it be answered. He blocked another attack by Omi from behind and tossed the small child towards the others.
Without meaning to, Raimundo glanced towards Omi, who had managed to land on his feet. "Why do ya wanna know?" he retorted, hoping he didn't sound as nervous as he was.
The man leveled his spear towards Raimundo's heart. "Do not trouble yourself over this. Only trouble yourself to hand it over."
"I was wondering when you would turn up, Guan."
The man named Guan wheeled around, his mangled eye widened in shock as he saw Chase standing there. "How are you – "
"Unlike you," Chase drawled, his tense arms folded casually, "I took a shortcut."
The two men stared at each other for a long while, both of them clearly itching to fight but neither of them wanting to be so low as to start it. The air sparked with electrified tension. And here they were, Clay thought grimly, standing smack dab in the middle of the metaphorical oil well.
Despite the atmosphere, Raimundo lowered his fighting stance. "Anybody else feel like they're…missing something here?"
"Be quiet," said Master Fung, and Raimundo nearly jumped out of his skin. The elder smoothly moved in front of the young monks, arms outstretched as though he could hide them from sight. "Go inside. Now."
"You mean hide?" Raimundo said, his mouth pulled back in a betrayed scowl. Clay set a hand on his shoulder, smearing blood on his clothes. He wordlessly put out his other hand to reveal the much-too-limp Dojo.
Raimundo bit his lip, eyes wavering. "But I can't just leave," he maintained.
As soon as Guan heard that and realized that his window of opportunity was shrinking, he spun around and shot the blade straight towards Raimundo. None of the young Dragons-in-Training even had time to react before Master Fung caught the blade between his hands. While Guan struggled to reclaim his weapon, Chase took the opportunity to strike at his back. Guan deflected the blow with a well-toned arm, and after that, the fight evolved into a series of graceful movements, attacks bleeding into attacks, a frenzied and controlled blur of motion that Clay couldn't keep up with. Master Fung pulled at the chain and caught Guan's spear. "Go!" he commanded once more, and this time everybody obeyed.
They didn't even make it halfway to the nearest door when a bright flash of light from behind stopped them in their tracks. The light was accompanied by the sound of space-time bending like a spoon. When Clay turned around, there was another Guan standing behind Master Fung.
Everybody looked shocked and confused, even Guan – the Guan that hadn't just appeared in a flash of light, that is. (Clay automatically gave him the moniker, 'Guan-1.') Even Master Fung looked as though he was caught off-guard, something that Clay had never even seen before. But when Guan-2 took advantage of the element of surprise, the old man recovered enough to swing the spear and block the first attack – a punch aimed towards his head. But Master Fung was unable to keep a good grip on the weapon, and it was knocked away.
With his other hand, Guan-2 appeared to fling something at Master Fung's feet. "Ying Yo-Yo," he said impassively, and a portal appeared on the ground below the senior monk. Master Fung was able to fight men who were much younger-bodied than him, but he could not fight gravity. He fell, and the portal closed behind him.
Omi suddenly released a scream of anger and anguish and launched himself towards Guan-2 before anybody could stop him. He did not even attack with any particular form, merely threw his entire body into an ill-defined kick. Without pause, Guan-2 flicked the spear into the air with his foot and his other self caught it on instinct. Then he took out another object that looked like an hourglass and called out, "Sands of Time!" before he left just as he had come, leaving Omi to land on his hands and knees, wailing with rage.
Above the noise of loud crying, Guan said, "It seems to me that I do not need the Serpent's Tail after all." He turned and leapt onto a roof.
"Don't – " said Chase, but Guan was already gone. The monks were left with a vast, unsatisfiable absence.
Omi was still sobbing on the ground, but a dull shiver in his hands reminded Clay of more pressing matters. Giving an apologetic glance towards the group, he headed towards the infirmary with a self-conscious gait.
The temple mourned. Chase set up a modest altar. Omi religiously lit incense. Dojo cried a lot, blaming himself.
Clay felt like an intruder. He had only known Master Fung for a few months. The man was pretty wise, sure, but it wasn't like he lived with him his whole life. Still, he tried to do his best to console Omi and Dojo and assure Kimiko and Raimundo that they weren't alone in feeling distant and not as emotional as they should.
But eventually, they had to move on.
"Many years ago, Grand Master Dashi and I imprisoned a great evil named Hannibal Roy Bean."
Clay furrowed his brow, recognizing two-thirds of the name, but he decided not to interrupt.
"We imprisoned him in a place called the Ying-Yang World – and this is where Guan has sent Master Fung, using the Ying Yo-Yo."
From his seat, Omi dug his fingernails into the table. "So we must battle Guan for the Ying Yo-Yo to save Master Fung."
"Not quite," Chase replied after a sip of tea. "The Ying Yo-Yo has a sister Wu, the Yang Yo-Yo. It is imperative that we have both. If you try to leave the Ying-Yang World with only one of them, upon exiting, your dominant chi will be switched with your subordinate chi."
Omi's expression was of shocked clarity. The rest were a mixture of confusion and apathy.
"You turn evil," Dojo explained. There was a collective, soft, 'oh.'
"I believe Guan's plan is to release Hannibal once more, and for that he will need the Yang Yo-Yo. In this case, the best course of action is to locate the Yang Yo-Yo as fast as possible and obtain it before he does."
"Okaaay," said Kimiko, who had experienced her fair share of weird mystical stuff by now to build up a tolerance, yet this whole thing was still pushing her suspension of disbelief. "So where is it?"
"I wasn't the one who hid the Wu," Chase said, turning towards Dojo.
The dragon stopped picking at his bandages to strike an affronted pose. "Look, if I remembered every little hiding spot, you think we'd have to wait for Wu to activate?"
"So basically," Raimundo said, setting an elbow roughly on the table and dumping his chin onto his hand, "we wait and do nothing."
"We do have another task set for us, however." Chase finished draining his cup and set it down with a small clack. "We work to keep the Sands of Time and the Ying Yo-Yo out of Guan's grasp for as long as we are able."
Raimundo let out a frustrated groan. "What's the point? He already has them – or will have them or whatever! 'Sides, Dojo doesn't know where they are, and there's no telling when they'll activate or whatever, right? So it's back to square one!"
"Not quite," said Chase with a small smile, and he led them towards the rock garden.
His smile quickly vanished as he stared at an empty place which, Clay deduced, wasn't supposed to be empty. "How did he – "
Raimundo hadn't even followed the group all the way. Instead, he had stopped right at the edge of the rock garden to lean against a nearby tree with his arms crossed. "I hate to break it to ya, Chase," he said, his voice not condescending, but disappointed, "but Guan has – will have – the Sands of Time. He can be anywhere and anywhen he wants, dude."
Kimiko rubbed at her forehead. She wasn't quite getting a headache yet, but she knew when one was about to form. "Okay, wait. If he got the Sands of Time by time travelling using the Sands of Time, how did he get the Sands of Time before getting the Sands of Time?"
"I reckon it's somethin' like this," Clay started. Some of the stories he had read back in his childhood were about time travel. After a few of those, his mind just automatically made simple time loops in his head. "Guan picks up th' Sands of Time here usin' th' Sands of Time, then time travels to meet himself in the past t' give him th' Sands of Time he jus' picked up. Then he tells himself where t' find it 'fore skedaddlin' off t' his own time. Past Guan then uses th' Sands of Time t' pick up the Sands of Time an' completes th' loop."
Raimundo's eyebrows raised in surprise, but he snapped and pointed at Clay. "Got it in one, big guy."
"But…wait…" Kimiko said, and here comes the headache. "But…how did he know where to go to find it?"
"He told himself," Raimundo and Clay answered at the same time.
"But," said Omi, clearly in the same camp as Kimiko, "if he told himself, then he had to have found out…I mean…because he…"
Raimundo rolled his eyes. "You're overcomplicating it. He told himself where to find it. That's all there is. The point is, how can we beat someone with a time machine? He can be anywhere at any time he wants. He can attack us at any moment, and we'd be completely unprepared. He could even just pop in, right now, with a whole army of himself from different points in time, just to beat us up."
Everybody stiffened for a few seconds, but the rock garden remained sparsely populated.
Chase slowly relaxed. "Despite your pessimism, I am certain we will find a way to take the Sands of Time back."
Raimundo's eyes stared dully at Chase, heavily shadowed under his brow. With deep resignation, he uncrossed his arms and pushed himself away from the tree. And without saying a word, he walked back inside.
Kimiko soon followed after, glancing back apologetically. Her steps pattered on the stone path, all the way to the residential building. After a long pause, Omi left as well, his steps soundless and measured. He didn't look back at all.
Clay looked at Chase, who had taken every leave with a strange, stoic sadness. But there was understanding written all over his face, an understanding that everybody needed time to cope with this new threat, and that they needed to cope in different ways. That the Final Boss, so to speak, had appeared before all four of them had barely gotten to level one.
"How d'ya know we'll get it back?" he asked.
Chase replaced the rock that had covered the former hiding place. "I am not sure if I should tell you. It…involves time travel."
Clay shrugged. "Tellin' me or not ain't gonna change nothin'. 'Sides, y'already'll tell me or not. Y'know?"
Chase sighed, still crouched down by the rock, even after he had moved it back to its former position. "No, I don't."
Clay said nothing. Trying to explain tenses when it came to time travel would be as pointless as whistling up the wind.
When Chase straightened up, he sighed once more. "You see, fifteen hundred years ago…I saw Omi. He fought with us in the war against Wuya. Because of this…that must mean we eventually get the Sands of Time back. Otherwise I would have not seen Omi…right…?"
During the whole mourning period, Chase had not let his face slip into anything other than somber determination. Even when he had watched Master Fung fall into the Ying-Yang World, he was mostly shocked, but not worried, never worried. There had always been a confidence that Clay associated with the man.
Chase looked at him, his eyebrows twisted upwards in worry. There was desperation in his eyes, an absence that begged to be filled with validation that he was right in his reasoning.
"Yeah, 'course," Clay said.
But when he walked back to his room, shoulders heavy with the burden of recent events, his mind wandered through time loops and attempted to map out a path. He tore several pieces of paper out of his notebook and walked the short distance to Kimiko's room.
"What time's it?" he asked, already knowing that she would be on her computer.
"Half past six," Kimiko replied before twisting around in her chair. "Why?"
Clay didn't give an answer. He simply walked up to her crowded desk and started scrawling the date and time on every piece of paper, as well as his current location: Kimiko's room. And with every piece of paper he filled out, he mentally assigned a place for each of them. One he'd keep in his pocket. One he'd tape on the wall of his room. One taped on the mirror of the bathroom, one as an extra in case he accidentally washed one with his pants…
Kimiko had scooched her chair over to make room for the large Texan and waited silently as he wrote. When she saw that he was finished, she finally asked, "What's this all about?"
"'Right, yer my witness, okay?" Clay said. Kimiko only nodded, sensing the answer was coming next. "Okay. If we ever wrangle that Sands of Time back from Guan, then I swear t' travel t' this place at this exact time t' tell us that we do. An' if I can't, then you gotta."
"What if I can't?" Kimiko asked, before adding, "I guess I could tell Rai to." But Clay wasn't listening. Instead, he turned around.
Nobody else stood in Kimiko's room besides them. Certainly nobody with good news from the future.
Kimiko at least understood that something was supposed to happen. "So…what does this mean?"
Clay didn't answer.
When the Ying Yo-Yo finally revealed itself, the monks practically ran over themselves to get to it first, faster than a sneeze through a screen door. Even so, when they arrived, they found that someone was already there.
That wasn't a new experience, not with Guan and the Sands of Time. Clay was used to this by now, seeing Guan leaving just as they arrived.
What he wasn't used to was seeing himself arriving before he had.
Right where the Ying Yo-Yo was supposed to be, Clay and Guan were clutching onto a brightly-glowing object. In confusion, Clay almost blanked out, the world around him echoing like a dropped fishbowl. The him that was glaring at Guan shouted something, but the words bounced away into nothingness.
And then he understood.
Behind them, there was a hauntingly familiar flash and pop. Clay whirled around and reached out blindly for the touch of glass. As soon as his hand closed around something smooth and bulb-shaped, he shouted, "Sands of Time!"
There was a hauntingly familiar flash and pop. Clay found out the hard way that time travel didn't agree with his stomach. His entire mind lurched and continued lurching even when he stopped moving without moving at all.
He opened his eyes. Guan had instinctively reached out to grab the Ying Yo-Yo. The Sands of Time was glowing. Out of the corner of his eye, Clay could see himself arriving. "I challenge you to a Xiaolin Showdown," he said, his voice grating against his dry tongue. "Yer Ying Yo-Yo 'gainst my Third Arm Sash. Th' game…th' game is…"
Shit. He hadn't heard this part. Couldn't be a direct fight, he'd be trounced in an instant. It had to be…had to…
Clay's eyes slid towards the Ying Yo-Yo. It had to be something that forced Guan into the Ying-Yang World. Then when he came back out…
"Flag Football!" he stammered out right as he saw himself disappear in a hauntingly familiar flash and pop.
If Guan was unfamiliar with the rules, he didn't show it – instead, he nodded in acceptance.
As the trees caged them inside, as the Sands of Time circled ever upwards out of reach, as Clay felt a bright scarf tuck itself into his sash, he couldn't help but think.
"Third Arm Sash!" The blue ribbon shot out with fervor, but Guan jumped nimbly away and disappeared into the forest.
This was probably the only chance they'd have at getting the Sands of Time. Guan would likely never make a fumble like this ever again.
Clay tried to follow, but quickly lost sight of the man. With shaking hands, he pounded his fists on the earth and shook the trees down to their roots. There was the sound of movement behind him and he whirled around, the Third Arm Sash already raised to block Guan's reaching hands. Working on automatic, his legs propelled himself backwards to gain some distance and as soon as he realized this, he cursed himself. He should have gone for Guan's scarf. From somewhere he couldn't see, Clay heard Raimundo's faint call to "stop being all weird and throw a freaking punch for once." Clay's mind recoiled at the thought of it, conjuring up images of Medusa and blood flowing down the claws of harpies.
And if he failed here, if he let Guan take both the Sands of Time and the Ying Yo-Yo, there's no question what he would do next…
Guan didn't bother to try hiding anymore and instead went for a full offense, barely giving time for Clay to even react to each of his many attacks. He parried the blows and returned very few, and even the hits that connected seemed to glide right off of Guan, who never even looked like he was going to use the Ying Yo-Yo.
Clay couldn't help but think. Think that it wasn't possible for him to win. He knew because of the paper that was in his pocket. Because when he had written down all those notes, nobody came to assure him that there even existed a way to win…
As though he could peer into Clay's mind, Guan said, "There is no way you can prevent this. You saw as well as I. I will take both the Sands of Time and the Ying Yo-Yo and there is nothing you can do."
Clay stumbled, and that was all it took for Guan's prediction to come true. The game ended. Guan threw away the Third Arm Sash and disappeared in a distressingly familiar flash and pop. Clay lay on his back and stared upwards even as Omi shouted at him through furious tears and Raimundo told him that he should really go on the offense more and Kimiko tried to get everybody to shut up because this wasn't helping and Dojo just asked if he was alright.
And he said no, because everything was a pointless struggle.
Late at night, Raimundo found Clay sitting in the kitchen and sat down beside him without a word. Not even going for the obvious joke. All the more surprising, since Clay had gone with the specific intention of eating his troubling thoughts away. But not unwelcome.
Raimundo brought his knees up to his chin and tapped on them with his fingers. He didn't even look at Clay because if he did, he probably would have got up and left again. Clay, for his part, recognized that Raimundo was trying to concentrate on what to say and remained as silent as possible while he slurped down porridge. Not his first choice for midnight snack, but something that there were always leftovers of.
"Y'know," said Raimundo, apparently giving up on starting with a proper set-up, "even if the future's all defined and all, doesn't mean we know what happens. Right?"
"Hm." Clay traced the floorboards with his toe.
"And whatever's gonna happen, it's not necessarily going to be bad…or whatever."
"So…like…the point is, y'know…it's not pointless to do your best. Or something. That's what I figure, I guess…"
Clay finished off his porridge. "I reckon you might oughta get some sleep."
Raimundo's face visibly fell, and he dragged his feet on the way back to the door. But before leaving, he stopped. "Y'know you were pretty cool back there, right…? Like…that whole thing. And the way you were trying to…uh…y'know."
Clay didn't open his mouth, because if he did, he would have called Raimundo a liar.
They didn't see Guan for a long while after that, and as a result, the temple relaxed. Chase continued to guard the vault at all times, refusing to let anybody else take the post, but even he started actually eating at the table instead of taking his food out. Omi was starting to look the way a kid his age should look, energetic, peppy, almost aggressively optimistic. And he started talking to Clay again. Part of the reason was probably because they only had to worry about Jack for now, and Jack was the perfect antagonist. Not so threatening, but still a big morale booster whenever he was beaten.
Of course, the long absence was worrying, but everybody made a nonverbal agreement to not talk about it. The days soon dropped into a comforting rhythm of getting Wu and beating up Jack, who was starting to bitterly complain that they weren't taking him seriously at all.
But of course, the rhythm had to eventually be broken.
It happened during the fight over the Moby Morpher. Right when Clay was about to lasso Jack's leg, he heard a hauntingly familiar pop and almost dropped his rope. As one, the four monks stopped what they were doing and turned towards the sound, leaving Jack to be forgotten.
"What are you waiting for?!" Wuya nagged, flying in front of Jack's face. "You have the Moby Morpher! Let's go!"
"But they're ignoring me," Jack whined while waving a forlorn arm towards the scene below. Then he actually looked down and squinted. "Wait a sec, is that me?"
This time around, Guan did not appear as an imposing figure, but in the middle of a struggle. With Jack of all people, whose feet couldn't even touch the ground as he flailed wildly, trying to grab at the Ying – no wait, the Yang Yo-Yo while maintaining his limp grip on the Sands of Time. Neither of them seemed to notice that the magical hourglass was glowing.
Clay, frozen in bewilderment, was dimly aware that Guan was much too distracted to pay close attention to his surroundings. The Yang Yo-Yo gleamed tauntingly in Guan's outstretched hand. It was only a lasso away.
And despite this, it was Raimundo who jumped forward, clapping his hands together and forming a harsh gust of wind that tore at Guan's hand and pushed at the small Wu until it slipped out and fell to the ground.
In an instant, Clay was shouting, "Jack! Challenge him t' a Showdown!" (Still hovering a few feet above the scene, Jack turned at the sound of his name and scowled when he realized that, yes, everybody was still ignoring him. Wuya disregarded this and continued demanding that Jack tell her why he was fighting Guan down there and for the second time, Jack told her that he didn't know 'cause it hadn't happened yet. Well, yeah, it was happening now, right below their feet, but technically for him it hadn't happened yet. Wuya rubbed at her mask-like face and remembered that the reason she decided against abandoning Jack for Guan was because time travel was stupid.)
"Oh, right!" Jack said brightly, still dangling from the Sands of Time, and Clay winced because while Jack sounded like Jack, he didn't sound like Jack. He didn't quite look like Jack either, even when he looked exactly like Jack. His smile was too sincere. His eyes too wide.
Jack turned back to Guan, but before he could say anything, Guan managed to axe kick him to the ground. Even from back where he was standing, Clay could hear the sharp snap of ribs breaking and the painful intake of breath. And before he knew it, he was running, feet pounding ever faster as he saw Guan kick Jack once more in the stomach, saw him set his foot on Jack's head like a gas pedal and…
Guan jumped back to avoid the two large boulders that had been aimed at his head. A slab of earth shifted in front of Jack, concealing him from view, and Clay vaulted over the makeshift wall to land in front of Guan. Out of the corner of his eyes, he could see Omi and Kimiko flank Guan on either side. He didn't put much thought into where Raimundo was.
And then Jack came rocketing down, right into Guan's face.
"Woah, woah! What the heck was that?! Were you going to kill me?!"
The three monks didn't move, mostly because seriously, Jack? Your first instinct when you saw a big powerful scorpion guy trying to crush your head was to shout at him?
"Jack, you miserable buffoon, just leave already while we have the Moby Morpher!"
"Hey guys," Raimundo called out, "I got the Yo-Yo doodad!"
And then all hell broke loose.
Guan simultaneously appeared and disappeared. He disappeared with a "Sands of Time!" and appeared behind Raimundo to deliver a kick to the head. Raimundo shakily got to his feet as Guan picked up the Yang Yo-Yo again, and fell into a fighting stance. Kimiko was already running full force towards the two, and Omi was a few steps behind. Clay hesitated, lingered with the Jacks, but eventually started to jog when all that happened was more of Jack's complaining. He hadn't taken even three steps when he saw a hauntingly familiar flash come from behind.
"He didn't even answer my question!" Jack said as Clay turned around and saw another Guan standing behind him with a bird he didn't recognize on his shoulder. The flash of light had caught Wuya's attention too, and she looked between the two Guans with an expression of utter distaste, because time travel.
The unrecognizable bird took off and dived towards Jack's back. Jack didn't even notice anything until his collar was in the grasp of the bird's talons, and before he could even finish his yelp, he, and the bird, disappeared into a portal that had magically appeared out of thin air.
While that was happening, Clay heard surprised shouts back where his friends were and turned around just as Wuya started shouting at Guan. "He was a useless twit, but he was my only way to get Wu!"
Back where his friends were dealing with the other Guan, Clay saw that someone different had come in, dressed in a gaudy yellow and carrying the Sands of Time. There was a flash of red hair and with a sinking heart, Clay realized that this was another Jack Spicer. The struggle over the Yang Yo-Yo turned into a struggle over the Yang Yo-Yo and the Sands of Time. Once again, Clay took a few steps towards them, but found himself stopped by voices behind him.
"Perhaps you will lighten up if I show you what I have for you."
"The Serpent's Tail and the Reversing Mirror?"
How did Guan get those? No wait, stupid question. Time travel.
At this, Dojo peeked out from under Clay's hat. "The Serpent's – Clay! This is bad news! You gotta – "
Clay didn't need to hear anything else. With a flick of his rope, he managed to lasso the Reversing Mirror and was just about to pull when Guan said, "Serpent's Tail!"
Clay's rope slipped uselessly through the Mirror and Clay fell onto his back. His hat tumbled off his head, Dojo falling off with it, and from his position, he had an upside-down view of the struggle his friends (and Jack) was going through. Somehow, Jack had gotten ahold of Guan's Sands of Time and was now making his escape. Guan made a desperate move to grab Jack, but he was already gone with a familiar flash and pop.
And then Clay was intensely distracted by a rough kick in the side.
Guan loomed over him, looking ready to set a foot on his skull the same way he did (or will do?) Jack's. Knowing that his ribs would not forgive him, he rolled away before anything could slam onto his face.
From the other fight, Guan called out to himself. "Don't bother! Just do it and get the Ying Yo-Yo!"
As Clay struggled to his feet, he heard the nearby call of "Serpent's Tail!" And then a few seconds later, "Reversing Mirror!"
From further away, he heard "Ying Yang Yo-Yo!"
And as an eerie green glow started to bathe the mountain, as the sky darkened and the sun was eclipsed by something that was definitely not the moon, as Clay picked up his hat and started backing away, he saw Guan disappear in a hauntingly familiar flash and pop.
Wuya stood – actually stood – before him, radiating green fire and power. He heard a different sound behind him and reluctantly turned around just in time to see Guan reemerge from another portal, accompanied by – and here he had to squint – a small, talking bean.
Omi, Raimundo, and Kimiko had backed away from their fight as well and they now bumped into Clay's back. Inside his hat, Dojo was freaking out.
"That's it! This is the worst possible situation! We're getting out of here!" And in an instant, Dojo was at flying size, not even waiting for them to jump on but practically tossing them onto his back.
"Wait, we gotta pick up Jack," Clay said, and because nobody wanted to waste precious time arguing while two beings and one bean radiating immense power were approaching them, Dojo just scooped the prone figure into his hands and they were off, flying faster than they ever had before.
At the temple, Clay spent the rest of the night trying to map out a timeline.
Chase's mood was dark for a few days when they told him the news, and so everybody avoided him when they could. Instead, they hung around Jack, hoping for some explanations.
When Jack recovered, it was clear that he…wasn't quite Jack. Raimundo thought him more obnoxious than ever and decided that he couldn't even stand to be in the same room as him. Omi, when he figured out that this Jack from the future must have come from the Ying-Yang World, asked him whether he had seen Master Fung. When Jack said no, he left as well, his mood as sour as it had been that one night long ago. Kimiko pelted him with questions about the Sands of Time and where he took them, but Jack didn't know because he hadn't lived through that moment quite yet. Hadn't found where he had (will have) hid them. She left eventually as well.
Clay stayed, but he didn't know whether it was because he had questions as well or because he felt pity. The Jack that was lying in bed, bandages around his ribs and head, he wasn't Jack. Or at least he was Jack, but with no autonomy. The fact that he had (will have) taken the Sands of Time from Guan was something Clay appreciated. But he also couldn't avoid the thought that the action was just like an action done while brainwashed, or under coercion. It hadn't been Jack's choice. He looked so happy. But that wasn't quite Jack's choice either. Clay thought about dystopian fiction and shivered. He thought about how he would act if it had been him instead of Jack, how he would make choices under what he thought was his own power, but ultimately wasn't. How he would be in control and out of control at the same time. Would there be a part of him that recognized what he was doing? Would there be a part that screamed and shouted and curled up and died in sorrow and guilt?
"Why don'cher git some shut-eye?" Clay said out loud, grimacing when Jack just beamed up at him.
"Aw, don't worry about me! Don't you have any questions too?"
He did. Of course he did. What happened in the Ying-Yang World? How did Guan get the Yang Yo-Yo? Did he see any of them in the future? Were they okay? Were they hurt? Was someone…missing?
"Naw, I reckon everybody else covered everythin'."
Raimundo was waiting for him at the door. "Chase's calling a meeting."
The meeting was held at the dining table, mostly because there weren't many tables to have meetings at. Nobody really looked at each other.
"With Wuya revived and Hannibal released, they will surely attack us at some point. It seems the best course of action would be to take the Shen Gong Wu and go into hiding somewhere."
Nobody spoke up.
"But," Chase said with a heavy sigh, "Jack's condition…complicates matters. Moving him would likely aggravate his wounds. But leaving him behind is not an option."
Raimundo opened his mouth, but seemed to think better of it.
"We will have to wait here until Jack recovers. In the meantime, nobody leaves the temple. Not even for activated Shen Gong Wu."
At this, there was a downpour of protests.
"What, we're letting them just take 'em without a fight?!"
"I thought the whole point was to keep the Wu out of the wrong hands!"
"In this time of disorder, it would not be right to sit and do nothing!"
"I know!" Chase shouted, and everybody was shocked into silence because Chase had never needed to shout before. He was standing now, hands firm against the tabletop. But as though suddenly self-conscious, he relaxed and sat down again. "But I cannot let you leave without my supervision, not now with Wuya, Guan, and Hannibal about."
"What if you come with us, then?" said Kimiko.
"And leave the temple unattended? I cannot do that either. The safest thing to do right now is just stay here and wait for Jack to recover."
"No!" said Omi, standing up in his chair. It was the first time Clay had ever seen him raise his voice to Chase. "I am tired of waiting! We waited for the Ying Yo-Yo, we waited for a chance to beat Guan, a chance to free Master Fung, and it has gotten us nowhere! The Sands of Time are hidden away from Guan now, this is our chance to find it and stop everything before it happens, and you want us to wait?!"
Chase's fingers dug into the table, but he did not stand again. "Omi," he said sharply, "I understand your frustration, but calm yourself and be patient – "
"I have been patient! I've been very patient, and now that a way to finally beat Guan has appeared, you want me to not take it?!"
"Omi has a point," said Dojo, not particularly used to speaking up in these sorts of meetings. He wrung his hands and looked down at the table. "I mean…if we had the Sands of Time…with all the things that Guan did, think of what we could do…y'know? Like, maybe…Master Fung won't have to be sent to the Ying-Yang World…"
With a loud sigh, Raimundo leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. "If we were able to stop Master Fung from falling into the Ying-Yang World, then it would've already happened. And we wouldn't even be in this situation."
"But what if we did? Maybe one of us went back in time and did some trick – "
"First of all, we all saw it with our own eyes. Second, then where is he now? Why would he make us think he's gone when he's, I dunno, drinking tea in some underground bunker? If he is safe and sound – which he isn't – then keeping us all in suspense or whatever is a di – " Raimundo's eyes suddenly slid to where Omi stood and his tongue stumbled. "It's…well…it'd be…really sucky."
Omi's eyes were now tearing up and he was obviously struggling to hold himself together. "You aren't even trying! You're giving up without even doing anything!"
"Look Omi," Clay said, his voice trying to be as soft and understanding as possible. With a start, he realized that he was trying to talk like his old elementary school teacher. "It ain't jus' a matter o' figurin' where t' look, but also when t' look. There ain't no way o' knowin' what time that Jack came from until that time passes. An' if we don't know that, there ain't no point in startin'."
The meeting broke up with hoarse throats and unresolved debates.
The next morning, Clay found that Omi and Dojo had disappeared.
The fight above ground rocked the entire vault and rocked the guilt right into Clay, but he simply continued to stuff Wu into his sack because it needed to be done. A few steps below him, Jack did the same, his cheerfulness not even abating in the face of possible destruction. He had been healed up for quite a while now, but it was unanimously decided that they should wait for Omi and Dojo for as long as possible.
Right now, they couldn't wait any longer.
Another attack rocked the ground and Clay shouted, "That's enough! We gotta git!"
"Alllllrighty!" Jack trilled, his voice like butterflies made of ice slipping down the Texan's neck. Clay sprinted up the stairs. Jack skipped.
As soon as Clay's head reached ground level, there was a heartrending crash as the wall of the vault was broken down by the time-tested method of throwing someone through it. Wuya stood in the newly-made hole, her eyes crackling with mirth and danger and her shadow looming over Raimundo's prone body. When Clay rushed over to throw him over his shoulder, he wriggled in protest. "I can stand just fine," he said, but by the looks of it, Wuya was charging up another shot so Clay ignored Raimundo in favor of getting out of the vault ASAP.
Another explosion rocked the vault as he jumped out onto the temple grounds and craned his neck around for the others. "Can you put me down now?" Raimundo asked, trying to find a comfortable position on Clay's shoulder. He continued to be ignored.
Near the main hall, Clay could see Kimiko, who was extremely noticeable on account of being completely wreathed in flames. Despite this, Hannibal was putting up a rather good fight. Part of it was the Moby Morpher. Part of it was that he was clearly saying something that was upsetting her, riling her up so her attacks went wide and her defense was sloppy at best.
Taking a running start (and jostling Raimundo so that he banged his chin against his back), Clay jumped and delivered a flying kick to the side of Hannibal's head.
"Where's Chase?" he asked, wrapping the end of the bag around his palm to get a better grip on it.
Kimiko extinguished herself and said, "Still fighting Guan inside."
"Uh-oh," said Raimundo, still looking behind them. Clay didn't even need to turn around to see what he was talking about because at that point, a blast of green fire shot past his head.
With one smooth movement, Clay scooped Kimiko up and under his arm. And, noticing that it had been a while since he heard Jack say anything, he looked back and sighed, seeing that the redhead had only just caught up to them. "Jack. Jump on my back."
"Woah, what? Hold on, wait – " Raimundo said, but Jack was already jumping, the bag in his hand swinging around and thumping Clay in the chest. "Aaagh nooooo," he groaned out, finding his face uncomfortably close to Jack's armpit.
"You know, I can run myself," Kimiko told Clay as he barged into the main hall right before Hannibal got up again and made a swipe for his head.
Chase and Guan were inside, but standing across from each other. Apparently, Clay had run in during a lull in their fight. Even so, when he stumbled inside, Guan still had enough energy to turn around and launch his spear's blade towards him. Clay dodged it with a duck, blurted out an automatic "Sorry," and skittered his way over to Chase's side just as Wuya and Hannibal rushed in as well.
They participated in a good old Mexican standoff, if Mexican standoffs had a constant soundtrack of people pestering someone to let them down already.
Chase glanced at the door behind him without turning around and leaned towards Clay. "Take everybody and run. I will stay and keep them from following you."
The protests about not having their feet on the floor turned into protests against a heroic sacrifice. "Dude, if we lose you, we're toast!"
"Gotta agree with Rai on this one, no offense," Clay added, not taking his eyes off of the trio in front of them.
Chase resisted the urge to rub his temples. "There is no other way. We cannot simply run; either we will be forced to keep running for the rest of our lives, or they will catch up and kill us. And I won't listen to any volunteers to stay behind in my stead."
"Actually," Clay said, his voice low and hoarse, "I…might got an idea…"
Chase spared a moment to look down at him. His eyes, Clay noticed, was full of wary hope.
"But'cha gotta git ready t' run."
Chase only stared at him for a few more precious, long seconds before he gave a nod so short that Clay wondered if he imagined it.
The three imposing figures in front of them were approaching now, and by the way they tensed, Clay knew they were about to pounce. He bit his lip, questioned himself, thought back to his rural Texas life, wondered if he would ever hang out with Jessie like they used to, and apologized to Chase, to Dojo, to Omi, to Master Fung, right as he delivered a heavy stomp to the floor.
The rafters did not even bother with the pretense of shaking and simply collapsed. The walls caved in. Wuya growled and leapt forward, but was suddenly pinned to the floor by rubble, which didn't hold her for long, but at the same time, made her lose sight of the monks as clouds of dust billowed up and obscured everything. Clay jumped backwards out the doorway and started to run even before he turned himself around. While moving backwards, he saw that Chase had lingered for half a second, and before facing forward, he saw the look of loss written on his face.
They ran the whole night through the forest, feet pounding on the ground, breaking dead branches, heart pounding in his chest as bags of Wu pounded on his body with every step he took. Kimiko and Raimundo had stopped asking him to put them down, but only because the act of speaking felt like it would summon Guan, or Wuya, maybe Hannibal, maybe all three. They saw a green glow somewhere behind them, as though Wuya was razing the forest down, but it was far off. They were nowhere near. And yet, nobody took comfort in this. Clay didn't slow down until they reached the cave that Chase had told them to go to in the case of an emergency evacuation.
It was only when he set everybody down that he found the cuts and bruises running down his leg and his chest, from where the bags had banged against him.
The cave was cold and nobody dared to start a fire, but exhaustion still managed to wind its way into everybody's bones. Even so, Clay found he couldn't sleep. Not when thoughts of being found wormed their way into his mind whenever he closed his eyes. He ended up staring at the mouth of the cave, appointing himself as the night watch while everybody else dozed off.
But not quite everybody else.
Chase Young plopped down next to him, his face full of mournful thunder.
They sat in silence, even though Clay was bursting with pain and stress and fear and a desperate need to break down. Eventually, he built up the courage to talk – but only in a whisper. Just in case Guan was just around the corner.
"I'm…I'm sorry I…"
"Don't be." Chase's eyes never moved from the entrance, but his hand found its way to Clay's shoulder. "You may have well just saved my life."
Clay lowered his hat over his face and didn't dare open his mouth in case all that came out were embarrassed squeaks.
"This may not be a good time," Chase continued, apparently not noticing Clay's distress, "but that might be all the more reason to talk about this. Hannibal, Wuya, and Guan are loose and Omi and Dojo are still missing. The situation is dire. Which is why it has become most apparent that we need a leader."
Clay didn't realize that he was able to feel even more pain than he did now, but his stomach twisted and his throat constricted tight with added anxiety. It was a strange thing to feel in combination with the leftover flattery. "But Chase…yer th' leader…right?"
"I'm not sure that I can be around forever. With everything that has happened, it is getting increasingly likelier that…something will happen to me." Chase's eyes flashed like lightning as he choked out the last words, dull lightning that struck at the last vestiges of confidence that Chase used to hold in abundance. "I need to be sure that everybody will be in good hands. And besides…I don't believe myself to be good leader material…"
"Now that ain't true, you – "
"All I ever did was stay at the temple, Clay." With a sigh, Chase brought his knees to his chin. "That's not what a leader does."
At this point, Clay's stomach had worked itself into a Gordion knot seeing Chase so small, so vulnerable. His tongue stuck in his mouth as he said, "Well, I ain't good leader material neither, I figure. I mean…mostly I jus' screw up."
Chase uncurled and gave a sharp glance towards Clay. "Why do you talk yourself down? Didn't I just tell you that you saved my life?"
The Gordion knot collapsed into a black hole, sucking in all mental functions that Clay might have. Simultaneously, his face started to flush. "I – uh, er – "
"You're smart, Clay. You know things that I don't. You think of good plans – you just thought of a better plan than I did, back there, that resulted in no casualties! You're practical. You made sure that we went out with at least some of our Wu." After counting off the list, Chase clapped his hand on Clay's shoulder once more. In response, Clay blushed even more, hoping that Chase couldn't see in the dark just how much his insides were writhing in cautious joy. "You're good leader material."
Along with the pain and the fear and the exhaustion and the embarrassment and the anxiety, all of which filled him to bursting point, Clay felt an immense happiness, painful happiness that stretched the skin of his heart and turned it inside-out. He couldn't tell if he was smiling, though his cheeks definitely hurt, but he could tell that he was blushing way too much. He finally had to turn away.
Chase didn't even say anything really spectacular. His words shouldn't have made him feel so, so…good. No, not good, not exactly, but…just…good about himself. With a start, Clay realized that this was the first time in his life that he received a compliment so sincere, so targeted at him specifically. His daddy was never big on the praise front. His teachers didn't really bond with him beyond what was necessary. Jessie…left him. Not even his friends said much beyond generic phrases like 'good job' and 'way to go,' not because they were malicious or they didn't care, but…it wasn't like he deserved much more than that, right? He'd never done anything…spectacular.
But Chase sure made him sound spectacular. He almost got him thinking he was spectacular too.
Clay still didn't really think he was good leader material, but he could still feel Chase's gaze on his back and welling pride in his heart and self-confidence that…he just never felt before.
"Alright, I'll try," he said, or at least tried to, but all that came out was an embarrassed squeak.
After a few days, they risked sneaking out to gather supplies at the nearest village, only to find that the village had been burned down. There were no signs of life beyond abandoned livestock who had miraculously survived. So they just set their base of operations here. It was a good place, Clay judged; level ground so that they could see people coming, tillable earth that could perhaps be tempted to grow food, surrounded by natural resources that could very well support a tiny community. Clay built a little monument to call it their own, a statue of Master Fung that overlooked the land with what he hoped was a serenely protective stare, and then they all went to work.
Raimundo grumbled as they built huts. We shouldn't get too comfortable. This is only temporary. We'll be making plans to take back the temple, right?
He voiced concern when they started building fences for the pigs. Didn't we agree we weren't going to settle in? We need food, sure, but we need to do something about, y'know, the three evil dudes threatening the world?
And in frustration, he outright shouted at Clay when they started to plant corn, because they weren't here to build a plantation, dammit, they were supposed to save the world or whatever. The next day, he sheepishly apologized, saying he was just stressed and tired, and Clay forgave him because they all were. And he also forgave him because Raimundo didn't quite understand.
To be a leader, you had to be smart. And Clay knew from experience what that meant.