RED | FIRE
MAGENTA | WATER
BLUE | LIGHTNING
GREEN | ENERGY
TOGETHER | UNITY
When Cole turned twenty-seven, it occurred to him that he was no longer aging. The other ninja were growing, appearing older with each passing year. But not Cole. He never changed, and on his twenty-seventh birthday, he realized that he was never going to look different than he did when he was twenty-one.
Going from human to ghost to human again had severed his body from the effects of time. He wasn't immortal, and knew he never would be. He could still be killed by a knife or a bullet or even a big fall, but old, failing organs would never get to him. The first century, it kept him awake at night, scared of facing eternity when most of his friends would be long gone and anyone he met would disappear after any handful of years, too. What kind of existence was that?
He didn't want to die, though. The thought of death scared him more than eternity, so he found himself staying put in the land of the living. Besides, it would have felt selfish to leave Zane alone with no one but PIXAL until the end of time.
They learned that Lloyd's lifespan was longer than average. But after 150 years of living, whatever Garmadon vitality had kept him alive for so long died and so did the green ninja. The funeral was a national affair, the public mourning the person they'd come to see as the face of good in a world so often plagued by evil. Cole was asked to write a eulogy, so he sat down and wrote a long-winded speech—as he had for everyone else—and practiced in the mirror the night before the funeral but never presented it because he didn't go.
He didn't go to any of their funerals. Saying goodbye to people he'd gone through so much with felt impossible, so Zane would speak on Cole's behalf and he'd spend the day and following weeks holed up in his room, staring at the ceiling or watching the same movies over and over again or eating an unhealthy amount of ice cream because during those times he couldn't bring himself to care about anything, let alone himself. Zane left him alone after Lloyd's funeral, checking in on him occasionally but knowing to stay out of his way until he was better.
And he did get better. It was easy to fall into some kind of depression when life made no sense anymore and yet it was going to last forever, but even if it took years upon years he was always able to pull himself out again. Sometimes, a new foe was his only reason to get out of bed and go out into the world, but it gave him a chance to dedicate his life to something worthwhile again. Fighting without Jay, Kai, Nya, and Lloyd always left a dull ache in his chest, but it ebbed away after the third century passed. His deceased friends slowly turned into happy memories, memories of his first lifetime that made him feel nostalgic if he ever took a trip to visit Destiny's Bounty or Steeper Wisdom. Sometimes, Zane came with him and they reminisced about old times, laughing about something Jay said or the time when Kai gave in to his impulses and tried to climb the mast of the Bounty, only to fall and hurt his arm on the way down. Cole and Jay had stood off to the side, laughing to themselves as Nya chewed him out for nearly getting himself killed.
Cole began to see his past in lifetimes. His times with the ninja were his first lifetime, his favorite lifetime. Every century became a lifetime. In earlier lifetimes, Cole travelled around and made appearances at public gatherings or the history museum. Some lifetimes, the eternity depression hit and he spent years laying in bed, watching society and culture develop from a distance.
At first, they didn't need money. By the end of their ninja careers, they'd amassed a fortune in donations and awards. But Cole could see that they would run out eventually, so by his sixth lifetime, he sucked it up and got a job. He was far less famous than he'd been back in the ninja prime years, so finding a quiet flower shop on a street corner in Ninjago City was ideal for living life on the down-low.
Urban sprawl made people want to fill their homes with plants to remind them of the country side, so the shop boomed even as technology continued to grow and influence their lives. When his first boss retired, Cole was put in charge of the shop and guaranteed job security as long as he could keep the shop open. He stayed there, hiring students and teenagers that were only interested in working for a few years or the summer to make sure his secret was kept hidden.
He found himself in a routine for many more lifetimes. He no longer lived with Zane, but made sure to visit at least a few times a month. He didn't make many friends, the fear of falling back into a depression when they inevitably died keeping him from making meaningful connections with anyone he met. He'd never been one to make friends as a child anyways, and some habits carried over into young adulthood. He was perfectly content with casual acquaintances and keeping up with Zane.
It was during his thirty-first lifetime that he got a sudden voice call from Zane. He blinked three times to answer. Zane's robotic voice spoke directly into his brain.
"I met someone familiar at Borg Tower today," Zane said.
Cole leaned back in his office chair, covering his mouth as he yawned. "Who'd you meet?"
"Feel free to sit down so you may jump up in excitement," Zane said. Cole rolled his eyes. "There was a new intern today. I thought she looked familiar, so I approached her to say hello. Her name? Nya."
"That's not exactly an uncommon name," Cole commented.
"I'm not finished. I used my facial recognition scanner on her, and the results said that she was the same Nya we knew so many years ago. Her voice has not changed, either. How is this possible? Do you suppose that somehow, she's come back to life again?"
Cole sat up straighter. "What? Did you ask her anymore questions?"
"I didn't want to pry, but she mentioned an older brother. I believe this may very well be Kai."
"If she comes back in tomorrow, ask her more questions. Find out what her brother's name is. If this is really them through whatever cosmic coincidence brought them back, Jay and Lloyd may be alive, too."
"Are you sure seeking them out is the best idea? I'm afraid of what will happen when they die a second time."
A valid concern. Cole's fingers tapped his desk as he thought of what happened last time, how he shut himself in for months after their funerals. Was it worth it?
He decided that he didn't care. Self-indulgent as it was, he would do anything to meet his friends again. Even if they didn't remember him or everything they'd been through so many years ago.
"I'll be okay. Thanks for giving me the heads up, talk to you tomorrow."
By the time he went home, he was barely able to contain his excitement as he rode the elevator up to his apartment. Once inside, he flopped down on his couch and brought up Chirp before his vision.
During his third lifetime, Chirp began to delete the accounts of anyone inactive for more than five years. This way, old usernames were released for new users and millions of inactive accounts no longer clogged their database. Cole was sure to create a new account every eighty years to avoid any potential suspicion, be it from the Chirp developers or the odd history buff determined to locate the two living ninja. Some were still out there, and it had been so many years since Cole had last appeared publicly.
He brought up Chirp's search bar and typed in ' fire13'.
A little more than a thousand chirps. This user had been active for quite a few years, but the chirps didn't catch his attention as much as the bio on the side of the page. He felt his heart beat faster at the prospect of photos.
you cant handle this heat
18. Kai. Follow my insta kai_fire13
He clicked the link and an Instagram page opened. Kai was just as active here, the pictures he uploaded showing a face identical to the Red Ninja of Fire laid to rest thousands of lifetimes ago.
Nya and Kai were alive again. Memories or not, Cole wanted to talk to them again. Laugh with them again. Hang out again. Meet again.
He followed Kai on Instagram and Chirp. Kai didn't know him yet, so Cole hoped the quick succession of sudden follows would catch his attention. He couldn't remember Jay or Lloyd's social media handles—Jay had a new username every few months and Lloyd had always preferred talking in person, so both of them would be impossible to track down over the Internet. Kai made himself easy to find, and Cole was thankful for it.
He went back to Chirp and scrolled through Kai's profile. He didn't understand most of the chirps since he had no context, but some of them made sense, like when he talked about his day or made a stupid joke. Kai uploaded the occasional video of him following through on a dare, like dropping a water balloon on an unsuspecting nindroid officer from a high-rise building or touching electric fences. For his birthday, Kai went to the beach with his friends. Apparently, this version of Kai didn't share the same fear of water. Huh. As Cole read Kai's recounts of the day, he wondered what other differences existed between this Kai and the past Kai.
Tears began to sting his eyes and by the time he reached last year on Kai's feed, his chest ached with the same ache he'd felt after their funerals and his face felt hot as tears streamed down his cheeks. He closed his eyes and breathed. Four seconds in, four seconds out. Just like Zane taught him.
He didn't open Kai's Chirp page again for the remainder of the night. It was hard to concentrate on anything but his resurrected friends at the flower shop the next day, so he found himself staring at the wall, lost in thought until Zane finally called him.
"I spoke with Nya again today," Zane said. "Her older brother's name is Kai. It may have been insensitive of me, but I asked if she had any plans for Mother's Day in two weeks. She told me that her family was planning on spending the day together, nothing complicated. Their parents are alive. Do you think there are any other differences?"
"I checked out Kai's social media last night," Cole said. "He isn't afraid of water."
"That's interesting. I will attempt to become Nya's friend so the two of us may discuss her life in greater detail. If you genuinely think you'll be okay to meet them again, feel free to contact Kai. I'm sure he's as social as ever."
"Yeah, I'm sure he is. I'll find a way to get in touch with him."
Over the course of the day, Cole checked Kai's Chirp account often. When Kai uploaded a new picture to Instagram, Cole liked the picture to try to catch his attention. Nothing. Kai had too many followers to notice someone new, apparently.
Time to be bold. Cole scrolled down until he reached the photos from two years ago, older pictures of Kai when he was sixteen. And then he liked one.
The action made him cringe, but it would certainly grab Kai's attention. He could only hope that Kai would react and give him an opportunity to talk to him.
After liking the picture, Cole spent the rest of the day ordering an assortment of roses, lilies, tulips, and other flowers to create bouquets for Mother's Day. He'd almost forgotten. It wasn't like he'd ever had much reason to celebrate in the first place.
At 16:40, a message popped up in his Instagram DMs.
who even r u?
Kai was as confrontational as ever. Okay. Cole could do this. No reason to panic. It was only a conversation with someone he used to call his brother.
A history nerd. I just noticed you look a lot like the red ninja from way back when.
i thought there was only a green one
What did your school even teach you? There were six of them. Red, black, white, blue, green, and magenta/cyan.
kinda sounds like they ran out of ideas on that last one
are u sure i look like one of them? send a pic and ill be the judge of that
if they even had pics back then
They did. One second, I'll find a good picture.
Cole rummaged through his photo gallery until he found the picture they'd taken of Kai and Nya when Nya had first become a ninja. On the physical copy of the photograph, 'ninja siblings' was written on the back in felt marker.
He sent the picture.
See the guy? He looks just like you.
wtf ur right
hes almost as hot as me
the chick looks like my little sis too
yeah like they have the same hair and everything
ur not messing with me tho right? this is real?
send me more
Cole sent forward whatever pictures featured Kai and not himself or Zane. He didn't want to blow their cover just yet.
this is wild like its blowing my mind man
im showing these to the sis when she gets home shell love it
Is she at school, or?
she finished school early so now shes some intern at borg
im not into all that techy stuff so i dont ask questions
Wow, she must be smart. I'm pretty sure the magenta one was really smart, too.
She was also the only girl.
girls are lame so this is understandable
i never said that
nya would kill me
Her name is Nya? I have a friend who works at Borg that met an intern with the same name. Any chance they're the same person?
does this friend happen to be some nindroid named zane
heard hes been laying the moves on her
Zane has a girlfriend. I'm pretty sure he isn't interested in your sister.
man you know you cant trust anyone :/
not even emotionally stunted robots
Take my word for it, Zane is /not/ flirting with her. He's just a little awkward at times.
is your name flint or cole
My name is Cole.
so is that username a rock pun
I guess, yeah.
you gotta get a better name dude
Your name is literally "fire13" on Chirp. Are you serious? That's so basic.
do you understand how hard it is to get a username with any variation of the word fire in it
i worked hard for this username flint
fkn blood sweat and tears
not mine tho
Are you implying that you killed the previous ' fire13' so you could have their username?
. . . maybe
Cole covered his hand with his mouth to stifle a laugh. He shouldn't be doing this at work, not when they were preparing for Mother's Day, one of the busiest times of the year. But this was important and he couldn't bring himself to say goodbye.
Fortunately, Kai did it for him.
my parents are out tonight and nyas still gone and i just realized theres nothing to eat
gotta head out and get some stuff
u seem chill tho wanna talk tomorrow?
k ttyl flint
The rest of the day was spent preparing further. He closed the shop around dinner and returned home. After making a quick dinner, he sat down on the couch and scrolled back through his conversation with Kai as he ate, cherishing each message sent back and forth with his old friend.
And then he felt heat behind his eyes and he had to stop. Remembering the old Kai and seeing him in this new one felt like ripping old wounds. Like cutting into scars and letting them bleed again. Fear and elation fought in his core, one telling him to cut ties and the other telling him to risk everything and indulge himself.
Zane was right, this wasn't good for him. But he'd be damned if he let the opportunity go to waste.
"Nya showed me photos of her past-self and Kai today," Zane said during what had become their daily update call. "You must have finally contacted him. How did it go?"
"It went fine. He wants to talk again today," Cole replied. "Did Nya give you any other info?"
"Nothing worth mentioning."
Cole laughed. "Did you know she thinks you're hitting on her?"
"I—what? No, I'm not. I swear." Zane sighed. "PIXAL is laughing at me."
"I think Kai is going to beat you up. Do you want that, Zane? Do you want Kai to beat you up?"
"I highly doubt that either version of Kai could defeat me in combat."
For the following month, Cole spoke to Kai everyday. He learned a lot more about him, like how this Kai also lived in Ninjago City, where he was finishing his last year of high school. He didn't know what he wanted to do when he was older. He felt he was destined for something big, but his low grades and lack of academic charisma had ruined those chances a long time ago.
Rather than being trained by his father and then Wu, Kai was training to fight at a nearby dojo. He liked to compete in tournaments all over the country, and spent a lot of his free time practicing. He was one of the best around, apparently. Pictures of his trophy shelf only proved this.
If you're so good at fighting, why not work at a dojo or something?
i dont think i could ever successfully train a kid in my life
They video-called for the first time. At the sight of Kai's living, moving face talking to him, Cole panicked and closed the call. The night sky beyond the window called to him, so he threw on his ninja garb and climbed up to the rooftop of his building.
His legs dangled over the edge of the roof. Looking down gave him vertigo so he kept his eyes to the sky, staring at the dark sheet of the starless night. He sighed. He'd grown up here when the city wasn't so suffocating, but even back then the stars had lost their battle against light pollution and disappeared from the sky. He missed the missions in the small villages far away from here, where the stars shone bright and Jay would teach him about the constellations that decorated the sky.
Maybe when this whole Kai and Nya fiasco was over, he'd leave. But he didn't know if Jay and Lloyd were around again, and while the idea of moving somewhere on the other side of the country excited him, he knew he couldn't leave until he found out if they were here—if somehow, his best friend and reluctant leader were back from the dead, reincarnated with no memories of the people they used to be.
Right now, none of this mattered. His attention was on Kai. And through Kai and Zane, he could meet Nya. He only had to bring himself to do it first.
Sorry, something's wrong with all my tech. Don't think video-calling is going to work until I get it fixed.
no prob its fine
do you think we could meet up irl tho
not to sound too forward but weve been talking for awhile and i think it would be cool
if thats alright w you
It's fine. When and where?
The meeting was scheduled for two days later. The day before, Cole tried to keep himself busy but the upcoming reunion (if it could be called that) loomed over his thoughts like a dark, expanding cloud.
The morning of their meet-up, Cole woke up too early out of anxiety and took an excessively long shower to pass the time. When he was finished, he spent half an hour picking clothes out of his closet and laundry bin and threw them around his room as he tried to figure out what to wear. He caught glimpses of himself in his mirror and worried that he would look too intimidating. He didn't have any pictures of himself on Instagram, and Kai had only seen his face for a few seconds at this point. His hair had grown out over the years, reaching his shoulders if he didn't tie it up in a bun. He didn't wear much other than black—the color was comforting to him, reminding him of his first lifetime and the duties he still had today. He wasn't as bulky as he was back in the prime ninja days, having given up the intense training regimen, but he still exercised and his element gave him extra strength if he was ever stuck in a bind. He appeared strong and rough around the edges—definitely not the person potential employees expected to see for a job interview at a flower shop.
Did Kai even care about appearances in the first place? Was he overthinking this?
Cole chose to wear one of his casual outfits, wearing black jeans and combat boots and a black rain jacket because it was spring and it always rained during the months leading up to summer. After making sure he had everything he needed—wallet, keys, and a ninja mask to cover his lower face just in case—he was ready to go.
The meeting place was decided to be a small mall connected to the light-rail system, easy for both of them to get to. The various rail lines were suspended above the city, weaving between the skyscrapers that poked into the clouds like spears. The areas beneath the city were considered historical artifacts after several Serpentine murals and remains were found scattered in the sewers and tunnels below the surface, so the only place to build the system was up in the clouds.
He arrived ten minutes early on purpose, giving him enough time to find where Kai wanted to meet him and wait there. It also allowed him to get a scope of the mall. Like wearing black, this was also a remnant habit from being a ninja: whenever he entered somewhere new, he noted possible escape routes and potential hiding places. Every five steps, he looked over his shoulder. Nothing threatening was there. Nothing was going to jump him from behind. His overworked survival instincts just gave him no other choice than to be jumpy in public spaces.
He found the store and stood off to the side as he waited. Five minutes in, a message popped up from Zane.
Are you all right?
Don't worry, I'll be fine. It's only Kai.
Okay. You can call me if you ever need help.
The message was read but Zane never responded. Cole swapped between apps anxiously, playing games for a minute before trying to read and then browsing social media before he scrolled through past conversations with Kai to emotionally prepare himself. Then he played games again and the cycle repeated itself.
are u the grunge looking guy
okay i see you omw
Cole closed the windows in his vision and looked around. No spiky hair in sight. Where was he?
Cole felt a tap on his shoulder and it took all self-control not to turn around and punch his assailant into the next dimension. Instead, he jumped a little and twisted on the ball of his left foot to come face-to-face with none other than Kai himself.
Kai looked him up and down with dark eyes and laughed. "Are you always this jumpy?"
"I—" Cole tried to speak but his words caught in his throat, sudden fear of this person he had no right to be afraid of (they were still brothers, right?) building a wall between them as Cole stared into familiar eyes and tried to speak, to break the silence. He coughed and swallowed, ready to try again.
Kai's ringtone went off.
Kai pulled his phone out of his pocket and frowned. Handheld devices were still popular among teenagers, as biotech wasn't available for anyone under 25. It was too dangerous for the developing brain. Since Cole was no longer growing, Zane was able to pull some strings at Borg and soon enough, he was laying on the operating table and ready for the first round of tech upgrades available to the public.
"Sorry," Kai mumbled. He declined the call. Cole saw a name flash briefly on the screen: Nya.
Curiosity kicked down the wall between them. "Is everything okay?" he asked.
"Yeah, everything's fine. My sister's just being annoying."
"She's two years younger than me but she acts like my mom sometimes," Kai replied. "It doesn't matter. What do you want to do?"
"I've never really been in this area before," Cole said. "You live around here, right? What do you usually do with your friends?"
"You're a history nerd that owns a flower shop. I don't think you're up for what I do with my friends."
Cole laughed. "Oh, I'm sure I can handle whatever you throw at me."
"Fine. Follow me, then."
They travelled several blocks on foot. Kai turned off one of the big streets and onto a little side street, and then a smaller alley, and then another, and then another, until Cole felt officially lost. Kai kept going, hand trailing behind on the metal sides of the buildings. He knew this place, knew it well. With a different person, Cole would have turned back and refused to continue into the unknown. But this was Kai—a different Kai, but someone he trusted nonetheless.
"We're here," Kai announced. Cole followed his gaze to a sewer cap in the ground.
He pointed to the cap. "Is that where we're going?"
Kai nodded and walked forward. The sewer cap wasn't grated, but flat, heavy metal. If Cole looked closely, he could see a faint design in the metal, most likely eroded after several years.
"You like history, don't tell me you've never heard of the Serpentine tomb beneath the city," Kai said as he dug his fingers under the metal and then began to lift. He lifted the cap a few inches, but made no further progress. He dropped it and a loud sound echoed in the alleyway. "Ugh. Sorry, I usually have more people with me when I go here. The lid's really heavy. Want to give me a hand?"
This was bad news. The tombs were guarded to stop the destruction of artifacts. Nindroids were set on patrol down there. Cameras were mounted on every wall, tucked away in every corner. If they were caught, they'd be arrested. No warning granted.
"Are you sure this is the best idea?"
"It's fine. I do it all the time. They tell us it's high security, but there's usually only one nindroid and a bunch of cameras down there. If you hide your face with sunglasses or a bandana, they won't catch you. DNA tests only work if you're in the system, and guess who isn't? Me. You've never been arrested, right?"
"No, I haven't," Cole said.
"Good." Kai reached into his pocket and pulled out a red bandana. "You got anything for your face?"
Cole pulled his mask from his pocket and showed it to Kai. "Yeah, I've got something."
"Put it on," Kai instructed. "There's nothing in this alley, but a camera faces up the passage down there."
Cole did as he was told. His faceguard fit comfortably over the bridge of his nose. "Okay, I'm ready."
"Come here and help me lift." Cole kneeled down next to Kai, and on the count of three, they lifted the cap together. Cole only used a fraction of his strength, making sure he looked like he was struggling with the cap's weight. When they were done, they pushed the cap to the side and looked down into the hole. A small, red light shone in the darkness. Kai was right, there was a camera looking up at them.
"You still think you can take it?" Kai asked. Cole rolled his eyes.
"Just because I own a flower shop doesn't mean I never participated in teenage rebellion," he said. Did running away from home count as teenage rebellion? He wasn't sure.
"All right. The ladder isn't safe at the bottom, so just jump in and you'll be fine," Kai said. "Be quiet when we get down there, okay? Whispering only. And close the lid on your way down. Let's go!"
Kai jumped into the hole and Cole heard him land a few seconds later. Kai called out to him quietly to tell him he was fine and out of the way so Cole could come down, too.
Cole dropped into the hole slowly, pulling the sewer cap with him so it would slide into place before he took the plunge. The fall was longer than expected, and upon hitting the ground, he rolled a few times before coming to a stop. The ground was dry beneath his fingertips. He felt around for the wall, but found nothing.
A bright light illuminated the tunnel. Cole turned around to see Kai holding up his phone, its flashlight turned on maximum brightness. "You have biotech, right? Do me a favor and turn on your night vision. Nindroids may have night vision, but they won't catch us if we're sneaky and using a real flashlight is a dead giveaway."
"Are all your friends over 25? How do they have biotech?"
Kai laughed quietly. "Yeah, like you're 25 yourself. Some of my friends got theirs done in some of those underground places, just like you did. I would get it myself, but Nya would kill me. She's already on my ass about everything else, I don't need her freaking out about potential brain damage, too. Now come on and hold my hand and I'll tell you where to go."
Cole activated his night vision. His surroundings came into vision, illuminated in non-existent pale green light. The tunnel was short but wide, and seemingly stretched on for a long while. He reached out and grabbed Kai's hand in his, then turned back to face the wall. There were two directions. "How are you supposed to know where to go if you can't see?"
"I've been to this place enough to know the way. Face the wall opposite of the ladder and go left."
Cole did as he was told. There were drawings on the walls, images of snakes and humans fighting. There was the occasional drawing of six figures, reach red, blue, black, white, green, and magenta respectively. There was some graffiti too, but most of it was nonsensical. Apparently, other people had made their way down there aside from Kai's gang of friends.
Eventually, they reached a fork in the tunnel.
"We're at a fork. Which way do I go?"
For the next few tunnels, Cole reported to Kai when they reached another fork and Kai would instruct him on which way to turn. As they went deeper and deeper, Cole felt his heartbeat accelerate. He'd never been one to break the law and the threat of being caught was releasing adrenaline into his system. This feel of adrenaline was . . . exciting, not terrifying like he was used to. He could understand why Kai had always been such an adrenaline junkie.
Cole turned a corner and found himself staring straight at the grand doors to the old Serpentine tomb where Skales and the others had inhabited so long ago. He stopped in his tracks, memories flooding his mind and pulling his attention away from reaching their destination.
He'd fought the Serpentine once. They were his enemies, but then they became his allies. They warned him and the other ninja of a dangerous threat on the horizon. For that, both Ninjago and himself owed them a great deal.
"Why'd you stop? If the nindroid isn't there, keep going. Nothing's alive in here aside from us, I promise. I've been in the actual tomb tons of times."
Right. They were once his allies, and now they were gone. Dead.
Kai shoved Cole from behind and Cole continued towards the doors. Once there, he looked over his shoulder at Kai. "The doors are sealed shut. How are we supposed to get inside?"
"On the right wall there's a small crawlspace we can go through. They don't station nindroids inside so once we're through, we're home-free."
The crawlspace was located between the door and the right wall, dug out of the rock that remained from the original tomb. The tomb was a historical artifact, so it had yet to be transformed into indestructible metal like most of Ninjago City. Cole kneeled down and leaned low, looking inside. It was a direct path into the tomb, maybe ten feet long. There were cracks in the ceiling and walls of the small tunnel. It was falling apart.
"Have you never seen these cracks? The thing's about to crumble," Cole said.
"Who cares? Just go and hope it doesn't crash on you."
Cole sighed and let go of Kai's hand. He twisted around so he would enter the crawlspace feet-first. He took Kai's hand in his again. "I'm going in backwards. Follow my lead."
As Cole went through, he kept his other hand on the wall of the tunnel, crawling backwards by pushing on his elbows and knees. His hand on the wall channeled his Earth abilities, willing the tunnel to to hold itself together as they crawled through. When he reached the end, he sat back and pulled Kai through the rest of the way.
"Turn off your night vision, I'm turning on my flashlight."
Cole turned it off. His surroundings became pitch black, then Kai turned on his phone's flashlight, shining it around the tomb. Cole followed the light with his eyes, comparing the illuminated parts of the large cavern to what it looked like in his memory. The bioluminescent rocks no longer shone, and the small river running through the center of the cavern was dry. The tomb was dead, lifeless.
The same shiver from before returned to his spine. This felt wrong. He didn't want to stay here anymore. "Kai, I think we should—" he began to say.
The heavy guitar of Kai's ringtone interrupted him. Kai held his phone close to his face, the screen's light revealing a frown and narrowed eyes. "Will you stop?" Kai demanded out loud, then declined the call. The tomb fell back into silence.
"Was that your sister again?"
He looked back to Cole. "Yeah, it was Nya. Do you see why I find her annoying now? She won't leave me alone."
"What if it's an emergency?"
"If it were an emergency, she'd call twice in a row and text me. We have a system set up," Kai said. "She's just pissed at me. She always is. You know, I'll come back home after hanging out with my friends or whatever, and I walk through the door and it's like, 'Where were you? You should have been working on this or studying for that!'. We can barely have normal conversations anymore—everything just turns into a lecture or whatever."
"Why is she mad at you today? Are you supposed to be studying for something?"
Kai's laughter was sharp. "No, no. She's just mad because I'm going out during my final exam period even though I've got nothing on. She just takes things too seriously, you know?"
"My dad was a pretty serious guy. I get it," Cole said. "But I thought you two were like, best friends. What happened?"
"We used be best friends," Kai corrected. "We did everything together. My friends always made fun of me for hanging out with my little sister, but I guess I never really had much of a choice in the first place. Our parents are never really around that much. As soon as I was old enough to be left alone with Nya for a few hours, they started leaving for weeks at a time. I barely see them anymore. I wound up taking care of Nya; helping her with homework, sitting through her lessons at the dojo, and whatever else my parents were supposed to do but never did.
"A couple years ago, she got into a motorcycle accident and messed up her knee. She got surgery for it, but we waited too long and there was some permanent damage. She used to do martial arts with me, but she fell behind and then couldn't compete anymore so she gave up completely. I don't really know what happened after that—she started to care about her grades, enough so that getting anything other than a perfect score was like a fail to her. Now, she gets mad at me for not putting in the same effort as her. It's like she cares too much and thinks I don't care enough. I miss the times when we got along. It was never easy, but I liked it a whole lot better than whatever is going on now."
Are you still with Kai?
It says you are online. Please don't ignore me, I just heard some alarming news from Nya.
Kai groaned. "Ugh, why am I even telling you any of this? I don't tell my friends anything!"
"It's okay, dude. I'm all ears," Cole said. Kai's homelife was so similar yet so different at once, he couldn't quite wrap his head around it. He didn't know what to say.
"Okay. Do you want to know what my problem is? My problem is that Nya is always chewing me out and telling me to think about my future. What future?" The flashlight bounced on the walls as Kai gestured frantically. "More school? Working until I die? How am I supposed to bring myself to care when that's all there is waiting for me?"
As we speak, Kai is missing his science theory final. This exam is worth 50% of his overall grade, and given his already low grades in the subject, means he will fail science this year. Passing this course is mandatory for receiving a high school diploma.
"You're only twenty-one; tell me about one meaningful thing you've done. One time where you actually did something to help people."
"I . . ." Cole wanted to answer, but he couldn't. Not without giving away his secret.
"Sorry, that was mean. But do you understand where I'm coming from? The idea of doing nothing, of being nothing—I don't think I could handle that," Kai said. "I can't just live, you know? What's the point of existing if I'm never going to do anything?"
If you don't understand, Kai will not be graduating anytime soon because he elected to skip his science final.
Please answer. Nya has been trying to reach him all day but he has yet to answer his phone.
"That's a pretty loaded question," Cole replied. "What do you think you're going to do? What do you want to do?"
"I don't know. I guess I'm just trying to figure that out."
"Uh-huh. Does part of this 'figuring out' process include skipping your science exam?"
Kai looked him dead in the eyes. When Kai used to get angry, Cole could have sworn that he could see flames flickering in his eyes. He'd assumed it was an Elemental quirk, like when Jay shocked himself during bad dreams and woke up with a scream in the dead of night. But maybe he was wrong. He swore he could see it now. Fire danced in Kai's narrowed eyes, twisting and bending as his feelings of betrayal manifested themselves into anger, into a refusal to accept what was happening to him.
There was a reason nobody ever liked to upset Kai.
"Have you been talking to her this whole time?"
"No, I haven't. I swear."
Kai didn't look over his shoulder as he backed away, moving towards the crawlspace in the wall. He pointed an accusatory finger at Cole. "Fuck you, yes you have! How else would you know? Do you think I'm that stupid?"
"No, I don't. I was talking to Zane, okay? My nindroid friend that knows Nya? She was having him relay messages to me."
"Yeah, like that makes it so much better. Nice to know there's a whole chain of people getting involved in my shit, now!" Kai said. "I only met you a month ago. You're not my best fucking friend, okay? Stay in your lane."
Cole swallowed, unable to think of a way to make it better without making it worse. When Kai was angry back when they were ninja, everyone would step back and let him have the training deck to himself to blow off steam. No one—not even Nya—knew words that could calm down a Master of Fire. Cole was starting to think that maybe, none existed in the first place.
Kai reached the wall. He looked at the crawlspace and then back at Cole. "Are you coming?"
Cole blinked in surprise. "What?"
"I'm not an asshole, I won't leave you behind if you don't know how to get out of here. But don't talk to me. Just follow my lead."
Kai kept his flashlight on as he ducked down and pulled himself through the tunnel. Cole chased after him, sliding into the crawlspace and crawling the rest of the way through. Kai was waiting for him on the other side, back to him. His flashlight was still on, casting bright light all over the tunnel.
Confident that Kai wasn't watching him, Cole turned around and placed his hand on the rock wall next to the crawlspace. He closed his eyes and concentrated, using his connection with earth to create a mental map of his surroundings. He located the crawlspace and pushed down on the wall harder.
A loud crash echoed throughout the tunnels. He heard Kai swear and pulled away from the wall, looking at the crawlspace to observe his work. The ceiling was caved in, blocking the only entrance into the tomb.
No one would trespass there ever again.
"Holy shit," Kai muttered as he stared at the collapsed entrance. "That was close."
"Yeah. Let's get going."
Kai led the way, his phone's flashlight bobbing up and down with each step he took. Cole was careful as they walked, taking quiet steps and looking over his shoulder every five seconds, just as he'd been trained to do in situations like this. The patrolling nindroid was still out there, even if they'd yet to see it.
Sorry for not getting back to you. I don't know if there's anything I can do about it, though. He's already missed it.
Unfortunately, you're correct. Nya has asked me to tell you that she wants him to go home so she may talk to him when she's finished here today.
Okay, sure. I'll bring it up to him when we don't have to be quiet anymore.
Quiet? Where are you?
Seeing a movie. You know the one about the dog? It's cute, but I wouldn't see it twice. It's ending soon so I'll get back to you when we leave.
Are you texting during the movie? Don't be a Tommy Texter!
I hate you :')
As they walked, his stomach grew heavy. He couldn't have messed this up with Kai during their first time together. They hadn't always gotten along when they were ninja, but they were still friends. They trusted each other, depended on each other in the field. The bonds Cole had with the members of his team were stronger than those of any other relationship he'd ever had, forged by facing death and making it out alive over and over again. Maybe in a world where they weren't ninja, he and Kai weren't meant to be good friends. If they went to school together, would they have ever spoken to each other? Would they hate being lab partners, working in group projects together?
It didn't matter. He would make this work. He didn't want this to be the last time he saw Kai—present or past—ever again.
"HALT. STOP WALKING AND STAND STILL IMMEDIATELY. YOU ARE TRESPASSING."
Cole spun on his heel. He'd forgotten to check over his shoulder.
"Aw, fuck," said Kai from behind.
The harsh, blue light of the nindroid's eyes blinded him. He rubbed his eyes and looked off the side, keeping an eye on the approaching figure with his peripheral vision. Okay. They had ten more seconds until it reached them.
"DO NOT ACTIVATE NIGHT VISION OR ANY OTHER SENSORY AUGMENTATIONS. I WILL KNOW IF YOU DO."
"Turn off your flashlight," Cole whispered, raising his hands above his head. Up, and up, and up, feigning surrender until his fingertips touched the ceiling of the short tunnel. The mental image of the tunnels came back as his surroundings were plunged into darkness, the nindroid's eyes the only source of light. Soon, they would have to turn left, continue straight, and then turn left again. They were not too far from the exit. This was doable.
He pushed up again. A tiny piece of a ceiling fell down to the floor a few meters behind the nindroid, echoing loud enough that it turned around. Cole turned on the ball of his foot and grabbed Kai's arm as he sprinted past, pulling him along.
Kai wasn't as fast as his past-self was, and Cole could feel it slowing them down. When they turned the first corner, Cole stopped and kneeled.
"Get on my back."
"What? Like, a piggy-back ride? I'm too heavy, we aren't going to go any faster."
"I'm stronger than you think. Do you trust me? Get on my back or it'll catch us."
Kai finally conceded, jumping on his back and wrapping his arms around his neck and legs around his torso. Cole took off again, running alongside the wall so his fingers could graze the wall as they passed and maintain the mental map. Another turn in a few more seconds.
"EVADING ARREST WILL LEAVE YOU SUBJECT TO MORE CHARGES. I HAVE NIGHT VISION. YOU DO NOT. THIS IS NOT THE LOGICAL CHOICE OF ACTION FOR EITHER OF YOU."
"Shit, shit, shit, hurry!"
Cole turned again, pounding down the pavement until he was at the ladder, ready to climb up. "Turn on the flashlight, you need to see now."
Kai turned on the flashlight and shone it on the bottom of the ladder, revealing broken rungs. "Remember how I said the bottom of the ladder is unsafe? I need to get off your back so you can boost me up, I'm too short to make the jump. You're tall, can you jump up and grab one of the higher rungs on your own?"
"Stay on my back. If I can jump by myself, I can jump with you on me. The hole is wide enough for the both of us. Hang on tight."
It had been many, many years since he'd last performed airjitzu. It had taken him the longest to master out of his friends, and even several years after the race to the peak of the Wailing Alps, he could feel the air falter and threaten to fall apart beneath him. He concentrated on feeling the gravity around him, staring at the rung he was aiming for. He felt the air around him grow heavier, as though it were forming a shape around him. For long distances, airjitzu required a spin to keep the air moving, but just a jump would do for now.
He jumped as high as he could. The air pushed him up, giving him the boost he needed to grab onto the rung and then pull himself and Kai up onto the safe portion of the ladder. For a brief moment, he closed his eyes and thanked the air for cooperating with him today. It wasn't always his friend in situations when he needed it most.
"Did you feel that draft? The lid is closed. Do you think there's another entrance somewhere?"
"Probably. I'm sure the Serpentine had many ways to get in and out of this place."
Cole reached forward to push the cap.
A small, red dot shone on the back of his hand.
"STOP. I HAVE BEEN AUTHORIZED TO USE SEDATIVE ROUNDS SO YOU MAY BE APPREHENDED. CLIMB DOWN FROM THE LADDER OR BE SHOT DOWN."
"I have an idea," Kai whispered. "Get ready to push the lid off."
The beam of Kai's flashlight pointed away from the cap, and Cole followed it with his eyes until it pointed directly at the nindroid. The nindroid's night vision was still activated, so it would be the temporarily blinded for the next few seconds. The red light disappeared from Cole's hand. He understood that was his cue to take action.
Using his real strength, Cole pushed the cap off in one push and sent it skidding a few feet away from the hole. Kai still on his back, he climbed out swiftly and pulled himself out of the hole just as he heard a shot ring out. He stood up, kicked the cap back into place, and ran away from the alley. He travelled deeper and deeper into the maze of alleyways, only stopping when he felt it was safe.
Kai slid off his back. Cole turned around to face him, mouth open to ask where to go. He was lost, he had no idea how to get to a main street from here. But then Kai started to laugh.
It sounded hysterical. Kai placed a hand on Cole's shoulder and doubled over, body shaking as he sucked in breaths between fits of laughter. "Holy fucking shit," Kai breathed. "We made it."
Cole had seen this kind of laughter before, back when they had just started their missions and there was a certain type of fun to be found in the life-threatening danger they faced every other day. It was the laughter they shared after escaping the enemy, after coming out of a mission alive even if the odds were stacked against them. It was the pure, unimaginable ecstasy of facing death and surviving anyways.
Over time, this laughter died out. Zane died and suddenly, the dangerous missions weren't so fun because they didn't feel invincible anymore. Cole could remember the change, how his confidence before missions dwindled and Nya's call for action over the Bounty's intercom created a storm of dread in his body.
Cole felt something bubble up inside of him and then he started laughing, too. Kai leaned on him more, and more, and more, until Cole felt like he was holding his whole body weight. He moved to push Kai's hand off his shoulder so they could leave, but touched something wet and sticky when he did. Cole pulled his hand back and found himself staring at smeared blood.
He looked at Kai's hand. There was a tiny puncture in his skin, right in one of the blue veins travelling across the top of his hand. Oh, no.
"Kai, are you okay?"
Kai's laugh was airy, like he couldn't put enough force into it. "Yeah, dude, I'm good. Stupid 'bot shot me, though."
"With the sedative rounds? The ones that make you all loopy and eventually pass out?"
"Is that what sedative means? Huh." Kai sagged in his grip.
Cole groaned. "Okay, I cannot take you home on public transportation if you're acting like this. Does Nya have a car?"
"Nah. And she doesn't like her moto—motor—motorcycle anymore. You should see it in the garage, man. It's all covered in fairy dust."
"Maybe just regular dust. I don't know."
Cole groaned again, this time louder as he pulled up Zane's contact. The closest movie theatre was several blocks away, so he would have to admit to lying about where was. Zane was programmed to follow the law like it was his own code of ethics, but he could be forgiving at times. Trespassing wasn't exactly the most heinous of crimes for a teenager to commit, anyways. Even if the other person with him was thousands of years-old.
"Hello?" came Zane's voice when he picked up. "Is everything all right?"
Cole winced. "Uh, not really. We're in a bit of a situation here."
"I may have, uh . . . lied to you about what we were doing."
"That dog movie does not premiere for another week, Cole. I greatly enjoy animal movies. I would know. However, this is beside the point. What happened?"
"Well, I let Kai choose what to do and we wound up in the Serpentine tomb beneath the city. The nindroid caught us and shot Kai with a sedative round. He's really out of it, so I was wondering if you could pick us up?"
Zane's words dripped with disappointment. "I suppose I could. Where are you?"
"Somewhere downtown. I'll find the closest main street you can drive on."
"Let me know when you arrive."
The call ended. Kai was now leaning on Cole completely, eyes glazed over as he stared at nothing. Cole slapped his cheek. "You still there?"
"Where else would I be?" Kai mumbled. He sounded sleepy.
"Can you walk?"
"Yeah man, I learned how to do that years ago," Kai said. He took a step and Cole had to catch him before he collapsed to the floor. "Now that I think-a it, maybe not."
"This is almost as bad as the time the Venomari got you," Cole muttered. He maneuvered Kai's arm so that it was draped over the back of his shoulders. Cole tucked his own arm beneath Kai's free arm and held onto his side, supporting him so he could stand straight.
"What'd you say?"
"Nothing. Can you hop on one leg for me? It's less suspicious if people think you hurt yourself."
Kai hummed in agreement and shifted his weight onto his right leg. Cole looked around. Okay, now it was time to figure out how to get out of here.
Cole refused to backtrack towards the tunnel entrance, so he continued to delve deeper until he found an alleyway that connected to one of Ninjago City's moderately busy streets. Waiting on the street corner with Kai, Cole sent his location to Zane and waited for his response.
I will be there in ten minutes.
I updated Nya on the situation. Do not worry, I assured her that you are a good influence and do not usually trespass or break other laws. She says that she looks forward to meeting you.
Ten minutes later on the dot, a silver car pulled to a stop at the edge of the curb. Zane waved at them through the window. Cole practically threw Kai in the backseat and then climbed into the passenger seat, shutting the door behind him. He stared out the window to avoid looking at Zane.
Kai leaned forward, placing his body between the two front seats to get their attention. He pointed to Zane. "Hey, is this your dad?"
Cole brought himself to look at Zane. He laughed at the horrified expression on his face, and after a few moments, Zane laughed, too.
After arguing back and forth with Kai until he fastened his seatbelt—Zane refused to drive if otherwise—they finally left the curb and made their way through the city. PIXAL's voice occasionally spoke through the car's speakers, telling them when to turn as she followed the directions to Kai and Nya's home address.
Kai was knocked out in the backseat when they finally arrived. Cole threw him over his shoulder, memorized the code to the front door given by Zane, and then walked up the short flight of steps to Kai's home.
He lived in a quiet, residential neighbourhood filled with townhouses and duplexes and public parks on every other street corner. It was a few blocks away from the closest main street, so it was cut off from busy traffic during the daytime. Cole inputted the code to the door and nudged the door open with his foot.
Outside, their home looked clean and well-kept. Inside, however, was a different story. Coats and shoes were thrown all over the front hallway, flowers that died a long time ago were still on tables in the halls, and Cole could only imagine what their kitchen must have looked like. He didn't venture that far, instead climbing up their carpeted stairs to find Kai's bedroom. There were three bedrooms, but Kai's bedroom was easy to distinguish from the others. Old stickers decorated the white door, phrases like "No Girls Allowed" and "Kai's Evil Lair" written in angry red and black print. The stickers were peeling. Kai must have had them for a long time, now.
Kai's room was cleaner than expected. His desk was stacked with textbooks, some of which were open. He'd at least done some studying, though probably because Nya forced him to. His bookshelf didn't have many books, instead filled with trophies and framed photos of young children. Kai and some childhood friends. One of the little girls had curly, red hair, reminding him of Skylor from so many years ago. Was she back, too?
Cole stopped snooping around Kai's room and finally put his unconscious friend to bed. He pulled the blankets over Kai's shoulders for good measure, then closed the door behind him. He left the house and typed in the code again to lock the door. Zane was still in his car, but his voice could be heard as he talked to someone through the car window. As Cole got closer, he saw who he was talking to: a teenage girl in a leather jacket, and straight, black hair cut at the shoulders. Cole nearly tripped over his feet.
It was Nya.
She glanced up at him and waved him over. She said something to Zane and then walked around to the back of the car, where she waited until Cole built up the courage to approach her.
She smiled and shook his hand. "Nice to meet you. I'm Nya, Kai's sister."
Cole swallowed. "I'm Cole."
"Oh, I know. Don't tell him I said this, but Kai talks about you a lot. He was really excited to hang out with you. I just didn't expect it to happen today," she said with a laugh.
"Yeah, sorry about that. I had no idea," Cole said.
"Ah, it's all right. How were you supposed to know?" she said. "Between you and me, I don't think he was going to pass that exam in the first place. Science isn't really his strong suit. Honestly, I'm just glad he got home safe. Thanks for not just ditching him on the sidewalk, or something. Then I would have a problem with you."
"Hey, what kind of friend would I be if I didn't help him escape from the cops?"
"Probably like his other friends. They're not very supportive." She looked over Cole's shoulder at their house, then back to him. "I got to leave early by claiming a family emergency, so I should probably go inside. But hey, feel free to come over anytime. I think having a friend that has his shit together will be good for him."
They said goodbye and then Cole and Zane were driving away, Cole filling him in on everything Kai had told him back in the tomb. Zane narrowed his eyes as he stared at the road.
"Do you remember when we time travelled?"
"When we kidnapped Nya?"
"Yes. If I remember correctly, Kai had no interest in becoming a ninja unless Nya was put in danger," he said. "I find it interesting that he has this drive now. Maybe there is more to all this than we initially thought."
"What do you mean?"
"It is easy to conclude that they have been reincarnated in some way. They look the same, sound the same, and have the same base personalities. Kai and Nya's childhood has been altered slightly, but remains the same at the core. Nya is an intern in security at Borg, and she confided in me that she chose this career because she wants to make Ninjago City a safer place. Do you find this as interesting as I do?"
"I'm sorry. What are you getting at here?"
"I'm saying that they both have the same drive they had to protect people not before they became ninja, but after they became ninja. What if they have retained their 'ninja' mindset?" Zane said. "When your father forced you to become a dancer, why did you quit?"
"Uh, I quit because I didn't feel like it was right for me. It wasn't what I wanted to be when I was older."
"Exactly. So what if Kai struggles because the one thing he wants to be is the only thing he can't be?" Zane pulled onto Cole's street and parked next to his building. "I do believe they have been reincarnated. But I do not believe they were given a 'blank slate', so to speak. I believe they are the same people they were when they died. What they lack now is the opportunity to help people by being ninja. Do you understand what I mean?"
"Huh. I'd never thought about that."
"That's okay, you do not have my processing power." Zane smiled. "If you notice anything else, feel free to 'hit me up' as you like to say."
"That was a thing three thousand years ago. I'm getting out of this car right now. Bye, dad!" Cole pushed open the door and stepped out. He slammed the door.
He heard the window roll down. "I thought I was your mother!"
Kai was inactive on all social media for the next three weeks. Choosing to be patient, Cole busied himself by redecorating his flower shop and then bickering with his employees when they told him it looked ugly. When he could no longer re-arrange flowers and vases, he got in contact with Zane to see what Nya was up to. Zane told him to be patient, and that he would let him know if something new came up.
Boredom started to become a problem. Sitting in his office and doing nothing was making him itch with the urge to get out and do something. Stupid Kai and his stupid rant about doing nothing, making him conscious about wasting time.
It made him wonder when was the last time he'd donned his ninja robes and fought evil with Zane. A few lifetimes at least, maybe five. The big bads just didn't pop up as much anymore.
Hmm. He hadn't looked forward to fight in a really, really long time.
This was an interesting feeling.
Three weeks after the tomb, Kai messaged him.
yo just thought id let you know im alive
hows it going flint?
How were exams?
uh just got my results back yesterday
i failed science theory obvi but didnt fail the lab so theres that
haha funny story there were a couple questions on my history exam about the ninja
i got them right bc i knew their colors and how many of them there were
thanks for that btw i passed by like 2%
i passed everything other than math tho
nya is such a fkn nonbeliever im telling ya
So, are you doing summer school or something for the stuff you failed?
guess i kinda have to ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Okay. I have a serious question.
When is your next lesson at your dojo?
are you gonna come watch? lmao dude trust me its boring if youre spectating
No, I don't want to watch. I want to join you.
i know youre like fast and strong and all that but my class is wayyyyyyyy too advanced for a beginner like you
your ass would get demolished
maybe by me maybe by my coach
idk by who but it would happen okay
What if I challenge you to a fight?
oooooooh man youve done it
youre in for it now dude
sending you the address asap
meet me there tuesday at 20:30
Kai's dojo was located in the heart of downtown. Cole was impressed by its size, yet its most impressive feature was the amount of ribbons, trophies, and plaques displayed in their windows. Most of their competitors had won nationals every year for the past decade, and they prided themselves on being the best. When Cole arrived, Kai brought him to a private practice area separated by a curtain and laid down the rules. No attacking the head, no moves that could theoretically hurt someone, and first to knock the other onto the mat three times was the victor.
All three matches ended with Kai on his back. Kai stared at him incredulously, one word breaking the silence.
"I was trained by a guy who studied the ninja," Cole explained. "There aren't any good videos around anymore, but there are old reports of their activities. They used a unique fighting style, one designed to counter, not attack. It was ideal for fighting new types of people every few years."
"Can you teach me?"
"Yeah. Or at least introduce me to this guy you know."
"You don't need it. Why would you learn it if you don't need it?"
"What, and you do? Don't be a hypocrite."
"I didn't have much of a choice in the matter."
"Unless you're about to dump your tragic backstory on me right now, I don't see why I can't learn it. Hear me out: every year since I was ten, I've lost nationals to the same person. If you teach me this ninja stuff, I can win. I can be the strongest fighter in my age group in the whole country."
"Where would we practice? We can't do it here."
"My basement. Nya and I used to practice down there all the time."
Cole paused to think. He could trust Kai not to use it for the wrong purposes. It certainly wouldn't do the world any harm to have another trained ninja.
Not that Cole would ever let him near a real fight. It was too risky.
"Fine. But just know that I'm a pretty strict teacher. No one I train with likes me for very long."
"You think I could get this far if I couldn't handle a strict teacher? When do we start?"
"When are nationals?"
"A month away."
"We start tomorrow. You have a lot to learn."
Cole neglected to tell Zane about his new partnership with Kai. Kai promised that Nya wouldn't care, but chose to keep it a secret so she wouldn't accidentally spill the beans to Zane. He forwarded Cole his summer schedule, circling the times he was free in red. His classes were only in the afternoon, making him available and Nya-free from eight in the morning until noon. Four hours a day was good enough to get down most of what he needed by the time nationals rolled around.
Cole updated his employees to tell them that he would be busy every morning for the next month and they could call him if something was wrong. He arrived at Kai's house at eight AM the next day, unlocked the door with the code, and shook Kai awake when he didn't respond to his name being called from the front hall. Kai complained all the way through a quick breakfast and getting changed, claiming it was too early to be awake during the summer. Cole disagreed and then forced him to push all the furniture against the walls until they had a flat, used carpet to practice on.
The first session was spent teaching Kai the basics of blocking. Cole taught him not to anticipate his enemy's attacks, but to react to them on time. To make things interesting, Cole ended the session with another spar, allowing Kai to practice what he'd learned on a real, moving target.
Cole still won. But he could see improvement.
By the end of the first week, Kai was blocking Cole's attacks and landing hits and when Cole met up with Zane for lunch, he was forced to wear a long-sleeve shirt to hide his bruises. Zane didn't inquire into his odd choice of summer apparel, but sent a few strange glances his way that Cole pretended not to notice.
The second week went just as smoothly. On Friday, Kai forgot to take his phone out of his back pocket and landed on it, shattering its screen. When he told Nya, she used her internship to get him a free version of the latest model and made him promise up and down not to "trip on the stairs" while holding it ever again. Kai laughed about it over their messages, saying he should break things more often if he was going to be rewarded for it.
The following Monday, Kai wandered into Cole's flower shop with a laptop and sat down in his office. He explained that his courses were online, so it didn't matter where he was so long as he was logged into the virtual classroom. Cole accused him of only being there to use his bandwidth, to which Kai shrugged, mumbling something about watching too many videos and not wanting to pay a fee if he wanted to continue.
They found themselves spending entire days together. The mornings were spent training and the afternoons were spent in the flower shop, Kai lounging around in the office while Cole did whatever he had to do that day. Sometimes, Kai asked him a question about homework and Cole would frown, try to remember, and then excuse his ignorance by saying he attended performing arts school and couldn't help him with science or math.
That bit of knowledge really threw Kai for a loop.
"You were a dancer?"
"Yep. Nya thinks I'm a good influence, so don't tell her this bit: I quit."
"I quit school. Ran away and didn't look back for more than a year."
Kai bit the inside of his cheek, looking thoughtful. "Oh."
On the Thursday of the third week, Nya came home early when she forgot her laptop and snuck downstairs because she heard them practicing and feared there were burglars in her house. She found Cole in the middle of throwing a punch at Kai, yelled in surprise, and distracted Kai enough that Cole's fist connected with Kai's right cheek and knocked him into the table next to the wall.
Kai was back up in an instant, throwing himself between Cole and Nya before she could jump to her brother's defense.
"It's not what it looks like," Kai said, arms spread out as though he were protecting Cole from Nya's wrath.
"Not what it looks like? What is it supposed to look like? He punched you into the freaking wall!"
"He's teaching me how to fight."
"What? Don't you already know how to do that? What is he teaching you that you don't already know? How to defend yourself from our now-broken coffee table?"
Cole glanced at the table Kai'd crashed into. The two front legs were broken, facing in and putting the tabletop on an angle. Whoops.
"He's better than I am, okay? He's helping me train so I can finally win nationals."
She gasped. "Wait, is this why you broke your phone?"
"I hate both of you," she hissed. She pointed at Kai. "You are so lucky I'm in a rush and have to leave." She pointed at Cole. "I assume this is supposed to be a secret, so I won't tell Zane. Just make sure my brother wins, okay?"
"He'll win," Cole said. "I promise."
The end of the fourth week—their last week training—was cause for celebration. On the last day, Kai finally gained the upper hand over Cole and knocked him to the floor. Kai cheered and kicked a nearby chair into the wall out of excitement. Cole stood up and laughed when Kai put Nya on speakerphone to tell her what happened, but she couldn't stay on the phone for long so she congratulated him and hung up to go work on something.
The next weekend was the tournament. It was being hosted at a huge sports complex located outside the city, so Cole convinced Zane to come and they all piled into his car and drove out into the country, fighting over the radio until Nya eventually won by pulling an aux cord out of her bag, and the last hour was spent listening to the horrendous mix of genres that was her music library. Zane knew the words to every pop song and Cole switched places with Nya so he could sit in the back with Kai and shred air guitar whenever a song they both knew played over the car's speakers.
Kai tried to call his parents to let them know what he was doing, but all he got was dialtone so he vowed to call them later and brushed off Cole's concerned look by saying he was used to it. Kai found his coach and took off, waving goodbye and promising to meet up with them again so they could go home together. Cole and the others found close seats in the stands and waited for Kai to come on while they watched the other competitors from Kai's division duke it out on the platform.
Cole smiled as he watched them. Kai was going to cream everyone in this tournament.
"Oh! Do you see the girl down there? She's the one that wins every year."
Nya pointed to a girl with familiar red curls and an orange gi.
Cole exchanged a look with Zane.
"What's her name?" Cole asked.
"Skylor. She isn't so bad herself, but her dad's an asshole. He's been mean to Kai ever since they started competing against each other in tournaments."
Another glance with Zane, but this one out of concern. Skylor was one thing. Chen was something else.
Skylor was quick on her feet, dodging attacks until she saw opportunities to strike. Cole hadn't seen much of her during the Tournament of Elements, but knew that mastering an element like amber required flexibility. She was adaptable.
Cole understood why she'd beaten Kai so many years in a row. She fought like a ninja, but most importantly, fought like Nya. Nya, who could take on the green ninja and win during their sparring matches, who could beat every ninja in a fight because she knew how to adjust her style for every opponent even before Wu taught her to.
Skylor was adaptable. But now, so was Kai.
The finals were going to be interesting.
When Kai walked onto the platform, they cheered so loudly that the people sitting in front of them twisted in their seats and shot them annoyed glares. They were even louder when Kai won, slamming his opponent onto the mat in a matter of seconds by using a special technique Cole had taught him. Kai faced them and offered a thumbs-up.
Both Kai and Skylor won every round they fought until finals rolled around in the late afternoon. The competitors that lost sat together on the sidelines, passing what looked to be candy between them until two piles formed on one end. Nya explained that they had a tradition of betting on the final competitors, although usually one pile was bigger than the other since Skylor won without question every year. This time, however, the piles were equal.
"Kai really surprised everyone. I hope he surprises Skylor, too."
The match began and they circled each other, neither attacking yet. Cole saw Skylor's lips move. She was talking to Kai, and he was responding. Skylor laughed at something he said.
How typical of them.
Skylor wound up striking first. Kai blocked and went to counter with a kick, to which she jumped out of the way. When Kai attacked, she dodged but didn't attack back. Cole knew she was gauging him, trying to understand the way he was fighting.
Cole could only hope that Kai would realize this too and attack while he had the upper hand.
Kai managed to land a lucky blow during a tussle, knocking her back a few feet. All of the competitors on the sidelines gasped. She recovered quickly, shifting back into her fighting stance. They were evenly matched, exchanging blows and blocking one another's attacks until the match dragged on for longer than any of the others in the tournament.
But then, like most of Kai's practice sessions, the fight ended with him on his back after Skylor blocked a punch and kicked his legs out from under him. She reached out to him, offering her hand. Kai didn't have a chance to accept it before her father came stomping onto the platform and yanked her back. His voice carried over into the audience as he screamed in her face.
The scene was familiar to Cole, a father yelling at their child for what he deemed to be a mediocre performance. He found himself staring at his feet as a strange weight settled in his core. He hated that even after he'd made up with his dad, even after he'd been dead for thousands of years, he could still feel his eyes staring him down and his disappointed voice ringing in his ears.
His presence was just as imposing—just as suffocating—in death as it had been when he was alive.
They cheered just as loud when Kai won the second place trophy, but Kai didn't look as happy as everyone else was pretending to be. They were all disappointed, not in Kai but in the results. They knew he'd done his best. They just wanted him to finally win.
As they waited for Kai to exit the platform, Cole saw Skylor place a hand on his shoulder and whisper in his ear. When she pulled away, he smiled a little. Cole remembered the picture of the girl with red curls in Kai's room and wondered if there was more history to them than Nya was letting on.
The car ride home wasn't as fun. Nya tried to cheer him up by pointing out that their fight had been equal, telling him that Skylor only won because she was lucky and that he could win next year if he tried his hardest. "She didn't win because she was lucky, she won because she's better than me," Kai muttered in response as he stared out the window. Nya caught Cole's eye in the rearview mirror and shrugged. There really wasn't much she could say to make it better.
Zane dropped off Kai and Nya first, and when he pulled up in front of Cole's building, started talking.
"You taught Kai to fight like that, didn't you?"
"He wanted to learn. I don't know, it just seems like he loses a lot. I wanted him to win something."
Zane frowned. "I understand. But Chen has returned. What if other enemies have returned as well? If Pythor chose to attack, what would stop Kai from wanting to help now that he has the ability to do so? We know he wants to help people. Now he can."
"If he wants to help, there isn't much we can do. What's the issue?"
There was a pause before Zane spoke again.
"I do not wish to see him die again because I failed to keep him safe from a life of danger."
Kai started coming to the flower shop in the morning and staying until the late afternoon. As his exams approached, Cole found himself quizzing him on subjects he didn't know. It reminded Cole of listening to Jay rant from the top bunk, babbling about whatever came to mind late into the night. Sometimes, he talked about robotics and science and Cole would ask questions because he didn't always understand. Jay would always happily explain, detouring the conversation to go into detail about something Cole couldn't wrap his head around.
"I like talking to you," Jay would say. "You listen. Other people just wait for their turn to speak."
Kai wasn't as happy to explain a concept, grumbling as he flipped back to his notes from earlier in the semester to read them out loud. By the time his exams came around, Cole felt like he knew about as much science as Kai did. Something about learning a little made him want to learn more, and he wondered if neglecting to return to school even after all these years was a bad decision.
On the morning of Kai's make-up exams, Cole sent him a few encouraging messages that were read but never responded to. Later in the day, Kai got back to him and said that he thought the exams went okay but wasn't getting his hopes up. Apparently, he had a habit of studying and then failing anyways.
On September 2nd, Kai contacted him over DMs.
guess whose exam results just came in the mail
you know it
k so i did pass math but really the mark is nothing to celebrate
Kai never signed up for university, so he couldn't attend any classes until next fall. With nothing to do for a year, he promised both Nya and Cole that he would spend his time training so he could finally beat Skylor at this year's nationals. Two weeks into his gap year, Kai walked into the flower shop with a duffle bag and said he was ready to start his ninja training.
Cole couldn't miss every day of work and didn't want to train at night and disturb Nya while she was sleeping, so he asked where they were going to train if the basement was no longer an option. In response, Kai pulled a single key out of his pocket. His coach trusted him enough to grant him access to the dojo whenever he wanted, so it looked like they were finally going to have a real practice space.
Cole told him used to get to sleeping during the day because they were going to train during a ninja's preferred time of day: nighttime. They practiced from 22:00 until the early hours of the morning, fine tuning what Cole taught him before nationals and developing new skills and techniques to use for next year's tournament. Cole had Zane send him a video of Skylor's fight with Kai, then forwarded it to Kai so they could review it before each practice. He pointed out her adaptability, and during their third session, settled on a game plan with Kai.
"When you go into the match with her, I want you to use your old fighting style to start. She'll get used to being on the defense. When she starts to win, switch over to the ninja style. You can win using the element of surprise."
"Sounds to me like you have a history of planning out battles. You sure you've never coached before?"
The first few months were spent building up his speed. Cole wanted Kai to be fast, faster than Skylor and faster than Jay ever was. He trained him to throw punches and kicks that could scare even a Master of Speed, then trained him to block moves just as fast. By the time Day of the Departed rolled around, Kai was moving as fast as he had back in the ninja days. The next step was building up his power.
Day of the Departed was weird this year. It was usually spent watching old videos with Zane and laughing over Jay's running commentary as he made stupid vlogs about their daily lives, and then settling down to watch horror movies and get sick on candy until Cole passed out on Zane's couch and awoke with a disgusting taste in his mouth after eating chocolate and candy before sleeping. This year, they both had trouble watching the videos. It felt a little strange to honour people that weren't quite-so-dead anymore.
Cole still got sick on candy, though. Some traditions were never meant to die.
It never snowed in Ninjago City, even during winter, and Kai confessed that he'd never actually touched snow in person. Cole knew that Kai had always preferred warm weather, but now he was no longer afraid of water so maybe this had changed, too. Cole convinced Zane to drive them and Nya far into the countryside so they could make snow angels and have a snowball fight so competitive that Zane only won by using his ice powers to manipulate the snow around him. Cole couldn't accuse him of cheating in front of Kai and Nya, so he silently seethed in the car all the way home and yelled at him over messages later.
I did nothing of the sort. :)
Spring came around and sunshowers took over their lives, everyone wearing raincoats even in the warm weather because getting rained on was a chance no matter what the forecasts said. Kai could now beat Cole in half their fights, and although the change was slow, Kai was turning into the fighter he used to be. He was quick and smart and if he didn't beat Skylor, Cole would be genuinely surprised.
Kai chose to hang out with Cole on his actual birthday, and along with Zane and Nya, they went to Mega Monster Amusement Park despite the rain and then ate at Kai's favorite restaurant for dinner. Kai pulled out his phone every few minutes like he was expecting something important, checking his messages even though the counter was still at zero. When nothing happened by the end of dinner, Kai turned off his phone and gave it to Nya, telling her to hold onto it until the next morning.
They opened presents at Kai and Nya's house because Cole's gift, in particular, wasn't something that could be opened in public. The present came in a long black case, and Kai jokingly asked if he'd been gifted a guitar before he unlatched the case and opened it up.
The excited grin on Kai's face after receiving an authentic katana was something Cole would never forget. Nya gave him a look that said why would you buy this for him, he's actually going to hurt himself and it's going to be your fault but slapped Kai on the back and told him he should learn how to use it anyways.
The next day, Kai canceled training so he could celebrate his birthday with his high school friends. Cole took the night off, glad to finally have some alone time. At three in the morning, he awoke to fifty new messages after he'd forgotten to turn on 'night mode' before falling asleep.
fpweojim so opfcked uprn
whywont theymmmmm cal
i dont even know where they are
Cole rubbed his eyes and forced himself to feel awake enough to answer.
Are you lost? Please don't tell me your friends ditched you after hanging out on train tracks or whatever it is you guys do.
nonot ewthqose assholes
the,,, otwefher ones
What? What are you talking about?
There was no answer. A few hours later, Cole gave in to paranoia and contacted Nya to ask if she had any idea where Kai was. She sounded tired over the phone as she told him that Kai had come home and passed out after a night of partying with his friends.
"I'd hoped that he was done with them. Just between you and me, I've always hated them. Friends are supposed to be nice to each other, right? All they do is make fun of each other and force each other to follow through on dangerous dares. Like, I get it. Teenagers are supposed to be mean and stupid. But do you know what they did last night? They got super drunk and tried to get Kai to let them into the dojo so they could trash the place. Thankfully he'd left the key here, so he couldn't really do anything, but then they wanted to break in, and they gave Kai a lot of shit for it when he refused. Well, that's what I was able to understand. You got text messages from him, I'm sure you can imagine what that sounds like out loud. It makes me a little sad, though. I don't think he's had a very fun birthday this year."
Kai got into contact with Cole after dinner. He was feeling okay, and despite a headache, was willing to train tonight. Cole tried his best to teach Kai, but there was a hollow look in his eyes that made Cole take a step back and let them just spar for the night. Kai came at Cole hard, regressing back to his old style and not being particularly careful, crashing onto the floor before getting back up and trying to beat Cole again and never quitting until Cole finally called it off and told him the session was over. Kai went home with a few more bruises than usual that night.
When they met outside the dojo before their next session, Kai awkwardly apologized for his behaviour by explaining that he'd been angry about something that he refused to disclose. He was looking forward to their training session so he could clear his head and focus on something else.
They were interrupted halfway through their session by the sound of Kai's ringtone going off. Kai stopped what he was doing and ran across the floor, diving for his bag and pulling out his phone. He stared at the screen for a few seconds, taking in deep breaths. Then he accepted the call and pressed his phone to his ear.
When Kai spoke, his voice was barely a whisper.
Cole couldn't hear what his dad was saying. But listening to Kai was enough to know what was happening.
"No, it's okay, you didn't wake me up . . . Thanks, I guess, but you're three days late . . . I know you're busy, it's fine . . . What about mom? Where is she? . . . Whatever, it's not like either of you can ever come to the phone anyways . . . No, I'm not mad, I'm just— . . . Yeah, yeah, I know . . . When's the next time you're going to be home? . . . No, I don't need anything, I just haven't seen you in over a year . . . Yes, it has been that long. You cancelled Mother's Day and couldn't make it to grad . . . I know, I know you're busy . . . You have to go? . . . Okay, I'll talk to you soon . . . Where even are you? . . . Dad?"
Kai pulled the phone away from his ear. It dropped from his hand and fell into his bag. Kai zipped it up, wiped his eyes, and then turned to face Cole.
"I'm done for the night. Do you want to go do something?"
It was Cole's idea to go up to his roof. They sat close to each other as they looked out at the city, taking in the rainbow of neon lights around them. There was a light breeze that ruffled their hair and made them both scoot in closer because even though Ninjago City was usually warm, it cooled down at nights and their thin spring clothes weren't enough to keep out the cold.
They were silent for a long time before Kai spoke up.
"I had this weird dream," he said. He yawned into the back of his hand. "It was on my birthday. I know you're not supposed to admit to dreaming about your friends, but everyone does it so shut up and don't judge, okay? We were on a beach together, and there were some other people I couldn't recognize. We were waiting for something—something important, I think. It was so vivid; I could hear the waves crashing against the shore, feel the sand beneath my feet. It felt more like a memory than a dream. It made me think that maybe, we knew each other in a past life. Wouldn't that be cool?"
Cole clenched his fist and tried not to think about how true it was.
"Yeah. It would be cool."
Kai slept over at Cole's apartment, passing out on the couch with no blanket or pillow and not even stirring when Cole woke up in the morning and went through his usual routine. Before he left, Cole placed a spare key on the coffee table with a note that told Kai to lock up when he went home.
Cole let Kai keep the key, and by the time the summer sun was scorching the city, Kai was staying over at Cole's place a few times a month to avoid Nya after an argument or just because he felt like it. He started to stress about university, still not sure what he wanted to go into and once again expressing his fear of doing nothing with his life.
"I don't want to do any of this," he said as he scrolled through Ninjago City University's list of programs, showing them to Cole. "Look at these! They're all such bullshit. Who wants to be an accountant for the rest of their life?"
"I mean, if it makes you feel any better, you almost failed low math. I don't think you could be an accountant in the first place."
"Is that what an accountant does? Math? That's so sad."
It took several hours of research, career aptitude tests, and encouragement for Kai to finally settle down on a major. On the same day Kai sent off his application, he received a call from his dojo asking him to help demonstrate moves to a class of young students. Kai was always one to show off, so he accepted without hesitation and found himself teaching kids basic moves at least twice a week. At their practice sessions, Kai would talk about how much the kids loved him and practically begged him to come back to every lesson. "They think I'm the coolest person ever because I can beat their teacher in a fight. I've got to admit, I kind of agree with them. Since when could I beat the dojo masters?"
The two weeks leading up to nationals were spent training harder and longer. Cole refused to show Kai any mercy during their spars, using some of his real strength to throw him off and force him to adapt. Cole would imitate Lloyd's fighting style, and when Kai adapted, switched it over to Jay's, then Zane's, then his own, and for the last few days he only used Skylor's. Kai was fast. Strong. Adaptable. Smart. Balanced.
He was everything a ninja was supposed to be.
It was during their last practice session that Kai called his parents and asked them to come to nationals, saying that he was finally going to win and wanted them there to see it. They actually accepted and Kai spent their practice time talking about his parents, telling Cole about how even though they weren't around that much, they were really cool and he couldn't wait for them to see him compete at nationals. They hadn't seen him fight since he was little, so Kai was pretty sure his improvement was going to knock their socks off.
Nationals were being held seven hours away, located in the heart of Skylor's home town. They piled in Zane's car again and left a day early, making a road trip out of it by stopping in small towns along the way. By the time they checked into their hotel rooms the sun had set beyond the horizon, so they called it a night and decided that they would explore the town tomorrow after finals.
In the morning, Kai called his parents but they didn't pick up. He said they were only supposed to get there in the afternoon anyways, so they were probably driving or something and couldn't answer. Nya shot Cole a worried look but told Kai that he was probably right, and they would be here soon.
They arrived at the complex early and Cole sat down with Kai before he ran off with his official coach to go over the plan again. "Aggressive first. Ninja second," he said. "You adapt to her, she doesn't adapt to you. You got this." Kai wasn't a huggy person so Cole settled for a high five and promised to cheer him on from the stands with the others.
Skylor hadn't changed much since the previous year. Chen watched in the background as she fought with the same style, letting her opponent attack first and then taking them down once she saw a pattern. When she won her first match, she looked back for Chen's approval. He nodded. She'd done well.
Cole could only imagine the pressure. She was competing in her hometown, and after last year's close call, had a lot at stake. Cole felt sorry for her. If Kai won, Chen's reaction wasn't going to be pretty.
Kai was so fast and so strong that he tore through his opponents like they were practice dummies, ending some of his matches only seconds after they began. After his fights, he always turned towards Cole and the others and frowned when he saw the two empty seats occupied by Nya's bags. During the semi-finals, Kai stole a glance at the stands and opened himself up for a kick that almost made him lose the match. He recovered and won anyways, but only by using his old, aggressive style to pummel his opponent into submission.
It was 15:50 and there were ten minutes until the final match. The other competitors were sitting on the sidelines again, passing candy amongst themselves to make the betting piles. Skylor was on a bench with Chen, talking animatedly about what Cole could only assume was going to be her strategy for the fight. And then, there was Kai.
His coach was talking to him, but Kai kept looking up at the stands, not really paying any attention to the conversation. He chewed on his thumbnail as he glanced back and forth, right foot tapping rapidly against the floor.
Nya was on her phone, calling the same number over and over again but no one was picking up. She gave up and shoved her phone in her pocket. She turned to Cole. "I'm going to go talk to him. You should come, too."
They jumped the railing and landed in the arena. Nya excused herself to Kai's coach and then pulled her brother away, finding an empty corner where they could talk.
"They promised they were going to come," Kai said. "They told me they were proud of me. They wanted to see me compete because they felt bad for being so busy these past what, ten years? They said they wanted to see you, too. They said they missed us. So where are they? Whenever they cancel, they always call. Why haven't they called us? I don't know if I did something wrong or if they decided this wasn't worth the time, and I wouldn't blame them because it's not like I have a great track record of winning these stupid competitions, let alone anything in general. What have I ever done to make them proud? Why would they want to see me or call me on time for my birthday? It's not like I've ever given them a reason to love me."
When Nya comforted someone, she wrapped her arms around them, held them close, and whispered encouraging words into their ear. Cole remembered when she did it to him, acting as an anchor in the world when he was no longer human and felt himself losing touch with reality. She sat with him and talked to him until he felt better, and it was in her embrace that he felt something for the first time that day.
So when Nya was confronted with an emotional Kai, the last thing he expected her to do was yell.
"You know what, Kai? Fuck our parents." She put her hands on his shoulders. "If they're not here to see you win, it's their loss. The people that actually care about you are here, so stop getting hung up on people that don't give a shit about you"—she pointed to Skylor—"and go kick her ass!"
"I—" Kai began to say, but Nya interrupted his sentence by stepping forward and hugging him.
"I'm sorry they're not here," she said softly. "But don't lose because of them. You can do this. I believe in you."
She pulled away and the coach told them they had to leave, so Cole offered the only comfort he could — "Remember what I taught you. Even if your head isn't in it, instinct will take over. You're a natural fighter. You got this." — and he jumped back over the railing with Nya and sat down. With a shared look, they took her bags off the empty seats and set them on the floor. Nya crossed her arms and told him she was done saving room for people that were never going to show up.
The match lasted a total of three minutes. Cole spent those three minutes on the edge of his seat, and by the end of the match his fingers hurt from gripping the plastic seat so hard. He watched as Kai took off, attacking Skylor with a flurry of kicks and punches that she blocked, dodged, and eventually learned to counter. During tussles, she landed hits and knocked Kai to the side. At two minutes in, Kai could no longer attack without getting hit back. "Come on, Kai," Cole whispered. "Switch over."
Skylor kicked him hard enough that he almost fell to the mat. Kai regained his balance, took a step back, and then shifted his stance. Skylor didn't approach, keeping her distance. There was no playful banter this time around—they both knew what was at stake. For only the second time in her life, Skylor was being genuinely challenged by someone for her throne in her division. One wrong move would knock her down to second place.
There was nothing wrong with how she chose to attack. She tested the waters with a unique move, something Cole hadn't seen from her yet. It ended with a kick, going straight for Kai's chest. But reacting was the core of this fighting style, and Kai did exactly what he'd been taught: he blocked with one arm and used his other to slam into her chest so hard that she crashed against the mat at his feet.
And just like that, he'd won. Cole, Nya, and Zane jumped from their seats, cheering and clapping so hard that Cole's hands stung by the end of the awards ceremony, stopping only to watch Nya take pictures of Kai and his first place trophy with her phone. For a few pictures, Skylor and Kai put their arms over each other's shoulders like they were teammates instead of rivals. Cole looked around for Chen, but he was nowhere to be seen.
The crowds and other competitors were leaving when they were finally able to meet Kai on the arena floor. Nya gave him another hug, but this time he didn't accept it as graciously as last time and pushed her away after thanking her. Kai started to introduce Cole and Zane to Skylor, but couldn't finish before a large hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him around.
It was Chen.
Cole instinctively took a step back and glanced at Zane. Zane's eyes were narrowed, but he stood still.
"Congratulations on your victory! You deserved to win, you really did."
"Um, thanks. Skylor fought well, too."
"Now, I'm curious: how did you manage to improve so dramatically these past two years?" Chen asked.
"Oh, the reason's right here." Kai took a step back and threw an arm over Cole's shoulders. "Best coach I've ever had."
"Uh huh. And he isn't a coach at your dojo?"
"No. Why do you ask?"
Chen smiled. "I was just thinking that I should hire him to coach my daughter, too. Then maybe she could take back her title."
Cole gulped. He would never do it to begin with, but the thought of being in close quarters with Chen on a regular basis was enough to make his skin crawl.
"Sorry, I'm only training Kai because we're friends. I'm not exactly a professional or anything."
"No worries, it's fine. Skylor, come with me, won't you?"
Chen turned around and walked away. Skylor followed him, walking backwards so she could face them and shrug her shoulders. She mouthed the words see you later to Kai before pivoting to catch up with her father.
And see them later, she did. When everyone arrived back at the hotel, Kai confessed that he'd made plans with Skylor so they could hang out now that they had a chance for the first time in nine years. Skylor showed up in the hotel lobby, and Kai introduced her to Cole without interruption.
"This is Skylor. We used to be best friends when we were little, even if we only got to see each other at tournaments. Then we grew up and it got a little competitive, so we haven't had the chance to hang out in forever," Kai said. "Skylor, this is Cole. He's a good friend."
Cole and Skylor exchanged awkward greetings. Kai laughed at them and then dragged Skylor away, promising Cole and the others that he'd be back around midnight. Cole, Nya, and Zane did get to explore the town a little bit. They found a small restaurant so they could eat dinner and walked around the main area, admiring the small shops but never going inside. If Cole looked up, he could see the stars in the sky. But he couldn't remember the constellations Jay had taught him to recognize, so he kept his eyes on the architecture around him to avoid thinking about how he couldn't remember something so important.
Everyone was pretty tired on the ride home. They didn't make any stops, everyone voting to just drive without stopping and get to the city as early as possible. Nya's phone died halfway through the ride, so Kai plugged his into the car and let his rock music take over the car for the last three hours.
Kai came over to the flower shop every day for the last week of summer, anxiously checking his email every hour to see if NCU had finally gotten back to him about his admission. He'd been put on a waiting list, so his chances of getting in weren't very high. Cole tried to offer encouragement, but Kai would tell him to stop bothering because no amount of Cole's words would change the university's decision.
Tomorrow was the last day NCU was sending out acceptances. Kai had given up on his email, opting to sit in Cole's office chair and lay his head face-down on the desk as he tried to figure out what he was going to do if he wasn't accepted.
Chen's timely phone call didn't make matters much easier, either.
Kai answered the call on speaker phone so Cole could hear what he had to say.
"Kai, how great to speak to you again. I have a few questions regarding the official rule book."
"Okay? I don't really know anything and you should probably be calling the league for this, but shoot away, I guess."
"Just this morning I was looking it over and noticed something pretty interesting. Did you know that just last year they banned secondary coaching?"
Cole felt his stomach drop. Oh, no.
". . . What?"
"It says here that it's against the rules to train under a coach unaffiliated with your dojo. It also says that any competitor caught breaking this rule would be disqualified, lose their title, and be suspended from competing in nationals for up to five years. So, tell me: what was the name of that friend of yours, again? The one that was training you in his spare time?"
Kai rubbed his face with his hands, mouthing a string of curse words as he stared at his phone. Chen had got them. He hadn't asked about Cole because he cared, he'd asked so he could get Kai—Skylor's only real competition—kicked from the league.
"Judging from your silence, you must be as surprised as I am. But don't worry, I won't report you. Not when I don't even know if you'll be competing next year."
"I . . ."
"It would be such a shame if you were caught cheating. I suppose you only have two options: come clean and face the consequences, or accept this year's victory and quit forever. I'm really sorry that you won't be able to compete next year either way. Honestly, I blame myself. I completely forgot to include your dojo in the email I sent out to inform everyone of the changes made to the rules. How irresponsible of me! So, Kai, what will you do?"
"I need an answer now, Kai."
"Fine. You win. I quit," Kai spat. "I hope Skylor has fun collecting medals for the rest of her life. Just make sure to remember that they're not yours."
"I'm pleased by your decision. I'll elect to forget about this cheating scandal when I hear you've officially left the league."
Chen hung up. Kai leaned forward and buried his face in his hands. Cole was never very good at dealing with emotional people, so when Kai started to cry, he didn't know what to say or do. In a matter of minutes, Chen had managed to take away one of the few things Kai actually cared about. Cole struggled to find something to say. As he thought of what to do, he texted Nya to update her on the situation and she promised to swing by in twenty minutes to talk to Kai on her own.
"I knew people like that when I was a dancer," Cole decided to say. "Parents always hated it when I was chosen for a solo over their own kid. They would bitch until they were told to fuck off or got their way. This sucks, though. Accusing you of cheating after deliberately not sending you the updated rules? What a dick."
"I wish there was some way to fight back," Kai mumbled. "But there isn't. We're expected to read the updated rule book every year, but no one does. The stupid e-mails are sent out of courtesy, so I can't even complain about being left out on purpose. If I go to the administration, they'll just tell me that I should have read the rules in the first place and let him get away with it. Chen's gotten other kids kicked out by pulling similar shit, too. I guess it's about time that he finally sniped me."
Even in this new life, Chen hadn't changed. He was still just has manipulative and willing to cheat to get his way. Cole hadn't thought it was possible to hate Chen more than he already did, but watching Kai now made him want to drive back to that small town and personally punch Chen in the face. Full Earth strength. No restraint.
Chen would probably die. Cole was oddly okay with the prospect.
Nya showed up a little earlier than promised so she could take Kai home and figure out what he was going to do next year. Cole tried to remind her that the university still had one day left to send out acceptances, but she didn't seem very optimistic. Neither did Kai, who exited the office with a red face and glassy eyes. The sight created a weird feeling in Cole's stomach. He wasn't used to seeing Kai cry—wasn't used to seeing him so openly vulnerable.
They left and Cole called Zane to tell him about what happened. Zane was angry with Chen, but especially with himself for not catching the lie when it was being told right in front of him. Cole assured him that it wasn't his fault, but like Nya, Zane wasn't very interested in listening to his words.
Kai never got in contact with him for the rest of the day. Cole was worried about him but knew there was nothing he could do to help, so he sat on his couch and watched TV as a sinking feeling of dread took over his body. He wound up falling asleep on the couch, and when he woke up, the TV was playing, sun was shining in through his windows, and there was a single message waiting in his inbox.
[sent at 2:03 AM]
if i dont get into uni what am i supposed to do with my life
Cole got up and made breakfast. He only responded when he was sitting on his couch and eating a bowl of his favorite cereal.
I don't know, man.
neither do i
Look, I didn't exactly graduate high school and I'm still doing okay.
Just because life isn't going the way you'd planned it to doesn't mean you won't end up fine.
It was Saturday, so Cole found himself sitting alone at home all day as he waited for Kai's response. He kept himself busy by watching more movies, choosing to watch weird, low-budget documentaries about historical conspiracies until Nya contacted him and made him promise to bring Kai out tonight because she figured he'd rather be with a friend than his sister right now. By his fourth documentary, Cole was trying—and failing—to come up with an idea for how to make Kai feel better.
With no news from Kai at the end of the day, it became apparent that post-secondary education wasn't going to be a part of his immediate future. The feeling of dread returned and pulled Cole's attention away from both the documentaries and planning, only allowing him to focus on either/or for a few minutes before he was distracted again.
Around dinner, a documentary ended and another one popped up in his recommendations.
Elemental Ninja: Ninjago's Historic Protectors
Cole stared at the title for a long time. And then he had an idea.
Come over. I know you're not busy.
are your parents home
Oh, haha. Are you coming or not?
sure i guess
Awesome. One last thing: what's your favorite ice cream flavor?
Like that night in late spring, Kai and Cole sat side-by-side on the rooftop, legs dangling over the edge as they both ate from their own pint of ice cream. Kai hadn't gelled his hair today, so it rustled in the light summer breeze in a way Cole had never seen before. Kai had never been one to let go of his appearance for anyone.
Sitting there made Cole think of Kai's dream. They were both waiting for something. Kai, for official rejection. Cole, for finally breaking the silence and telling Kai something he needed to hear.
Cole ate the last bit of chocolate ice cream in the container and set it to the side. It was time.
"Kai, do you remember why I started talking to you?"
"Uh, I remember calling you out for stalking my social media. Then I found out you weren't a total creep because you were only doing it because I look like one of the ninja. I look like the red one, right?"
"You're right. But it's always been a little more than that."
Kai frowned. "What?"
Cole paused before he finally asked the question.
"Would you believe me if I told you I was the black ninja?"
"Bullshit. They're all dead."
"That's not true, though. Kai, I'm thirty-one hundred years-old. I've looked twenty-one for centuries. Zane's in the same boat as I am. He's the white ninja."
There was a pensive look on Kai's face. He wasn't looking at Cole, but at the streets below, the city lights reflecting off his eyes. He put his unfinished ice cream beside him and gripped the edge of the building.
"This is really fucking stupid. I think this is a stupid prank and you're trying to take advantage of me while I'm an emotional mess, but if you did tell me you were the black ninja, I would believe you. It would explain why you could fight so well, why you were so strong and fast, why Zane wouldn't leave my sister alone at Borg. But I want to know what this has to do with me. Is it because I look like an old friend of yours? Is that the only reason why you care? Let's be real here, if I didn't look like the red ninja, you wouldn't have given a shit about me in the first place. You probably would have kept running your shitty little flower shop until I died and you just kept right on living until the end of the world. I guess I should think this is the coolest thing ever, but I just can't bring myself to be excited about it. It feels like we're only friends because you miss someone that looks like me. Tell me if I'm wrong to feel this way."
"You're not. I'll admit that the only reason I wanted to talk to you was because you looked like the red ninja, but trust me when I say this is so much deeper than that. The red ninja's name was Kai. His younger sister, the magenta ninja, was named Nya. There are too many similarities for this to be an appearance-based coincidence."
"Tell me about him."
"Tell me about Kai. The red ninja."
"He was a hothead. He was stubborn. He never thought anything through. He was quick to jump to action even if the situation didn't call for it. He . . . cared a lot. He cared too much. He would have done anything for the people he cared about. He would willingly sacrifice the mission—or even himself—if it meant saving his teammates. He was protective of Nya. He was good with kids because he'd basically raised his sister on his own. He was best friends with the green ninja. He was best friends with everyone. He—" Cole hiccuped "—he didn't always get along with me because I would yell at him for not following the plan. He got over it as time went on and we became best friends, too. He was compassionate and passionate and everything in between and I really, really miss him."
"He raised his sister? What about his parents?"
"They died when he was little. He gave up school and everything so he could take care of Nya."
"Oh," Kai said. "So . . . what are you trying to say?"
Cole wiped his eyes and swallowed. "I think you're the red ninja. I think you're reincarnated or reborn with no memories of the person you used to be or however you want to explain it. All I know is that I've spent more than a year getting to know you and wouldn't be telling you this if I didn't think it was true."
"They had pictures back then. Do you have any videos?"
"Yeah. I have them saved on my laptop downstairs."
"I want to see them."
They crowded next to each other on Cole's couch in the dark. The laptop was placed on the coffee table, video player up and running. Cole leaned forward and pressed the spacebar, starting the video.
"Hello, future us! This is Jay with vlog number six, documenting the lives of Ninjago's very own secret ninja force."
"Jay, why are you doing this? What's the point?
"This is history in the making, Cole. They're gonna like, show this in schools and shit in a few years from now."
"If your goal is to get this into the education system, you may want to stop swearing. What's that line you always say? 'You shouldn't swear, it's a sign of weak vocal skills'? Also, don't point the camera at the floor. But hey, I'm not the director here. What would I know? Keep up the good work."
"Fucking arts students," Jay mumbled. The camera was pointed at his feet as he walked out of their room. "So pretentious."
Jay pointed the camera up when he entered the kitchen. Kai, Nya, and Zane were sitting on the counters, eating breakfast and talking. They stopped and looked up when Jay entered the room.
"All right, time for a round of interviews!" Jay walked right up to Zane and shoved the camera in his face. It focused on his face, and only his face, so nothing else could be seen. "Zane, how do you feel about our recent victory?"
"We defeated the Great Devourer, so I am proud of the whole team for their contribution in saving all of Ninjago. However, I am a little disappointed that Garmadon now has the Golden Weapons to use whenever he pleases. Who knows what he will do with them?"
"Great question idea!" Jay moved on to Nya, although he took a step back so the camera could see her upper body and head, not just her face. "Nya, what do you think Garmadon will do with the Golden Weapons?"
"Hm, I'm not sure. Maybe he'll kill you and spare us from your stupid vlogs."
"Why is everyone being so mean today?" Jay cried. He moved on to Kai, who frowned as he swallowed his cereal. "Ninja of Fire, how does it feel to know that I totally made out with your sister last night?"
"You fucking what?" Kai demanded. He jumped off the counter and smacked the camera out of the Jay's hands. The camera wound up facing the wall, so only muffled audio could be heard as Jay screamed and his footsteps pounded on the floor as he ran away.
The video ended. Kai spoke up.
"The one that was filming . . . which color was he?"
"Blue. His name was Jay."
"He dated my sister?"
"He sounds kind of annoying, no offense."
"Yeah, he comes off that way. But he grows on you, he really does."
"Huh. Okay. Are there more videos?"
"I have a bunch of them. Zane and I couldn't recover all of them, but we managed to salvage a little under half."
When Jay got his first smart phone, he used it to film the others when they weren't even aware it was happening—his own way of cherishing genuine, authentic memories without the pressure of being on camera. No one had ever known about them, not before he died and Cole, Lloyd, and Zane had gone through all of Jay's saved video files to find old videos.
Jay was right. They hadn't cared about the videos when they were alive, but now that everyone was dead and Cole could feel his memories of that first lifetime fading, he valued them more than ever. He only wished Jay could have realized his important his videos were—how important he was—when he was alive.
The camera was face-down on whatever surface Jay and Kai were sitting on. There was no real video, only audio to be heard.
". . . I know the Preeminent has been defeated. I know Lloyd is safe. I know it's been a few months since then and I should stop dwelling on it, but I can't get it out of my head. Am I an idiot? Why would I follow the sun? Why would I try to outsmart Ronin? What the hell is wrong with me? I wasted so much time—Lloyd could have died because I kept slowing us down. What if he died? What if Morro won? What if the Preeminent had won? What if . . . what if it was all my fault?"
"I know what it's like to lose someone like that," Jay mumbled. "You want to find them and save them, no matter the cost. We always expect ourselves to keep a level head, but truth is, we do stupid things for the people we love. You can't blame yourself for caring too much. If you did, then I'd have no trouble calling you an idiot."
The rest of the video was ambient noise until it clicked off.
"If Nya and I are back, what are the chances the blue and green ones are, too?"
"I have no idea. I don't know how to find them."
"You tracked me down on social media. You can't do the same for them?"
"Jay was never a fan, and there's a chance Lloyd is only a little kid. I don't exactly know a whole lot of people, either. Networking has never really been my thing."
Kai put his arm over Cole's shoulder. In the dim light, Cole could see a familiar expression on Kai's face. It was one of optimistic determination, the kind he wore before going into a fight he was confident he would win. He'd always looked like the first Kai, but now he did more than ever.
"Well, it's a good thing you finally told me. If anyone can track them down, it's me. I know people that know people that know people. I know everyone. The kid may be hard, but Jay shouldn't take too long. Just give me some time."
"You're actually going to find Jay in a city as big as this one? There's millions of people."
"You shouldn't doubt my ability, Cole," Kai said with a smile. "Also, I can't fight anymore and I'm not going to university so even after I get a job I'm really going to need something bigger to work on. I'm not the kind of guy that likes to do nothing with my life, man. I'll find Jay for you. And after I find Jay, I'll get my hands on Lloyd. I promise I'll find them for you. Well, for us. You, me, Zane, and Nya. She was a ninja, too."
"Uh, thanks man. This means a lot. Is there any way I can help you find him?"
"I'll need all of his personal information that you can remember. Full name, social media accounts, pictures, age, what he was doing in school, clubs or community stuff, and all that. The more I have, the better."
"I'll put it all in a document and send it to you. I'll see what I can squeeze out of Zane without rousing suspicion, too," Cole said. "Speaking of which, please don't tell him. I didn't discuss revealing this to you with him and I have a feeling he'll be pissed if he finds out through you and not me. Same goes for Nya. Zane and I will tell her ourselves."
"No prob', I can keep a secret. Just get used to having a new partner, all right? You can't tell me that I'm the reincarnation of a ninja and then not expect me to become one."
Cole pointed at Kai and spoke with his harsh, ninja-leader voice. "You are not going to missions with us. I know you can hold your own in a fight, but you're not an Elemental Master and I don't want you to die at nineteen because you tried to fight some evil warlord on your own or something. Your 'ninja task' is to find Jay and Lloyd, nothing more. Got it?"
"Fine, dad. I'll be your social media monkey and not some cool, bad ass ninja. I will be throwing a temper tantrum every time you do something without me, though."
And so, it was settled. Kai would spend his free time searching for Jay and Lloyd and update Cole whenever he found something pertaining to either of them. Cole felt giddy and scared at the prospect of meeting them again. What kind of people would they be? What kind of life was Jay living? What kind of life was Lloyd living? Jay's life was pretty normal, so Cole could imagine it being similar. But Lloyd? Lloyd was going to surprise him no matter what his life ended up being like.
Kai slept over and Nya called Cole to thank him for having him over. Kai had seemed to be doing better in their texts, and she didn't know what Cole did to make him feel better, but she was thankful for it. "I was afraid he was going to feel like he had no future," she told him. "I'm glad he doesn't seem to think so."
Kai took a break from everything to relax for a few days, and the day he was going to go job hunting, he received an e-mail from his dojo regarding his future with them now that he could no longer compete. He'd called Cole the moment he'd received it, barely able to form a coherent sentence as he tried—and failed—to read out loud to him over the phone.
"Kai, please. Take a deep breath and try again."
"Okay, okay, sorry. I'll start over," Kai said. "It says, 'Due to your history of volunteering with the young students at this dojo, we have recognized your ability to work well with young children. Given your limbo-like state in the league, we would like to offer you a full-time job managing our various social media accounts and teaching classes to students of all ages. We need young people like you if we wish to continue to beat the competition at tournaments across the country. We understand you have school and may not be available, so please let us know what you decide to do ASAP.'"
Kai started a few days later. Every night, he would message Cole and tell him about all the shenanigans he got up to with the kids he was teaching. Apparently, he was the kind of coach that also used his practice slots to let his trainees booby trap the room for its next users, or create elaborate games that required them to use the skills they'd learned to win. Cole told Kai he was the kind of trainer he'd wished he had when he was a dancer, because strict teachers at a performing arts school coupled with a strict father were not the best combination for keeping someone that wasn't a fan of the art in the first place motivated to stay. Kai said he could remember long, boring sessions when he was younger. He was trying to avoid boredom with all his might.
Kai came over one weekend in September. He told Cole that the search for Jay was a lot harder than he'd initially thought, and he was either using a fake name online or didn't exist in the first place because he wasn't anywhere on the web. Cole assured Kai that if anyone was alive and in the city, he could find them. He just had to keep looking.
The phone call came in as they were going to sleep. Kai frowned at the caller ID, and Cole caught a glimpse of who it was: his mom.
"Hello?" Kai asked. He sounded impatient, annoyed. Cole wasn't used to hearing him to talk to his parents this way. "What do you want?"
Cole was close enough that he could hear his mother's voice.
"How are things going? We heard you didn't get into university. Is everything okay?"
"Mom, that was three weeks ago. Are you serious?"
"Why are you so angry, sweetie? First, you refuse to speak to your father, and now this? What did we do?"
"I'm mad because you used to leave me alone with a baby for hours when I was only five. I'm mad because when I was eleven, you started leaving me alone with my nine year-old sister for weeks at a time. I'm mad because I always wanted you to be a part of my life but you never were," Kai said. "So it's not about what you did, it's about what you didn't do. Which was just about everything, by the way. Of course, I'm mad. I'm done making excuses for you guys so I can convince myself that you actually care about me. Nya gave up on you a long time ago and I think I have, too. See you in a few years when you decide to finally drop in to say hello. If you decide to come back in the first place. Not that it really makes a difference."
"Everything we do is for this family. How can you speak to me this way?"
"What fucking family? All I see are me and my younger sister and our two parents that are out in the middle of nowhere doing who knows fucking what because they never talk to us. It's like—it's like you're dead. You can stay out there forever, I don't care anymore."
Kai hung up. His face was red, the kind of red it had been when he'd left the office after the phone call with Chen. Nya wasn't there to come to his rescue this time, so Cole reached forward and put his hand on Kai's shoulder. Kai didn't retreat like he normally did under physical affection, so Cole leaned over and wrapped his arms around Kai.
Kai sniffled. "I want to hate them. But I can't, because I still love them."
It was late fall when Nya got into contact with Cole. The two months after Kai's call with his parents had gone by smoothly, and everyone was slipping back into their routines as the year went on. Kai was busy during the day so Cole wound up alone at the flower shop again, Nya was studying hard to do well during senior year, and Zane was helping out at Borg Industries like he always did.
You know, there's a long weekend coming up for holidays. There's this place Kai keeps telling me about, and I think we should all go there on the Saturday if we can.
Oh yeah? Where is it?
It's some old ship or something. I looked it up, and it's called 'Destiny's Bounty'. It seems pretty cool, don't you think?
Destiny's Bounty was located a few miles outside of the city, blocked off by a number of fences and nindroid guards that Zane convinced to let them in even though the exhibit was closed on holidays. They all wore earmuffs and mittens because snow was starting to fall, covering the ship in a thin layer of white that looked almost surreal because the Bounty had never been still long enough for it to gather any kind of snow or dust.
They climbed the metal staircase up onto the wooden deck. The snow crunched beneath their boots as they walked around, and Cole eventually broke off with Kai to show him where he used to sleep and train and eat and live. The rooms in the lower decks were blocked off by metal chains and there was a snack bar for tourists in one of the walls that Cole had never known how to feel about. Kai laughed as Cole told him stories and when they made their way back to the deck, Zane and Nya were sitting on the edge of the ship and watching the snowfall. Cole and Kai joined them, wiping away the snow before sitting down and kicking the side of the ship with their heels as their legs swung back and forth over the edge.
As the snow fell around them and decorated their hair, Cole realized that even if Jay and Lloyd weren't alive, he was perfectly fine living out the next few decades with two people he knew and trusted. Memories or not, they were still his best friends, still his family—and nothing could ever change that.
RED | FIRE
MAGENTA | WATER
BLUE | LIGHTNING
GREEN | ENERGY
TOGETHER | UNITY