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Meet Again

Chapter Text

 

RED | FIRE

MAGENTA | WATER

BLUE | LIGHTNING

GREEN | ENERGY

TOGETHER | UNITY

"I'm a little sad, Cole. Every time you visit me, you look the same, but I'm always changing." A cough. "Look at you, you're so young, and I'm so old. We used to be the pretty ones, you know. Now I guess it's only you."

"How would Jay feel if he found out you didn't think he was the hottest guy in the group?"

"I don't think Jay will care."

Sometimes, the reminders felt like kicks to the gut. Cole shifted in his chair and sucked in a deep breath to retain his composure.

Of course, Jay wouldn't care—he died four years ago.

Nya reached forward and tucked a loose strand of hair behind his left ear. She'd always hated long hair, so she'd never understood his decision to grow it out. She told him it was going to get in his way, but Cole disagreed. His life was changing. His friends were leaving him behind, and soon enough, he would be pushed into a new era of life. One with only him and Zane and maybe Lloyd and none of the other people he cared about. He couldn't look in the mirror and see the same person in the photographs from eighty years ago. Life was going to be different. He wanted to look different, too.

She pulled her hand back and rested it on his cheek. She locked eyes with him and stared him down with the intense, inspired look in her eyes that had never quite gone away.

"Cole, you have an eternity ahead of you," she told him. Her voice sounded weak. "I know you always felt like what you did in life was never up to you. Now it is. Please go do the things you've always wanted to do, be the person you've always wanted to be. Live your new life for Kai, and Jay, and me. But most importantly, live it for yourself. You've been taking care of us for so long. Go take care of yourself for once. Go be you."

Two weeks later, the invitation for her funeral arrived in the mail. When Lloyd died sixty years after her funeral, Cole swore to never return to the hospital again. Within those few decades, it transformed from a place of life and healing to a place of death and grieving. He promised he would never step foot inside the clean, white walls of the facility ever again.

So when he got a phone call from the emergency ward one year after the trip to the Bounty with Kai, Nya, and Zane, he didn't know what to do.

The year between was a time for growth. When they returned home from the Bounty, Cole went to Zane's apartment and finally told him that he'd let Kai in on their secret. Zane wasn't angry, but made Cole promise to stop keeping secrets from him as they dealt with all this reincarnation business. They needed to do this together. They were friends, partners, brothers—they needed to trust each other as they tread through these strange, new waters.

In the late spring, Kai started to leave town for weekends at a time. His new job as a martial arts coach demanded that he take his students to their qualifying tournaments all over the country, so he grew evermore absent as summer approached. However, he made sure he was home for Nya's high school graduation. He snuck Cole into the ceremony by pretending he was a cousin and the two of them sat as close to the front as possible, cheering loudly whenever she was called up to the stage to make up for the lack of family there to see her. The convocation doubled as an awards ceremony, and by the end of the night, Nya had not only a scroll with her name on it but handfuls of trophies and medals and scholarships for some of NCU's hardest programs. Kai took several pictures, some of which wound up as backgrounds for his phone and laptops and other devices. Kai claimed they were only there to embarrass her, but after seeing Kai wipe away more than one proud tear during her graduation, Cole knew he wasn't telling the truth.

In August, Zane and Cole were invited to Kai's house to discuss his search for Jay. It had almost been a year since Kai started looking, and despite many, many attempts to find him, no one seemed to know the ever-elusive Jay Walker.

"I'm not entirely sure that Jay exists," Kai said. They were seated at his kitchen table, with his laptop open in the centre for all to see. He'd taken screenshots of fruitless social media searches and inconclusive DM conversations with people he knew from all over the country, and then put them into a poorly-designed slideshow that made Cole's artistic side die a little. "When I went to all those martial arts tournaments, I asked around to see if there was a chance he didn't live in the city. Nothing came up. I know you said he'd grown up in some scrapyard in the middle of the Sea of Sand, but because everything is recycled, those don't really exist anymore. I have no leads, no information. Either he hasn't come back or I just can't find him. Either way, I'm sorry. I wanted this to work out."

Cole had refused to get his hopes up during the wait, knowing that the chances of Jay being dead were greater than the chances of being alive. But it still hurt. No matter how impossible it was, he'd wanted to see his best friend again.

"What will you do now?" Zane asked.

"I'm going to keep looking for Jay until Day of the Departed. If nothing comes up by then, I'm going to start searching for Lloyd," Kai replied. "Hopefully he'll be a little bit older, but if he's a kid, I'll still try my best. Most of them lie about their age online so they can get social media early, anyways. I know I sure did."

Zane and Kai dove into a conversation regarding tactics for finding Lloyd. Cole leaned on his elbow as he listened, trying to follow their quick words and plans but failing. The more they spoke, the more an idea pushed to the forefront of his mind and refused to leave. By the time they were starting to write down their ideas on a document on Kai's laptop, Cole was clenching his left hand into a fist so hard he could feel his nails bite into his palm.

Cole was a good actor. He knew how to lie, how to pretend, how to convince people he was feeling emotions that he wasn't. Attending a performing arts school that taught him the basics of acting and having a father he had to lie to on a regular basis had trained him for success; he didn't need to be loud and funny to cover up how he was feeling, like what Jay used to do when he didn't want anyone to ask what was wrong. He knew how to imitate subtle body language, making small gestures that would go unnoticed by the untrained eye and registered subconsciously. When Cole acted, no one knew what he was really feeling. There was no way for them to know otherwise.

But sometimes, his façade crumbled and others could see right through it. Through his blurry vision, Cole could see Zane nudge Kai to get him to stop talking and gestured to Cole.

Zane spoke up. "Cole, are you all right? What is troubling you?"

Cole wanted to brush it off, but he'd made a promise to stop lying. So he told the truth.

"What if we missed them?" he asked. "What if they came back to life and never ran into us and then died without us knowing? What if we missed our opportunity to meet them again? What if this is all for nothing, and Kai and Nya are the last ones to come back?"

Silence. There was nothing to say, no reassurance to be offered because there was a possibility of Cole's fears being true. They didn't know how the reincarnation worked—there was even a chance that Kai and Nya were a freak accident and the other ninja would never get the chance to live again.

The meeting came to a close soon after. Before Cole could leave, Kai pulled him to the side and whispered to his ear.

"I'll find out if they've come back or not." His eyes were ablaze with determination, the kind Cole was used to seeing before an important mission. Seeing it now almost gave him whiplash. "I promise."

Cole went home, and for one of the first times since Kai started looking, he tried to find Jay on his own.

A search for 'Jay Walker' brought up different people, traffic laws, and even the odd history website talking about the original Jay Walker. Cole tried to search by image, running one of Jay's pictures through a variety of reverse search engines. Nothing.

"Come on," he whispered to himself after another failed search. "Please be here."

And still, nothing.

Until the end of summer, Nya and Kai had nothing but good news to tell. After Kai's students performed well at nationals, he was invited back to the dojo to coach for another year. Nya was finally accepted into her first-choice program, posting a picture of her acceptance letter on her Chirp because she was so excited and relieved that she wanted to show everyone she knew.

The letter read:

Welcome to Ninjago City University's Biomedical Engineering Program

After over a month of school, Nya messaged Cole out of the blue one week before Day of The Departed.

nyarai
You're looking for Jay, right?

flintcole
What?

nyarai
Come on, don't play stupid. I know he's a friend of yours.

nyarai
I don't think Kai ever told you, but I was invited to join the security team at Borg part-time. I have access to all of our facial recognition software, CCTV cameras, etc. It's pretty cool.

nyarai
Kai asked me to run a picture of your friend through our scanners. Said he was a childhood best friend or something, and you couldn't find him on the Internet after you had dropped out of school.

Cole groaned. Of course, Kai would eventually turn to Nya.

nyarai
Anyways, I did exactly what he told me to. 'Cause, you know, I'm a cool sister like that.

nyarai
I found someone with the exact same face. Maybe he got married and took his partner's family name or something, but whatever the reason, he has a different name than expected.

nyarai
Your friend is in the city, but his name isn't Jay Walker.

nyarai
It's Jay Gordon.

Around closing time, Nya arrived with a blue folder in her arms. They moved to the office, where Cole pushed all of his papers off of his desk to make room for all the files Nya was delivering. She spread them out on his desk and went through each one with him.

"These are all of the government files we have on him," Nya began. "I'm sure there's a lot here you already know, but I'll just show you what's what." She gestured to one half of the desktop. "These are all of his adoption files. The city is required to check up on him at least once a year to make sure his parents are treating him well, and he hasn't been transferred yet, so that's a good sign." She gestured to the other half. "These are whatever files were also publicly available. He was either home schooled or went through private school, because we have no information on his academics. Most of these files are medical stuff. Did you remember if he had any medical conditions? He goes to the doctor a lot, apparently."

"I'm not sure, but he was always kind of paranoid. I wouldn't be surprised if he went to the emergency room because he thought his cold was a terminal illness."

She laughed. "Sounds fair. I've got to get going and catch up on homework, but I'll see you around." She waved goodbye, and after permanently changing the course of this lifetime for the second time, walked out like nothing of importance had just occurred.

As soon as he heard the shop's door close, he called Kai and thanked him one million times over—even though he was still a little angry that he'd taken a huge risk with Nya—and by the time their phone call was over, Kai was on his way to the flower shop for an impromptu meeting and Cole was contacting Zane to see if he could come over as well.

By the time the other two had arrived, Cole had already skimmed through each document and was coming up with a plan on how to go about actually finding him. He wanted to get started as soon as possible, because now that he knew Jay had returned too, the thought of waiting even another minute to talk to his dead best friend was unbearable.

But of course, nothing ever really turned out the way he wanted it to.

They began the meeting by looking over all of the files. Jay's parents shared the same full names, Ed and Edna Walker, but were instead listed as adoptive parents. They worked on the assumption that Jay was homeschooled as he had been in the past, and the more they read through Jay's documents, the more they realized that they still knew nothing about him.

Nya had been careful in selecting what she brought to them. There was no location-based information, so if they wanted to find Jay, it would be by name. With Nya's help, they were back at square one, but this time with an advantage: they knew Jay's real name.

"Before we dive into this, I have some good and bad news," Kai said. Cole looked up from the paper he was reading an raised an eyebrow. Kai met his eyes and continued. "My kids all did really well at nationals, so I was invited to a little village on the other end of the Sea of Sand to help set up their own martial arts programs so their students don't have to travel all the way to the city to train. I leave next week, and then I'll be gone for another two weeks before I come home. I know this means a lot to both of you—it means a lot to me, too—but if you want my help, finding Jay will have to wait until next month."

Cole looked at the documents on the table. He saw the promise of his best friend, of someone he cared about so much it would make his heart hurt to think of him for too long. He'd waited three thousand years for him. He could wait another month.

He looked back to Kai and nodded. "Take all the time you need. We'll find him next month."

Kai had never been away from home for more than a few days at a time, so he invited Cole over to help him pack and sort out what he needed to bring. Cole and Kai worked together to dig through his drawers to find all the clothing he would need, and made sure to save room for all of Kai's martial arts equipment in his small suitcase. Cole was always a meticulous person and would fold each article of Kai's clothing before putting them inside, something that made Kai laugh at him because he'd apparently never folded anything in his life.

By the end of the night, Kai was ready to go. He was going to take the train early the next morning and Cole made sure he had a printed and digital copy of his ticket before he let him off the hook and they spent the rest of the night together, hanging out in the living room while Nya studied at the kitchen table in the next room over and occasionally laughed at some of the things they would say.

Cole stood in the doorway before he said goodbye. Kai didn't let him leave until he promised to look after Nya while he was gone, because the small town had little cell reception and he was worried about her being alone for so long with no one to contact if anything went wrong. Cole knew she could handle herself, but went along with what Kai said and made the promise, assuring him he would check in on her every day and make sure she was doing all right. They waved goodbye before Cole left and Kai went away for what would become the longest two weeks of this lifetime.

The next day, Cole sent Nya a message to let her know that she could let him know if she needed help, but he wasn't going to pester her every day for updates. She replied quickly and told him that she would keep it in mind.

On the second day of Kai's absence, she went offline on all social media.

On the third day of Kai's absence, Cole tried to message and call her. His texts were left unread and his calls went straight to voicemail. He found himself growing worried, anxiously wondering if anything had happened to her. By the time the sun had set and Nya had yet to reply, he put on his winter jacket and prepared himself to brave the cold and walk to their house to see if she was there.

He was lacing up his boots when he received a phone call.

"Is this Cole?"

"Yes?"

"Thank you for responding at such a late hour. We would like to request that you come to the emergency ward of Ninjago City Hospital as soon as possible."

"What? Why?"

"Nya was admitted yesterday evening after an accident left her with severe injuries. We need a family contact to approve a number of medical procedures that must go underway."

"I'm not—" the receptionist hung up, and Cole was left with a the dead ringing of a dropped call.

Cole ran his hands through his hair. NCH was on the other side of town and public transit didn't come nearly often enough at night for him to get there as soon as he wanted to. He settled on calling Zane, who never slept and offered to pick him up in a heartbeat when he learned of the situation.

A familiar silver car pulled up in front of his building a few minutes later. Cole left the lobby and sat in the passenger seat of Zane's car, slamming the door a little too hard and sitting completely still as his eyes stared at the dashboard until Zane prodded him and demanded he put on his seatbelt before they began to drive.

Cole tapped his hands rapidly on his legs and chewed on his tongue like gum as the city lights passed by and the memories of his last few visits to the hospital returned and attacked him with anxiety and fear and such a horrible sense of dread that he couldn't take his mind off of it long enough to respond to Zane's voice as he asked questions Cole was incapable of answering. Zane's voice sounded muffled. Cole didn't think he would have been able to hear him even if he could take his focus away from his friends on their white deathbeds, connected to a million tubes and machines in a room that smelled of lemon and decay.

The car pulled to a stop. Cole peered out the window and saw the white building and leaned forward and buried his face in his hands because he was worried he was going to vomit if he looked at it for too long.

Minutes passed. Cole didn't feel any better.

"It's been three thousand years and I can't bring myself to go inside a hospital," Cole whispered to no one in particular. "I'm a fucking ninja and I can't go inside a stupid building. Why can't I do this?"

"Cole, I understand that they asked for you, but I believe it would be best if I joined you. I don't think you're in any position to go in there on your own."

"No, no, no, no, no, no—you can't. They wanted family."

"You are not related to them, in case you have forgotten."

"But I'm human. I don't look like Nya or Kai but I can at least pretend to be adopted, or something."

"Unlike me?"

"Sorry, I don't mean for it to sound this way, but yes. You couldn't pass for family. I can. I need to do this alone for tonight."

Zane hummed in understanding. The car fell silent again.

More time passed. Cole glanced at the clock in the corner of his vision, watching the minutes tick by. He was wasting time. But he couldn't move.

Bright lights flooded the car. A car horn honked behind them. Cole realized they'd been parked in front of the entrance to the emergency ward for twenty minutes.

Cole unclipped his seatbelt. "I'm going now."

"How are you getting home?"

"I don't know, I'll figure it out," he said. He opened the door. The fresh night air hit his face and he felt his stomach churn again. "Thanks for the lift. I'll let you know how it goes."

He stepped out and closed the door. He sucked in a deep breath—then another, and another, and another—and then made his way inside. Zane only drove away when the glass doors shut behind him. Cole was officially on his own.

The interior of the hospital looked different than he remembered. This provided some comfort as he made his way to the receptionist desk, trying to force back the memories that were apparently trying to kill him.

There were a number of people behind the desk, all of whom looked busy. It took a few seconds for one of them to notice.

"Oh, hi!" one of them said with a smile. "How can I help you? Are you here to visit? You should know our visiting hours ended two hours ago."

"I'm not here to visit, I'm here to—I'm here to approve something for someone named Nya. I was called and asked to come in half an hour ago."

"Ah, I think I know who you're talking about. I'm going to call her nurse. She'll give you all the paperwork you need to fill out."

"Paperwork?" he asked, but the receptionist didn't hear him. She'd already picked up the phone and was speaking to someone over the line.

Cole glanced around, watching the various people streaming through the front hall. There were a number of nindroids as well, but they only filled service positions and were few and far between. Although it was nighttime, it was still busy as ever and the rush of seeing people made him want to vomit all over again.

A voice came from behind. "Hello, are you Cole?"

The nurse had neat, straight hair pinned back into a clean bun. Cole felt more than disheveled in her vicinity.

Cole confirmed his identity, and she invited him to follow her into the ward. It was rather calm inside, but most of the patients were asleep, so not much was happening at this hour. The nurse pulled him into a small office and instructed him to sit down in a chair. She sat across from him on the other side of a metal desk. Cole read her name tag: Naomi M.

"So," she began, "Nya was admitted yesterday night. I am not sure if you have been updated, but she was involved in an automobile accident. She's currently unconscious in a room down the hall."

"An accident?" Cole asked. "What happened?"

"She was struck by an unknown vehicle while walking home last night. The police have yet to find the driver, and at this point, we don't know if they will," Naomi said. "But this isn't what you're here for. Her brother is listed as her emergency contact, but he's unfortunately out of town for the next while. We were able to get into touch with him after calling him for the fifth time, and even then, it was patchy. He told us to contact you—said something about you being her only immediate family in the city.

"We need you to fill out a few forms. We legally cannot operate on a non-consenting patient, so your word trumps her silence in this case. I'm going to ask you a question I hope you know the answer to: Are you her husband?"

Cole hesitated. Naomi raised her eyebrows in faux curiosity; an acting trick Cole could spot from a mile away. She wanted him to lie.

"Are you Nya's husband?" Naomi asked again. "I need a 'yes' or 'no' answer."

Cole didn't hesitate this time.

"Yes. Yes, I am."

There were piles of paperwork. They needed consent to perform a number of operations, of which included more emergency knee surgery. Cole thought back to his conversation with Kai in the Serpentine tomb. Nya already had permanent damage in her knee, would this accident make it worse?

He signed all the papers. During his first lifetime as a ninja, he'd witnessed his friends take serious injuries that they didn't have time to fix, like the time Kai fractured his leg while on a mission and had to continue until the end despite it because it was too dangerous to take any time to do something about it. By the time Kai returned to the bounty, it was swollen and disjointed and he had to take more than three months off to let it rest. If Nya could be helped on time, Cole wasn't about to stop her from getting the treatment she needed.

Cole wasn't allowed to see Nya yet. Naomi told him that he was welcome to stay in the hospital as long as he liked, but visiting hours were technically over and he couldn't hang around in the emergency ward anymore.

The seating area turned into his own personal hell. Over a few hours, his fear of the hospital turned into agitation. The chairs were uncomfortable and none of the games he usually played on his biotech were capable of satiating his boredom. At three in the morning, he contemplated leaving and going for a walk.

He was zipping up his jacket when Zane messaged him.

zjfalcon
How is it going?

flintcole
Nya should be fine. She's not critical, but her bad knee took some damage.

zjfalcon
I hope it will turn out fine. Did they tell you what happened?

flintcole
Yeah, it was a hit and run. Probably a drunk driver or someone that wasn't paying attention. The police weren't able to catch the car, so the driver is a bit of a mystery.

zjfalcon
Really? There are no leads?

flintcole
Nope.

zjfalcon
Huh.

zjfalcon
It's late. Do you want me to bring you home?

flintcole
No, I'll stay here until I find out more tomorrow. Then I'll go home unless something new happens.

zjfalcon
Okay. Let me know if you need anything. I will contact you again soon.

Despite his discomfort, Cole fell asleep.

He awoke the next morning to Naomi tapping his shoulder.

"Sir, please wake up. I have some news."

Naomi didn't take him to her office. This time, she took him to Nya's room.

Nya was covered to her waist in thick, green blankets. Her arms laid beside her on the bed, unmoving and plugged with a few tubes. Her closed eyes looked towards the ceiling, a neutral expression on her face. Stitches covered a large scar on her left cheek. Bruises covered her visible skin. Patches of white bandages covered what Cole could only assume were gashes and scrapes.

It would be a lie if he said he hadn't seen her in similar conditions. But she was always fighting, always alive. Seeing her here, helpless and vulnerable, reminded him of her past-self's final few weeks in the hospital. He covered his mouth with his hand and looked away.

"Are you all right? If you're squeamish, we can talk somewhere else," Naomi said, pulling him out of his thoughts. "I just assumed you'd want to see her. Since you're married, and all."

Cole turned his head to look at Naomi. "I'm fine. What did you need to tell me?"

Naomi started to speak. Cole found himself staring at Nya's broken body once again.

"She's getting knee surgery later today. After that, we're going to keep her unconscious for three days to let her recover a little. We'll determine how long she needs to stay here when she wakes up."

Cole left soon after. He didn't ask Zane for a lift. He figured he could use the walk to let everything settle.

Nya was going to be unconscious for the next three days. As he came to terms with it during his walk home, it began to rain. It started light, softly pattering the roads around him. By the time he arrived home, it was a storm.

Water crashed down onto the city, creating streams along the curbs of the road that poured into sewers and puddles so wide it would take bursts of airjitzu to cross them. The ocean lapped at the shore, creeping up on the sand dunes that separated the beaches from the hard, concrete streets of the city. Power outages swept the city, taking away electricity and internet and heat during the times people needed it most for hours at a time until their lights came flickering back to life in the dead of night.

During these days, Cole didn't leave his apartment. When he had power, he used the Internet to search for any information about Nya's accident. There had been a few news reports before the extreme weather took over all media, but none had any video clips or images that would help Cole locate whoever had hit Nya. He didn't even know why he was looking. How was he supposed to find them? Even if Nya remembered the car, it wouldn't help the investigation since several hundred more most likely existed in the city. Everything was a dead end.

On the third day, Zane arrived in the morning unannounced at Cole's apartment, clutching the case of Cole's favorite movie in his hand. Cole sighed, smiled a little, and then let him inside.

They spent the day together, cuddled up under a blanket as movies played and rain pelted his windows. After the tiring days he'd had, Cole fell asleep on Zane's lap before the sun set in the sky and when he awoke, Zane was still patiently sitting on his couch, watching whatever was on his TV at a volume so low Cole had trouble picking it up.

"Thank you for being so patient with me," Cole found himself mumbing. "Thank you for being here. I don't know what I would have done if you weren't with me all this time."

Zane ran his hand through Cole's hair, a habit he'd picked up after comparing Cole's habits to that of a cat for so many years. "I should be thanking you. During our early years as friends, I never would have thought I'd have someone to keep me company in my later years. Eternity is lonely—I'm glad we have each other."

Cole got up and showered. Zane and Cole ate breakfast, then drove to the hospital together. Cole tried to get Zane to come inside with him to visit Nya, but the nindroid declined, claiming that Nya would likely feel overwhelmed if more than one person greeted her upon her awakening.

Naomi was in the lobby when he entered. She smiled at him from where she was standing next to the receptionist's desk. She brought him to Nya's room, and before she opened the door, she warned him, "Nya's on some strong pain meds right now. For the next few hours, she'll be pretty honest about everything. Don't take anything she says to heart."

Then she left Cole inside alone and closed the door.

Nya looked up at him. A puzzled look crossed her tired face.

"Where's Kai?"

Cole gulped. "He's in that town teaching martial arts, remember?"

Nya pouted.

"I don't want you. I want my brother."

Cole leaned against the wall. He didn't move any closer to her bed.

"Hey, I wish he was here, too. It would make this less awkward. But he's not here, so both of us will have to make do."

"Fuck, that sucks. I hate you."

"What? Why?"

"I mean, I don't hate you. I like you. Not like-like you, but you're all right, I guess. But you and Kai make me sad and jealous sometimes."

"Why?"

"Because Kai's allowed to know your secret and I'm not. Why can't I know you're a ninja, Cole? Do you hate me? I thought I was one of the cool ninja. Have I changed that much?"

Cole felt his stomach drop. "How did you know?"

"When Kai showed me those pictures of us a couple of years ago, I dug a little deeper—" she pinched her thumb and forefinger together "—and figured it out. The black and white ninja never died. That means you've been alive for all these years, pretending to be a bad florist when you're actually a really, really old ninja master."

"I—"

"No, don't speak. I'm mad at you. I don't want to hear your voice anymore."

Cole closed his mouth and crossed his arms. Nya stared at him, eyes narrowed and blazing with a silent anger he'd only ever seen directed to Kai or Jay when they did something she disapproved of. Cole and Nya had always seen eye to eye. This sudden adversity felt foreign to him.

There was a knock on the door. Naomi entered the room, a sheepish smile on her face.

"Hi, sorry to potentially interrupt your reunion, but we need to move on with our plans for the day." She gestured for Cole to come towards her. "We need to go over her recovery plan alone. You can see each other again later in the day."

"Hold on," Nya called out as Cole was about to leave the room. Naomi poked her head back inside.

"Do you need anything?"

"No, but why does he get to know before me? What makes him so special?"

"Aren't you a med student? I thought you would have known that we go over prognoses with family members alone."

"Family members? What the fuck are you on about?"

"Ouch, rough marriage. I'll come check in on you soon, Nya!"

"Rough marriage? What do you mean rough—"

Naomi pulled Cole through the doorway and shut the door. She laughed for a moment, then regained her composure and took him to her office. Cole sat down in the same chair as last time and watched as she pulled out Nya's file and laid it on the table.

"The surgery was somewhat successful. The surgeons were able to fix her knee, but the damage has been worsened by the accident. She's lost a lot more movement; walking up stairs, getting into cars, climbing things—these will likely become big challenges for her. The nerves in that region also took a hit, but we won't know the effect of the damage on her until she begins to move around a bit.

"Now, we've arranged for six months of physiotherapy. If everything works out, she'll just need to stick on a brace when she goes out for more than a few hours and her nerves won't cause a problem. This is what we hope will happen, but there is always a chance her body won't recover to the extent we want it to. We'll make different arrangements if this is the case."

Cole's fingers tapped his leg as he heard the news. "How often will she be going to physio?"

"Twice a week for two hours at a time. Of course, this will only begin once she's left the hospital. We figured that she'll only need to stay here for another week before she's good to go."

Nya would be released next Monday. This was also the date Kai was returning home.

It was going to be an eventful day.

Naomi instructed Cole to sit in the waiting room as she repeated everything to Nya. Once again stuck in the uncomfortable chairs, Cole texted Zane to update him on the situation. He texted Kai out of courtesy, but figured his messages wouldn't be seen for quite some time.

zjfalcon
Tell Nya I'm proud of her!

When Cole was allowed inside Nya's room a few hours later, he did exactly what Zane told him to do.

Nya scoffed. "What is he proud of me for? Getting hit by a car?"

Cole shrugged. "He's just a bit awkward with this sort of thing. He's just glad that you're fine."

"I'm glad I'm fine, and I'm also glad that those dumb pain meds are wearing off," she said. She threw her head back on her pillow and groaned. "I cannot believe I told you that I know your secret. I was waiting for you to tell me because you trusted me. Honest Nya is Bad Nya. I don't like her."

"If I'm going to be honest, I trust you a lot more than I trust Kai with this sort of thing. Not everyone takes it well."

"I can imagine." Nya patted the side of her bed, inviting Cole to sit down. "Come on. Now that we're open with each other, I want you to tell me about yourself. Not the florist version of you, but the real you. The person only Kai and Zane are allowed to know."

Cole sat on the side of Nya's bed.

And then they talked.

In the first lifetime, Cole and Nya didn't speak with each other very often. When Jay wasn't hogging Nya, he was hogging Cole, so the two of them never got to spend much time together. But during Nya's last few months, they spent nearly all their time together. They would sit together and talk about anything, sometimes reminiscing over memories or gossiping about other patients in her ward. Hours were spent in conversation, in building a stronger bond between them that they hadn't quite reached before.

Sitting here on her bed now reminded him of those days in such a way that it made his heart hurt. But he didn't leave. He wanted to build that bond now, when she was young and had decades left to live.

They could become better friends than their past-selves. They just had to put in the effort.

"Sounds to me like your life was really interesting for a while and then got really boring," Nya commented with a smile. "I cannot believe you've been alive for this long. How do you deal with humanity's garbage for over three thousand years?"

"It's kind of like a really long movie," Cole admitted. "I like watching mindsets change. I like watching society change. Everyone dreams of travelling to the future, and I've been given the chance to do it. The travel part just takes a very long time."

The sun set, and after another half hour, Naomi came into the room and forced Cole to leave.

Nya called out to him before he left.

"Go to my house and grab my laptop! I need it to survive!" Cole promised he would and then Naomi closed the door and Cole was escorted from the ward.

flintcole
So, Nya knows we're ninja.

zjfalcon
Did you tell her without my permission? :[

flintcole
She figured it out on her own. She's known since I first started talking to Kai.

zjalcon
Knowing Nya, I'm not surprised. Thank you for updating me.

The next morning, Cole took public transportation to Kai and Nya's home and input the code to the front door, only for it to beep at him to tell him that the door was already unlocked. He pushed open the door and went inside, his heart sinking as he feared that Nya had forgotten to lock the door and they'd been robbed during her absence.

Nothing was missing. All was the same, except for a pair of shoes he didn't recognize neatly pushed against the wall. He studied them, noting that they were ten years out of style.

"Hello? Who's there?"

An unfamiliar voice. Female. Older, maybe middle-aged. Came from the kitchen down the hall, but still out of sight.

Cole shifted his weight, ready to bolt if needed. Or fight. If his gut feeling was correct, he wouldn't do either, because he already knew who was here.

A woman appeared in the archway that led to the kitchen. Cole recognized her from the photos he'd seen in his first lifetime and those he'd seen in recent times.

Kai and Nya's mom.

Maya.

A kitchen knife held in her clenched fist gleamed in the light.

"Who are you? What are you doing here?"

A wave of conflicting emotions ran through him. The thought of the first Maya brought back fond memories, but the sight of the new one filled him with anger. Kai and Nya's deceased mother, since turned neglector because the universe had a cruel sense of humor and needed to teach Kai and Nya the same lessons as before.

She was a pawn. But she'd still hurt his best friends, and for that, he allowed himself to hate her.

He raised his hands in surrender. He could act his way out of this one.

"Nya sent me here to grab her books for her. She's in an exam right now, and forgot her textbook for her class afterwards. I came to get it for her so she doesn't have to rush through her exam."

Maya took a step towards him. "How do you know my daughter if you're not taking the exam with her? You're not in the same program."

"I'm in microbiology. We have a few shared classes during the first semester."

Maya nodded. She took a step back. Cole heard the blade of the knife clang against the counter. When she drew her hand back and placed it in front of her body, it was empty. She believed his story.

She approached him then, reaching forward and taking his hand to shake it without waiting to see if he would. There was a smile on her face, but there was a coldness to her eyes that told him she wasn't as friendly as she was pretending to be.

"It's nice to meet you. I'm Nya's mother. Call me Maya."

Cole panicked. "My name is Griffin Turner."

"Oh. What a unique name, are you from one of the rural areas? They have all kinds of different names over there."

"I moved when I was really little. I've basically lived here my whole life."

"That explains your lack of dialect," Maya said. "I live on the west coast with my husband, and I can still find myself confused by what some people are saying."

Cole was itching to leave. But he continued to speak. "Why are you on the west coast?"

"Nya's father and I are both anthropologists. It involves a lot of field work, so we're away pretty often. Nya and Kai—her older brother—are strong and independent. Try not to worry, we care about them a lot. We wouldn't leave them alone if we didn't think they could handle it."

Cole could do nothing but stare. You made him cry.

"Anyways, I'll let you go find Nya's stuff. Don't want to make you late."

Cole nodded, thanked her, and then bolted up the stairs. As soon as he was in Nya's bedroom, he took a few deep breaths to calm his beating heart. The insistence that they cared and loved them while they hurt them was too familiar to take lightly.

His father was overbearing. Kai and Nya's parents were barely present.

Similar effect—complete and utter detachment.

Cole took her textbooks and put them in the empty backpack on his shoulders. He found her laptop charging next to her bed and put it in as well, then neatly wrapped the charging cable before putting it in as well. Looking around, he located other items she could find useful. Earbuds, an old portable music player that still worked, notebooks, and a pencil case full of writing materials. He also packed the worn-out stuffed lion sitting on top of her pillow.

He made his way down the stairs quietly, but Maya was waiting for him at the door, so his attempt at a quick escape was fruitless.

She smiled again. Her rosy lipstick failed to conceal the cracks in her lips.

"We only got here today, so we're not sure if Nya knows we're here or not. She won't answer her texts. Tell her we're here, won't you? We don't get to see her often and it would be a shame if we missed her before we took off again."

"How long are you here for?"

"Another two days. We leave on Thursday."

Cole nodded. "I'll make sure to tell her. I promise."

During his walk to the light-rail station, he almost vomited.

He rode the train all the way to the hospital. He watched the scenery go by with disinterest, listening to his favorite music as he did to try to keep his mind off of what had just happened. It was the first sunny day this week, so the city looked especially optimistic and cheerful, even if Cole didn't feel the same way. By the end of the ride, he found that staring at the blue sky had made his mood marginally better, although not by much.

Everyone inside the hospital was in a good mood. The nurses and receptionists smiled pleasantly, and even those in the waiting room seemed a little more hopeful than usual.

But not Nya. When Cole entered her room, she was staring out the window, a scowl on her face and an angry look in her eyes. Her arms were crossed over her chest.

She didn't hear him come in. Cole knocked on the wall to get her attention.

"Hey, how's it going?"

She sighed. "Okay, I guess. I'm just annoyed."

Cole kept his distance again, opting to sit against the wall and sink to the floor. He put his bag next to him.

"Why?"

"A couple of cops came in here a few hours ago to ask about what happened. I couldn't really remember much, so there wasn't anything for me to tell them, and they looked really disappointed. I asked them why. They told me that they have no leads on who hit me. I guess I'm not really that mad, it was late at night and I don't exactly wear bright clothing, but it's kind of disheartening to know that whoever did it could have killed me and kept driving. I don't even know if the driver stopped. They just . . . kept going. And they won't fess up, even though I'm alive. The cops also refuse to use the CCTV cams. My case isn't a good enough use of their money, I suppose."

"I did a little searching myself, but there's nothing to find. If I was better with technology I probably could have found something, but my knowledge is kind of locked back in ancient times."

Nya pointed to Cole's bag. "Did you bring my laptop?"

Cole brought it her. He kneeled next to her bed to watch her use it, and she tilted the screen in his direction. Her computer connected to the Internet immediately.

"Since Borg and the hospital are connected facilities and I'm a Borg employee, I get their good Internet. Fastest in the country.. None of that garbage for guests." She opened an app on her laptop, one titled BCONT that displayed a number of different number sequences. She clicked one. Then her computer changed entirely. The operating system was different, as well as the language and time. She opened up the browser as Cole attempted to figure out what had just happened.

"What did you do?"

"Basically, I pay money to people that let me remotely access their computers. Then that computer remotely controls another, and then another, and then another until I'm accessing the Internet through a few different computers. Borg hates it, and it causes a lot of trouble for us when we try to catch hackers. It's kind of funny—when you learn how to secure the Internet, you learn how to break it, too."

"That sounds vaguely illegal."

"Your existence in this century sounds vaguely illegal. Suck it up."

Nya typed in a URL in the address bar. A blank screen came up in her browser. Using one finger, she pushed her screen back. In the bottom corner, a faint number five could been seen against the otherwise white background. She pulled her screen back and the number disappeared. She opened a new tab and went to another website, this time Chirp. She typed into the search bar what appeared to be a random sequence of letters and numbers. A number of Chirp handles came up in the results.

qMPxjCRpPbU1

qMPx2jCRpPbU

qMPxjCRpP3bU

qMPxjC4RpPbU

qM5PxjCRpPbU

qMPxjCRpPb6U

She selected the one with the number five hidden in its handle. The account seemed to tweet nothing but senseless garbage, but Nya knew better. She selected the pinned Chirp—one made that morning—and clicked 'inspect', bringing up the coding behind that specific element of the page. In the fifth line of code, there was another random sequence of letters and numbers. She highlighted it and copied it to her clipboard.

She returned to the blank page. In the address bar, she added a slash onto the end of the URL and pasted the sequence. Then she hit 'enter'.

A different web page opened, this time a real website. It contained a number of links, each leading to a variety of message boards. Nya clicked on the one titled:

cep - current_events_politics

Cole only caught a glimpse of the page before Nya began to create her own post. The single page he saw filled him with dread.

"Nya, what website is this?"

"One full of bad people. We're not supposed to monitor websites at Borg, but we tend to keep an eye on this one, no matter what the law says. People come on here anonymously shittalk groups of people they don't like. The majority if it is just guys hating on girls, though. It's kind of like a preschool playground but for grown-ups that never got into touch with society."

Nya created her post.

>ANON67283 this dumb bitch got hit by a car last week. i wanna see it happen. did anyone get a pic or vid?

>ANON239 kek did she die

>ANON67283 nah

>ANON239 rip

>ANON9586 did she have short black hair and leather jacket

>ANON239 that is 2/3 girls in ninjago city how the fuck do you determine someones id from that

>ANON67283 she had short black hair but idk about the jacket

>ANON9586 i think i know what ur talking about
>ANON9586 it happened right outside my apartment
>ANON9586 i have a security cam that faces the street outside my balcony door just in case
>ANON9586 the driver did stop for a sec after making contact so i got a clear pic
>ANON9586 since im not moron that buys low quality shit, my cam caught everything. even the license plate.
>ANON9586 you want the vid file?

>ANON67283 yes pls that would amazing

>ANON9568 dm me

-ANON67283 has opened a private chatroom!-

-Messages are encrypted end-to-end. Conversation will be deleted 24 hrs after closure. Other users will be notified if screenshots are taken-

>67823: do you have a link? im not downloading anything you send me

>9586: ur smart but naive

>9586: you can have a link

>9586: but you gotta pay for it

>67823: how

>9586: meet up with me

>9586: and bring cash

>9586: none of that traceable etransfer shit

>67823: where do you want to meet up?

>9586: meet me here: [link]

>9586: not to sound like a drug dealer but come alone

>9586: will arrange time and price later

-ANON9586 has closed the chatroom!-

Nya groaned. "Smart-ass."

"What did he do?"

"He's testing my determination, or whatever. I need to keep this session open until he talks to me. If I stop using my computer reroute or close the page, I'll have lost my handle. I won't be able to talk to him. He'll probably only talk to me in a couple of days from now."

"Well, it's a good thing you're stuck in the hospital and aren't expected to be up and doing anything."

Nya smirked. "You're right. This should be easy."

The waiting game had begun. Nya set up her laptop so it wouldn't automatically fall asleep, and then Cole took her charger from his bag and found an empty outlet to plug it into. Nya set a timer on her laptop, one that would count the hours and days and minutes since they'd made the deal. Cole wasn't quite sure why, but she said that she liked to be on top of timings and such things. Cole didn't question it further.

They set the laptop down on the floor so they could go through everything Cole had brought for her. She took the bag and put it on her lap so she could dig through it herself. She pulled out her textbooks and notebooks, setting them aside first so she could go deeper. She laughed at the sight of the music player, telling Cole that she hadn't used it since middle school and it was full of music she found a little embarrassing now. Embarrassing or not, she turned it on and put it on shuffle, letting the older pop and over-emotional rock music fill the gaps of silence in their conversation and provide nostalgic music Cole could recognize but didn't really know the words to.

But Nya did. She held the same level of confidence as her past-self, but it was placed elsewhere—she no longer held confidence her abilities, but in herself as an individual. Cole could remember her reluctance to embrace parts of her people looked down on, her rejection of anything that would cause anyone to see her as anything but strong and brave. Anything remotely embarrassing, like singing with an untrained voice, was something she would have avoided with all her might. It seemed that now, she no longer cared. She laughed as she sang, and when Cole refused because he didn't know the words, she playfully slapped his arm in feigned anger.

Nya stuck her arm into the bag again and took out the stuffed lion. She cooed at it upon sight, then brought it to her chest for a tight hug. "I cannot believe you brought Optimus Prime. I missed him so much."

"Optimus Prime? Are you serious?" Cole asked with a laugh.

Nya glowered at him. "I was five years-old, okay? I don't think anything is cooler to a five year-old than a lion named Optimus Prime. You try to come up with a better name right now, huh?"

"Okay, let's go simple. Sim—"

A notification from Nya's laptop rang out over the music.

Cole leaned down and grabbed the laptop. Nya took it from his hands and put it on her lap, once again angled towards Cole so he could see it.

But the notification didn't come from the website. It came from a messaging app.

Mom
Honey, where are you? Your friend told me he would tell you to come home. Don't you want to see us?

Nya snapped her head to look at him. "Did you meet my mom? Was she home when you got my stuff?"

"She was home," Cole said. "We only talked for a little bit before I left, though."

"Does she know I'm here?" Her voice was sharp.

"No."

And then the tension dissipated.

"Oh, thank goodness," Nya said. She sighed. "Thanks for not telling her. The last thing I need is for them to come here and try to dote on me for a few days before they leave again."

Cole raised an eyebrow at her tone. "You seem a little less excited at the prospect of seeing them than Kai ever was."

"Not to make fun of Kai or anything, but he was a total suck-up to our parents. He'd had more time to bond with them than I did, so I guess he kind of always misses them, even now," she said. "But I never really got to know them. It's hard to describe it, but they always . . . they felt like babysitters. They didn't feel like they were my real parents."

Nya reached forward to put her fingers on the keyboard.

nyarai
Can't. See you next time.

On Friday, the rain returned. It began in the early morning, disrupting the predicted forecast of sunny skies and returning Ninjago City to its previously grim mood. Cole wore a rain jacket when he went outside, walking to the flower shop for the first time in days. Nya had insisted he go back, telling him that she would talk to her friends from school on her laptop to chase away boredom during his absence and that she would update him if the video guy got back to her.

It was a slow day. No one was ever in the mood for flowers on rainy days, so he holed up in his office and took out Jay's files from the drawer in his desk. Ignoring the adoption-related papers, he spread out the medical reports Nya had found in Borg's system. For a moment, Cole wondered if Nya was supposed to have access to this information or not. Would she have offered up Jay's medical history to someone she didn't believe had a history with him? If Cole was any other person?

No. Definitely not.

There were many reports, the majority depicting the same scenario over and over: Jay arriving in the hospital, experiencing symptoms, and then the doctors failing to come to any final conclusion on his problems.

Nausea. Lightheadedness. Fainting.

Jay had never had these problems on a regular basis before. What had changed?

The question occupied his thoughts well into the weekend, chasing away all else as a familiar feeling of dread grew present in his belly and he felt nothing but worry and stress for someone he'd never met but knew like the back of his hand. Someone he loved and missed so much that at times it ached and now that Jay was in his grasp he missed him more than ever and he would give anything to just meet him again.

On Sunday, Nya cried. Cole had slept in and only arrived later in the day, and when he did, Nya was furiously punching at her keyboard and there were tears streaming down her red cheeks.

"There was a new nurse today," Nya told him. "They didn't know not to touch my laptop. They closed the screen and set it to the side. I lost my session with the website. I can't talk to the guy anymore."

For the next hour, Cole tried his best to comfort her. He would speak empty words, promising Nya that everything would be all right and they could still find the guy if they tried hard enough. Nya nodded along, but he could see her frustration. She didn't like losing—didn't like giving up. Nothing Cole said would be enough right now.

Cole stuck around until visiting hours were over, doing his best to start conversation but he knew Nya's attention lay elsewhere. Before he left for the night, Nya spoke up.

"Don't tell Kai we tried to find the guy that hit me."

"Why not?"

"Because if you do, he'll try to find him himself."

"Do you seriously think he'd be able to find him?"

"Maybe. But I don't want him to find him. I want to catch that motherfucker myself."

Kai was due to return the following day. Cole was elated at the thought of reuniting with his friend, and found himself grinning when Kai's messages came in around midday.

kai_fire13
I HAVE SERVICE AGAIN

kai_fire13
i have so many fun stories to tell you holy shit

kai_fire13
but first im gonna see nya

kai_fire13
oh fuck gotta go, i could only msg you bc we'd pulled into a small town on the way back to the city

kai_fire13
back to the empty abyss of the countryside i go

kai_fire13
ttyl dude

Cole and Nya tracked Kai's train on the company's website, watching it make its way through various towns until it pulled into Ninjago City's train station. On his way to the hospital, Cole had stopped by Nya's house to pick up some clothes so she'd have something to change into on her release day. She changed after his arrival, sporting jeans and an old 'Ninjago MMA National Championships' t-shirt with peeling letters that looked like it had seen years of use. She was unplugged from all machines, and a new knee brace given by the hospital was secured to her leg. Her injuries were healed, but a scar remained on her left cheek. Naomi had warned them that there was no certainty it would heal well, and it seemed her guess was correct.

Kai arrived in the afternoon. He'd come straight from the train station, so he dropped his bag on the floor when he opened the door and darted across the room to lift Nya into a hug. He dropped her back down onto her bed and then pivoted to face Cole. They fist-bumped.

Kai turned back to face Nya. "You doing all right?"

She shrugged. There was a smile on her face. "I'm doing pretty okay, now. Can we go already? I'm sick of this place."

Kai laughed. "Yeah, sure. Let's get out of here."

Zane was busy, so they took a cab home. Cole went along with them so he could explain Nya's recovery plan to Kai on the way, and they went their separate ways when the cab arrived at their home so Kai and Nya could have some alone time after what was probably a very stressful week on both of their parts.

Later that night, when Nya was in bed early so she wouldn't be tired for her first day of school, Kai video called Cole to talk about his time teaching in the rural town.

"Okay, so like, I was originally kind of worried that I was going to be super bored during my spare time because I had no Wi-fi and no friends, right? But the kids were super cool. The oldest one was sixteen, and I hung out with him all the time, even if he was kind of lame. He just liked to play video games, so I watched him play a lot but sometimes he'd pull out this fighting game and teach me how to play."

"So, he taught you virtual fighting and you taught him real fighting?"

"Yeah, you're right," Kai said. "On the last night, all my kids—"

"Your kids."

"My kids, yeah. They threw me this little party, and they made me this huge cake as payment for being there, or whatever. You could tell it was made by a bunch of kids though, because they'd used a million different frosting colors and just thrown sprinkles all over it. It was cute."

"Did they only pay you in cake?"

"Yeah, I guess," Kai said. "It was kind of like volunteering—I did it for free. My own dojo pays me pretty well, and since I'm some A-list coach now I could probably demand for a lot more, but I don't. Sports shouldn't be only for those that can afford it, you know? It kind of ruins the spirit if good fighters can't compete because they don't make enough money."

"Are you going to keep doing stuff like this?"

Kai shifted. He was lying prone on his bed, his chin in his hands. He looked pensive as he replied, "Sure, why not? I train my regular kids hard enough that they deserve little breaks from me here and there."

"You're a good person, Kai."

"I'm a ninja, aren't I?"

Cole rolled his eyes but couldn't stop the cheesy grin that spread to his face.

Nya's first few days back at university went well. She and Cole communicated regularly now, messaging between her classes and during her breaks. She was never as active during the evenings, spending her time studying to catch up with her classes and stay on top of her work.

Cole returned to the flower shop regularly. As things settled back into routine, he organized meetings with Kai and Zane to begin their official search for Jay. Finding free time during Kai's busy schedule was difficult, but they succeeded in planning something for next Saturday when everyone was free.

Cole was excited and nervous. He wanted to find Jay. He wanted to know more about him.

But he knew Jay was sick. And that scared him.

During Nya's second week back, Cole got a message from Kai.

kai_fire13
nya asked me to pick her up from school for some reason but I cant cause im in the middle of a lesson. can you do it?

flintcole
Sure, no problem.

He found Nya sitting on the steps to her school's main entrance, clutching an umbrella as the winter rain fell around her. She wasn't crying, but something was wrong. She was wincing.

She looked up at the sound of his voice.

"Are you okay? What's up?"

She looked down again. "Kai sent you, didn't he?"

"Yeah. Do you mind?"

"I guess not."

"Do you want to talk about what's wrong while we walk home?"

"That's the problem, Cole."

"What is?"

"I can't walk home."

Nya wound up at the hospital again three hours later. Cole and Kai waited together as she saw a doctor, this time in a different ward: the pain centre. When the doctor came out to go over her prognosis Cole and Kai nodded and pretended to understand but didn't really because neither of them had even been very good at science, so when they got a lift with Zane on the way back home, Nya had to explain everything for them so they could understand in simpler terms.

"They think my nerves might be sending off fake pain signals," she explained. "The nerves think my knee is still injured, even though it's not. But it may go away soon as I do more physio. The only thing we can do is wait and see."

And so, the second waiting game began.

To make it easier, Nya accepted lifts to and from school from Zane and found her old crutches to use again while she moved between classes. Her physiotherapist adjusted their program and for a while, the pain wasn't too bad, given that she didn't walk. Things returned to a routine and they could learn to accept it.

In this acceptance, they held meetings for the search for Jay. They revealed to Kai that Nya had figured out they were ninja—he was angry because he'd wanted to tell her himself but like Zane, wasn't very surprised in the end—and officially invited her to their meetings. Since Jay was presumably identical, they wouldn't need to use new photos of him, but they needed to figure out where he lived and what he did in his free time if he wasn't anywhere on social media. Kai began to search for 'Jay Gordon' in place of 'Jay Walker', and Nya poured over his medical reports to search for any noticeable patterns they could exploit to uncover any information on him. Cole and Zane, feeling rather useless during this search, cheered them on from the sidelines.

Jay became a waiting game, too. Cole didn't know how much patience he had left within him.

In the midst of this newfound frustration, Cole re-visited the website Nya had shown him. He signed up for a free-trial for a VPN so he wouldn't be caught, and followed the steps Nya had in order to gain access. Once on the website, he scrolled through several days' worth of content until he came across Nya's post on the current events page.

The dealer's comments caught his eye.

>ANON9586 i think i know what ur talking about
>ANON9586 it happened right outside my apartment
>ANON9586 i have a security cam that faces the street outside my balcony door just in case
>ANON9586 the driver did stop for a sec after making contact so i got a clear pic
>ANON9586 since im not moron that buys low quality shit, my cam caught everything. even the license plate.
>ANON9586 you want the vid file?

A camera outside a balcony door.

A physical marker.

[sent at 23:14]

flintcole
How's your knee?

nyarai
I'm chugging ibuprofen by the bottle, so it's tolerable.

flintcole
Can you sneak around on it?

nyarai
Weird question, but probably.

flintcole
Meet me outside your place in an hour.

flintcole
And wear dark clothes.

Cole didn't wear his ninja garb—it would catch too much attention—but wore comfortable black clothes, a face mask to conceal his identity, and a bandana to keep his bangs out of his eyes. Nya came out in similar attire, wearing not only a mask but also heavy eye makeup that almost made her look like a different person. In her gloved hands was a USB, something she promised to explain to Cole on the way there.

To ease stress on her knee before they arrived, Cole piggy-backed her all the way there. She gave him directions, telling him where to turn or continue walking until they arrived at the collision site. It was a residential area full of small condo buildings and duplexes, notably made of bricks and stone rather than metal. It was in an older, preserved part of the city—one that had refused to to create its buildings out of new metal like the others.

They stopped on the sidewalk. Nya climbed down and faced him. She put the USB in his hands and closed them with her own, holding onto them as she explained. "This is called a rubber ducky," she said. Her voice was deep, serious. She continued. "It disguises itself as a keyboard so any computer will accept its contents. I've coded it to install a keyboard logger on his computer. This way, I'll get a feed of whatever he types onto my own computer. We can use this to figure out passwords, addresses, locations, or whatever we need. With this info, I can figure out who he is and blackmail him into giving me the plate number."

"And he would do that?"

"No one wants to be known for browsing that website. He'll do whatever I say to keep that part of him hidden from his public life."

Smart. Devious. Probably a little illegal.

But he supposed justice wasn't always feasible through legal means.

They wandered out onto the crosswalk. Cole activated his night vision and peered around, scanning the nearby buildings until his eyes landed on a balcony with a noticeable black bump sticking out of its back wall. It was on the third floor—a little hard for someone like Nya to climb without aid.

"I'll need to carry you up there," Cole said. He pointed to the balcony so Nya could see it. "It'll be impossible for you to get up there on your own."

"Go without me," Nya said. When Cole started to protest, she interrupted him to speak again. "I don't have a vendetta against this guy. If something goes wrong, I don't want to slow you down and blow our only lead. Get this guy on your own. I'll go with you to the real target."

Cole nodded. And then he began to climb.

Three stories was nothing to him, so he hauled himself up the balconies and bricks with ease. Once he stood on the balcony, he dug into his pockets for lock picks with one hand and then gave the balcony door a tug with his other just to see if it was unlocked.

It slid open with no resistance. For someone so paranoid they had a camera outside their door, this was a little surprising. Cole took it as a blessing and stepped inside quietly, making no noise as he put his weight onto the wooden floor of the apartment. It was an old building, so he made sure to walk near furniture so the floor wouldn't creak as he made his way through what appeared to be the living room. The lights were off. He hoped the person was asleep. And their computer wasn't in their bedroom.

Luck was on his side again, because in a small room off to the side of the living appeared to be a computer room. Three monitors screamed 'gamer' at him as he approached, careful with his footsteps as he crossed the empty floor. When he reached the computer, he pulled the rolling chair out of the way and kneeled down to get a look at the computer case held in a separate compartment in the desk. There was a visible USB port in the side. He took Nya's rubber ducky and plugged it in.

The computer screens turned on, emitting bright light into the room. He squinted to continue looking at the screen. A small window popped up, only a black box until white script began to fill it. It was over in a minute. The window closed. Cole removed the USB and backed out of the room.

He crept across the floor and exited onto the balcony. He closed the sliding door and vaulted over the railing.

A three-story fall wasn't much for a ninja. He landed, rolled once, and then stood. Nya was nowhere in sight.

"Ny—"

"Shut up, I'm over here."

She was sitting against the man's building, out of sight of the balcony camera. Smart move. Even in this new life, her field intelligence was still strong. She'd always been a natural.

On the way back, Nya began to laugh into his shoulder as she held onto his back.

"I understand why Kai used to do this stuff with his friends," she said. "It's pretty fun."

"It's also illegal."

"You're illegal. Do you even pay taxes?"

"Why do you keep assuming I'm illegal? If anything, I'm extra-legal. Do you know how many times I've saved this stupid city, let alone the country?"

"I think you mean to say, 'How many times we saved the city'."

"Yeah, okay. Sure."

It wasn't like she was wrong.

"I found someone that knows Jay," Kai said at their next meeting. He showed everyone screenshots of his conversation with someone that claimed to be Jay's old classmate.

 

"He went to LLC? Ugh, I hate those kids," Nya said. There was a look of mild disgust on her face.

"What's LLC?" Cole asked.

"It's awful," Nya said. "It's very competitive, and students are basically pitted against each other in some kind of messed up academic deathmatch. It costs a lot of money to go there, and they're not exactly afraid to kick you out if your grades slip, either. It's not uncommon to hear about students sabotaging each other so they can get higher marks than average on a math test or something."

"But Jay is there on a scholarship," Zane said. "What does that mean?"

"It means he's probably pretty smart," Nya replied. "I didn't even know they gave out scholarships. I thought it was pay-only. Was he like this before?"

"He was a bit of a genius," Cole admitted. "But only with this kind of stuff. He couldn't plan missions to save his own life."

"Sounds like a typical LLC student," Nya said.

Kai and Nya high-fived.

Grey clouds crowded the sky and blocked out the sun and a cold snap gripped the city, plunging its temperature into the negatives for the first time in over a decade. Cole dug into his closet to find his warmer clothes and Zane didn't change at all, apparently finding the sudden cold comforting. Kai chose to vent about the weather on Chirp.

But with sudden weather changes came a new challenge for Nya. She disappeared off of social media, and didn't respond to any texts Cole sent her way. He brushed it off, assuming she was busy studying, and continued about his week, yawning out of boredom in the flower shop and checking his message notifications every few minutes just in case she'd gotten back to him. But she never did.

Four days into the cold snap, he got a message. He perked up and opened his inbox.

His enthusiasm deflated when he saw it was only a message from Kai.

kai_fire13
sorry to keep doing this but are you busy

flintcole
No one buys flowers in the winter so no, not really.

kai_fire13
cool can you go to my house

flintcole
Do you need me to pick something up for you?

kai_fire13
nah i need you to check on nya

kai_fire13
i thought she was in school but her friends just texted me to ask if she was okay

kai_fire13
apparently she's not responding to messages and lied to me about being in class

kai_fire13
shes been at home for the past four days

flintcole
I'll head over now.

The front door creaked as he opened it. Cole stepped inside Kai and Nya's home, closing the door behind him. He checked the basement, finding nothing but the broken coffee table and empty carpet. They'd never cleaned up after Kai's training sessions. It all felt like it was so long ago.

The main floor was empty as well. This left only one other option.

Cole knocked on Nya's bedroom door.

"You're not Kai, are you?" came Nya's voice.

"How'd you know?"

"He never knocks. It's actually a really bad habit," she said. "But he asked you to come, didn't he?"

"He's just worried. He's always been like this."

"Well, he can fuck off. He doesn't need to have you babysit me. I'm an adult. I know what I'm doing."

"Nya, can I come in?"

"Only so I can say something to your face."

Cole opened the door. Nya sat on her bed, her left leg stretch out in front of her. She wore shorts despite the cold temperature. Her hair was wild and greasy, like she hadn't brushed or washed it in a few days and her school books were scattered across the floor as though they'd been thrown around.

"Do you know what a pain flare is, Cole? Because I just found out," she began. "Sudden changes in temperature make my knee feel like it's on fire. Isn't that amazing? And now you're standing in my room, staring at me mid-breakdown and reminding me of everything I hate about myself. You're this . . . ageless ninja master and you stare at me with familiarity in your eyes and it kills me. It kills me, Cole, because when you look at me, you see a ninja just like yourself. Someone that could control the sea, scale buildings, fight monsters—someone that could walk up a flight of stairs without taking a break because it hurts so much.

"I wish I could be that person. I wish I could be the person you expect me to be. But I can't do the things you or Zane can. I can't do the things Kai can do. I used to be a better fighter than him. was supposed to be at nationals. But instead, it was only him. I had that dream taken away from me. When you and Zane stepped in my life, I hoped I could join you. My knee was good enough to start fighting again if I practiced. But that was stolen from me, too. My grades are dropping. Every time I work hard for something, I lose it. I have no control. Why bother anymore? Why should I put any effort into anything if it'll just fall apart?"

"Nya, I—"

"No. I have only one request for you, black ninja: kindly escort yourself out of my house. And don't come back."

A knot tied itself in his stomach and never went away. It continued into the spring, when the flowers began to bloom and the clouds finally left the sky. The days went by slowly, dragging on for an eternity before the sun finally disappeared and Cole had an excuse to go to bed. He would often lay awake at night, eyes staring at nothing as he thought of anything that came to mind but Nya was always an undercurrent, poisoning his thoughts and feelings with guilt over something he knew he couldn't control but wished he had stopped nonetheless.

Kai did his best to comfort him—"She doesn't hate you, she just hates who you are"—but it never worked. Cole supposed he would just have to accept it. There was nothing he could do.

Mother's Day approached. Cole found himself busier than ever, ordering flowers and getting his displays ready for one of the most high-demand holidays of the year. There was no longer time to review Jay's documents or spend his time playing games, and he was almost thankful for the distraction from his personal life even if it was only due to last a week.

On the holiday itself, the shop was packed from opening hours until a lull in the early evening. Most people were celebrating with their families, so Cole took a small break to catch a breather when no one was present in the shop. Worried about missing a customer if he turned on his biotech, he played with a coin left in the tip jar, flipping it and spinning it on the table like a bored child.

He fumbled the coin and it fell to the floor. He leaned down to get it and the bell above his door ringed, signalling that someone had entered the shop.

"Uh, hello? Is anyone here?"

On the way up, Cole smacked the back of his head on the counter corner. He rubbed the back of his head and looked up at the visitor.

Auburn hair. Freckles. Blue eyes.

"Whoa, are you okay? That looked pretty rough."

Cole couldn't speak.

"Heh, you're pretty quiet. I respect that. I work customer service jobs, too. Being nice to customers sucks." He approached the counter. He looked around and then back to Cole. "Cute shop. I'll just pick something and get out of your hair. Don't worry 'bout me. Pretend I'm not even here."

He made that pretty difficult.

". . . what's the difference between all these flowers, anyways? They all look the same but have different labels. You must have the memorization skills of a god. More respect to you, dude."

He finally picked something. He gently placed the bouquet on the counter as to not damage the petals.

"You're probably wondering why I'm here so late. Okay, it's a bit of a long story. Obviously, it's Mother's Day. I forgot," he began. "I forget every year. It's a really, really bad habit. I forget everything, now that I think about it. I can't remember a time when I actually called someone on time for their birthday. It's always the day after! But maybe I just can't remember the times when I actually did remember. Anyways, this is beside the point. I forgot to get my mom something. Normally, I'd just show up with nothing because they always tell me, 'You know Jay, you don't need to give us anything but a big hug' but do you see what time it is? It's late afternoon, almost dinner. Do you know what I was doing this morning? I was sitting alone in my dorm, wearing nothing but boxers, and stuffing my face with microwavable mac n' cheese while playing video games on the floor. Sunday Blues hit me hard, okay? But yeah, I completely forgot about Mother's Day because I was busy being a useless piece of shit all day. Then my dad called me and asked where I was. I was like, 'Why do you even care? I'm like, sixteen. You can stop coddling me now, thanks'. He got kinda mad at me because apparently I'd missed Mother's Day. Classic. Wonderful. Thanks, Jay, for disappointing your parents for the millionth year in a row. And get this: they live two hours out of the city. I have a two hour bus ride ahead of me. I'm literally going to miss dinner. Not only am I going to be stuck in a bus, starving, for two hours, but I'm going to be stuck in this bus knowing that I'm driving to my own death. My father is going to kill me. My mom is going to kill me. So yeah, I need some flowers to make up for it."

Jay dug into his pocket, put a bill on the counter, and then walked out.

Cole snapped out of his trance. He ran through the store, almost knocking over a display in a rush to catch Jay before he disappeared. He threw open the door.

Jay was nowhere to be seen. In a matter of seconds, he'd become one with the sea of crowds travelling the city streets.

"You mean to tell me that Jay walked into your shop, talked to you for five minutes, bought flowers, and then left and you didn't do anything?" Kai demanded over a voice call. "I cannot believe you. I've just lost two years off my lifespan. This is what you do to me, Cole."

Kai came over to the flower shop that evening. Together, they combed through the security camera footage to search for any kind of hints regarding his personal life. Jay carried a brown messenger bag, and a number of pins lined its single strap over hanging from his shoulder. Cole couldn't recognize them. But Kai could.

"These are video game pins. They're characters from that fighting game the sixteen year-old from the rural town made me play with him." Kai pointed to one pin. It was a red with a single black line cutting across at a diagonal. "This one is a little different. Skylor has one on her training bag. She said it's some kind of linguistic pride emblem. He said he was from the Sea of Sand, right? Checks out."

Cole paused the video. There was a grin on Jay's face as he spoke to Cole over the counter.

He would find Jay soon. He would track him down and become friends with him again.

He missed that stupid smile.

Nya called him three days later. Her voice was hoarse, like she'd been crying. "Hey. Come over. We need to do something."

Nya was waiting for him in her driveway, sitting crossed-legged in front of her open garage. Cole had never seen its interior. A motorcycle rested inside, a layer of dust settled on top. Cole could remember Kai mentioning that Nya hadn't used it since her first accident.

"I got a call from the pain clinic today. I tested positive, so yay for me, and I'm also barely passing my university courses, so another yay for that, and now that I've isolated myself for a couple of months I think it's time for me to do something about my life."

She stood up. Cole pretended not to notice her wince.

She wandered over to the garage. She plucked a helmet off of a hook and passed it to Cole. Cole caught it and stared at Nya inquisitively.

"What are you doing?"

Nya pulled another helmet off a hook. She put it on.

"I'm facing my fears. And you're going to help me."

Cole sat behind her on the motorbike. Nya instructed him to wrap his arms around her waist and lean in close. She revved the engine. Then they took off.

At first, she drove slow. A few cars honked as she pulled onto busier streets, urging them to go faster and obey the speed limits posted on the sides of the roads. She didn't give in but Cole could feel her clench at each honk that ripped through the air. When she turned onto the highway, a national road that stretched across the country, she picked up speed. She zipped past cars and trucks and other motorbikes, weaving through traffic with so much control and precision that Cole found it hard to believe she could have been in a motorcycle accident to begin with.

They didn't drive for long. Twenty minutes out of the city, she turned around and headed back. But she didn't take them back home. She parked in front of Borg Industries, which had over time become a series of building spanning two city blocks in the heart of downtown She brought him along inside, leading him through its bright halls and into a larger room with several computers and workstations. She stopped and sat down at one of the computers, logging in and then opening a file filled with random strings of text Cole couldn't understand upon looking at them.

"This is the keyboard logger," Nya explained. "It's rooted in my laptop, but I shared it to my work computer so I could monitor it at work. Pull up a chair and sit down—I think it's about time we cracked this case together."

Cole sat down and watched her sift through the contents of the logger. She continued to explain as she did.

"I'm searching for passwords. They usually come after e-mails. I can grab his log-in info, then check what URL he entered to figure out which website the password and e-mail are for. Pretty cool, huh?"

"That's scary. You're scary."

"Please. You're some kind of pseudo-immortal with supernatural powers that, for the most part, have disappeared from Ninjago. That is scary." She paused. "You and Zane are the only Elemental Masters left, aren't you?"

"We think so. We kept tabs on the others, and the last known Elemental Master died with no kids about four hundred years-ago."

"I wish I had had those powers. It must be really cool."

"It has its ups and downs. You know the green ninja? Everyone was always trying to steal his powers. It sucked for him and for us because we had to keep rescuing him."

Nya began to laugh. "That's everyone's favorite joke in history class. We learn about you other ninja a little bit, but focus mostly on the green one. Our history textbook had a five-page compilation of all the times he got kidnapped. I feel kind of bad to laugh about it in front of you, but man, it was pretty funny to just flip through the book and read it. Poor kid had such a hard time."

Cole frowned at the memory. "Yeah, it was pretty rough."

Nya re-focused on the screen. She created a collection of information regarding the log-in information. She logged into his accounts, then collected information on his person. The man's name was Jack. Thirty-six years-old. Ran a thrift store in the east end of the city. Spent his free time on the Internet.

They did one last sweep check of the man's activity from the past few weeks. Then something caught their eye.

14:43:21 > IN BROWSER > "https://www.confessanon.com" >
 
whats_the_worst_thing_ive_ever_done?

14:45:57 >IN BROWER > "https://www.confessanon.com" > 
i_was_driving_home_and_some_chick_in_black_suddenly_started_to_cross_the_road._i_rammed_into_her._didnt_fess_up_to_it.

14:46:30: > IN BROWSER > "https://www.confessanon.com"
 
i_tried_to_scam_someone_into_paying_me_for_footage_of_the_accident_that_i_didnt_have_by_pretending_my_security_cam_caught_it_on_tape._i_have_a_cam_but_it_isnt_big_enough_to_capture_the_street_below._poor_sucker_almost_fell_for_it_but_we_lost_contact.

14:49:15 > IN BROWSER  > "https://www.confessanon.com"
 
nah_i_wasnt_caught._law_enforcement_in_the_city_is_a_fucking_joke._nothing_gets_done_because_theres_too_much_underworld_gang_activity_for_cops_to_care_about_anything_on_the_surface.

Their following actions that night were only logical.

After the individual ninja died, their gi were put on display in the history museum. But these gi were fake—copies of the originals to show to the public. The originals were split between Cole and Zane. Zane held onto Kai's and Lloyd's. Cole held onto Nya's and Jay's.

This worked out in his favor.

They got ready in his apartment. Cole dressed up in his own, carefully putting on his old uniform. It always felt comfortable, made him feel like himself again. He missed it, sometimes.

And then Nya changed into hers. It was like something out of a photograph, out of a memory. The magenta and cyan still suited her just as well. Cole's chest tightened. Nya put her hand on his shoulder to comfort him.

"I'm not her. Maybe I act like her. Maybe I look like her. But we're not the same."

"I know. That's the problem."

Cole swallowed his feelings and they took off. Nya climbed onto his back again and Cole made his way through the city over the rooftops, using airjitzu to cross large gaps between buildings and praying each time that the air wouldn't fail him. He felt the air wobble a few times, but it seemed at peace with him today. As they approached Jack's block, they climbed down to the street and travelled through the alleyways to avoid street cameras and other pedestrians.

They reached the man's building. Cole gave Nya a boost and she got up on her own, struggling a little to put weight on her left leg but making it up after a few attempts to heave herself over the balcony's railing. Cole scampered up quickly afterwards.

They peered in through the balcony window. Light streamed into the living room from the computer room.

Nya threw open the balcony door. And then they stepped inside.

Despite a slight limp, she strode confidently across the living room floor. Cole followed quickly behind her. She stopped dead in the doorway to the computer room. Cole looked over her shoulder.

On the computer screen was a livestream of the balcony. In Jack's hand was handgun pointed at Nya's head.

Jack pointed the gun at Cole. "You. You broke into my home, didn't you?"

The familiar voice gave him whiplash. Looking closely, Cole could see his poorly-shaved face, long hair in a ponytail, and dark eyes. His left arm glinted in the computer screen's light. A prosthetic.

It all came together at once.

"Ronin. You're Ronin."

Jack—Ronin—stood up. "How do you know that name?"

"You . . . it's just your name."

"No, it's not. That's my dealing name." Ronin took a step forward. "But it doesn't matter. You're not leaving this apartment alive. Step into the room."

Nya went into the room. Cole didn't follow.

"Step inside. You think I'm afraid to pull the trigger? Don't be an idiot. If you know my name, you know what kind of person I am."

Cole placed his hand on the wall. He could feel the stone foundations of the building, the bricks that supported it. Perfect.

"I don't know much about you, Ronin. I know the person you used to be. You used to be clever. I hope you still are and don't think you can win this," Cole said. He gestured to himself and Nya. "Who do you think we are?"

"I don't know. Cosplayers?"

Nya spoke up. "Wrong. We're actually ninja."

Ronin laughed. "Yeah, okay. The ninja that are still alive don't care about me. They don't care at all anymore. When was the last time they stepped in to do something?"

"They haven't stepped in because they don't need to," Nya replied.

"What about the Serpentine? Did they deserve what happened to them? Why didn't the ninja step in for them?"

Cole looked away as guilt washed over his body like a wave.

"The Serpentine died due to a computer error," Nya said. "Borg tested a new security system to protect the city in a case of invasion. It closed the vents going down into the tunnels beneath the city. When the trial was lifted, there was a glitch in the system and the Serpentine were locked inside with no air or way to escape. They couldn't contact the outside world. The ninja couldn't have stopped it if they didn't know it was happening in the first place."

"But they never held Borg accountable, did they? But hey, why would they? The white ninja works for them. Nobody ever wants to betray their masters."

"Nobody controls me!" Cole said. His grip on the doorframe tightened. The building shook for a moment, then stilled again.

Ronin looked Cole up-and-down. He smiled. "I didn't know the Earth Ninja was in my home. Now, I know she's not the real deal—" Ronin gestured to Nya with his gun before pointing it to Cole again "—but you're legit. The black ninja. Famous for . . . sorry, I'm drawing a blank. Did you do anything notable other than being replaced as leader?"

"He—" Nya began to say.

"Don't bother. He was useless on the team. I know it. He knows it. His old teammates probably knew it, too." Ronin put his gun down flat on the table. "But I can recognize a threat. For once, black ninja, you are in control of the situation. I know you can topple this building as long as you're in here. What do you want from me?"

"It's not what I want. It's what she wants."

Nya walked until she was in front of Ronin. Then she smashed her palm into his nose.

Ronin stumbled backwards, crying out and holding his nose with his hand. While he was stunned, Nya took the gun off the table and passed it back to Cole. Cole wasn't used to guns, so he fiddled with it until he found the safety and then threw it behind him into the living room. They could get it later. He wanted both of his hands free in case something happened.

"You know, I originally just wanted to figure out who you were and then hand you over to the police. But you're right. They didn't care about my case when you hit me, and they wouldn't care now," Nya said. "Now you've brought something else to my attention. What exactly do you do, Ronin? That's your dealer name, isn't it?"

"You're here because I hit you with my car?" Ronin demanded. "You had the black ninja break into my home, probably bug the place now that I think about it, and then break into it again along with you, smash my nose, and threaten me just because I accidentally hit you with my car? You didn't even die! And I'm the one that called the ambulance, by the way. I'm not heartless. I'm just avoiding jail time."

"Don't dodge the question. What do you do? What do you deal?"

"Biotech. I deal biotech to gangs."

"How do you deal in biotech? How does that work?"

"Biotech is just a chip and a few nodes in your brain. I can't do the surgery, but gangs find people that can. I just give them the technology to do it."

"Which gangs?"

"Most of them are small. I only deal to one big one. Ever heard of The Second Rise?"

"No. I work in Borg security. Why haven't I heard of them?"

"A Borg employee and a ninja working together? Classic," Ronin said with a snide grin. "The Second Rise is a huge underworld force. They're smart. There's a few leaders, but they don't commit the crimes. The ones that do are the only ones that can't have a criminal record. No criminal record means no gang record. It's pretty smart."

"No criminal record? Who can't have . . ." Nya trailed off. "Wait. Are you serious?"

"Completely. I'm at your mercy, sweetheart. I won't lie to you."

"What's he talking about? Who can't have criminal records?" Cole asked.

Nya turned around. He could see pain her her eyes. "Kids, Cole. Minors."

Cole felt his stomach drop.

Nya faced Ronin again. "I should have you arrested right now. You may not be part of the gang but you're an accomplice."

"If you arrest me, they'll kill me. And then your only lead is dead, they'll figure out who snitched on me, and then you and black ninja will be dead, too. Let's be honest here, all right? Black ninja over here is the only Elemental Master still alive that can theoretically pass down his powers. Do you want to effectively kill off such a historically-important group of people because you wanted revenge? Justice? Safety? That's how the Serpentine went out too, sweetheart. It's a dangerous road to travel."

"So what should I do? Let you roam free? Let The Second Rise continue to work under the radar?"

"That's exactly what you should do. For now. Do you think I'm a fan of them, either? I'm not. But I don't want to risk my life to bring them to justice. So let's make a deal: I'll gather information on them through our deals, report them to you, and then you can arrest them without bringing me into the mix."

"What's in it for you?"

"You don't arrest me. How about that?"

Nya looked over her shoulder. "Do you think I can trust him?"

Cole sighed. "He'll stick to his word to save his own skin. Trust me."

"Okay." Nya put her hand forward. Ronin shook it. "Report information to me. But slip up once, and you're done."

"Of course. I would expect nothing less."

Nya took a step back. "Oh, and by the way: this is for my knee."

She shoved Ronin's computer monitors to the floor in one sweep. Their screens cracked and their colors flashed erratically.

"Buy new ones with your blood money and we'll call it even."

The hospitals were always busy, so Nya's second appointment with a pain specialist was in June. Cole didn't attend so Kai filled him in later, explaining that Nya was starting high-dosage pain meds to help out with her knee. They would only come into effect four weeks later, long after the winter's cold had gone away and the summer sun had emerged to torment the city for another few months.

When the flower shop was empty, he returned to his office and read through Jay's documents to try to learn as much about his friend as he could. He knew that he would end up waiting on Kai and Nya, but doing something to no avail felt better than doing nothing so he continued to scan the documents until he had their words memorized and their accompanying images burned into his brain.

Nya visited his shop in late May. She didn't wince when she stepped into his shop and walked more confidently, crossing the shop to lean against the counter and tell him about the meeting she'd had with the board of directors at NCU. She told him that they typically kicked out underperforming students in such a hard program, but after hearing her story, gave her the option to repeat the year starting next fall.

"You know what this means, right? That son of a bitch Jay is priority number one. Kai and I made a bet on who can find him fastest and I intend to win."

Nya took him for motorcycle rides often. Cole would hang on tight and she would drive away into the country, leaving the city and her troubles behind her. When martial arts competition season began, they would visit Kai as he coached his students through their tournaments, leading them to victory and gold medals and large trophies to celebrate their accomplishments.

If she wasn't driving or working, she was holed up in Cole's office to find patterns in Jay's documents. It was a slow process. She wrote down every similar occurrence, time, and prognoses. In July, she presented Cole with the completed list. Each occurrence had a paragraph of analysis written underneath.

"So, his trips to the doctor only seem to have begun two years ago. He goes around five times a year and always describes the same symptoms: nausea, lightheadedness, fatigue, and what have you. But it's hard for someone to be sick this many times a year, which has led me to one conclusion: the sickness isn't natural."

"Unnatural? What do you mean?" Cole asked.

"It's not the common cold. It's an external factor—something that can't be detected without internal examination, which Jay has refused each time. Something is going on. I'll figure it out, I promise."

In August, two weeks before Nya's fresh start, they drove out to a field outside of the city and spent the day eating snacks and talking about whatever came to mind. It was natural. It reminded him of his final few weeks with Nya but this time no pain accompanied it.

The sun had begun to set when she asked him about Ronin.

"You knew him, right?"

"What do you mean?"

"He's reincarnated too, isn't he?"

"He's not the only one that wasn't a ninja. Chen and Skylor were alive during my time. Your parents. Jay's adoptive parents. It's kind of scary."

Nya crossed her legs. "How so?

"Chen was evil. Like, undeniably evil. Skylor was good. Ronin was kind of in the middle. He cooperated as long as it was in his best interest. Seeing people like Chen and Ronin come back begs a certain question: are other bad people coming back to life, too? Kai was the victim of Chen. You were the victim of Ronin. Then what about Jay? Lloyd? You think Jay is unnaturally sick—like he's poisoned. What if someone is doing this to him? What if he's not okay and there's nothing we can do about it?"

"I'm more worried about someone like the Overlord," Nya said. "I don't want to sound spiritual or anything, but the First Spinjitzu Master created the Elemental Masters for a reason. What if we're here for a reason? Why are we coming back? Why are our old enemies coming back? What if something bigger is on the horizon?"

"Zane's worried about that, too," Cole said. "He's afraid that you'll be forced to fight an enemy and die trying. He doesn't want you to put yourself into danger."

"And how about you? Are you worried?"

"You're going to die anyway. I'm afraid of what's going to happen after."

"Oh. Makes sense."

In late August, Zane and Cole took Nya on a road trip. They travelled with the windows down until they reached a decaying fossil hidden among a mountain range, off the main road and out of sight from normal citizens. Together, they stepped into the mouth of the fossil and a hatch opened, creating a door to walk into and explore inside. Cole and Zane stepped into the darkness. The cave had been dark for years now because when Nya died so had the lights, and they'd never turned on again since.

Nya stepped into the cave. The echo of her footstep reverberated throughout the cave.

And the lights turned on. The walkway to the main platform illuminated one tile at a time, lighting the way to the centre. Cole and Zane led Nya down the walkway, letting her take in the various machines on display nearby. She asked where they were. They didn't answer.

On the main platform, the computer system came to life. "Welcome home, Nya," came the computer's voice. "It has been three thousand and seventeen years, fifty-four days, twenty minutes, and thirty-one seconds since you last returned. Would you like me to boot up Samurai X?"

"Uh, sure?"

"Please wait a moment."

Hanging from poles and chains was the Samurai X suit. It began to glow, slowly whirring to life. Nya yelped and took a step back.

On the other end of the platform, a tube rose from the floor. A door in the tube opened, revealing Nya's old pilot armor.

Nya walked towards it. She pulled out the helmet. "Is this mine?"

"All of it," Zane said.

Piece by piece, Nya put on the armor. Within minutes, she looked like a terrifying force of nature again. It felt right. It felt normal.

Nya moved to walk towards them. She stopped after two steps. She lifted her right leg, putting her weight on her left leg. She jumped. Landed. Jumped again.

"Uh, guys . . . I can't feel my leg."

"Is there a problem?" Zane asked.

"No, it's not," she said. "This armor takes the brunt of my weight. It supports my legs all the way to the boot."

"What does that do?" Cole said.

"It means that my knee still hurts—that's how chronic pain works. But it doesn't hurt anymore when I use it."

"So it's bearable enough that you don't have to give up on being a ninja?" Cole asked.

Nya looked up to him. She nodded.

The computer could only be controlled by Nya. She looked through her old files, laughing at some of the pictures she had of Kai and promptly e-mailing them to herself so she could use them as blackmail later. She opened her music library, but only one file was saved. She clicked on it. An audio player popped up on the screen and began to play.

"This is Nya. I've recorded these logs my whole life, but that's coming to an end soon. I deleted them. I don't want anyone to know my inner thoughts. At eighty-four years-old, I will now record my last log before I shut down the cave for good."

Nya began school in the fall. She spent her days and nights studying, working harder than ever and worrying Kai because it wasn't uncommon for him to find her passed out at the kitchen table, face buried in her books and laptop open a few feet away from her flashing a low battery warning to no avail. These efforts, however, let her conquer school once again and she found herself at the top of her new class.

"My life has been a capricious one. As a little girl, I'd never known it was possible to change identities so many times in a few simple years. First, I was Kai's sister. Second, Jay's girlfriend. Third, Samurai X. And lastly, the Water Ninja. I think defining ourselves as people is a little more difficult than most make it out to be. The labels we paint on our faces for all to see change as swiftly as the wind. What was once an identity becomes a past-self, and a past-self, a memory. A lesson for us to learn from."

Ronin got into touch with Nya in late September. He sent her a picture of what he claimed was The Second Rise's emblem. He said they used to brand their members, but under new leadership had switched to tattoos. The emblem was a white circle. A black circle was in the middle, and a black path curled around it like a snake. It was a drawing Cole was convinced Ronin had made in two minutes on an online photo editing program.

"I like to think back to my friends and family at times. Cole, Zane, and Lloyd are still around. But Lloyd is not immortal or ageless like the others. He is going to die. At this old age, I have witnessed the passing of both Kai and Jay. I often catch myself giggling at old memories or staring at old photographs until tears blur my vision and I can no longer see them. Call me nostalgic. It's better than thinking about the present."

Nya came to visit Cole often. Sometimes, they went on motorcycle rides, but now they mostly hung around the flower shop. She no longer needed to drive, no longer needed to run away from her fears. Freedom and control had been reached. Now, she could finally look ahead with no fear of being held back.

"I used to fear this time, this day when my friends and I grew old and had to say goodbye forever. But now I'm here, and . . . and I think I'm ready."

RED | FIRE

MAGENTA | WATER

BLUE | LIGHTNING

GREEN | ENERGY

TOGETHER | UNITY