Autumn

October 3rd

My dearest Giin,

I know you said I could write, but it feels so strange reaching out to you after over a month. My time at Kamar-Taj feels like a dream and an age all on its own. I'm sorry again, for all that happened...

I hope this letter finds you well, if it finds you at all. I addressed it to 'the master of Kamar-Taj,' simply because I wasn't sure if you wanted everyone in the postal industry to know your location. Perhaps it caused some confusion among the masters there. Give them my best regards, of course.

Things have improved. The sickness made its way through the herd, but thankfully, we're okay again. Anyway, classes have started again. I'm taking an anthropology class, and that's interesting. They talk about supernatural influences around the world. It's funny to listen to sometimes.

I sent a letter for Reiko too. If she doesn't get it, give her my love. I hope you're all doing well. How are things there?

Yours,

Hazel Grace

.

November 6th

Hazel,

You're forgiven. It'll take time for the both of us, but I don't want it to be dwelt on any further. Anyway, I was delighted to hear from you. I'm glad your horses are well again and I'm sorry for those you lost. I remember taking a few classes like that; you're right, it's always funny hearing how they talk about mystical development over history. But it's for the best that they're misguided.

Reiko got your letter; you should be receiving one from her soon. As for the rest of the sanctuary, we're all busy in a thousand small ways with a thousand little things. Kaecilius still hasn't shown, but I feel more mystical disturbances by the day. He'll be resurfacing very soon, I'm sure.

But enough about that. I always love to hear from you. Write me some more and please ACCEPT MY FACEBOOK FRIEND REQUEST.

With love,

TAO

.

November 26th

The next time Hazel showed up at the sanctuary, it was the middle of the day, and Hazel was bleeding. She'd stumbled into the courtyard through a sling ring portal, one arm around her waist and the other hand cupped under her bleeding nose. The novices couldn't recognize her in her mundane attire, but luckily, a few acolytes knew her and brought her to the healer's ward promptly. The Ancient One was informed at once of a woman that just showed up injured and was now asking for her. Of course, that was enough for the Ancient One to know exactly who it was, but as she lingered in the doorway of the healer's ward, she couldn't help her shock.

Hazel was sitting on the edge of one of the cots, and Stephen sat on a stool in front of her with cotton and bandages in his shaking hands. For a moment, neither woman moved or spoke. They were waiting each other out. They didn't know what to do with each other; they had no system like they'd always had when Hazel was at Kamar-taj.

"Hi," the Ancient One finally said. Her voice sounded a bit flustered, but she never made Hazel feel unwelcome. They both relaxed, and the Ancient One debated approaching or leaning on the door frame. Hazel's face was bloody and her wrist bruised. "Are you alright?"

Hazel nodded. For now, she seemed to be shaken from whatever encounter drove her here in the first place. The Ancient One moved to the desk in the room and began making some tea for the three of them.

"I didn't expect to see you," the Ancient One admitted over her shoulder. "You're welcome, of course, but... you understand how alarming it is having a guest show up unannounced and injured."

"You're definitely mildly concussed," Stephen interjected, pulling away and shining a light in her eyes. "You shouldn't cast spells when you have head trauma. It's like casting spells when you're drunk; you know better."

"Yeah, I know," Hazel winced. "Sorry about that. I just had to get away, and I had nowhere else to go."

"Get away from what?" the Ancient One asked, sitting on the bed beside Hazel.

"My mom's husband," Hazel practically spat the word as she let Stephen look at her wrist.

"What?"

The Ancient One and Stephen shared an uncertain look, but Hazel hardly noticed as she started ranting in frustration.

"He's trying to convince Mom to sell the stable and horses. After they got sick, she's starting to buy into the horses being more money than they're worth. And I was all like 'we have to make a commitment, we'll lose more money in the end if we don't have those boarding and training fees coming in,'—because that always happens with them. They keep exchanging new cars and getting new jobs, it's no wonder. Anyway, my stepdad was all 'no, we need money going towards us,' and then I was like 'well then, why don't you get a job?' And he hit me, and I hit the bookcase."

"What?"

"Of all the—" Stephen shared another look with the Sorcerer Supreme. He'd so rarely seen her in a state of horror, but the Ancient One currently did nothing to hide her shock and despair.

"Yeah," Hazel rolled her eyes. "He was still apologizing when I bolted. I'm not going back to that tonight. Do you mind if I stay here, by the way?"

"By all means," the Ancient One mumbled numbly. With this new information, the Ancient One began to consider some of Hazel's former behaviors. Perhaps the abuse she'd suffered wasn't solely at the hands of a cult after all.

Stephen beat her to any potential questioning. "Hazel, why didn't you say anything? Why didn't you tell any of us what you were going back to?"

"I didn't know!" Hazel flailed an arm defensively, then winced as it rattled her sore wrist. "He's never even looked directly at me before now, let alone touched me."

The Ancient One almost gave her a skeptical look. But when Hazel continued, her manner was so sincere the Ancient One didn't doubt her.

"When I got home from Kamar-taj, I wasn't going to put up with his shit anymore. He didn't vaccinate the horses. And he tried pinning it on me because I'm the 'horse person' in the family; it should be my responsibility. It is, but... well, you know why I had to come here for the summer. Right?"

Hazel glanced away for a second. For the first time since coming there, she looked uncomfortable. Pale. Tears in her eyes. She didn't say anything else, but the Ancient One never asked it of her. The Ancient One reached forward to hug her. If she had her way, they'd remain like that for ages, but Hazel didn't allow it. Hazel pushed her away and stood.

"I don't have the energy for this right now," Hazel muttered. "I'm hungry; can I go get some food?"

"Of course..." The Ancient One watched after her.

Stephen didn't know what to say. Had he been able to get a word in edgewise amidst Hazel's raving, he might've gone off on his own about the grossly unfair treatment Hazel was getting, but now that the conversation had wound down with Hazel nearly breaking down crying, he didn't have anything to say.

How could this happen to Hazel? And what was going to happen to her now? Sure, she was an adult. She could leave if she wanted. But it sounded like her livelihood was tied in close quarters to her family. He had no idea what she was studying or planning to do with herself. Of course, she could always study at Kamar-taj with the rest of them, but he knew that wasn't her first option for a reason. Still, over the few months they'd known each other, Hazel had grown on Stephen. She'd grown on all of them. And now, although she wasn't a student and probably would never be, they'd support her.

.

No one brought it up again, and by dinner time, Hazel was acting like nothing even happened. The Ancient One tried to pretend things were okay, just in front of the others. She'd confront Hazel before the girl headed back home, of course. Dinner was interrupted by Hazel's phone ringing as her mother tried calling her. Hazel took the call and left the room, and the Ancient One followed.

"Where are you?"

"I'm at Dawn's."

"When are you coming home?"

"Tomorrow."

"No, I want you to come home now. Tell Dawn's mom to drive you home."

"Actually, Dawn's 56 fucking years old, I think she can drive me herself," Hazel snapped.

"Hazel," the Ancient One whispered. "Calm down."

Hazel sighed and tilted her head back.

"Look, Mom, I'll be home tomorrow, I promise. But I want to stay here tonight. It's late; you know what it's like driving at night."

The Ancient One could hear Hazel's mother's worried voice and fervent apologies.

"Mom, I already said it's fine. I don't care about what happened today... Look, can we talk about this tomorrow? I'll come home, I promise."

Hazel sighed as her mom started crying.

"Mom," her voice was stern but not unkind. "Take a breath. I'm not mad, and I'll come home tomorrow. We can talk about this. We can work something out. Worst case scenario, I'll move out. And I can manage that, right?"

The Ancient One tilted her head and strained to hear the other end of the conversation again.

"But I just got you back..."

"It's been two years, Mom," Hazel's voice was dejected. "And I'll come visit. I promise. We'll work through this."

"Yeah..." Some shuffling on the other end, some murmuring. "Will you let me talk to Dawn?"

Hazel knew her mom was just confirming the fact that Hazel was with someone and not doing something crazy unsupervised, but it still made Hazel nervous. She peered up at the Ancient One and covered the phone.

"Will you pretend to be my friend for a second?" Hazel whispered, gesturing to the phone.

"We are friends. Give me the phone," the Ancient One returned, holding out her hand.

After some fervent assurance from Hazel and the Ancient One (who was pretending to be a completely new friend Hazel had made up on the spot), Hazel's mother finally calmed and relented. That comforted the Ancient One more than it did Hazel, but that was only because Hazel didn't know better.

.

That evening, the Ancient One let Hazel stay with her. It didn't surprise her when Hazel refused to sleep. At some point in the middle of the night, the Ancient One turned over and saw Hazel sitting up on her pallet with a troubled look on her face. It could be struggles with the time change. It could be psychological trauma.

"Hey," the Ancient One whispered. Hazel jumped and looked at her. The Ancient One pulled back the covers and patted the mattress beside her. "Come here."

Hazel didn't hesitate. Once she was in bed, the Ancient One tucked the covers back around her and brushed her fingers over Hazel's hair.

"Can we talk about it?" she whispered. Hazel shrugged. The Ancient One gave it a shot. She was running out of time. "What's going on?"

Hazel shrugged again. "They're just stressed out. Richard's dad just died, and he was kind of the guy keeping things afloat, and they won't accept help from my grandparents—"

"I meant with your dad," she whispered slowly.

"Oh. Yeah, that's um..." Hazel took a slow breath. "He's not my real dad?"

The Ancient One didn't say anything. She just listened, and she didn't rush Hazel in her explanation. She didn't need to; Hazel just explained herself away.

"Like, a couple years after he and my mom got married, my mom... she went out with another guy, and... yeah... I mean, Richard didn't take it well, but they had therapy and stuff for it. But my mom's parents took care of me for a few weeks when I was a baby. Then they took care of me for another few weeks. And then I just lived with them until I was eighteen, basically."

She just got Hazel back. It's been two years.

"I still saw my mom, of course. We lived in the same town for most of my life. They just didn't want anyone to know where I came from. So my mom was upset that she didn't get to raise me herself, so I moved in with them when I started taking college classes and yeah. That's what's going on."

The Ancient One held Hazel more tightly. "Oh, Hazel, you're shaking—"

"I should go..." Hazel tried pulling away and getting out of bed, but the Ancient One took her hand in a vice-like grip. Hazel hesitated sitting on the edge of the bed.

"Promise me," the Ancient One said. "Promise me you'll be safe."

Hazel's spine arched limply as she slouched from fatigue. "You know I'll be safe. I won't let it happen again."

The Ancient One stared at her insistently for a moment, and Hazel never wavered. Eventually, Hazel's wrist was freed, and she flitted away.

Winter

Things got better and worse. The subtle but ever-present tension between Hazel and her parents peaked and then diminished. She kept herself at arm's length at her warmest, but her regard for home was declining as her taste for independence skyrocketed. Hazel's mother convinced her to "stay" at home until the spring semester at least, but it did little good since Hazel spent most of her time traveling in secret to New York. The use and abuse of her sling ring granted her more time with Peter and Tony at the Avenger's complex. At the expense of her grades, unfortunately.

Hazel had a kind of wanderlust mixed unceremoniously with indefinite fatigue. She wanted to travel, but in a lazy way. Like a vacation. She felt like she wanted a vacation away from everything. So, she did her chores at home, skipped classes more often than she ever admitted, and sling-ringed herself to the Avenger's complex for some much-wanted and less-deserved down time.

Tony was excited to see Hazel's new powers, of course. Peter had blabbed about everything he'd seen, and Hazel figured it was her fault for showing him in the first place. Had Peter kept it to himself, Hazel would've had her way of no one knowing about her new-found abilities. But, Tony was persistent, and he was creative. What started as mindlessly persistent questioning turned into elaborate traps such as throwing items across the room at Hazel or putting her in imaginary (and moderately harmless) danger with the hope Hazel would lose her composure on impulse. It was quite effective.

After only two weeks in her company, Tony managed to get Hazel to shapeshift into a dog, conjure one shield, and—unbeknownst to him—hide in plain sight to get some peace. It was all in good fun, he'd assured her. He might even let her use the training room and other facilities around the complex to keep her magic sharp. Hazel worried he wanted to take advantage of observing her, and she'd loathe to be approached over an "Avengers Initiative" in the near future if she showed promise.

When she did train, she did so at night, and she made sure it wasn't anything very interesting. She resumed doing what she used to do before going to Kamar-taj; she invited Guests into the home and entertained them. Then if she had a new skill to learn, she studied on her own and practiced around the complex as offered. It wasn't anything special, of course. Since leaving Kamar-taj, her hunger for casting mystic spells diminished considerably. She kept up with her shapeshifting, though.

One day, Peter and Hazel were outside in the trees around the complex. Hazel shapeshifted into a bird and drifted from branch to branch, gradually learning how to fly as she'd seen baby birds do in countless nature documentaries. Peter sat on the ground by the tree glancing at her periodically in between doing homework problems.

"You know," Peter started. "I bet Tony could make a suit for you that'll adapt to your transformations."

"Ugh." Hazel's talons grasped the bark of a branch, and she flapped her wings vigorously as she almost lost her balance. "I have the body of a bird. That's all I need."

"You don't think about..."

"What?" Hazel landed by him and resumed human form, leaning back against the tree. Her heart raced and her hands shook from her practice session.

"You know," Peter shrugged. "Using your powers for good?"

"You mean hero stuff," Hazel shrugged. "I'm doing enough good where I am. I don't need to get mixed up in all that. I have power, but I can be a normal person, you know."

"But how?" Peter pressed. "You could make a difference."

"I am making a difference," Hazel turned sharply to look at him. "In ways that you don't even know. The Masters of the Mystic Arts protect our reality from otherworldly threats. I'm working up a reputation with otherworldly beings. I'm thinking if anything, I can delegate."

"Oh."

They were forced to leave it at that when the walkie-talkie clipped to Hazel's bag buzzed. She reached down and retrieved the device, holding it to her mouth and holding a button on it.

"Yeah," she answered.

"A letter came for you. It's from that sanctuary."

"Really? I'll be right there!"

Hazel practically threw the walkie-talkie in her bag before slinging the bag over her shoulders and looking eagerly at Peter.

"Race you back to the house?" she proposed.

The Fall

March.

The spring was cold and wet in New York, and the day the Ancient One finally confronted Kaecilius was no different. After all that had happened, the events of and leading up to the Ancient One's demise felt simultaneously like it came too soon and took too long. Now that she was here, memories of the past few months alone kept coming back to her, regardless of their definite irrelevance. The Ancient One hadn't realized until now how manic she'd acted. How impulsive and selfish and careless. Surely the other masters disregarded it as her usual unpredictability, if any of them had noticed at all. But Hazel was right; everyone thing flinched at the presence of death. The Ancient One had just been flinching for a long time.

Now that the time was upon her, she had to focus. Her recurring recollections fell to the wayside as she risked her all to protect the world from Kaecilius, and herself from her followers.

"I tried to protect you," she told Kaecilius.

"From the truth?"

"From yourself," the Ancient One's voice was almost listless, her eyes pleading and still. Such grace she exuded. Such elegance even though she wasn't more than begging now. Kaecilius wasn't wavered by it; he'd always known her for what she was—arrogant, but pretending otherwise. She always knew she was the best in her company.

The battle then commenced, and the Ancient One was resigned when neither Stephen nor Mordo interfered. Perhaps this was the Ancient One's battle to fight, or maybe they had no place fighting beside her having just discovered her darkest secret. Perhaps it was for the best that she died. She knew she wasn't going to be able to clear her name of her crimes or be given a chance to explain herself, but she guessed it didn't matter. She still saved them.

She never saw the space shard coming as it lodged into her stomach. But as she stared ahead past the now-limp body of the Zealot she'd been fighting, she knew Kaecilius finally had his satisfying revenge over her. The wound felt unlike any pain she'd felt before. She was staggered, frozen, until she felt a sharp push—a punch or a kick—force her back, and then she was falling. The wind roared in her ears as she stared into the grey, clouded sky. The wind was a cold sting against her limps. This was her fate.

The impact was a lot warmer than she'd expected, and softer. Actually, whatever she'd collided on seemed to give and collapse around her like a soft, warm cushion. Fur. A pulse. The Ancient One almost jolted away from shock—something caught her!? They tumbled once, twice, then the two of them mad impact on the concrete of the sidewalk.

When the Ancient One came too, everything ached, but she was alive. She fought to stay conscious and turned her head to the side to see what caught her. Pedestrians screamed and moved around them in a rush, broken glass scattered under them in a pool. And there, lying in the broken glass and bloodied concrete, with her steely golden-eyed gaze, was none other than Hazel Grace. The Ancient One struggled to prop herself up while reaching for the girl, but all sound, sight, and sensation slowly drained from her awareness. Maybe she'd die after all. What a shame.

.

The Ancient One and Hazel were barely conscious, but alive when Mordo and Stephen reached them. They rushed the two women to the hospital, where Hazel was transported to one theater and the Ancient One another. Stephen stayed with the Ancient One; she didn't have an identity, and there was a good chance she'd have some medical anomaly that relied on a sorcerer's supervision. Not only that, but he'd seen Hazel's healing factor. She'd be fine.

The Ancient One was fighting to stay conscious as they wheeled her into an operating theater. She raised her hand weakly and mumbled something. Stephen held her hand only absentmindedly as he shouted for Christine. She'd take care of her; he trusted her.

Once everyone was in place in the operating room, Stephen finally looked back at the Ancient One. She'd gone limp by now, but there was something almost lifeless about her appearance. Stephen glanced at one of the moniters in time to see it flicker. She was astral projecting now? To where? She couldn't do anything now... Without another moment's thought, Stephen forced his astral form out of his physical form and searched the eerily darkened hospital.

He saw her astral form ghost around the corner and down the hall, and he followed frantically after her. For a moment, he was reminded of the kind of nightmare where you'd be running towards something, but you'd only ever stay so far away from it. Luckily, he caught up to her, and the nightmares were forgotten.

They lingered at last at a balcony overlooking a storm that had taken over the city. The Ancient One seemed calm as she surveyed the landscape, but Stephen was still careful when he approached her.

"You have to return to your body right now," he said. "You need to save your strength. You won't have time to go back if something goes wrong."

"Time is relative," she replied. "Your body hasn't even hit the floor yet."

She gazed out at the sky as a bolt of lightening slowly creeped across the sky. Stephen followed her gaze. She was right; the mind did think fast...

"I've spend so many years," the Ancient One murmured, "peering through time, looking at this exact moment. But I could never see past it."

Stephen's gaze wandered again before he returned to her.

"I've prevented countless, terrible futures. And after one, there's always another. Andtey all lead here... But never further before now."

"You thought this was where you died?" Stephen asked. She didn't reply, but she didn't need to.

"I've always hated drawing power from the dark dimension, but as you well know, sometimes one must break the rules in order to serve the greater good."

"Mordo won't see it that way," Stephen argued.

"Mordo's soul is rigid and immovable, forged by the fires of his youth. He needs your flexibility as much as you need his strength. Only together will you stand a chance at stopping Dormammu."

Stephen hesitated, considering his shortcomings in the fight. The fight that almost got her killed. "I'm not ready."

"No one ever is." The Ancient One grinned a little ruefully as she watched the snow. She hadn't been ready to die, not truly. She knew that all along. Yet now, she saw flickers of the future before her, if there was any to have at all after this night. What would Hazel have to say to that?

Tentatively, in case these were her last moments after all, the Ancient One grasped Stephen's hand in her own. Hers were already cold. Stephen looked at her.

"Even if I survive this, I can't accompany you now" the Ancient One concluded.

"You're too weak to leave," Stephen said.

"Yes. It's strange... I've always known I would die here. Yet here I stand, alive and recovering because of that girl..."

"She cares about you," Stephen said. "We all do."

She gave him a look. Ater all he'd said to her today, she found it funny he didn't consider if what he said sounded disengenuous. Or cheesy.

"You'll recover," Stephen stated firmly. "Then we'll go from there."

She nodded, and then he saw a part of her more vulnerable than he'd ever imagined.

"I need to get back," she turned away, and then she was gone.

Lore

The Ancient One half-expected to die on the operating table, or for the world to be consumed by Dormammu before next she woke. However, when she finally came to the next morning to warm sun shining through the window of the hospital recovery room, she was overcome with a relief so light and foreign to her that she almost couldn't identify it at first. To ground herself, she took in her surroundings. An IV in her arm was hooked up to a monitor by the bed, but she was currently unattended. She must've been in stable condition. The room looked like a recovery room; no tech or machines apart from the monitor by the bed. There was one more bed in the room parallel to hers, but the Ancient One was too mesmerized by the wallpaper and the window to look at it for long.

"Hey."

The Ancient One looked to her right at the other bed. Hazel, who else, was lying in the bed, in a similar condition to the Ancient One herself. But Hazel was smiling and gazing adoringly at the Ancient One like she was looking at her most treasured thing laden by immortality. A shining golden. That's why her robes were shining golden. The immortality.

The Ancient One could've scolded her, or been annoyed. But she only smiled, gave a small chuckle. She stretched her arm out, and Hazel grasped her hand in an uncharacteristically freezing grasp.

"I thought I was dead," the Ancient One admitted.

Hazel smirked. "You're so dumb."

Had she been lucid, the Ancient One might've taken offense. But now she only wanted to laugh at it.

"Yeah," the Ancient One chuckled.

.

Their recovery was miraculous, but given Hazel and the Ancient One both had a clean bill of health to show aside from some moderate injuries that would require recovery time, they were released from the hospital. The Ancient One returned to Kamar-taj at once to regroup with the masters and see what all she'd missed. She was saddened at the numerous casualties of the battle and surprised at Mordo's leaving the order. Though she considered it for the best, given he probably wouldn't keep her secret like Stephen had. That surprised her as well, but it was welcome. When confronted about it, Stephen said it was for the best that no one knew. He knew why she'd done it, and he'd tolerate it like he tolerated everything she did. As long as she was here to protect the reality, he'd support her in the strange, independent way he supported anything.

Hazel returned to the Avengers complex when she was discharged from the hospital. Not a day went by before she had to deal with the repercussions of all consumable televised news at least dipping into the story of the giant, 12-foot black dragon that swooped to save a bystander from falling from a building. Unfortunately, Hazel had been identified when she resumed human form, and now news anchors and journalists around the country speculated if Tony Stark's ward was indeed a mutant or vigilante on the rise.

"Do you see this?" Tony asked, pausing the playback of the news and pointing to the TV in the living room. Hazel was slouched on the sofa like a teenager getting a lecture. "Do you know what this is?"

"TV."

"This is serious," Tony insisted, flipping the channel to another news station covering the same story. "I couldn't convince you to practice your powers safely under the roof of this complex, yet you go out there and show the world a big, black dragon over someone—"

"She's my teacher," Hazel interrupted. "And I won't do it again. What, is having a power illegal? Oh wait..."

She looked to the side in defeat.

"Well, what are you going to tell them?" Hazel asked.

"You're an adult," Tony replied. "You're going to be twenty-one in July. You made this mistake, it's up to you to clean it up. Public statements, possible interviews with the higher ups. I wouldn't worry about it, though. As long as you lie low, the public will forget about it soon enough. If I were you, I'd worry about what I'm going to tell my parents. Have they called you yet, by the way?"

"No," Hazel scoffed. "They don't watch the news. And for the record, they've blacklisted any article that mentions Tony Stark, so they probably won't hear about this."

"Glad to hear it," Tony rolled his eyes, but let it go. They were both stressed and too tired to argue about it. "By the way, they called. That... sanctuary. They wanted to talk to you today or tomorrow."

"I'll go now," Hazel stood. "Might as well get it over with. They'll probably lecture me and make sure I won't expose them."

Tony watched her leave and muttered a genuine "good luck" as she left through one of her magic portals.

.

In spite of her injuries, the Ancient One upheld the appearance of wellness quite convincingly. Now, Hazel knelt before her in the Ancient One's study as she had countless times as a student. The Ancient One flicked the unfolded fan resting on her leg, but it was more of a nervous tick than anything. Neither spoke. Either dared. And when the Ancient One finally broke the silence, all knew she was not happy.

"What do you have to say for yourself?"

Hazel glanced at the others in the room for a moment. The Ancient One had gathered quite the audience of masters and acolytes, eight in total, probably to make sure Hazel didn't start something about the Dark Dimension again. What harm did she expect Hazel to cause?

"Is this about what's on the news?" Hazel asked shyly.

"Perhaps," the Ancient One allowed. "Luckily, you didn't expose us. You only exposed yourself as a potential threat to national security. Or a mutant, or another super-powered vigilante that needs to be kept in check."

"I'm nothing of the sort," Hazel said. "And I'll tell them as much if I have to, without exposing your order. I promise."

"I wish I could believe you," the Ancient One murmured.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Hazel looked hurt. "When have I ever broken a promise to you?"

The Ancient One folded one arm and propped her chin in the palm of her hand. She didn't need to say any more. It wasn't about promises.

"I expected better of you," the Ancient One continued calmly. Her tone was almost dismayed. "You're ambitious, and sometimes careless, but I had every faith we'd washed our hands of each other."

"What?"

"Why did you waste the security we both had?" the Ancient One pressed. "The risk greatly outweighed the reward. Had you thought before you acted, you wouldn't have acted at all."

"Is that what you think?" Hazel looked hurt, less for herself this time and more for the state of her Sorcerer Supreme. Then she felt a bit fed up. Pity wouldn't get her anywhere; she was old enough to know that. "How many times do I have to tell you shit? I don't regard the Masters of the Mystic Arts. I regard you alone. I'm of my word, after all."

The Ancient One slapped her fan shut in an instant. No. That wasn't good enough. She couldn't believe Hazel was so bold as to throw her words back at her like that, and yet she expected no differently. Impulsively, as if to do it before she lost her nerve, the Ancient One grasped Hazel's collar and yanked her to her feet. The other sorcerers in the room shouted and scattered in protest.

"Master!"

"Don't, you'll hurt the both of you! Then where will we be?"

But they fell on deaf ears and Hazel and the Ancient One stared into each others eyes in a heated, unspoken debate. Hazel wouldn't waver; she was resolute. And the Ancient One could only blame herself. How else could Hazel have turned out with her upbringing?

The Ancient One's voice was a quiet, almost sing-song seethe. "You are... the most careless student I've ever had."

Hazel narrowed her eyes, but said nothing. They both won, in their own ways. The Ancient One loosened her grip and moved her hand to stroke Hazel's hair. It'd been recently cut, and the trimmings burned by a white candle, surely. Did that mean Hazel cut her own hair? Hazel relaxed and looked like she'd never had anything to worry about. Of course she trusted the Ancient One with everything she had. Anyone else might've thought it blind faith. In truth, it was quite the contrary.

The Ancient One deferred to their company, at last.

"Masters, thank you for your company. You may all resume your duties elsewhere."

One by one, the masters and acolytes relaxed and filed out of the room, some stopping to give Hazel a smile or wave in greeting as they passed. Once they were alone again, something separating the Ancient One and Hazel dissolved, as they were so used to. They relaxed again, all facades falling as they resumed being something outside of master and student.

"Of all the things I ever did to you, you grabbed me over that?" Hazel muttered, straightening her shirt over her sore collar bone.

"I'm sorry," the Ancient One smiled sympathetically, knowing Hazel was exaggerating for attention more than she was truly hurt or angry. "What will you do now?"

"Eh," Hazel shrugged. "I'll get things straightened out with the press, then... I don't know. I might... take all our boarders and release them into the wild. Maybe join them for a few years, I don't know."

"You're always welcome here," the Ancient One interjected. Hazel grinned at her.

"Wait, for a moment there, I thought you wanted to be rid of me."

The Ancient One didn't falter. Before all was said and done, she just wanted to be sure...

"You did that for me?" she asked, referring again to Hazel's daring rescue. "Truly?"

Hazel looked at her as resolutely as ever. "I meant what I said, Giin. I follow you and you alone. Unslaad."

The Ancient One accepted that. She had to. And when they parted ways that evening, probably for the last time in a long, long time, that was their comfort. Unending promise and unending fidelity. Perhaps, for all the trouble Hazel caused, it was dearly worth it for the Ancient One to have at least that.

A/N: (4.28.2020) So I've successfully re-uploaded the whole fanfiction after accidentally deleting it a season ago. Sorry about that. Anyway, I've since migrated from this fandom, but I hope you enjoyed my stay while I was here! And I still have a plethora (a wild jungle, even) of ideas of what happened in Hazel and TAO's future, so I might return with a sequel/not-really-a-sequel after a few works elsewhere.