Johnny Cage, God of Fire, was in a place he had never been before.

Half a second ago, he had stepped through a portal, trying to go to Xiatian, the capital of Outworld. And he had appeared here.

"Here" was a black and dark Realm. There seemed to be no horizon or sky, although he was sure he was outside; There was a ground, under his feet, but there were no stars or a moon, although something shone down, illuminating where he stood. It wasn't Earth; he could feel it in his bones. It wasn't Outworld, either. And it sure as hell wasn't Maresium.

"Hello?" he called out. "Is there anybody here?"

"Are you blind?" replied a voice as a figure stepped out into the light. "Can you not sense us at all?"

Johnny squinted. He didn't know the deity at all. But now that he thought about it--there were several people around him. He couldn't see them in the feeble light, but they were there. "I'm still new at this sensing stuff."

"Even children can sense those around them," the person sneered. It was tall, solidly built man, dressed in a pants-and-shirt ensemble not unlike Johnny's.

"Like I said, I'm new to it all." The god looked around him. "Where is this?"

"Our Realm," the man continued. "Gorgeous, innit? That's why we don't bother living here."

"Shut up, Lem." A woman's voice intruded, and Johnny whirled around, trying to put a face to the sound.

"Let me handle this, Eler." Lem stepped forward until he was only a few feet from Johnny. "We were asked to talk some sense into you."

"Oh?" Johnny tried to sound nonchalant, but now that he was paying attention and using his powers, he could tell that something wasn't right with these people. They weren't gods. They weren't mortals, either, but they definitely were not deities. "People have tried talking sense into me in the past. I'm very resistant to it."

Lem laughed. "We have our ways. This is the deal, Cage--you have to give up your powers."

"Excuse me?" Johnny looked at him askew.

"You have to give up the Fire powers," Lem repeated, very slowly, and heavy on the sarcasm. "Get it now?"

"I'm not giving them up," Johnny replied simply. He looked around him. "You know what? I'm growing tired of this conversation."

He threw his arms into the air and a fireball exploded over his head. The people gathered in the circle screamed at the sudden light and heat. Many of them ducked or jumped backwards; the circle was broken. He dashed through one of the gaps.

"Get him!" screamed Lem, the first to recover.

"Leave that to me," retorted Eler. "Rope!"

Something materialised around Johnny's legs. He tripped, falling face first into the hard ground. He put out his hands to catch himself, and then rolled on to his back. Some kind of energy was woven around his ankles binding them together. He dispelled it with a thought. He jumped to his feet.

The people were starting to come forward, but now there was a definite sense of uneasiness.

"He broke through that too easily," another woman commented, fearful. "What if he can control his powers?"

"I can hear you," Johnny said in a sing-song voice. "And you're right. I can control my powers." There was a sudden ring of fire that whipped up around the group, although far enough away to keep them from harm. "I just don't bother, most of the time."

Lem's face was pale, but he was keeping a grip on his emotions. "If you kill us, they'll come after you."

"Who? The people coming after me already?" Johnny inquired. "That reminds me. You never mentioned their names."

"We won't--" Eler began, but she was cut off by assorted screams as the ring started to close in on them.

"Try again," Johnny said sharply. "You'll find I have a red-hot temper to go with my new Fire powers, which I plan on keeping, thank you very much."

"It's--" began someone else, before Lem clamped a hand over his mouth.

"Shut up!" the apparent leader hissed.

"I'm waiting," the god called out. The ring advanced another few inches. "I'm not a very patient person, either."

"It's Turan!" Eler cried, grabbing Lem's arm and yanking him away from the other. "It's Turan!"

"Okay..." Johnny gestured slightly and the ring receded slightly. "Next question: why?"

"He hired us to convince you to give up the powers," Eler continued. The ring moved outward. "He said that you didn't have any control over your powers, that you were a disgrace."

"And what were you supposed to do, if I didn't choose to go along with anything?" Johnny asked, calmly digesting the information and storing it so he could ask Meimei or Lindara.

"Kill you," Eler said, simply. "Kill you with magic, and let the powers become absorbed back into the Omniverse."

"Good going," Lem snarled. "Why don't you just hand him our heads on a silver platter, while you're at it?"

"It wouldn't work, he'd just defeat us," Eler snapped at him. "I'm not going to die just because some god didn't think things through."

"You are mortal!" Johnny exclaimed triumphantly. "I knew that something wasn't right!"

"We're not mortals--we're--" Eler began, before Lem reached out towards her with a sudden movement. She screamed and faded from view, in a puff of smoke.

He turned to Johnny with a sneer on his face. "You're not getting any more from us. Teleport!"

There was a flash of light and the group vanished from the plain, taking the light with them.

Johnny sighed, but stretched out with his powers. Some sort of shield had fallen away, and he could tell where he was. It was a Realm, of some sort, but broken and empty. He could teleport again, he realised; so he created a small portal and stepped through.

Lindara burst into the kitchen, her eyes wild. Suyuan was feeding the boys their supper. At her entrance, both children stopped flinging food at each other to stare up at her.

"Lin?" her mother asked. "What's the matter?"

"I need to talk to you," Lindara said, urgently. "Right now. In private."

"I'm almost done feeding the boys--"

"Right now." There was something in Lin's voice that made Suyuan look up and stare at her daughter in confusion.

"Lindara--what's the matter? Your energy is all over the place..."

"Mother, when you're done, meet me in my room, okay? Please? I need to talk to you." Lindara paused, then ran from the kitchen, leaving her family to glance at each other in bewilderment.

"Auntie Lin is weird," Jih commented.

"Eat your rice," his grandmother replied.


He looked around as Sonya appeared, only a few feet from him. "Where have you been?" she continued, furious. "I was looking everywhere--you could have told us you weren't coming--"

"Whoa... back up there." Johnny held up his hands in surrender. "You found me, and I didn't exactly have a choice in where I went, okay?"

"What?" Sonya blurted. "What are you talking about?"

He pulled on her arm, leading her over towards an unoccupied room. His voice dropped. "Have you heard of anyone named Turan?"

"No, should I have?" she replied, in a whisper. "What's going on?"

"I'm not sure yet," he admitted. "But I was going through your portal and I got... detoured. This guy named Turan, he wants me to give up my powers."

"What? Why?" She looked at him in bafflement.

"If I knew that, I wouldn't be so confused myself. I was just wondering if you had heard anything, seen anything."

"Nothing," she admitted.

He sighed, rubbing a hand through his hair. "Well. That's good, at least. So. How's Rayden doing?"

The innocent question struck a nerve. Sonya scowled. "I don't know. I managed to get him to say more than three words, but it was just to tell me off."

The god laughed. "That's our Sonya."

She punched him in the shoulder. "It's not funny. Something's really affected him, strangely."

"You mean, like the death of his wife and two close friends?" Johnny inquired. "That will drive anybody a little loco."

"I know that. There's something else, though. He's shut himself off from me, I can't sense him at all." She shook her head. "It's making me worried, I can't even imagine how his family is taking it."

"Probably the same way you are."

She rolled her eyes, suppressing a chuckle.

"Did I just make the Lady Sonya laugh?" Johnny pantomimed shock and horror. "Creator forbid!"

She smiled. "What were you told about taking names in vain?"

"I wasn't in vain. I was perfectly serious. Hey, did you meet up with Jax?" Johnny asked suddenly.

"Yeah--" Sonya paused. "You didn't hear about what happened, did you!"

"No--I was busy torturing mortals," Johnny replied, ignoring her stunned expression. "I'll explain later. What happened?"

"Jikan Tai showed up, half-dead. Lin's healed him, he's as good as new, but he's not talking." Sonya sighed. "Nobody knows what's happened to him--except Jax and Kitana, and they aren't talking, either. Not that clarity is Kitana's strong suit, but I expected it of Jax, at least."

"What?" Johnny frowned at her. "Replay, please?"

She sighed again, this time with frustration. "Jax and Kitana apparently disappeared, had some sort of an adventure with Jikan Tai, in which he was seriously wounded, before they brought him back here."

"Oh." Johnny nodded, although he wasn't sure if he understood or not. "So we have two comatose trauma patients on our hands?"

"Rayden's not comatose any more," Sonya replied smartly.

"Oh, right. You pissed him off. I forgot."

She rolled her eyes again. "I simply had a talk with him."

"I can fully understand where he's coming from, if they're anything like the talks you give me," Johnny replied innocently. She punched him again.

"That's not funny. I know he's had some serious shocks over the past few months, but that doesn't mean--"

"Whoa." Johnny held up his hands again. "What did you say?"

She stared at him, confused. "I said, he's had some serious shocks over the past few months-- "

"The battle was only a month ago," Johnny corrected her. "I know it seems like longer, but-- "

She shook her head. "I meant Lightning--that was a shock to his system, to be sure, and Hiko, and then finding out about Nova..." She trailed off, looking at him. "What?"

"What about Nova?" he asked quietly.

She stared at him, her mouth dropping in shock. "You mean you don't know about--? But I thought he would have told you--"

"Told me what?" Johnny blurted, his voice suddenly very loud in the stillness.

"That Nova is--was--his daughter," Sonya explained, keeping her voice low in demonstration. Her eyes widened in shock. "He didn't tell you!"

Johnny took a deep breath, trying to take it in. "I don't understand--how could Nova be his daughter? She was Cosmos'."

"I don't know the circumstances or the details," the goddess admitted. "I was in a mindlink with Rayden when Nova told him. Apparently Hiko kept it a secret, to protect them from something."

Johnny was lost in thought. "He didn't mean to tell you?"

"He didn't tell me," she corrected. "I overheard, by chance--I was in a mindlink with everyone, I didn't know how to switch it off, yet."

"He didn't tell me," Johnny answered, grimly. "I'm sure he had his reasons--but did he tell his family?"

Sonya paled, something coming back to her. "Oh my god."


"I think I may have let it slip to Lindara..." she breathed. "That's why she looked so confused... I just assumed he would have told them by now... I don't think they know at all!"

"Poor Rayden." Johnny shook his head sadly. "Carrying around something like this all by himself. No wonder he's falling apart at the seams."

Lindara was pacing when Suyuan entered her room. "Mother. Good. I need to ask you a few things."

"Such as?" Suyuan began, but her daughter took her by the elbow and led her over to the bed.

"Sit down, first. This might take a while..." Lindara took a deep breath. "How close were Rayden and Hiko?"

"Very, you know that," Suyuan snapped. "Don't go dredging, Lin, Rayden's in--"

"I know, Mother, let me finish. How close were they when I was little?"

"When? What?"

Lindara sighed. She stopped pacing for a minute. "When I was a baby, back when Shao Khan first attacked Maresium--how close were they?"

"They were good friends, as far as I know," Suyuan answered. "I was just as surprised as anyone when they got together."

"And how close were Hiko and Cosmos?"

At the mention of the deity's name, Suyuan paled, then flushed with anger. "What are you bringing him up for? You know how upset that gets me!"

"I don't mean to upset you, Mother. I don't. I just need some information, that's all." Lindara resumed pacing, obviously trying to figure out something in her head. "I know that when Hiko was married to Cosmos, Rayden didn't see much of her. When did they stop being friends? Do you know?"

"No," Suyuan answered, truthfully. "I didn't see much of Rayden then. He was busy with the Mortal Kombats, he was at Earth so often, he rarely came to visit."

Lindara frowned. "And he didn't tell you? Tell you what was going on?"

"Yes, he told me about the Mortal Kombats," her mother answered. "Lin, does this have a point?"

"Yes, but I don't think I've reached it, yet. I don't want to go hurling accusations."

"Accusations!" Suyuan exclaimed. "What sort of accusations?"

"Nothing, Mother. It's nothing." Yet, Lin added silently. "Who was closest to Rayden during that time?"

"Well, I suppose Kerlan," Suyuan mused. "They were always good friends, even since they were small. Meimei was around him a lot, she visited Earth fairly frequently--"

"Meimei!" Lindara burst out. "Meimei would know. Thank you, Mother, you've been a great help."

"Well, that's good," Suyuan replied, still confused. "I guess. Are you going to tell me what it is you're trying to figure out?"

"No, not yet. I need to talk to Meimei, first." Lindara took a deep breath, and teleported from the room.

"Grandma?" Yueh poked his small head around the door. "Grandma?"

"I'm here, darling," Suyuan replied. He ran into to the room, stopping at her lap.

"Mama said to tell you that's she gone to visit Papa for a bit," he said.

"When? Just now?" Suyuan exclaimed.

"She left a few minutes ago," Yueh added. His grandmother sighed.

"I suppose that's all right. Lin will be annoyed, though--where's your brother?" she asked, suddenly suspicious.

"Jih's playing with the monks," Yueh answered.

"Oh no." Suyuan got to her feet. "Not again. I guess I'd better stop him. Come on." She headed for the door, the child tagging along behind her.

"Did you find Johnny?" Jax looked up from the paperwork. Sonya nodded and sat down at the edge of the bed.

"Yeah, I did. He says he was kidnapped."

Jax whistled. "Great excuse. What some people will say--"

Sonya held up a hand. "I believe him, Jax. I think he's telling the truth."

"Really?" Jax sat up, taking notice. "Is it anything we can help with?"

"I don't think so," Sonya replied. "Not yet, anyway."

"Sonya--" Jax began, hesitant. She gestured for him to continue. "I want to go back to Hong Kong."

"What? Now? Why?" she exclaimed.

"I've been looking over these notes on the knife. Shao Khan's. I talked to Kitana about it, briefly, too, and I think one of us needs to be at the base in case something comes up." He got to his feet. For some reason, he felt more comfortable when he was at attention. Go figure.

"I can't leave yet," she breathed. "I've still got this thing with Johnny to figure out, and Rayden-- "

"That's why I said one of us needs to go. I know you need to stay here. Send me back, I'll wade through some of the paperwork, let you know what's happening, okay?" Jax gave her a look.

She sighed and ran a hand over her hair, which was tightly pulled back in its pony-tail. "You're right."

"I've been thinking about this a lot--what?" Jax blurted. He frowned. "Did you just agree with me?"

"Yes," she replied. "I think it's a good idea. You're right."

"Whoa..." he trailed off. "Is something the matter? Are you not feeling okay? Fever?"

"I'm fine," she snapped.

"That's better. I thought you might have been possessed there, for a minute." Jax smiled at her. She didn't smile back, but shook her head.

"Between you and Johnny, the hilarity never ends. Okay, I'll portal you back to Hong Kong-- but you have to promise to send me regular reports," she insisted. "I don't like the thought of backing out of work, but--"

"You're needed here. I think we covered this," Jax replied.

Lindara teleported into the empty room. Meimei wasn't here. "Damn," she muttered, storming out the door and nearly running Rayden down.

"Sorry, Rayden," she replied automatically. Her eyes widened. "Rayden!"

"Yes?" he looked at her irritatedly. "What is it? Why do you look like you've seen a..." he trailed off, leaving his sentence unfinished.

"I have to talk to you," she blurted. "I was talking to Sonya--"

"Is Meimei not here?" he interrupted, craning his neck. "Hmmm. I guess I can talk to her later." He turned and stormed down the corridor.

"Rayden, wait up," Lindara cried, running after. "Rayden, I was talking to Sonya, and she said something peculiar, and I was wondering--"

Rayden teleported away.

"Dammit!" she swore under her breath, kicking at the wall in frustration. Why was nobody paying her any attention?

"Problem?" someone asked, behind her. She whirled, startled, to see the Guardian come out from one of the rooms. He was still pale, and looked tired. No, weary.

Why does everyone around here look so tired of life? she wondered, absent- mindedly.

"No, no problem," she said out loud. "I was just trying to talk to Rayden, and, well--" Lindara gestured at the dead end.

"Ah." Jikan Tai nodded very slowly. He turned and started to go back into his room.

"Guardian, wait for a moment," she said, breathless as an idea struck her. Perhaps Jikan Tai could share what information he had. He knew Rayden during the period she was curious about. "Can I ask you something?"

He nodded, curious.

"How close were Rayden and Hiko, while she was married to Cosmos?" the goddess asked.

He frowned, his eyes narrowing. "Why do you wish to know?"

She paused, uncertain of what to tell him. "I was just curious."

"If Lord Rayden does not wish to tell you, I do not see why I should," Jikan Tai replied simply, before he started back into his room. She tugged on his sleeve, to hold him in the hallway.

"Please, Guardian," she pleaded, "Just one little thing. It's all I need to know: how close were they?"

"I don't know exactly," he replied honestly, after taking a long moment to make his decision. "I only know that they still cared about each other. They never got a moment alone while she was married to Cosmos. I know that, though. He was very zealous about keeping them apart."

Lindara nodded, heaving a great sigh. "Thank you, Guardian. You have been a great help to me. Thank you."

"It is no problem," he replied stiffly. "Lady Lindara--may I ask you a question?"

"Of course," she said, smiling. "Anything at all."

"I was wondering if you could show me where the kitchen is--I have not eaten in a long while-- "

Her hand flew to her mouth. "I thought Meimei was watching over you! I never thought to ask- -! Oh, that's terrible!"

"It is no problem, I will simply--" he began, uncomfortable, but she grabbed him by the arm.

"I'll make you something to eat. I'm not the cook that Rayden is, but I get by," she said proudly. "Come on. The kitchen is this way."

She started down the hall, half-dragging the Guardian behind her.

Rayden sighed as he teleported back out to the hill side. His heart was pounding. He wished he knew where Meimei was; he really needed to talk to her. But she was gone, and he didn't want to use his powers to sense her.

"Why would do you need to talk to her anyway?" asked Hiko gently, coming up behind him. She snuggled into his arm. "You've gone all tense."

"Just worried," he replied softly, trying to keep his mind clear and unfocussed. Gradually, she began to fade until he was alone again on the hill side.

With a huge sigh of relief, he settled back down on the grass, closing his eyes, thankful for the escape.

Sonya waved goodbye to her partner and closed the portal. She sighed, deeply, wondering if it was the right decision after all. She was needed in Hong Kong, but she was needed here, too, and she was very torn. But in the end she accepted the fact that Jax could work without her, and she started to leave her bedroom.


Johnny sounded surprised, and occupied with something else.

Yes? she thought out to him.

Help would be good, was all he replied before the mindlink faded completely. Confused, she tried to re-establish it and she realised that someone else--someone she didn't know-- was with Johnny and was shielding their thoughts from her.

She blinked and teleported to the main corridor, where she knew Johnny to be. As she reappeared, the first thing she noticed was the sheer, oppressive heat in the corridor. That wasn't right, it was evening--a sudden explosion of fire answered all her questions. Most of her questions.

"Johnny!" she cried, shielding her face from the searing blast. "What the hell...?"

"Him," Johnny said succinctly, popping into existence beside her. She gasped as a figure started to approach through the ring of fire that Johnny had created.

He was a god, that was immediately obvious. His hair was a dark blue, almost navy, and stood out in spikes. He was taller than the average deity and wide at the shoulders. He looked as though he could pick up either of them up with one hand and lift them over his head.

And he wasn't affected by fire.

Sonya took her eyes off the stranger long enough to notice the bruise that was beginning to form on Johnny's face. Something large had struck him, and struck him hard. "Johnny--"

"Can't talk, fighting," he snapped back, releasing another round of fire energy. This was strong enough to cause the interloper to stagger backwards. "Help would be good."

Sonya nodded, and took a deep breath. She gathered her powers around her, not quite sure what to do. Her techniques revolved around shields and telepathy--although she knew Cosmos to be adept in other regions as well. But perhaps a shield would work in this situation. "Give him another blast," she instructed Johnny, quickly.

He nodded, and created another fire wave before the intruder had time to collect his bearings, and Sonya created a shield around him. Around the stranger.

The moment she did, Johnny broke off his attack. The shield would have simply reflected any more fire blasts back at them. But it also contained the other explosion around the deity, who was unable to move and clearly showing signs of wear.

There was a shout behind them and Suyuan came skidding around the corner. "What's going on?" she roared in anger, although within a moment she could see for herself. She paled for a moment, then drew herself to her full height, just as the fire ring finally collapsed, having burnt itself out. The deity staggered against the wall, breathing hard but not yet out for the count. He glared at Suyuan.

Her powers were starting to cackle around her, a breeze beginning to pick up in the hallway, refreshing the air and dissipating any remnants of Johnny's fires. "Get out," she said quietly, in a menacing tone that neither Johnny nor Sonya could ever have suspected her of making. "You are not wanted here."

"I will finish my mission," the deity growled, before disappearing in a murky mist that left a funny smell behind, one that was quickly dispersed by Suyuan's breeze. The goddess relaxed somewhat, but remained on guard.

"Who was that?" Sonya asked, after she regained her composure.

"That," Johnny replied, after casting a look to Suyuan, "was Turan."

"And then he backhanded me--" Johnny continued, wincing as Lindara laid a hand on his face, to heal the welt.

"Then what did you do?" Suyuan asked, her eyes wide. Sonya and Jikan Tai were gathered around the table as well, getting the first hand account. Suyuan, Sonya and Johnny had come to ask Lindara to help and found her in the kitchen with the Guardian.

"Well, first I ricocheted off the wall, and then I--" Johnny grinned to himself, but when none of the others grinned with him, the smile faltered and he picked up, seriously. "I tried to fight back, just using kicks and punches, but it was like I was hitting a wall. A very solid wall."

Both Suyuan and Lindara nodded, the elder making tsk-tsk noises. "Turan is very... solid," the Goddess of Winds commented. "Almost indestructible. He's designed to be that way."

"Designed? Somebody made him?" Sonya and Johnny both exclaimed at once.

Lindara frowned. "Not in the sense you mean--he's the God of Assassins, and the power means that he becomes hard to kill. Being invulnerable is part of his power, you see."

"He's not very stealthy, for an assassin," Johnny commented dryly, as Lindara moved away, her healing job complete. "He teleported in, told me he was going to kill me, and then proceeded to try to. Not very subtle at all."

"He doesn't have be," Suyuan replied simply. "He's not like mortal assassins. He doesn't need to sneak around."

"He's very efficient," Lindara commented. "I met him at a festival, once. He's blunt, but honest." She smiled and patted her hair. "He told me that I was very attractive." She noticed everyone staring at her. "What?"

"Lindara's flirting aside--" Johnny began, but Suyuan interrupted him.

"When was this?" she exclaimed.

"Three Festivals ago," her daughter remarked. "Why? Oh, you're not thinking--"

"That's exactly what I'm thinking," Suyuan remarked sourly. "What have I told you about flirting with dangerous deities? Turan is completely incompatible, anyway."

"Well, yes, but I never said I was flirting back. I can't help it if he finds me attractive."

"Yes you can. Go out of your way to make sure he doesn't. I'm not having God of Assassins as a son-in-law. It's bad enough that Tai Hou is the son of Shimauma--"

"I like Tai Hou," Lindara replied, shocked.

"I do as well, he's a lovely boy, but that doesn't change the fact that he's the son of the god of Safari Parks. Besides, you're getting off the point that Turan--"

"Was trying to kill me," Johnny interrupted, very loudly. Both Lindara and Suyuan looked a little ashamed at being caught so far off topic. Sonya looked irritated. Jikan Tai looked a little confused.

"Oh. Yes. Well." Suyuan cleared her throat. "There's not much you can do about that."

"What?" Johnny exclaimed. "What are you talking about? Of course I have to do something!"

Lindara laid a hand on his arm to calm him. "Johnny, you have to understand something about Turan. He's a very practical, dedicated sort of deity. He must have a good reason for whatever he's doing."

Sonya began to laugh out loud. The others stared at her in disbelief.

"I knew it would take something like this to make her laugh," Johnny muttered. "All right, Blade, what's so funny?"

"Just this entire situation," Sonya explained. She spread her arms out. "This whole deal. You and I, Johnny, are now gods. Immortal, from a human point of view. And there's less we can do in this situation than an ordinary mortal could do."

"I am not following you at all," Johnny muttered, brows furrowed.

"There's only one course of action for you to take, Cage: run away."

"Now I'm really not following you," Johnny said, after a moment, cleaning out his ear, "Because I thought I heard you say--this is really funny, too--to run away."

She nodded, and Suyuan and Lindara nodded with her. "Go to Maresium. You can declare it off-limits to Turan, and boom! Every time he tries to step into it, his powers are gone, while you're at your peak. You're safe."

"Safe, and trapped," he added.

"That's true," Lindara admitted. "But we can start working on finding out what's caused him to act this way. Maybe even convince him to leave you alone."

"Or even take it straight to the Council," Suyuan continued. "They can order him to leave you alone, if they feel he's not justified."

"Not justified!" Johnny exclaimed. "He's trying to kill me because he thinks I'm embarrassing, and you think he could be justified?"

Suyuan and Lindara didn't say anything in response, and both Johnny and Sonya stared at him in shock. "You... you don't think he's justified, do you?" the god asked, quietly, in horror.

Suyuan fidgeted with his robes. "No, of course not," she said finally. "It's just that--we could see how he could get this into his head. No doubt a lot of the deities are uneasy about mortals with powers. Especially Elemental powers."

"They didn't mind when Nova gave them the powers," Jikan Tai said quietly, staring very hard at Lindara, until she began to blush from the attention. It was clear to Johnny that the Guardian was trying to see where she sat in relation to the matter; but the plant goddess cleared her throat and turned away.

"That was a totally different thing," Suyuan said, at last. "First, it was seen as a desperate measure. And secondly, I'm sure most thought it was... temporary, that Nova would reclaim the powers once the battle was over."

"And then there is the question of the Realms," Lindara agreed. "I'm sure most would see Maresium or Usirapi--especially Maresium--inhabited by a mortal Lord"

"Blasphemous?" Sonya offered. "Unholy? Sacrilegious? Ungodly?"

Johnny and Jikan Tai both smirked but neither goddess did.

"Rude," Lindara finished. "Vulgar. Maresium is the home of Hisan. She was..."

"She was special, even among the deities, even among the Elders," Suyuan agreed. "She was from the days of the First Realm. And to have her Realm fall into the hands of a mortal--"

"We're not mortal now, everyone seems to forget this," Johnny pointed out.

"You have powers, and the lifespan, but you're not truly deities," Lindara corrected. "You're-- "

"Something in between?" Jikan Tai asked. His face betrayed no emotion. To a mortal. To a deity, however, the hostility was rolling off him in waves that were nearly visible.

Lindara paled, and her mother leapt in to her defence. "It is not at all what you think, Guardian," Suyuan said, emphasising the title. "They were given powers, but they were not raised with them. They have no knowledge of our histories, our rules, our beliefs--"

"The prince and the pauper," Sonya said suddenly. "We're commoners suddenly left in charge of the kingdom. And the aristocrats aren't happy about it."

Lindara and Suyuan exchanged glances and nodded silently.

Johnny snorted loudly. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."

"Oh?" his friend asked.

"I'm not going to give up my life or my powers just because I don't sit well with people I've never met. I'm not going to let Turan decide how my life is going to be spent." Johnny got up from his chair, but Suyuan pulled him down.

"Johnny, please, listen to me. Turan is dangerous. I agree with you, you shouldn't be afraid for yourself. I'm simply telling you where he's getting his ideas from. Please, sit down."

He sat.

"Go to Maresium. He won't be able to get at you there, and in the meanwhile, Sonya and I will go to the Council, we'll try and get them to stop him."

"I want to go," Lindara blurted.

"You stay here, and look after Rayden. I don't want him left alone," Suyuan informed her. "Meimei's going to be gone for a few days--she's gone to visit Tai Hou, something important came up-- and Jikan Tai needs someone around as well."

"No I don't," he blurted, surprised.

She turned on him with a motherly look. "Of course you do, dear. You haven't healed properly. Lin will take care of you, don't worry."

She shot her daughter a look to say you had better make sure he doesn't worry.

"If that's what you want, Mother," Lindara sighed. "I had hoped to see Meimei--"

"You can see her later. This, and Rayden, takes precedence." The goddess got to her feet. "Sonya?"

"Are we going now?" Sonya exclaimed. "I thought--"

"No time like the present. Johnny, are you ready?" she asked him.

"Yeah, no problem," he replied, also getting to her feet.

Suddenly something occurred to Lindara. "Wait a second! What about the boys?"

Suyuan paused. "You'll have to take care of them."

"Both of them?" Lindara wailed. "I can't, they don't listen to me--"

"You'll have to," Suyuan persisted. "I can't take them to the Hall, they'll run away. And it's about time you helped with babysitting. Meimei's busy, and Rayden's--Jikan Tai! You like children, don't you?"

"I--" he began.

"Good. That takes care of it." The elder goddess turned back to Johnny. "We'll come to Maresium when we find out what's going to happen."

He nodded, and with a jaunty wave teleported away in a flash of orange and yellow.

"Come on, Sonya," Suyuan said next. Before they left, she turned to her daughter. "Just try and keep the boys out of trouble. Don't let Jih bother the monks; and watch out for Yueh's habit of eating dirt. He gets into puddles and makes pies and so on. If you run into too much trouble, get one of your uncles to come over. Naturalis is useless, they run right over him." All this was said in a rush; Lindara just sat, bewildered, looking as though it was all a bad dream.

"I'm ready," Sonya announced. Suyuan nodded, and she teleported away, the Goddess of Space following a moment later.

Lindara took a deep breath, realising suddenly that she'd forgotten to breathe. She looked to Jikan Tai with a sense of pity. "You go back, and rest. I can look after things here; no point in both of us suffering."

"Are the boys that bad?" the Guardian asked, quietly. She sighed, and rubbed her temples.

"They don't listen to me. I mean, they do; but all they say is 'Okay, Auntie Lin', and then totally disregard everything that I've been saying. It was such a shock, when Meimei brought them here two weeks ago; Tai Hou's father had a problem, you see, and so he couldn't look after the little horrors and what with Mother and Meimei here already in case Rayden needed them..." Lindara trailed off.

"Are they that bad?"

"No. Worse." Lin got to her feet, grumbling. "They're supposed to listen to me, I'm their aunt and a full goddess, but they don't and what am I supposed to do?"

"Lock them in their rooms?" the Guardian suggested, in jest. He was horrified to see her considering the idea. "I was kidding."

"Perhaps," Lindara said thoughtfully, "Perhaps my grandmother can help."

"Your grandmother is...?" the mortal asked.

"Fleurdelis," the goddess supplied. "My father's mother. She's good and stern, she raised three boys of her own, and they like when Naturalis takes them to visit her. Hmm."

"You're going to ship them off?" Jikan Tai smiled, slightly.

"No, not ship them off. How rude. Simply send them on a vacation. I can't deal with them right now. Rayden's a full time job, and that reminds me, I'm sure he hasn't eaten anything today." Lindara started to stand up yet again. "Yes. I think that's the best course of action."

Jikan Tai had gone pale, and wasn't saying anything. She decided he needed something more to eat, too.

"Don't worry, I'll cook something for you, too," she continued soothingly. "Now. I'll just go talk to Grandmother and then I think I can make a stir-fry--I'm pretty sure I can manage a stir-fry--it doesn't look at all hard when Rayden does it..."

Jih giggled slightly. His brother elbowed him. "Shut up--they're gonna hear you!"

"Uh uh," he protested. He tapped his ears. "Monks can't hear nothing!"

"Grandma said, no pestering the monks," Yueh reminded him.

"Not pestering them."

"Uh huh."

"Uh uh! Just playing with them. They like it when we play with them," Jih assured his brother. "That's why they get all excited."

Yueh considered this for a moment. Clearly, having to pick between the fun of playing with the monks and the fear of Grandma was hard. "Only play with them for a little bit," he agreed at last.

Jih smiled, and then started inching forward, crawling on his hands and knees. "Watch this," he said, with barely contained glee.

Lei, one of the masters of the novices, was demonstrating a new meditation when he felt a push on his side. Confused, he looked around, but there was no one there. He shook his head, when suddenly there was a harder shove. He nearly fell over.

Gung, one of the newer boys, leapt to his feet. "Demons!" he exclaimed. "They must be back!"

"There are no demons, only in your mind," Lei insisted, rubbing his sore side.

"I know there are demons! I saw them in the courtyard, yesterday," Gung continued, starting to grow agitated.

"Yes, in the courtyard in your mind," Lei snapped. He was agitated too; this was the second day in a row that strange events had occurred during his meditation. "Don't listen to the older boys' stories, Gung. Sit down and continue to meditate." Hesitant at first, Gung sat back down, but his words had clearly disrupted the others.

Lei was about to say something further when all of a sudden he toppled forward. He got up as quickly as he could, leaping to his feet so he could scan the area around him. There was no one in sight but he was sure he could hear the sound of giggles from somewhere. He whirled on his students: they were all suitably stone-faced.

He was about to comment when he felt another shove at the back of his legs and he started to fall forward when he was suddenly caught, as if by a giant, unseen hand.

"What is going on!" he blurted.

"That is what I want to know!" roared a voice. Amazingly, a woman began to appear in the center of the room. Her hair was long and black and she wore a sparkling green dress that trailed down to the ground. Her voice seemed to come from everywhere at once and there was something unnatural about her eyes.

The novices all immediately bowed low before the Goddess. Lei would have bowed as well, had he not been suspended in mid air.

"Aunty Lin!" howled a voice, and a small boy suddenly appeared next to the Goddess. She had him by the collar.

"What did Suyuan tell you!" she cried. She gestured and another small boy appeared at her other hand, this one scrambling to get away, although her grip held fast.

"Didn't mean to!" he cried.

"I'm sure. We'll see what Fleurdelis has to say about this!" The Goddess blinked her eyes, and the two boys vanished. Immediately, Lei felt himself being lowered, gently, to the ground.

"I apologise," the Goddess said, with a deep bow. "They are little horrors, I don't know what possessed Meimei to have them. Please, go back to... whatever it was you were doing."

She disappeared in wisp of green mist.

Lei cleared his throat, and the novices looked up. "Now, boys--"

"What was that?" asked one.

"Was that a demon, too?" added Gung, quickly, and a little too smugly for Lei's taste.

"Did that look like a demon to you?" sneered one of the older novices. He laughed.

Lei sighed. Time to get things under control. "Boys. Calm yourself. You all know of Lord Rayden, who resides at our Temple?"

They nodded.

"So this Goddess must have been... part of his entourage. That's all there is to it. Back to the meditation."

"Master Lei?"

He sighed. "No, they weren't demons, Gung. They were also part of Lord Rayden's... entourage."


Lei settled down. "Now, back to the meditation."

Johnny looked around the tropical beach with a relaxing sigh. The longer he stood on the sand, the more he could feel the stress leaking right out of him.

"This is the life," he agreed. Maybe staying here for a while wouldn't be so bad...

He rubbed his hands together. First things first was to stop in at the Temple they had dedicated to him last time he was here. The second thing was to get some of Tiburius' fabulous punch. The third thing was... well, he'd cross that beach when he got to it.

Sonya looked around the Hall with a frustrated sigh. The longer she stood in the corridor, watching deities scurry to and fro around her, the more she could feel the urge to scream build up inside of her.

Suyuan was walking purposely ahead of her, obviously knowing where she was going. "Adiutor!" she called, waving. A tall, thin god, very familiar to Sonya, scuttled over.

"Lady Suyuan!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing here? I thought you were in Earth Realm."

"I was. Something's come up; I need to speak to Celebria. Or Amai, if she's around," Suyuan explained. "Please get them for me."

"They're both in a Council session--" Adiutor trailed off as he noticed Suyuan's companion. "Ah. Lady Sonya."

"Lord Adiutor," Sonya replied, with a hint of sarcasm at the title; she obviously did not consider the God of Assistants worthy of it.

He cleared his throat awkwardly. "They are in session, Ladies--"

"So interrupt them," Sonya finished smoothly.

Adiutor started. "Lady--"

"Can the courtesy. Get us somebody who is capable of doing something other than making excuses," Sonya snapped. Adiutor's eyes widened and he scurried away.

Suyuan stared.

"If it works, use it," Sonya replied simply, all trace of hostility gone.

"You don't make friends that way," Suyuan chided, motherly.

"I'm not here to make friends. I'm here to get results." Sonya crossed her arms and leaned against the wall to wait.

Suyuan started to say something, and then stopped. Another woman could be seen coming around the corner. Sonya recognised her as well.

"Mary," she said, by way of greeting.

Mary paused, looked at Sonya for a second, looked at Suyuan, looked at the clipboard she was holding, and then back at Sonya. "Oh no."

"Oh no?" the goddess inquired.

"You're not on my sheet," Mary explained, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "However, I know that will not deter you in the slightest which means more paperwork for me this evening, if it doesn't also mean the Omniverse is about to implode. Or whatever. Excuse me, I have to go cancel my date." She turned on her heels and marched promptly around the corner.

Suyuan's jaw dropped. "You've got quite a reputation. I can see why Rayden tries to avoid this place."

"Rayden's rep is worse than mine," Sonya said, almost sulkily.

"I'm sure it is," Suyuan soothed. "I just hope we haven't scared everyone off."

"Doesn't matter if we have," Sonya shrugged. "We can just break down the doors."

Suyuan gasped. "That's--you can't do that!"

"Of course we can."


Sonya sighed. "The way I see it, the Council is just another lame excuse of a government. And I treat governments the same way I treat my superiors: as something in my way."

Suyuan had recovered from her shock and was now going bright red in the face. "Sonya," she began, quite firmly, "This is exactly what I'm talking about. Deities do not storm the Hall. They do not break Council sessions. They--"

"Make a lot of lame excuses and rush around in a panic, oh, I know this already," Sonya snapped in frustration. "I've dealt with them and their Council several times in the past few years."

Suyuan spluttered, indignant at the accusations, but she could hardly deny them.

Adiutor appeared again, looking nervous. "Ladies, the Council has refused to break up the session; they say that since nothing is really the matter, that--" he gulped, obviously not liking to be the bearer of bad news, especially to Sonya, "--you're not important enough."

Sonya stood facing him, her arms folded over her arms. Suyuan seemed resigned, and ready to accept the decision, but the younger goddess made no move to go home.

"Lady Sonya...." Adiutor began, licking his lips nervously, "I do believe that--"

"Who else can we see about this?" Sonya asked suddenly.

"Uh..." The god of assistants stuttered for a moment. "There are the Elders, but--"

"Good. Where are they?" Sonya was acting utterly nonchalant, which only worried Adiutor more. However, Suyuan was not threatened by the deity, so she decided to step in.

"Sonya, you can not see the Elders. They are--"

Sonya wasn't listening. She was staring at Adiutor, her eyes narrowed. "Nevermind, Adiutor."

"P-Pardon?" he blurted, flinching. He seemed to realise that she wasn't going to harm him and he slowly regained his composure. "Is there anything else, then, Ladies?" he asked, mostly to Suyuan, who shook her head. He bowed, and teleported away.

The goddess of Winds turned to Sonya. "What are you going to do?"

"Leave," Sonya said simply, with a slight shrug. "Nothing more to do here."

"Quite right--" Suyuan began, before Sonya teleported away. Startled, Suyuan created a portal of her own back to the Temple. She startled Lin who was busy berating Jih and doing a terrible job of it.

"Mother!" she exclaimed. "How did it go?"

"Well, not as well as we hoped," Suyuan admitted. She looked around. "Wait a second-- where's Sonya?"

"I thought she was with you," Lindara answered.

"She was. Where--oh no." Suyuan sighed. "I guess I'm going to have to go after her."

"Go? Go where?" Lindara continued. Jih was trying to sneak away but she grabbed him by the collar and held him fast. "Oh, Fleurdelis said she'd take the boys. Is that okay?"

Suyuan frowned, not really listening. "Sure. Fine. Keep an eye on Rayden for me; I have a feeling this is going to take longer than I first thought."

She disappeared.

Lindara sighed. Jih, sensing an opportunity, tried to bolt but she kept her grip. It was then that she realised she'd lost track of Yueh. Saying something that Jih shouldn't have heard, the goddess created a portal. She pushed her nephew towards it.

"Don't want to leave!" Jih howled.

"Fleurdelis is looking forward to seeing you," Lindara told him. "As soon as I find your brother, I'll send him through as well, okay?"

"Yueh's with Uncle Rayden," Jih told her. "Can I stay with Uncle Rayden too?"

"No. I just told you, Fleurdelis is looking forward to seeing you. Go." She gave him another push towards the portal. With a long frown and a scowl at the same time, Jih hopped through the portal. Sighing deeply, she closed it behind him. One down, one to go.

Yueh sat himself down and tried to see what Uncle Rayden was looking at. All he could see was the valley. It wasn't very interesting to him, but then his elders frequently did things that weren't very interesting.

"Whatcha looking at?" Yueh asked, craning his neck. Uncle Rayden was very big. Maybe he could see something the little boy couldn't.

"Nothing much," Uncle Rayden replied. He sounded very tired. But not annoyed. That was good.

"Oh." Yueh stopped trying to crane his neck if there was nothing to see. He looked at his Uncle, instead. "You look like Mama."

Rayden turned then, bemused.

"Only different," Yueh added. "I wish I had white hair too." He patted his black hair. "I have hair like Auntie Lin and Grandma, instead."

"Black hair looks very nice," Rayden commented. "Doesn't make you look as old."

"But you are old," Yueh corrected, with the impeccable logic of a child. "So you look old."

Rayden chuckled. "Very true, Yueh. That's a good point." He sighed. "But not everything is as it looks."

"Is that what you're looking at?" the boy asked. "The stuff that doesn't look like it does?"

Rayden looked down at him. "Sort of."

"I wish I could see stuff that doesn't look like what it looks like," Yueh pouted. "That's not fair."

"I'm sure you will some day," his uncle answered, comfortingly. Yueh shuffled over to lean on Rayden's arm, who, in turn, put his arm around him.

"Do you have any babies, Uncle Rayden?" he asked suddenly. "Mama and Grandma are always going on about babies. I'm not a baby, though."

"I know you aren't," Uncle Rayden replied, sounding very sad. "And no, I don't have any children."

"Oh. That's too bad. Then I could play with them," Yueh commiserated. "We could teach them to play with monks. Nicely, with the monks," he corrected himself. "Mama wants more babies. I don't see why. She's got us." Yueh frowned. "But we're not babies any more, maybe that's why. Papa says we should just get a dog. I don't know what a dog is. Do you, Uncle Rayden?"

His uncle mumbled in the affirmative.

"Maybe we should get a dog. But it doesn't sound like it could play with monks, or make mud pies or see things that aren't looking. Do you like to cook, Uncle Rayden?"

"Yes," Rayden replied, more coherently.

"So do I. Want a mud pie? I can make them with rocks and stuff and then they--" Yueh stopped, mid-breath, and cocked his head, as though he was listening to something. "Uh oh."

"Lin's going to be mad," his uncle agreed. Yueh stared.

"You hear stuff that's not there, too? That's not fair!" he pouted.

"Life's not fair," Rayden replied automatically, although he wished later that he hadn't. "You'd better go find Auntie Lin before she finds you."

Yueh got to his feet reluctantly. He paused and then threw his arms around his uncle's neck. "Don't worry, Uncle Rayden. I'm sure you'll have kids too and then we can all make pies only yours won't be mud because grownups don't like mud and I'll bring the dog and then we can all look at stuff that isn't there." He bounded off in the direction of the Temple.

Rayden chuckled, unable to help himself.

Sonya felt disturbed the minute she reappeared in the long, dark hallway. It was a simple stone corridor, of the mock-medieval fashion so many of the deities seemed to prefer. Torches, compliments of Sennoma, flickered every few feet.

There should be tapestries, she thought. That caused her to pause; why should there be tapestries?

She had a sudden mental flash of Cosmos, holding a knife to Rayden's throat. Of course. Usirapi. This corridor reminded her of Cosmos' manor in Usirapi.

She took a deep breath, and tried to relax. She was here, in the Elder Realm, to see Thunder. She had taken the position from Adiutor's mind, and she was going to get this over with. There was no point in making herself tense thinking of old foes and battles.

She started walking. In truth, she had no idea where to go, but she figured her "spidey sense" would lead her straight to the god's door. And within a few moments, she founded herself outside an elaborate, wooden door.

There were chills running along her spine. She couldn't figure out why; she had never been here. And for some reason, the uneasy feelings reminded her of Hiko, and Rayden.

"Remnants," said a voice, beside her. She gasped and leapt backwards as a figure materialised from a thick, gray-green mist. "Remnants of old things, long gone."

It was a thin, tired old man, with scraggly gray hair and weary, red-rimmed eyes. He was watching her sadly. "You're very adept, for one who has not had the powers long, and who has spent her life keeping others out. Very adept. I'm surprised."

"Who are you?" Sonya snapped, ashamed of herself for being frightened of the old man. "How do you know who I am?"

"Everyone does," he told her. "At least, they do now. But I knew you before; knowing people is my specialty." He clapped his hands and a bottle appeared from the air. He caught it with one hand as a pair of glasses appeared in the other. "Drink?"

"No, thank you," she replied.

"Come now. I rarely offer deities a chance to drink with me, Lady Sonya. Just one toast." The man poured the glasses with a surprisingly steady hand. The bottle disappeared and he held one glass out to her. "A toast, to Hiko, and Nova. May they find peace with the Creator."

Sonya nodded, trying to find a way to excuse herself when suddenly the door opened.

A tall, austere man stood in the frame, glaring down at her. "I don't think you want to drink that," he told her, simply. "At least, I wouldn't if I were you."

She stared at the old man, but couldn't read anything from him. He vanished abruptly in the same sickly mist that he had appeared from, the glass disappearing as well. She looked up at the new deity, confused.

He snorted. "You have a lot to learn. Introduce yourself."

"I am Sonya Blade, Goddess of Space," she snapped, irritated at the sudden rudeness. The deity harumphed.

"I am Thunder, of the Elders. You may come in, Sonya Blade, of the Space; but do not expect any kindness. You may find you are a little late for that." He turned on his heel, disappearing into the blackness of the room.

Suyuan appeared in the Elder Realm long enough to see Sonya walk into Thunder's wing. "No! Wait!" the goddess cried, but she was too far away. The door slammed, echoing down the hall. She gritted her teeth in anger and stormed down, noting that someone had appeared behind her.

"Suyuan, wait," a voice called.

"I'm a little busy now, Mizuno," she replied.

The Goddess of Water caught the Goddess of Winds by the arm. "Suyuan, stop this. It's Sonya's decision."

"She doesn't know who she's up against!" Suyuan snapped. "She has no idea what the rules are!"

"That hasn't stopped her before," Mizuno commented dryly. "Look, she's got to learn some time. It might as well be now."

"He's going to eat her alive," Suyuan said, quietly.

"Humans have a saying: if it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger. I think we immortals could do well to learn that." Mizuno let go of her friend's sleeve. "Suyuan, I would never, ever, get in the way of something between you and Thunder. I'm not that stupid. But this is between Thunder and Sonya; she's got to earn her powers somehow."

Suyuan didn't say anything, but looked at the wooden door with distaste. Around her, remnants of memories swirled around in her brain. Thunder's part of the Elder Realm was clogged with them, with the disjointed, incoherent experiences of deities. She shook her head. "Why this hall? What makes it so special?"

"The Thunder Clan has been renowned for its telepathy," Mizuno murmured. "Rayden and Shao Khan have both left their imprints here, trapped by Thunder's powers."

"How can he live here? With all this...debris?"

"Thunder has long since learned to only listen to himself," Mizuno continued quietly. "Come. I will take you to my manor. It's much more...pleasant."

She took Suyuan's hand and they disappeared.

Sonya squinted. She could almost see outlines of figures, resting on the chairs, standing at attention. Snatches of voices. A woman crying. She rubbed her temples, closing her eyes.

"Ah. I see," Thunder commented dryly. "You are adept. But you have not learned how to fully control your powers, yet."

"What is..." she trailed off. She could see Rayden, a younger version, walking out of the room. "What?"

"They are psychic imprints, left behind by deities who could not control their telepathy, or who were around me when I could not control mine." Thunder looked around the room, his nose high as if he was trying to smell something faint. "I suppose I ought to have someone clean it; but it does not bother me any more. You will leave remnants of your own, you know."

"Remnants?" Sonya inquired. Already, the images were beginning to fade, as she was becoming used to them. "Is that what deities call them? Do they happen often?"

"Not really." Thunder sighed. "Every year, at Festival, the Realms are cleaned out, remnants washed away. But I cannot be bothered with Festivals any more, and so I stopped going." He sat down in a leather high-backed chair that was positioned so that he could see out the window. "But that's enough of a culture lesson, Space. Why don't we just discuss whatever it is you wish to discuss?"

She was about to say "how do you know I came to discuss something" but she stopped herself. Thunder obviously knew what he was doing. If his mind powers were as great as Rayden's...

"They aren't, you know," Thunder interrupted her. "Rayden was--is--one of the best. I had such high hopes for him. I wanted him to take my place as an Elder, as a true leader. But all he wanted to do was run around his Realm." He snorted. "Shao Khan wasn't much better. He had grand ideas, but no follow-through. Both my boys were disappointments, Space."

"And your daughter?" Sonya inquired, mock-respectfully. He picked up on the hidden sarcasm, she was sure of it, but he refrained from mentioning it.

"Meimei," he replied with a slight smile, the first she'd seen him make, "is one of the brightest things in my life. She still comes to visit me, even after all this time. After all that's happened with my horrendous excuse of a family, Meimei still comes to see me. She brought her two boys, once, but I can't stand small boys." He scowled. "I don't think I stand much of anything, these days."

"I've noticed," Sonya said, dryly. She was momentarily distracted by a vision of Cosmos, skulking in the shadows. Thunder sighed, and a teapot and tray appeared on the small table next to him. He poured himself a cup.

"Tea?" he asked, genteelly.

"No, thank you," she replied, quickly.

"This isn't harmful, I assure you," he continued, setting the teapot down. She shook her head and he shrugged. "To each their own." He took the cup and sipped from it, staring out the window. "Ah. I see Rayden is still wasting his time on the hill side," he said suddenly. Sonya started, wondering how Thunder could tell that, until she realised that while the god was looking into the window, he was actually looking into a vision, of some sort. A word popped into her head: scry. She wasn't sure what it meant, or where she had heard it, but it felt right.

"Why is he doing that, anyway?" Thunder continued, dragging his attention from the window to her face. "Oh. You don't know either. Perhaps he's gone insane. It would be about time."

"Are you always this horrible?" Sonya snapped, before she realised what she was saying.

He fixed her with a steady eye. "No, sometimes I am positively rude. You don't do any justice to the previous holder of Space, I hope you know that."

"I'm glad. I would hate to be following in Cosmos' footsteps," she agreed.

"Cosmos. Now, he was someone I could put my faith in. It was really too bad that Hiko killed him. He could have done so much for the Omniverse," Thunder reminisced.

"Yeah, destroyed it," Sonya retorted.

"Oh, he wasn't going to destroy it; he was simply going to take it over. Rule it properly. Succeed where Shao Khan failed." Thunder scowled again, at another memory dredged up. "But in the end, Cosmos failed as well. I suppose I should have just done it myself."

"So that you could have failed too and been part of the club?" she asked, sweetly. He glowered at her.

"I see mortals are not taught to respect the Elders. Had you been a proper deity, you would not be addressing me in such a tone. But then, I suppose if you were a proper deity, we would not be having this discussion at all." Thunder took another sip of his tea. "I'm presuming you are here to talk about Turan?"

"I am," Sonya agreed, glad to be getting to the topic at last. "I want the Elders to forbid him to- -"

"No," he interrupted smoothly.

She started, annoyed by the dismissal. "No?"

"No. I will not propose this idea to the Elders, simply because I do not approve of it. Whoever told Turan to eliminate you and Johnny Cage is doing the Omniverse a favour and I wish I had thought of it myself. However, the simple fact that it is being done is enough for me. Good day, Space."

He leaned back in his chair, sipping quietly.

Sonya just stood for a moment, trying not to vaporise him on the spot. Her fists clenched and she felt her powers building up inside her.

He looked up, and for the first time, she saw something other than smug condescension in his eyes. "Don't be stupid. You can not try anything here. This is the Elder Realm. This is sacred ground."

"I'm sure," Sonya replied, taking a step forward, visualizing her fist striking his jaw. It was the best vision she'd seen all day. He paled, and suddenly dissolved in a spurt of gray mist. She looked around her in confusion for a moment, and then tried to teleport after him. But something blocked her way. "What the hell?"

"I told you!" cried an angry voice as Suyuan suddenly appeared, along with two other deities and the strange man that Sonya had met earlier. "I told you that there are ways that deities behave!"

"What is going on?" demanded one of the other deities, a dark man who looked vaguely like Lindara, only male.

"Sonya was about to attack Thunder," the other deity, a woman dressed in sparkling blue, replied, with a fierce look in Sonya's direction. She suddenly shivered. "Oh, I wish Thunder would cleanse his Manor once in a while. Honestly..."

"I know what you mean, Mizuno," the man replied.

"Both of you, never mind that," Suyuan snapped. She took a step towards Sonya. "The first thing we have to do is figure out what to do with Sonya."

"Do? Do what with me?" Sonya exclaimed, taking a defensive posture. "Nobody's doing anything."

"We need to sit you down, explain everything to you," Suyuan replied, her anger growing. "Both you and Johnny need to learn what we all learned, as children. Things like, oh, you can't attack Elder Gods in the Elder Realm, for instance. There are rules, Sonya, you must learn to follow them."

"I'm not going any where until I get some answers," Sonya replied fiercely. Something was turning over in the back of her mind. Her and Johnny. Her and Johnny...

"You would dare attack us?" Mizuno cried, shocked. "Do you have no manners, at all? You would dare--"

"She wouldn't," the man insisted.

The older man, the one Sonya had met outside in the hall, laughed. "I know of many who would disagree with you, Logicalis. Lady Sonya is most capable of it, I assure you."

"I know she's capable--but would she dare?" the god continued, staring at her with apprehension. The older deity looked to her and she gazed at him levelly.

"Oh, I think she would," he said.

"Do you want me to prove it?" she added, making a sudden, although harmless gesture. Logicalis backed up quickly, startled by the movement.

"That does it!" snapped Mizuno, pushing back the sleeves of her sparkling blue dress. "There will be no more disruptions like this!"

Sonya was about to retort something when she felt as though she was suddenly punched in the stomach. She doubled over, as the world around her went black. Then there was a sudden light, and she found herself in a broad, grassy plain. The four deities stood over her, hovering over the ground.

"You will remain here until such a time when the Elders know what to do with you," Mizuno announced, before they faded away.

Sonya leapt to her feet, shocked. She immediately tried to teleport out, but again, something was blocking her. She couldn't sense anyone, either.


Nothing. But then, he wasn't very reliable, that way.


Still nothing.

Meimei? Lindara? Jikan Tai?

She felt like she was calling out loudly, screaming, and no one was replying. She couldn't sense anything beyond the Realm.

The Realm. It was Usirapi, she was sure of it. Just as she was sure she didn't want to be anywhere near it, never mind trapped. It was a simple grassy plain, stretching out in all directions. Cosmos' castle, his Manor, had been destroyed by Hiko, last time they were here, in this version. There had been the version in Lightning's Realm, which they had left behind them.

It was very quiet. The utter stillness was disturbing. Every so often there was a hushed breath of wind through the grasses, as though the air itself was fearful of disturbing the silence. Sonya sat down, unsure of what to do. She couldn't contact anyone for help. She couldn't escape. The only silver lining was that she would have her full powers--whatever her full powers consisted of--here, so that if Turan attacked her...

She sat up, startled. That was it. That was what she had been trying to figure out.

"No. I will not propose this idea to the Elders, simply because I do not approve of it. Whoever told Turan to eliminate you and Johnny Cage is doing the Omniverse a favour..."

...whoever told Turan to eliminate you and Johnny Cage...

That was it. Thunder was the one behind it all. Turan hadn't attacked Sonya, he had barely registered her existence. And she hadn't mentioned that at all to Thunder, and yet he commented that the God of Assassins was targeting her, too.

A simple assumption? It might have been. But it went a long way in explaining Thunder's behaviour, and outright rejection of her plea to stop Turan. She knew from the simple conversation that she had had with him that he wasn't to be trusted and that he preferred sneak tactics; he had said he was disappointed with Shao Khan, she knew that was because Shao Khan was brutal, and senseless.

It was Thunder, she was sure of it. And if it was, then that meant he would squash any resistance against Turan. Johnny would be trapped in Maresium, either that or Thunder himself would work around that.

She had to get to her friend, and warn him.

But how could she get through the Elder block?

"I'm not sure we are doing the right thing," Logicalis replied, growing frustrated. "Yes, she is behaving erratically, and yes, she ignores the Laws, but that's only because she doesn't know them. Yet."

Mizuno shook her head. "She is dangerous. If she feels she can assault an Elder in his own Realm, in his own Manor, then who knows where she will draw the line?"

Suyuan sighed. She got up from the table. "I have no place in this discussion, honoured Elders. I ask to be allowed to return to my son's Realm, to care for him."

"Yes, how is Rayden?" asked Ariel, God of Air. "I heard he has taken Hiko's death badly."

Suyuan stared at him.

"You know what I mean," he persisted. "There has not been much news from Earth Realm, lately. Even Celebria is unsure."

Suyuan sighed, and sat back down. "I suppose I can fill you in." She took a deep breath. "After the... battle, Lindara asked me to come and stay with Rayden, she was concerned for him. I came, and about two weeks went by, and then Meimei came as well, with Jih and Yueh. Tai Hou couldn't come, he was in dispute with his father over something, I don't remember what."

"The Realm is having problems," Logicalis filled in, but Ariel gestured for him to be quiet.

Suyuan continued. "During the month that we've been there, Rayden seemed fine. Distant, hurt, but able to continue. He was helping his mortals rebuild his Temple; I think that gave him something to occupy himself with--"

"Why didn't he just create another one?" asked Mizuno, frowning.

The goddess shrugged. "I don't know why. Perhaps he preferred to help his mortals, he likes to do that sort of thing. At any rate, another two weeks went by and then Jikan Tai showed up, Rayden disappeared, and then reappeared, and now..." She trailed off, shaking her head. "Now, I just don't know what's happened. He's shut himself off completely, he won't share his thoughts with anyone, just sits outside and stares at the sky." She started shaking, and both Mizuno and Logicalis moved to comfort her. "I just don't know what's the matter, and then Turan showed up and now Sonya's attacking Elders and Lindara's home alone with the boys and Meimei's off sorting out Tai Hou and Shimauma--"

Logicalis helped her to her feet. "Perhaps, Suyuan, it is better if you go home, to Officina. You need a rest, a break from the stress--"

"No!" she insisted, "No, I need to find out what has happened to Rayden. We keep meaning to find out but something keeps happening--Jikan Tai showed up half-dead--"

"Suyuan," Logicalis said firmly, "I think it is best that you go home, and rest. I will call Meimei myself, get her to go to Earth, and keep an eye on Rayden and Lindara. The stress would get to anyone."

"I do miss Naturalis," Suyuan admitted, her resolve wavering. "But Rayden--"

"Will be in good hands," Mizuno added. "Come, now, Suyuan. Logicalis will take you to Officina."

"Take my hand," Logicalis said, offering it to Suyuan. She took it and they disappeared.

Mizuno sighed, and sat back down.

"I suppose we had better get back to business," she said, very quietly.

"Turan is not doing a very good job," Ariel snapped, "and you're not making it any easier for him, Mizuno. Now the mortal is trapped in Usirapi, the one place where Turan can't go!"

"What was I supposed to do, hand her over on a silver platter?" Mizuno snapped. "That wouldn't have seemed suspicious at all!"

"There must be someway of getting Turan in there," Ariel grumbled. "Thunder, do you have any more bright ideas?"

Thunder stepped out of the shadows, dispelling the hiding mist around him. He took his customary seat between Ariel and He Who Must Not Be Named, who was watching quietly and saying nothing. "I don't think I do have anything to say, at the moment," the god replied, sourly. "By the way, Mizuno, that was a brilliant plan of yours. I knew we could count on you to use your head."

Mizuno rolled her eyes.

"Both mortals are sequestered away where no one can get them," Ariel grumbled. The deities all sat in a thoughtful silence, no one mentioning anything or disputing Ariel's comment.

"That's not true at all!" Mizuno exclaimed loudly, startling her comrades. She sat forward suddenly, her eyes alit on the old man, sitting peacefully beside Thunder and beside Logicalis' empty seat.

He returned her gaze with a tired look. "No."

"No?" Thunder exclaimed. "No?"

"That is what I said," the god replied wearily. "No."

"Why not? You alone are not influenced by the Barriers, it says so on the Scroll," Mizuno pouted.

"Because I don't wish to," the old man replied, leaning back in his chair, trying to become more comfortable. Thunder began to retort but the man cut him off with a single glance. "End of story."

"Then Miz will just have to think of something else," Ariel said, after the long silence stretched too far. "She got us into this, she can get us out."

Mizuno glowered, but said nothing in reply.

Lindara poked her head around the door. "Guardian? Are you awake?" Jikan Tai did not answer. He was lying on his side, facing away from the door, but she could tell by his breathing that he was awake. "Guardian?"

"Yes, Lady Lindara?" he asked, very morosely. "Can I help you?"

"No, I was going to ask you if there was anything you needed," she admitted. "I see you ate your stir-fry--" She paused, unsure of whether to continue. "Guardian, what's the matter? You've been at loose ends ever since--well, ever since I've known you."

Jikan Tai lifted his head slightly, just so he could peer over his shoulder at her. "You don't know me at all."

This surprised the goddess, and her face showed it. "But, I--"

"I'm very tired," he said, with a sigh. "Please leave."

Lindara paused at the threshold, confused. "Guardian, this isn't right. You need to--"

"I need to sleep," he insisted, anger creeping into his voice.

Something in Lindara seemed to snap, and she, too, grew angry. "Guardian, I think you and I both know the last thing you need is sleep!" she blurted, very indignant. "I've healed your wounds, and you slept all last night. You need company, that's what you need."

"What?" Confused and still angry, Jikan Tai sat up to glare at her properly. "I need what?"

"You need company. Social interaction. It's the best thing to get you over what ever it is you're not over yet." Lindara came and sat at the end of his bed. "I'll keep you company. We can have meaningful discussions. For instance, I recently created a deal with--"

"I don't talk," Jikan Tai snapped.

"Of course you do. You're doing it right now."

"I don't converse," he amended. "I say what needs to be said. That's it."

She looked at him askew. "But--how do you--you must have conversations with people!"

He sighed, and flipped the bangs out of his eyes. "I'm not a talkative person."

"Oh, I know that. But everybody needs to have discussions, now and then. We needn't gossip, if that's what you're worried about. I'm a little out of the loop, myself. I--" She paused, thinking about something, but then she decided not to say it. She shook her head, and then continued. "But I think it's the best idea to get you out of your depression."

"I'm not depressed," he countered.

"Oh? Then explain how you feel. Right now." Lindara stared at him, waiting expectantly.

He stumbled for words. "I'm...tired."

"You can do better," she prompted.

"I'm..." He paused, deep in thought. "I--"

She waited, patiently, while he tried to sort out his emotions within himself. Apparently, he couldn't come up with an answer, and just looked at her forlornly. She sighed, and took his hand, patting it. "You need some fresh air. Whenever I was upset, in Agri, I'd tour around. The fresh air does wonders, you know. Well, Earth's isn't so great, any more, but it gets the job done. Come on."

She stood up, still holding his hand, effectively tugging at him to get up. He sighed, and got to his feet.

"Much better. Now, I think we'll avoid the hill side--it's already taken by someone brooding-- Ah! I know the very place. Hold on tight, now...." Lindara trailed off, and teleported them away.

It was a forest. It was a young, deciduous forest, beeches and maples and oaks, all covered in spring colours, fresh greens and yellows. Jikan Tai looked around him in surprise, astonishment showing on his face.

Lindara smiled, and slipped away, sitting on a fallen, mossy covered log that suited the colours in her dress perfectly. "Isn't this place lovely? I had it in mind when I designed Agri. Well, most of Agri. Rayden's Realm may have turned out odd, but there are a few spots here and there that are really worth looking at."

"It's beautiful," Jikan Tai agreed. "Where is it?"

"Oh, I don't know what the natives call it. We just call it 'Lin's Forest'; I liked to come here a lot when I was small." She smiled at the memory. "I liked forests even then."

"I have never seen this place before," the Guardian continued. It reminded him in many ways of the Wood Between Worlds. He held up a hand to his face, squinting against the brightness of the sun as it filtered through the canopy. Birds sang in the branches. Squirrels and other small rodents scurried in the underbrush. Insects hummed. It was a glorious cacophony, so unlike the still, sterile Wood that he had come to know so well.

"I knew you'd like it," Lindara announced. "This is the perfect place to pick up one's spirits. I feel better already!"

He turned to look at her, the question unspoken.

"I've been under a lot of stress lately," she told him. "Rayden is only the latest in my little series of adventures and mishaps."

"Oh?" Despite his best intentions, Jikan Tai found himself curious. He took a step forward, hesitant. The goddess understood his meaning immediately and shifted over, patting the space of log next to her.

"Sit down," she said sweetly. "I'll tell you all about it. That will get the conversation off and running."

Very slowly, and cautiously, he sat down.

"Now. It all started a few years ago. Shao Khan, my half-brother, challenged my Realm to a Mortal Kombat..."

Jikan Tai laughed. It was a small laugh, not very much more than a chuckle, but it was the first time in a long, long while that he could remember laughing out loud.

Lindara was indignant. "I really do not see what's amusing--"

He waved her quiet, hiding his smile behind his hand. "I just... get a mental picture of you, drunk. It's amusing."

"I was not drunk," Lin insisted. "Yes, I had several nectars, but I was not drunk."

"Okay," he agreed, pleasantly. He sighed and leaned back, nearly falling off his seat. Lindara reached over to catch him, laughing. She pulled him up.

"Talking about drunk..." she teased. "Forgot you were sitting on a log?"

He nodded, bashfully. He carefully scooted himself off, so that he could lie back, looking up at the sky, his legs still draped over the log. "It is very beautiful here," he said, at last. He closed his eyes. "Very peaceful."

"I know," Lindara agreed. "I should bring Rayden here. It might cheer him up, bring him out of whatever's the matter." She looked down towards the Guardian and found him staring at her through narrowed lids. "Jikan Tai? Is something the matter?"

"No," he said slowly, closing his eyes again. A silence descended down and his happy mood was shattered.

"Jikan Tai," Lindara said softly, "Is it something to do with Rayden? Is that why you're so upset?"

"I'm not upset," he insisted, the lie so blatant and foolish he wondered why he had attempted it. All of a sudden, the forest no longer seemed pleasantly alive; it seemed loud and chaotic. He sat up, then stood, brushing dirt and leaves off his clothes. He never got messy in the Wood...

"Jikan Tai!" Lindara exclaimed worriedly. She grabbed his sleeve with her closer hand, afraid that he was going to leave her behind. "Don't go! I'm sorry, whatever I said, I'm sorry."

"You didn't do anything," he told her, quietly. "It's me. It's something that I have to work out, for myself."

She seemed a little defeated by his remark. He sat back down on the log, beside her. "Lady Lindara? What is the matter?"

She waved him off, unsure of how to begin, or even whether she should tell him at all. "It's silly," she began. "Too silly, I shouldn't be worrying about it at all."

He paused, looking at her, very solemn. "You can tell me, Lady. I promise it will go no further."

She ducked her head. "I... I just get this feeling, that people don't trust me."

"Lady, that's absurd--"

"No, no, I mean, that they don't trust me to know what's going on. I've always been the last one to know things, and that never bothered me until now. But all this stuff with Rayden, and what Sonya said, and Lightning--" She took a deep breath. "I just get the feeling that my family doesn't think I can handle what's going on."

Jikan Tai nodded. "I think I know the feeling," he said, quietly. "But I don't think you need to be worried. I think your family trusts you, but perhaps they are a little too busy to fill you in on everything."

"Maybe." Lindara didn't seem convinced by this. "Nova was like that too." Jikan Tai paled, but she didn't notice and blithely continued. "I saw her, just before Lightning attacked, and then I tried to help her against Lightning, and the whole time, there was so much of the story she just wasn't telling me. Who Lightning was, for instance. All this nonsense about alternate Omniverses. And then whenever I brought it up with Rayden, he clammed shut." She picked at the moss beside her, in frustration. "I just feel, I don't know, shut out, or something."

Jikan Tai didn't say anything. Lindara finally looked up, to see whether he agreed with her, or was simply confused, but he was looking out at the forest, deep in thought.

"Guardian?" she asked, hesitantly.

"I was just thinking," he said quietly, "that perhaps--"

"Oh!" Lindara exclaimed suddenly, sitting bolt-upright. He stood up, alarmed; perhaps she had been stung by a bug, or something. He had vague memories of bug bites from when he was very small. "Oh, Meimei's home!" the goddess continued, joyfully. "This is great! I have so much I have to talk to her about!" She leapt to her feet. "Oh, Jikan Tai, this has been so much fun, but I have to go home, back to the Temple. Are you coming?"

"I...I think I'll stay, thank you," he replied, quietly. "I can portal myself when I'm ready to go back."

She nodded, and disappeared in a flash of green light.

Jikan Tai settled back on the log. He looked around himself, at the trees and the forest. It was a perfect metaphor for Lindara herself: beautiful, peaceful on the surface, but full of activity and noise.

He decided he liked the forest, hectic though it was, compared to the others he had seen. The natural chaos was just what he needed, he thought, to get himself back on track.

Meimei found herself in the Temple. She took a deep breath, and started to look for her family. But the corridors were empty. She knew at once that her boys were elsewhere; she didn't have much in the way of sensing ability but she knew where they were, always. She also knew that Suyuan was at home, in Officina; but where was everybody else?

"Lin?" she called, her voice sounding very loud. "Jikan Tai? Johnny? Sonya--" She remembered what Logicalis had said about Sonya. The goddess wasn't sure she believed it--Sonya wouldn't attack an Elder, would she?--but she had to trust the Elder's judgement. "Rayden?"

No answer. But then, he was probably outside, still. She sighed, worried. At least the storm overhead had cleared up and it wasn't still pouring. She closed her eyes, and thought outwards. Perhaps she could reach her sister--

Meimei! came the joyful response. You're home! I have so much to talk to you about!

Meimei caught of flash of Jikan Tai; he must be near to Lindara. It's good to be back, but where is everybody?

There was a flash, and Lindara suddenly teleported in. "Oh!" her older sister exclaimed. "You startled me!"

"Sorry," Lin replied. "I didn't mean to. What were you saying, before that?"

"I just wanted to know where everyone is," Meimei repeated, smoothing down her hair. For some reason, it felt terribly messy. "I know about Suyuan--"

"What's happened to Mother?" Lindara exclaimed. "I thought she and Sonya--"

Meimei's eyes widened. "You don't know!" she exclaimed, horrified. She took Lindara's elbow and pulled her in closer. "Now, keep this to yourself. I'm sure it'll be spread all over the Omniverse by this afternoon, but I don't want it to be because of me."

Lindara nodded, breathless and expectant.

"Sonya attacked Thunder, in his own Manor," Meimei said, quietly. "Logicalis came to tell me. He's taken Mother back to Officina, she needed a rest, he said, and then he told me what he could. It was very sketchy, but Sonya's been taken to Usirapi, and is being held there."

The Plant goddess stared, in wonder. "She attacked Thunder?"

"From what I've heard." Meimei shook her head. "I knew that Sonya was strong-minded, but I didn't think she'd do this. I'm going to visit her, later. See if I can talk some sense into her--"

"Better not," Lindara advised. "I'm sure the Elders have it under control."

"Hmm. Maybe you're right." Meimei looked around her, confused. "Where are the boys?"

"Oh," Lindara answered, looking sheepish. "I sent them off to Fleurdelis'. Suyuan ran off, with Sonya, and Johnny left--"

"Left? To go where?"

Lindara sighed. "It's getting complicated. The point is, I was left by myself with the boys--well, and Rayden too, but I don't he's in any condition to police those two, so I asked Fleurdelis to take care of them for a little while."

"Ah." Meimei didn't seem distressed to find out that her twins were no longer at home, if anything she seemed a little relieved. "Now, what happened to Johnny?"

"He's being attacked by Turan, we're not sure why, but we think it's because Turan's upset that Johnny has the fire powers," Lindara began.

"Turan did always have a thing for Hiko," Meimei mused. "He used to follow her around at the Festivals."

Lindara seemed a little off-put by this. "Really?"

"Oh yes. I remember, it was before I met Tai Hou, I decided to follow Turan around myself-- "

"I never knew that!"

"You were too busy trying to follow in Naturalis' footsteps, that's why. Anyway, let's get back to the point," Meimei concluded.

"Yes, let's get back to the point," someone agreed behind her, in a gravelly voice. Both goddesses turned.


He was leaning against the hall wall, arms crossed, looking upset. "Why wasn't I told about any of this?"

Both Meimei and Lindara looked sheepish. "We didn't want to bother you--"

"Well, I'm bothered now," Rayden snapped, suddenly. He stopped, and took a deep breath. "Sorry. I'm just a little out of sorts--please, tell me what's going on. Where's Johnny?"

"He's in Maresium," Lindara finished. She was edging towards him, but he backed up and she took the hint. "He's gone there until we can figure out how to stop Turan."

"Oh." Rayden took a deep breath, again. He seemed to be steeling himself up for something. "I suppose I should go talk to the Elders--"

"No!" Meimei blurted, suddenly. "No. You don't have to do anything. Lindara and I, and Mother, when she's rested, we'll take care of everything. Really. You don't have to worry."

Rayden stared at her, blankly. "I'm not worried."

"That's good," Meimei continued. She too, took a step towards him, but he backed away. She exchanged a glance with Lindara. Before either goddess could react, Rayden teleported off. Meimei sighed, sadly. "I wish we knew what happened to him. What could possibly throw him for this big of a loop?"

"I don't know," Lindara commiserated. An idea suddenly came to her. "Meimei, can I ask you something?"

"Sure," Meimei replied, starting to make her way from the hall, to her room. "I guess so."

"Rayden and Hiko were always very close, right?" Lindara asked, blurting it out.

"I guess so. Why?"

"Well... uh... Jikan Tai said that Cosmos would never let them be alone together. Is that true?" Lindara paused outside the room while her sister rooted through her belongings for something.

"Very true. Occasionally, Rayden and Cosmos would come to blows over it. Or would have, if somebody or something didn't stop them. I remember once, it was the Feast, I believe, when--aha! Here it is!" Meimei held her hairpin aloft for a moment before putting it into her hair. The bushy mass of white friz was barely held in place, so she started looking for another pin.

"So they were never alone together. At all." Lindara repeated this, stressing the "alone".

"No. Why?" Meimei looked up, frowning. "What are you getting at, Lin?" Her mouth dropped open as the realisation hit her. "Do you realise what you're saying? You think they were having an affair?"

"Well... I..." Lindara stuttered. Said out loud, the idea did sound ludicrous. Ludicrous and dangerous. She knew Rayden and Hiko were in love, and that Rayden would do almost anything for her, but she also knew them to be sensible. Having an affair would no doubt have endangered both of them... "You're right. It's a silly idea."

"I'll say so." Ruffled, Meimei went back to looking for her hairpin. "I hope you didn't bring this up with Mother, you know how concerned she is about betrothals."

"Oh, I know," Lindara agreed, sourly. "I know."

"Ah. Been on the receiving end of that, have you?" Meimei smirked. "I didn't get much of that, since I had boyfriends off and on--although I did get quite a few lectures not to do anything stupid. As if I would have. Still, that's the sort of thing that Mother worries about."

"I know." Lindara suddenly felt the urge to mention Jikan Tai, but she wasn't exactly sure why. "I did ask her, but I didn't go very far with it."

"That's good. Now, where is--aha! Found you!" Meimei crowed, putting the second pin into her hair, effectively fastening it all down. "Now that I look a little better, I think I'm going to go visit Mother, see if there's anything I can do in Officina. Do you need anything?"

"No, Jikan Tai and I should be fine," Lindara answered. Meimei looked at her. "What?"

"'Jikan Tai and I'? Where did that come from?" her sister asked.

"Oh, well, you know--I took him out to the forest, to cheer him up. We spent the whole afternoon talking. He's really very interesting, and sweet, once you get past all the... the..." Lindara frowned, not knowing the word.

"The angst?" Meimei offered. She chuckled. "I'm glad to know that someone is drawing him out. Rayden's told me so much about him, about when he was growing up--it's really all a shame. Oh well." She shrugged, and looked around the room, now a huge mess thanks to her pawing through everything. "I guess I ought to be going. I'll see you in a little while, okay?"

Lindara nodded, and her sister teleported away.

On To Part Four