A Fitting End
By Biku

The Council stood, as Celebria officially pronounced the message.

"I declare that the mortal known as Yellow Chrysanthemum is no longer to be regarded as the Guardian of Time. His absence has been too long, and we must now decide what to do with the empty post. Let the Creator show us the answer."

She sat down, as did the council.

Rayden sighed to himself. The past five years had been long. Shao Kahn, fully recovered from his ordeal, had laid a long siege to Earth Realm. Earth's greatest warrior, and a protege of Rayden's, a young monk named Kung Lao, was dead, and with him died much of the hope for the next tournament.

So much had happened to the god. He had lost his brother and father to corruption of power and envy, he lost his only love to his father's treachery, and every single mortal he had ever become close with had died. That was natural, with humans, of course, but not to have them die indirectly because of him. It was getting tough to bear. But he did what he could.

This newest blow was hard to handle. He had searched for Yellow for several months, then for years, hoping to find the young Guardian and bring him back before it was too late. But even that was out of Rayden's control now.

There was a knocking on the Council room door. One of the mortal aides hurried to see who was there, before the interloper could disrupt the session. But the door swung open of its own accord, and someone walked in.

He was tall, and dressed in a black tunic, with a long flowing black cape, that seemed to shimmer with a rainbow of colours when the light hit it properly.

He wore his black-green hair short, and it flipped into his green eyes as he walked toward the Council stand. In his hand he carried a staff, fashioned of metal in the shape of a key. A red jewel was perched on the end.

The Council room was utterly silent as he approached the bench. "You have been expecting me," he said quietly. He caught Rayden's eye. "I am the Guardian."

Celebria was the first to recover. "I see," she stuttered, regaining her composure. "You are Yellow Chrysanthemum?"

"I no longer go by that name," he corrected her. "I gave it up a long time ago."

"I see." She regarded him closely. "Which name would you prefer to go by, then?"

He paused for a moment, considering the answer. Rayden could see almost no resemblance to the curious, thoughtful little boy he had once known and this cold, calculating stranger. When Yellow--or the Guardian--had caught Rayden's eye, the god had seen no feeling in it, at all. It was as cold as Samantha's had been, but deeper. Samantha had turned herself off to protect Yellow, and Yellow had done it to protect himself. There was a world of difference.

The Guardian looked up. He seemed to have reached a decision. "You may call me Jikan Tai."

Jikan Tai. In the language of her people, it meant "time zone". It was not perhaps the most impressive of names, but he thought it suited him, and he rather liked the way it sounded. Mysterious. That's the way it sounded to him, at any rate. And it didn't matter at all what other people thought. He'd given up that trait a long time ago, along with his other name. He needed something new to call himself as Guardian, and it fit the bill.

He watched the Council, as they chattered amongst themselves. The goddess Celebria called for order. "Do you, Jikan Tai, hold yourself up as Guardian of Time?"

"I do," he answered solemnly. She nodded, and looked out to face the crowd.

"Who here vouches for his identity?" she called out.

Rayden stood. "I do," he said swiftly.

She nodded again. "Does anyone contest this claim?"

There was no answer. She stood up. "The Council recognises Jikan Tai, mortal of the Realm of Earth, as the Guardian of Time, appointed by the Creator. In the Name."

She sat down, as the crowd rose to its feet, clapping thunderously for the new Guardian, who watched impassively, not affected at all.

Rayden was the first to talk to him. "Yellow--I mean, Jikan Tai--it's good to see you again."

The new Guardian smiled wanly. "It's good to see you too, Lord Rayden."

The comment took the Thunder God aback. He wasn't sure what had brought about this change in his friend, but so far, he didn't like it. "You don't have to call me that."

Jikan Tai watched him through half-closed eyes. "Of course I do. You are the Protector of my Realm. It's only natural." His voice was flat and devoid of emotion; he turned, and walked away.

Now Rayden was completely mystified, and with good reason. He was about to follow the Guardian, but someone held him back. It was Celebria. "Let him go," she said, softly.


"Rayden, I was willing to let him have time off, to grieve," she said sharply, and he recognised her business mode, which was hard to argue with. "But he's been gone too long. We have too much to worry about, without concerning ourselves with a moody teenager."

"He's not a teenager," Rayden corrected, irritatedly. "I figure he's about twenty- one now, or so. It is hard to tell with mortals--"

"That is not the point," Celebria answered hotly. She immediately regretted her temper. "Rayden, I'm sorry. I don't mean to be so blunt. But you see what I mean. We need him to protect Time, and if he wants to do it by being closed off from everything else, then let him."

Rayden scowled. "Duty is a terrible excuse for a lot of things."

Celebria sighed. "I know what you've been through, Rayden, and it hurts even me. But you have to chalk this one up to destiny and duty and let him go. Let him do his job."

Now it was Rayden's turn to sigh. "You've always been too good at this sort of thing for my taste."

She laughed, and shrugged. "It is my job to tell the truth. That's why I was put here."

She pointed at the Guardian, who was making his way to the corner of the Council room least populated by people. "He's doing his."

Jikan Tai watched the room carefully, as though he was observing a strange event he had never seen before. Deities circled, chatting, no doubt discussing him, as the news du jour; he didn't mind. If he cast some interest into their lives, then so much the better. He noted that he was not viewed with the same condescension he had been, while an Apprentice. Now they saw him as an equal, the Guardian, Protector of Time. He smiled. It felt good to be looked up to, for a change.

He felt the portal open before the murmurs of the crowd confirmed it; Cosmos had entered the room. Across the room, he could see Rayden's face redden as the god's nemesis entered. He decided, that if he did not want to open up to Rayden--and he didn't- -the least Jikan Tai owed him was his loyalty. He started across the room.

Cosmos stared Celebria down easily. She was not a strong goddess, and had limited offensive power. Cosmos knew that. He also knew that Rayden would not be as easily cowed.

"Rayden," he said with a smirk. "How is Earth? Still losing?"

Rayden visibly fought down any urges to throttle Cosmos right then and there. Just to be on the safe side, Celebria kept a hand on his arm. "The next Tournament is not for a few years, yet."

"Good. More time to practise." The sentence alone was not insulting; but Cosmos' tone inferred that Rayden's fighters were doomed even with years of preparation, and Rayden picked up on the insinuation immediately. So did most people in the room, in fact.

Celebria decided to change the topic before violence erupted. "Cosmos," she began, gathering her courage to face the madman, "Where is Hiko? As an Elemental, she should have been at the Council meeting, today." She could feel Rayden tense underneath her grip. Perhaps that was not the best of topics...

"She is... not feeling well, today," Cosmos said dismissively. "Both she and Nova have been ill lately. Bad spells in the air, I guess."

"Liar!" Rayden roared, trying to get to Cosmos, but Celebria held him back, barely. "What have you done to them?!"

Cosmos, for his part, seemed startled by the outburst, and more cautious than he had been. He started to say something when he felt a pressure on his neck. Twisting around slightly, he saw an unfamiliar face pressing a staff into his throat.

"Where is the Lady Hiko and Nova?" the person asked, coldly. "Answer truthfully."

That was when Cosmos recognised the voice. "Yellow," he sneered. "Back from the grave, I see."

The pressure on his throat increased, and the end began to heat up, uncomfortably. "Answer the question."

Cosmos gulped. "They're not feeling well. You can ask them yourself!"

The staff was eased away, and Jikan Tai clicked it on the ground. "I will do that," he said, disappearing.

Furious, Cosmos teleported after him. As a mortal, the Guardian did not have to abide by the rules limiting forcible entry into a Realm, but Cosmos was still angry that the mortal had treated him so.

Within moments they returned. Cosmos had a hold on Hiko by the wrist, and Jikan Tai was standing next to Nova. Both of the deities looked confused. Hiko, catching sight of Rayden, immediately diverted her eyes.

"Tell them," Cosmos hissed at her. "Tell them why you weren't here!" Hiko paused, but he squeezed her wrist painfully. "If you don't tell them--I will-- everything!"

"I wasn't feeling well," she replied, quickly. "I haven't been for a few days."

"Mother!" Nova exclaimed, but Hiko hushed her with a gesture.

"What is your explanation, Nova?" Celebria asked her, concerned. Nova faltered. She looked to Rayden, first, and then to her mother. She sighed, and dropped her gaze to the floor.

"She wasn't feeling well," she said quietly.

"Nova--" Rayden began, but she refused to meet his eyes.

"She wasn't feeling well," she repeated. Cosmos grinned triumphantly, and released Hiko, who immediately embraced Nova and then disappeared.

"You monster," Rayden hissed, his face flushed with anger. "What have you done to them?"

Cosmos was grinning slyly. "Nothing. You heard them yourself. I hope this will be the last inquest into my personal life."

The implication was not lost on Rayden, but it was Jikan Tai who spoke next, addressing Celebria. "But, there must be something wrong, you know they wouldn't act like that!"

"Guardian, there's nothing we can do," Celebria answered, sadly. "They have both claimed to be ill."

Jikan Tai gritted his teeth in anger. "If you won't do something--" he began, when Cosmos gestured at him.

"Freeze," he said simply.

Jikan Tai stood frozen, his staff slightly raised. Cosmos smiled, and started to turn away, when the staff moved. The god, startled, turned back, just in time to see the Guardian's fist smash into his nose.

Being an Immortal, the blow did not hurt him, but the force sent him reeling. Acting instinctively, he fired a blast of energy.

Jikan Tai held out his staff, and the bolt struck it, and was absorbed into the jewel, which was glowing brightly. Jikan Tai smiled.

"Time stream memories flood," he whispered, his eyes narrowed further in concentration.

Cosmos screamed, and doubled over, clutching his temples. The Guardian stepped backwards, and a beam of light shot out of the jewel, striking Cosmos. The deity crumpled immediately, unconscious. He then vanished into a haze of purple mist.

"Jikan Tai!" Celebria roared. "What did you do?"

"I sent him back to his own Realm," the Guardian blurted, surprised by the goddess' anger.

"You have no right to behave this way," she snapped. "I told you nothing could be done!"

"But--" he began, bewildered.

"Nothing can be done," she repeated, coldly this time. "You are the Guardian, not some irresponsible mortal! You will obey the rules like we all do!"

"Cosmos doesn't!" Jikan Tai retorted. Even Rayden, who was behind the Guardian one hundred percent, could hear how much the mortal sounded like... a moody teenager.

"Whether he does or does not, that is not your concern. Your concern is Time-- "

"Don't tell me what my concerns are!" Jikan Tai snapped. "I'm fully aware of them!"

"Then act like it." Celebria turned away with a swish of her long robes, the argument ended then and there. Jikan Tai watched her for a moment, brimming with silent fury, before he teleported away in a purple flash.

"Yellow!" Rayden yelped, startled, but it was too late; the Guardian was gone. He reached out with his mind, trying to sense the mortal's presence, but he couldn't. Yellow- -Jikan Tai--must have stepped outside of the time stream. The god sighed. He'd wait for the Guardian to come back. He would have to, sooner or later.

I'll have to go back, he thought to himself, standing in the middle of the Wood, being soothed by its calm, its peace. I'll have to go and stay there. He dared not speak aloud in this place; any sound seemed a desecration. His mind repeated the phrase stay there, meaning Earth Realm, his home, and he was seized with distaste. He never wanted to go back to there, ever.

Too many memories. Bad memories, good memories, he didn't want any of them, he wanted nothing more than to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.

He had tried. Wasn't that the point of his experiments? Creating a new persona for himself? First as Jerry, then as Jikan Tai?

Jikan Tai. His nose wrinkled. He'd liked that name, when he'd first heard it spoken aloud, but now it seemed like everything else: tainted. Used. Unclean. He shivered.

He had to go back, he said he would be the Guardian, and he meant it, he knew that it was what he was supposed to do with his life, that's why he was here, after all, alive, but he didn't want to live on Earth any more...

So don't, came the reply, smoothly, from the back of his mind. Live somewhere else. She did, you can too.

Another Realm? It was a thought. It was worth considering, at any rate.

He sighed, and sat down cross-legged by the pool that led to his home Omniverse. Out of habit, his powers kicked in, letting him see what was unfolding in the pool, a reflection of nothing, disturbed by tiny waves on the water's surface...

But nothing came to him, no visions, no scenes, no intrusions onto other people's lives. Just a face. Nova.


He had missed her, he had been looking for her in every woman's face he saw when he was travelling. Lord Rayden was like a father to him, and Nova was--she wasn't like his sister, she was more like Elly, his friend on Earth. A woman he could talk to, that he wanted to be around, that he...

He stopped the trail of thought firmly. Nova didn't remember him, she didn't care. He had to stop tormenting himself, had to stop thinking about what was possible, instead of what was.

He snorted to himself, the explosion of air from his lips loud in the utter silence of the Wood. He couldn't even follow his own advice. He had to deal with what was. That meant going back to the Omniverse, and setting up his post as the Guardian of Time.

He got to his feet.

He had a Role, he had a purpose, he had a duty. If he was alone and unhappy while he did it, that was secondary; all that mattered was how well he did his job. He stepped into the pool, feeling the familiar sensation of travelling wash over him...

Kerlan rubbed at the bar with a towel, mopping up a ring of condensation left from a patron's glass. Didn't they know to use coasters? Sometimes it really irritated him....

The doors to the Bar opened and he looked up, startled out of his grumbling. It was the young Guardian, looking just as sombre as always. "How are you doing, Jikan Tai?" he asked, pleasantly, forcing himself to. The mortal gave off waves of bad-temper and hostility, which he did constantly, but Kerlan was determined to be polite. "How's your new home?"

Jikan Tai glared, sitting down at one of the tables, as far from the bar as he could. He didn't answer.

Kerlan sighed, and leaned on his arms on the counter top. "You could try being a little more polite, you know. It wouldn't hurt."

The blunt remark caused Jikan Tai to blush slightly; he was so wrapped up in keeping everyone at bay that he hadn't realised how he had come across to innocent bystanders. Not that cared, particularly; but he was ashamed at being so easily read. He tried harder to suppress his feelings.

Kerlan sighed again, rolling his eyes. He watched the mortal slip a mask over his emotions. The god had to admit he was doing a very, very good job; any other mortal would have been unable to read the Guardian at all. But to a deity--the book was open and the lettering in large print and bold. Jikan Tai was unhappy, and for all intents and purposes, trying to keep himself that way.

The door opened again, and this patron Kerlan was not glad to see. It was Shao Khan, swaggering in as he usually did. His eyes alit on the mortal, who had his back to the door, and the god sauntered over. "Shao Khan..." Kerlan warned, mostly to let the deity know that trouble wasn't tolerated; but also to let Jikan Tai know what was heading his way.

The Guardian looked up sharply, his head twisting to glance behind him; for a moment his eyes narrowed and then he slipped back into his concealed countenance.

"Well, well, well," Shao Khan announced, grinning broadly. "If it isn't the little peasant boy. I heard about the wallop you gave Cosmos. Pity I wasn't there to see it."

"Pity," Jikan Tai agreed, startling both deities by talking. His voice was flat and emotionless.

Shao Khan paused, re-evaluating his position. This Guardian was much less eager to prove himself, which of course meant that he had better control over his abilities, which had been considerable before. "Are you having a drink, Guardian?"

"I was going to," Jikan Tai admitted, not moving from his place. "However, you are not welcome to join me with one."

The unexpected remark caused Shao Khan to roar with laughter, looking, for a brief moment, like Rayden. But the dark eyes glinted with concealed fury, where Rayden's blues sparkled with good cheer.

"Nectar?" Kerlan asked Jikan Tai, while passing one to Shao Khan, who--needless to say--didn't thank him for it. All deities drank nectar, and it was the only thing they did drink, at the Bar; but Kerlan knew that mortals had varied tastes.

"Please," Jikan Tai replied, stepping up smoothly to fetch his drink, his cape curling around him, and then swishing around his ankles as he stood at the counter. Kerlan slid the drink over, and for a moment, no one said a word; Shao Khan raised his glass in toast, then tipped it back, downing the contents.

Jikan Tai preferred to sip.

The god slammed his glass down on the wood of the bar, rattling Kerlan's teeth. Here we go, he thought, really don't want to break up any fights...

The door opened.

It was unexpected, and all three turned to see who had come in: it was Hiko and Cosmos' daughter Nova.

"Nova," Jikan Tai whispered, growing pale. His exclamation was drowned out by Shao Khan.

"Nova," he boomed, grinning obscenely. The young goddess flushed the same shade of her hair and sidled towards Kerlan. Shao Khan cut her off. "You're growing to look more like your mother every day. And your mother was--is--a very pretty woman."

Nova declined to answer, her eyes looking over Shao Khan's shoulder to Kerlan, looking for help.

"I can't help thinking how odd it is that you're unbetrothed," Shao Khan continued, the leer firmly in place.

She looked up at him, suddenly panicked. "My parents are letting me decide on my own."

"Really? That's not what your father told me," Khan persisted, his voice growing husky. "Maybe I should have a talk to him about this, get it resolved."

"Leave her alone," came a strong voice, from behind the god. He turned to see both Kerlan and Jikan Tai standing defensively, the god with his arms crossed, and Jikan Tai holding his staff. It was the mortal who had spoken.

"Who's going to make me?" Khan snapped, irritated, knowing that while his back was turned Nova was making a quick get-away.

"I will," the Guardian replied, simply. Nova had appeared by his side, between him and Kerlan.

Shao Khan snarled, then turned and teleported away. He knew he was out- numbered and out-matched. Now, anyway.

Nova sighed, relaxing. "Thank you," she said, smiling. "I was wondering how I was going to get away."

"It was no problem and our pleasure," Kerlan replied easily. He noticed that Jikan Tai was simply standing to the side, looking embarrassed. The waves of hostility were gone.

"Thanks again, Yellow," Nova said to the mortal. Suddenly she flushed. "Oops, I mean Jikan Tai. Sorry about that."

"It's no problem," Jikan Tai replied, almost stuttering.

A thought hit Kerlan like a bolt from the blue--Jikan Tai is in love with Nova!--and he wondered how he couldn't have seen it before. The god grinned, and decided to make himself busy. "Nectar, Nova?"

She nodded, sitting down at the bar. Jikan Tai, after a moment's hesitation, sat down next to her, confirming Kerlan's suspicions. The god gave Nova her drink; Jikan Tai still had his own.

Nova, a shy teenager who only recently started coming to the Bar, sat awkwardly on the chair, uncomfortable and unable to break the ice further. Jikan Tai--who knew how old he was now, he had been gone for ages and time was so relative--was hardly a smooth talker, was hardly a talker at all. Kerlan sighed. He'd have to get the ball rolling on his own.

"Jikan Tai's got a new Manor," the god said, conversationally. Nova looked up, first at him and then the mortal; she realised the good turn that Kerlan was doing for her.

"Really?" she asked, smiling at the Guardian. "It's not on Earthrealm?"

"No," he managed. He took a deep breath and soldiered on. "It's here, in the Hall--one of the rooms in the corridor."

Nova blinked, surprised. "Wow, you're living in the Elder Realm?" she breathed, making it sound as though it was a grand palace, a royal estate. "I didn't know you could do that!"

Something that she had said disagreed with Jikan Tai; the warm expression on his face faded suddenly. Kerlan was about to say something, when Nova continued, still excited: "I mean, wow, they wouldn't even let Mother look into having a room here, and she's an Elemental--!"

Jikan Tai suddenly relaxed, letting out a breath of air he hadn't been aware of holding. She doesn't find it odd you have a room here because you're only a mortal, she's not saying that at all.

"I didn't know that it was that restricted," he found himself saying.

"Oh, well, I mean, it's just for the Elders, technically, only the highest ranked gods--but then, you're the Guardian, aren't you--that must put you up to their level!" Nova stared at him with a combination of breathless excitement and curiosity. "Could I--could I see the room? Please?"

Jikan Tai nearly smiled, flushing. "Of course," he replied, easily. "I can... make you dinner, if you'd like." That was what one did when inviting someone over, wasn't it? Made them a meal?

Nova beamed at him. "That would be great."

I guess so, he thought to himself. He finished his drink and looked to Kerlan for a refill--but the god was gone. Must have slipped away while they were talking. The mortal hadn't even realised he wasn't there.

"It's just a small apartment," he said, trying not to let her down too much. He had seen her Manor, years ago, splendid indeed compared with his humble beginnings; surely his home wouldn't impress her--

"It's so cosy," Nova squealed, delightedly, stepping into his all-purpose living, dining and family room. The apartment had only three main rooms: a kitchen, off to the side, a bedroom behind one of the solid wooden doors and the main room. That and a tiny bathroom that he hoped Nova overlooked; it wasn't very clean at the moment.

The Elders had fashioned this to what Jikan Tai wanted, and what he wanted was a cross between the tiny apartment he had in the States, next door to Elly, and the Crystal Palace, where he grew up. The furniture was sparse, but comfortable, and it seemed more lived-in with his clothing strewn over the chairs, or lying half-folded, on the kitchen table.

Jikan Tai was acutely aware of how embarrassing it was to be caught so messy like this. He didn't need to keep it clean--who would be visiting him?--and he had forgotten about it in his eagerness to visit with Nova.

"Hmm," she said, surveying the chaos. "Your room looks like my mother's. She's the messiest person. My dad's not, he's really picky about being clean." She put her hands on her hips, decisively. "But I like it better like this, it's more comfortable. Can I have a drink of water, or something? I'm not used to nectar yet," she admitted, sheepishly, a hand patting her stomach ruefully.

"Of course," he replied, rushing to get her one, overjoyed that she wasn't offended by the mess. In doing so, his cape accidentally knocked over one of the precariously piles of clothes; it tipped over, tumbling down onto the floor. He groaned.

Nova giggled, and picked them up for him. "Don't worry about it," she said, firmly. "They're not dirty."

He handed her a glass of water and she sipped it, moving to the sofa, modeled on his old one from his apartment. She sat down on it, curling her legs under her, settling down.

He unclipped his cape and, unsure what to do with it, flipped it over one of the kitchen chairs. His staff was left resting against the bathroom door, and he too sat down on the couch.

"I wish I could have my own little place," Nova said, with a gentle sigh. "Sometimes it's tough living at home."

Jikan Tai remembered, with a flash, Cosmos' outrageous behaviour at the Council meeting, and he stiffened in anger.

"Don't," Nova said, suddenly, a hand on his arm. "Just forget about it, please? For me?"

He nodded, trying to relax. She finished her drink and got to her feet. "I should be going, I really didn't mean to stay long, Mother might get worried... maybe we could do dinner another time?"

He nodded, again, and she set the glass down on the table, smiled at him, and prepared to leave.

"Nova," he blurted, suddenly, surprised at himself.

She turned, waiting expectantly.

"Feel free to visit, whenever you want to," he finished, quietly.

She smiled, nodded, and teleported away.

The Bar was packed, as it usually was, after a Council session. Celebria was usually the loudest voice present, she had always said she didn't mind people over hearing her as she was bound to tell them too, sooner or later. Kerlan, being a dutiful little brother, told her to shut up on several occasions, but like always, she ignored him totally.

"And then I said to Rayden--" she paused, to take a sip of her nectar, "--that the Tournaments are really taking a lot out of him, and that he should have a vacation, and I suggested Veritas, and you wouldn't believe how huffy he got--"

Her companion, Amai, Goddess of Justice, could believe how huffy Rayden got very well. She just nodded absentmindedly and continued scanning the room. The rumour being passed around (although not by Celebria, oddly enough) was that the Lady Amai was after a husband, and she had done little to discourage the gossip. No one knew who she had her eye on, however, and everyone speculated.

Almost everyone.

"I don't know, it just could be so romantic," Nova squealed to Jikan Tai, looking at Amai from their table in the corner. "Don't you think so?"

"Not really," he replied, with a sigh. Nova had launched into a full campaign, tracking down the deities Justice was compatible with. She told him all the details, and while he was pleased to be in her confidence, the constant chatter about Lord So-and-So and Lord Whomever was wearing him down.

"I just hope she makes the right choice," Nova continued, wistfully. Jikan Tai got the feeling that she was using Amai as an excuse to scout out possible candidates for herself. He wished he was in the running, but knew Nova didn't consider him to be. He was just a mortal, after all; a powerful, respected mortal, but one nonetheless. He concentrated on his drink.

More deities were pouring in the doors, and the Bar was already so packed. Jikan Tai began to feel closed in, claustrophobic; for the first time in months he yearned for the quiet emptiness of the Wood. He hadn't gone back after meeting with Nova; he hadn't seen the need.

"Hey--" Nova blurted. "Is that--it is! Rayden! Rayden, over here!"

Jikan Tai paled. The last person he wanted to talk to was Rayden, he'd embarrassed himself too much the last time, and he--

"Nova," the god said, pleasantly, as Nova got up from her seat to embrace him. "It's been a long time. Guardian," he added, with a nod of the head, which Jikan Tai returned.

"Come, sit down," Nova instructed, borrowing a chair from a neighbouring table. "Fill me in on all the Earth news."

"We lost another Tournament," Rayden replied, without preamble, sitting down with a sigh and slumped shoulders.

Nova blinked in horror. "A... another one?"

The god nodded. "That one was the eighth. Shao Khan just needs to win two more and then..." He drew a line across his throat.

Nova started to shake, and he quickly put his arms around her. "Don't worry," he soothed, "I'm sure it won't come to that. I've got lot of hopes for the new generation of mortals, don't worry about a thing."

"It's terrible," Nova sniffled, on his shoulder. "Mortal Kombat. What a horrible idea."

Rayden shrugged, beyond caring. His eyes fell on Jikan Tai. "So how have you been holding up, Guardian?" he asked, trying to change the topic.

Jikan Tai didn't feel like talking. He felt like leaving. But he knew Rayden was just trying to make Nova feel better. "I've been doing all right. I'm enjoying my new home."

"That's good," Rayden agreed. Nova was trying to sit back up, and he let her, patting her back as she continued to sniffle. "I'm surprised the Elders let you in."

Jikan Tai shrugged, slightly. More people had said that to him than he could remember. "So am I."

"Jikan Tai has been making me dinner," Nova said, brightly, doing her best to cheer up, for Rayden's sake. She still sat leaning against him, his arm over her shoulders, protectively. "They're really good. Not as good as yours, of course, but still..."

Rayden grimaced. "I'm sorry that I haven't been able to see you lately, but I've been so busy with the Tournaments..."

"It's okay, really," Nova assured him, quickly. "Really. When you win, I'll come over to celebrate, we'll have a huge feast, okay?"

He grinned, and squeezed her shoulders. "Deal. I will make it up to you, Nova, I promise."

"No rush." She grinned back. "Hey, can Jikan Tai come?"

Rayden blinked.

"To the feast we're going to have, the celebration. Remember?" She poked his ribs. "Can he come?"

Rayden looked to Jikan Tai, who blushed, unsure of what to say. Rayden said it for him. "Sure he can."

"Great." Nova settled in, content and worry-free, snug and secure in Rayden's embrace.

For a moment, Jikan Tai noticed how alike the pair seemed, both cheerful and optimistic, even in the worst of situations. Rayden was in danger of losing his Realm and his life; Nova had to face an abusive father every time she went home. And yet neither of them seemed bitter or in despair.

The Guardian looked a little closer, and was struck, for the first time, how much the two deities resembled one another. Especially now, when they were so close, he could see the likeness clearly. That didn't make any sense--how could Nova share Rayden's bright blue eyes, the tilt of his nose, when they were from entirely different families? Rayden and Cosmos weren't related in any way, the Guardian knew that; perhaps the Lady Hiko...

Hiko and Rayden...

He'd seen them together, when he was small, and again when he was older, and he had always been struck by how close they were, how much of a history they seemed to have. Did that history result in... Nova?

Jikan Tai snapped out of his thoughts, ashamed of them. Who was he to be casting doubts on Lady Hiko? Or Lord Rayden? He hid his embarrassment behind his glass of nectar. Nova was saying something. He started to listen in.

"--but I don't know, Ariel just seems... a little..." Nova frowned, thoughtful. "What do you think?"

"I think Amai can make the decision for herself," Rayden replied, dryly. "Personally, I think arranged marriages are one of the worst things ever thought of."

Nova seemed shocked. "But they're sanctioned by the Creator!"

"So?" Rayden asked her, almost bemused. "So are Mortal Kombats."

"That's true." Grumbling, she leaned her head against him. "I don't know, I always thought they were a good idea, to generate powers."

"Powers will come on their own time, without any help from us," Rayden replied, gently resting his cheek on the top of her head.

"What about you?" she asked, suddenly, drawing away and looking up, her red hair trailing along the white fabric of his robes.

"What do you mean?"

"Do you think you'll ever get married, have children?" she asked, curiously. "I think you'd make a good dad, you were always good with me, at least."

"Thank you," he answered, a little surprised by the question. "I don't know, I've thought about it, but... I don't think marriage is for me."

"What if you meet the right person?" This question was from Jikan Tai, and he startled himself as well as the two deities. He hadn't meant to say it out loud.

Rayden looked at him, hard, for a moment. "I did meet the right person, once upon a time. But that didn't change anything." He seemed irritated that the question had been brought up.

Nova didn't pick up on it. "Hiko, right?"

At this both Jikan Tai and Rayden looked shocked. Rayden stared at her, wide- eyed and at a loss for words. Jikan Tai mulled her statement over, comparing it with what he knew of the couple.

"Right?" Nova prompted.

Rayden cleared his throat. "Right." He sounded uncomfortable. Nova made a satisfied noise and settled back to lean against him, but now he seemed too uneasy. "Nova, maybe I had better get going."

"What? Why?" She was perplexed and hurt. "But we haven't seen each other in ages!"

"I know, but I didn't mean to stay, I just wanted to talk to Kerlan for a moment." Hastily, he disengaged himself from her and got up from the table, disappearing into the crowd.

Nova leaned on the trouble, in a black mood. "It's not fair."

"What isn't?" Jikan Tai asked. He knew a lot of things that weren't fair, like life in general, but wanted to know what she meant specifically.

"Rayden. He's going through so much, and he's lost so much already, and it just doesn't seem fair. When does he get to be happy?"

The Guardian shrugged. Nova grumbled some more, and then tried to cheer herself up. "I suppose it will get better," she said, at last.

"It will?" he repeated. "What makes you say that?"

She shrugged, a very Rayden-like shrug. "I'm just a firm believer in happy endings."

"Now Turan's making a pass at her," Nova reported, as they walked through the Elder Realm together. "Honestly, she would have to be desperate--or at least, Turan would have to think she is..."

Jikan Tai muttered something to himself, rolling his eyes.

"What? What was that?" Nova repeated, poking him in the ribs. "What did you say?"

He smiled and stepped out of reach of her jabs. "I just don't think this is very interesting, that's all," he told her. "I think Lady Amai has got enough sense to pick the person she feels is right for her."

Nova started grumbling, and half-heartedly shoved him. "I know she has enough sense, that's not the point!"

"Then what is the point?" He was slightly amused by her behaviour, and it showed. Irritated, she gave him another push, but this time he caught her by the elbows and pulled her to him.

Nova was obviously disoriented by the action; that wasn't the way he was supposed to act. She looked up at him, blinking her blue eyes in confusion. "What is the point?" he repeated, softly, enjoying holding her so close.

The goddess was flustered, and bewildered; she pulled away sharply, and started down the path. "The point is--there is no point, I just like thinking about it, okay?"

"Nova?" he called after her, as she hurried away from him. He jogged to keep up with her. "Nova, wait, please, I'm sorry." She stopped, suddenly, and he realised she was starting to cry. "Nova, I'm sorry--" he repeated, uselessly.

"It's not you," she sniffled. "It's Amai. I just don't want her to be... to be trapped in the situation that my mother's in. That's all. I just want her to be happy, too, and I want..."

She turned away from him, her voice dropping. "And I just want to be happy too, but he doesn't seem to care.

He. Cosmos. Jikan Tai stiffened in anger. "What has he done?" he asked, his voice cold.

"Nothing... yet. But he keeps talking about marrying me off, like I'm, I don't know, a piece of clothing or something. only you don't marry off pieces of clothing, but you do give them away and I think that's what he means." Nova was trying, very hard, to keep from bursting into tears; she was managing to contain herself, but the strain was great.

Jikan Tai stood, stiffly, unsure of how to act, or what to do. Finally, he just stepped closer and Nova did the acting for him, wrapping her arms around his chest and burying her face in his uniform. He wrapped his arms around her, and they stood, for a long time, his cape billowing around them, his staff crossed over Nova's back.

She started to pull away, lifting her head up. "I'm sorry," she sniffled. "I don't mean to... burden you with all of this."

"It's no burden," he assured her, gently, hugging her tightly. "It's what I'm here for." To be with you, he thought but didn't say.

An idea occurred to him: to ask her to run away with him, to the Wood, away from Cosmos and Lady Amai, and all of Nova's other distractions. She could explore the pools with him, see all the different people and places and times...

But even as he thought it, he knew it wouldn't happen. He was a mortal. They could be friends, never anything more.

"Oh, Jikan Tai," Nova sighed, muffled by the fabric of his clothing, "Why does it have to be like this?"

"I don't know," he answered, honestly, "I don't know."

It was a few days later when the Council met, as they usually did, to discuss Omniversal events and settle disputes. The news du jour was of course, Rayden's disastrous ninth defeat at the hands of Shao Khan; there was now only one chance left. One more opportunity to try and turn the tide.

Shao Khan, as everyone had predicted, had only become more intolerable; as his confidence grew, so did his ego. In his mind, Earthrealm was his already. And Rayden was already dead.

So his shock was great when he turned up at the Council meeting to find his brother, still hale and hearty, sitting across the floor from him.

"What is he doing here?" Khan blurted, still getting over the surprise.

"Same thing you are," Rayden replied, sourly, grumpy at having to be asked to attend the Council. He had better things to do, like choose and train the final select group of humans. He already had his eye on a few, and then there was Kung Lao's descendants...

"This is a meeting of the Council for all who are able to attend," Adiutor, the current Speaker, proclaimed, loudly, so that all could hear him.

"Rayden shouldn't be here--he doesn't have a Realm!" Khan barked.

"My Realm is still mine--don't get ahead of yourself!" Rayden snapped.

Adiutor blinked, startled by the sudden argument. That wasn't in the schedule...

The goddess sitting next to Khan stood up, angry. "You know it's only a matter of time, Rayden! You might as well give up Earth now--save us the trouble."

Rayden scowled at Roma, Numinae. She had been Khan's best friend since childhood. It seems that the ties still continued. "I'm not giving up anything."

"Roma's right--for once," drawled a sarcastic voice, as Cosmos stood up. Hiko was sitting next to him, looking horrified; the last thing she wanted was to be dragged into this, and she knew she would be, whether she liked it or not. She wished Nova was with her, just for reassurance, but her daughter wasn't at the Council, she was off with the Guardian somewhere.

"What do you mean, for once?" Roma snapped, irritated at the new arrival. The anger in her voice astounded many deities; Cosmos and Roma had no contact with each other, why would she care what he thought, or said, since she didn't pay any attention to anyone else?

Cosmos smiled, that horrible smirk he trotted out only on special occasions. "I was just commenting on your track record, Roma."

Khan decided he'd had enough. Roma was the only friend he had left in the Omniverse, and he was going to defend her. "You've hardly been very successful yourself, Cosmos!"

Cosmos' face darkened, rapidly. Hiko tugged on his sleeve, frantically, trying to get him to sit down. "I've been more successful than you have been--isn't that right, Hiko?"

At the mention of her name, Hiko paled, considerably, as did Rayden, who until now had been willing to let Cosmos, Roma and Khan duke it out. But involving Hiko-- that, he couldn't ignore. "Leave her out of this, Cosmos!" he yelled, getting to his feet.

"Oh, you," Cosmos remarked, dismissively. "I was wondering when you'd get around to sticking your nose in."

"Stop it, Cosmos," Hiko said, tearfully. He pulled on her arm, heaving her to her feet.

"Hiko, my dear, tell Rayden that you'd prefer not to see him any more--he is becoming such a nuisance, don't you agree?" He shook her. "Tell him!"

Hiko and Rayden looked at each other, not speaking, Rayden's heart barely beating. If she did say that, in front of all these people, he didn't know what he'd do.

Hiko, for her part, didn't say anything, and Cosmos shook her again. "Say it!" he hissed. She refused.

Roma and Khan began to laugh, very loudly. "Can't even keep your own wife under control?" Roma sneered. "No wonder you tried so hard to control others. Tell me- -do your own mortals obey you?"

Cosmos' face contorted, furious beyond measure. He pulled Hiko to him, fiercely, and she yelped, the grip on her arm becoming intense. But she didn't dare resist him. "I'll show you what I can control!"

At that moment Hiko gave a sharp cry, and her powers flared around her, a wave of fire. The entire crowd gasped, especially those sitting around the couple; it was growing uncomfortably hot.

Roma snickered, then started to clap loudly. "Very impressive--Hiko!"

Cosmos scowled. He'd meant the display to prove the control he had over his wife--not the other way around. Hiko whimpered, her powers dying down, although not disappearing completely; Cosmos was forcing them to remain active, and the strain was hard for the goddess to handle.

"Let her go!" Rayden roared, starting forward, when he was suddenly held back by Amai and Kerlan, who had been sitting next to him. "Stop it!" he barked, and whether he meant Cosmos or his friends, no one was sure. Thunder rumbled ominously overhead.

There was a burst of light, and Nova teleported in, brought in by her mother's distress. Jikan Tai appeared a moment later, bewildered, and he immediately summed up the situation. Nova lunged forward, heading for her mother, but he grabbed her by the arm and held her back. "Let me go!" she screamed, clawing at him, until he dropped his staff to grab at her other hand, holding it immobile. The clatter as the staff hit the marble floor echoed, mingling with the thunder, and it silenced the entire Hall.

Even Cosmos seemed startled by the noise; he let Hiko's powers drop, and she sagged against him, exhausted. He kept a firm grip on her. "I'll show you," he promised, savagely, before he teleported out.

The minute he disappeared, Rayden stopped struggling, and Kerlan and Amai loosened their grip. Nova, however, was in a different state. She was still fighting against the Guardian, wailing and crying, trying to break free, to go to her mother. Then, suddenly, she gave a startled gasp and collapsed. Jikan Tai caught her, easily, and then teleported away, his staff disappearing with him.

They had been enjoying a break in the Bar, while the Council session began. Nova had planned to have lunch with her mother, afterward, in the Bar; the goddess was exempt from attending because she hadn't had her Ceremony yet.

The morning had been going quite well until, suddenly, Nova became distracted and upset, but unable to clarify what the matter was; and then she cried out, "Mother!" and disappeared in a fiery flash. The Guardian was quick to follow her.

They appeared in the Council Hall. Cosmos had a fierce grip on Hiko, and Rayden was straining against Kerlan and Amai. Thunder was booming overhead. Clearly, the Lady Hiko had been in danger--

Nova lunged forward, trying to get to her mother, to save her, but Jikan Tai stopped her, pulling her back. She couldn't get involved in this, there was no telling what Cosmos would do to her, if he was unnerved enough. Nova screamed, and fought against the mortal; he dropped his staff and used his free hand to grab hers and pull her to him, for a tighter grip. "Stop fighting," he hissed, but she didn't hear him, for her wailing.

Cosmos snapped something, and then portalled away, taking the Lady Hiko with him; Rayden relaxed somewhat. But Nova did not. Jikan Tai took a deep breath and used his powers on her; she gave a small, defeated cry and then collapsed. He caught her, holding onto her tightly, he could feel her heart hammering through her chest. He had to get her out of here. He teleported away.

"Mother?" Nova whimpered, from where she lay on Jikan Tai's bed. He sat on a chair next to her, keeping watch. The goddess opened her eyes, blinking in the unexpected darkness. She bolted up, frightened, and he put out his hand to reassure her. She screamed, startled by the sudden touch, by the unfamiliar surroundings.

"Nova, it's just me," he said, trying to calm her. "It's Jikan Tai--you're in my apartment, it's okay--"

Nova took shallow, shuddering breaths. "What... what happened to me? Where's my mother?"

"I knocked you out," Jikan Tai admitted, somewhat sheepishly. "I didn't want you attacking Cosmos. I don't know what happened to your mother," he added.

Nova started to cry, and he shifted over on to the bed, offering her a shoulder, which she accepted. "I don't ever want to go back there, I hate him," she whispered, between sobs. "But I don't know what to do."

Jikan Tai took a deep breath. "You can stay here, with me, until you... find something better. I'll sleep on the couch--he can't get you here, you'll be safe."

She looked up at him, her eyes red. "Thank you," she sniffed. "I--thank you." She couldn't think of anything else to say, and leaned her head back against his shoulder, trying to stop crying.

Roma was in the Bar, with almos t everyone else, sitting with Shao Khan. Like normal, all the other deities avoided the pair; before, she had enjoyed that, the power that she held over them. She was a Numina, like Khan, and although she had her own Realm- -Imperialis--she was not particularly strong, and she knew it. Her one comfort came from the fear displayed by other Immortals. Rayden excepted. He had known her since they were children; he had never been afraid of her, and never would be. But then, he'd be out of the picture, soon enough.

Khan was leaning back in his chair, slouching like always, drinking his nectar and thinking to himself sullenly. She watched him with a token of disgust. Yes, he was the stronger of the two Thunder brothers, and yes, he deserved the Realm more than Rayden did; but at the moment she couldn't help thinking that Rayden presented himself better, and was... was she thinking more handsome? Where did that come from? She made a face and downed her nectar.

"I can't believe his nerve," Khan grumbled. His growly voice always used to excite her, but now she just found it irritating. What was happening to her? Why was she seeing things backwards, like this? "Showing up and insulting you, like that."

For a moment, she felt a burst of affection for him. Khan was the only person who ever stuck up for her; the only person, at least, since her brother Graecis died. Slowly, her feelings for him were returning to normal.

"I mean, where did he get the impression that you were a failure? You've--" here he smiled wickedly, "--always been a help to me." Roma had helped Shao Khan take over Outworld; she had found his warriors for him, she had helped him with everything that he did. In the shadows, of course; never by his side and in the spotlight. But she didn't care for spotlights, anyway. She smiled back at him, but inwardly, she was thinking of Cosmos: she had been a failure, with him, back when they had tried to take over Maresium. But then, Cosmos hadn't succeeded either. Only he did end up marrying Hiko; Creator knows how he'd managed it.

"I was just thinking..." she said, musing, twirling the last drops of nectar in her glass, "about Hiko."

"Hiko?" Khan repeated, with a wrinkle of his nose. "Why?"

Roma shrugged. "Just wondering why she stays with Cosmos, when it's obvious that they hate each other."

He rolled his eyes. "Who cares?"

"I was just curious," she snapped. She paused for a moment, there was a sudden pain in her chest; but then it was gone. "I know it doesn't matter, but I just wonder what he said to her, to trap her like that."

"I don't know," Khan replied, bored. Roma wasn't, however; the subject was growing more fascinating.

"I mean, no doubt she would have preferred to marry someone else--Rayden, probably--"

At the mention of his brother's name, Khan's head snapped up. He scowled. "What did you bring him up for?"

"I didn't," she protested, blinking in surprise as another sudden pain shot through her chest. "I was just thinking--"

"Don't," Khan snapped.

"--about when we were kids," she continued, ignoring him, gasping as she found it hard to breathe. She clutched at her chest, the pain growing stronger, "and all the fun we used to have--"

"Roma?" The irritation in Khan's voice gave way to surprise and concern. "What's the matter?"

"I can't--" she wheezed, squeezing her eyes shut. She tried to stand up, but she toppled over. Quick as lightning, Khan leapt out of his seat to catch her. Deities, all the Immortals around them, were scattering, alarmed. He caught her, holding her tightly.

"Roma, what is it?" he repeated, almost frightened.

That's not right, she thought. Rai's never frightened...

"I'm going to teleport you to Imperialis," he told her, suddenly. "Brace yourself-- !"

Imperialis was not a large Realm; it was not particularly spectacular, but it was comfortable and pleasant. Shao Khan had pleasant memories of visiting Roma and Graecis, back when he was Raimei and he and Rayden didn't hate each other so fiercely...

Roma's Manor was nearly as familiar to him as his own; he spent so much time here. Carrying her in his arms, he laid her down on her bed--their bed--and tried to send her healing energy. He wasn't sure how it was done, exactly; he'd never tried before. He'd never needed to.

Roma was having more and more difficulty breathing, and Khan was suddenly aware of disturbing energy in the Realm. He'd never felt anything like it--yes, wait, he had: when he killed Dahren, and took Outworld from him. But, did that mean...?

Terror seized him, a most unexpected emotion, and an unfamiliar one. "Roma, wake up."

She tried, but she was drifting in and out of unconsciousness; her energy was rapidly fading.

"Roma, wake up!" he commanded.

There was sudden laughter, and then Cosmos appeared in the room, or at least, a vision of him did; he wasn't in person. Hiko stood next to him, wearing matching blue robes and smiling just as wickedly as her husband.

"I told you," Cosmos sneered.

"What are you doing?" Khan roared, getting to his feet.

"Taking over this Realm--without the use of Mortal Kombats," Cosmos said, simply. "I told her that I would find a way--it seems only fitting that Roma be the first example."

"Let her go," Khan snarled, through gritted teeth.

"Now, why would I want to do that?" Cosmos smiled, unpleasantly. "Hiko, my dear, can you do this any faster?"

She nodded, frowning in concentration. Her powers began to glow around her, a by-product of the energy she was channelling. Khan could feel the ground rocking under his feet. Roma gasped, still unconscious, and he saw, with horror, that she was beginning to disappear: her power over her Realm was gone. She was dying.

"No--stop it!" he roared, at Cosmos, who seemed, oddly enough, distressed by something.

"What is going on?" the God of Space muttered. "Hiko--what are you doing?"

"What you asked of me," she replied, coldly. Her voice was strangely flat; it didn't sound quite like her.

"No, you're channelling too much energy, slow down," Cosmos commanded, urgently, ignoring Khan and Roma, something which the god could barely stand for.

"Stop it!" he cried again, and was surprised by how much emotion he held in his voice. He was Shao Khan, Emperor of Outworld, he didn't care for anybody--except maybe Roma...

The shaking under his feet was growing steadily worse, he could barely keep his balance. He had to get out of here. Scooping up Roma in his arms, he teleported to his own Manor, in Outworld.

He appeared in his throne room, surrounded by all his minions, Shang Tsung and Kitana; Scorpion and Sub-Zero, Kintaro and Reptile...

He didn't care. Roma was almost gone, he tried to send her as much energy as he could manage, to keep her there...

For a moment, she awoke, her eyes open. "Rai--" she whispered, hoarsely. He could barely hear her. "Rai--get Earth for me, I want you to have Earthrealm--" Her voice dropped, becoming inaudible, and then she was gone, a burst of sparkles, his arms suddenly holding nothing.

He sat, in shock. She was gone.

"My Lord?" Shang Tsung approached him, unnerved by what he had seen. "My Lord Khan--"

"Shut up," Khan snapped, getting to his feet, shaky and uncertain.

"What has happened, my Lord?" Kitana, Princess of Outworld, asked, quietly.

Khan turned on her. At times, she had attracted him greatly, but now, she just made him realise how much he had lost. Roma...

"Rayden is going to pay for this," he snarled, clenching his hands into fists. It was Cosmos who had done this, but Khan couldn't attack the God of Space, not yet; first he would fulfil Roma's wish, seize Earth, and then use its power to turn on Cosmos.

"Lord Rayden... did that?" Tsung was the only one who had been familiar with Roma, outside of Kitana. Roma had found the sorcerer, hand-picked him, told him about his Djinn heritage and his potential.

"No," Khan growled, going to his throne. He had to sit down, his knees felt weak, which he took personally. "But I can't get the person responsible... yet. Rayden will have to do."

I'll do it, Roma, I'll get you Earthrealm, no matter what the cost--Creator and his Rules be damned, I'll get you Earth...

The rumours were disturbing, the atmosphere tense, everyone was unnerved. The destruction of Imperialis and the death of its Protector, Roma, had everyone on their toes.

Cosmos had done it, he had said as much; Hiko had been admitted to the Hospital for exhaustion.

What did it mean? People asked themselves, quietly, in the Bar, in the Hall, where ever people met and discussed events, news or gossip.

Nova, still living with Jikan Tai, found the rumours particularly difficult to bear. She hadn't been able to talk to her mother; she hadn't seen her in ages, ever since that day in the Hall. No one wished to talk to her, fearing Cosmos; she was alone. Except for Jikan Tai.

He, too, had no idea what was going on, or why, but he knew that he was going to stick by Nova no matter what happened. He'd defend her, if it came to that, he'd protect her.

He was waiting in his--their--apartment, for her to come back. She had stormed out, without an explanation; he hoped that she wasn't going to take on her father, but he trusted her and let her have her privacy.

He sighed, and sipped from the cup of herbal tea, it was soothing and relaxing. He sat, patiently, waiting for her to return. She would, eventually, no doubt in tears; she had been crying a lot recently, although no one could blame her. He would let her cry on his shoulder, like he always did. He wished, fervently, that he could tell her how he really felt about her, let her know that she was loved and safe with him; but he could never bring himself to say it. He could always hear her reply: I love you too, but not like that, and he didn't know if he could take it. Maybe he could. He didn't want to find out.

The door opened, and Nova stormed in, exactly as she had stormed out. She was upset, but not crying; she was furious. "He's gone and sealed off his Realm!" she yelled, angrily. "I can't talk to him!"

"You know he seals off Earth every time he's in the middle of a Tournament," Jikan Tai replied, calmly. He would attempt to be calm, at least: Nova was not bothering to make the effort.

"Well, that's very convenient of him, isn't it!" she yelled, stomping to her bedroom and slamming the door. "The one time I need to talk to someone..."

As muffled as the words were, Jikan Tai heard them very plainly, and was taken aback. Surely she didn't mean that, surely--

No apology came out of the room; she hadn't realised, then, how sharply she'd hurt him. He decided to chalk it up to her being out of sorts. She hadn't meant it.

Shao Khan sat, immobile, watching the proceedings through a scry. It was Shang Tsung versus Liu Kang--a mere mortal from Earth. Tsung was quarter-Djinn, he had his grandmother's powers, surely he would defeat this lowly mortal, as he had defeated so many before--

"I am the chosen one," Liu Kang said, clearly, gathering his strength together before he charged the sorcerer. There was a final grapple, a spark of light--

Shang Tsung tumbled off the lip of the balcony--

He was dead.

Khan roared with frustration, anger, grief, and hatred. No, no, that means Rayden has won the Tournament--! It would take another ten straight victories to gain Earth Realm now!

Light exploded around the Emperor, as Shang Tsung's magic was released back into the Omniverse, the souls of all the mortals he had defeated set free, back to the Creator. Khan gripped the arms of his throne so tightly that his fingernails cut small crescents in the wood.

First he had lost Roma, then his adopted daughter Kitana had turned traitor on him, and now he had lost the Tournament, all the tournaments, he had lost Mortal Kombat. It was too much to bear, he couldn't handle losing. Anything.

Taking a deep breath, he tried to think what Roma would suggest. She had always been there to think of ways to escape trouble, or better yet, to start it. But now she was gone....

He watched the souls slipping out and through the palace and wished that Immortals had the power to be ghosts; then she could still be here, and advise him. But he knew that was rubbish, and there was no point in dwelling on it.

He forced himself to think about what to do next. Outworld's power was severely weakened; and if he wanted to challenge Rayden again, he'd need to replenish. How could he do that?

The answer struck him.

Simple: take over a smaller Realm.

Images of a lush, green, fertile Realm flashed before his eyes. The Realm of his half-sister, Lindara, Goddess of Plants. It was weak, it would only take a single victory to win it, he was sure. And then he'd turn his sights back to Earth...

Jikan Tai had been right: Nova hadn't meant it. She had emerged from her room, some time later, with red eyes and a stuffy nose; she said she hadn't been crying, but the lie was so transparent that the Guardian decided not to comment on it. So he had let the incident glide on by, and had soon forgotten about it.

Kerlan poured the drinks for them both. Nova's Ceremony had just been celebrated, a short time earlier; despite the fact that one's Ceremony was the most important event in a deity's life, Cosmos had forbidden her to share it with anyone. He had simply gotten an Elder--Thunder--to read the pronouncement, and then it was over. Nova hadn't even gotten a Realm; although it was not required of a parent, most did hand over the control to their child, it was tradition, and the Omniverse community at large frowned upon any deviation from tradition. But Cosmos, at this point, was beyond caring what anybody thought.

"Cheer up, Nova, it's a happy occasion," Kerlan chided her. Jikan Tai shot the bartender a furious look, but the god ignored it. "And Rayden did win his Tournament, after all."

"I know," she grumbled, drinking her nectar. "But Shao Khan will be back--he always is."

"Maybe--" Jikan Tai began, but Kerlan interrupted him.

"She's right, Guardian," he said, sadly. Then he pulled up a chair and leaned in, between the two. "You're not to be spreading this around--but I think Shao Khan's gone after Agri."

"Agri?" the mortal repeated, while Nova's hands flew to her mouth in horror.

"Oh no, not Lin!" she cried, distraught. "She won't be able to stand up to Shao Khan! We've got to do something!"

"Rayden's already taking care of it," Kerlan said, sternly, with a furtive gesture to remind her to keep her voice down. "I know that you two are close, but--"

"She didn't tell me!" Nova continued, indignant. "I would have helped, you know that I would have, but she didn't tell me!"

"She didn't tell anyone. I only found out from Rayden, and he only found out because he tried to visit her and she.... well, apparently had hysterics."

"That's Lindara," Nova muttered. "Oh, Kerlan, why does it always have to be like this?"

"I don't know, Nova," he replied, tiredly. "But I trust in the Creator that everything will work out as it should be."

Everyone found out, a short while later, about the Tournament at Agri, about Rayden's attempt to foil his brother, about how Lindara finally managed to drive Shao Khan out of her Realm, on her own. It was a big step for the goddess. While Plants was a respected Power, no one really expected Lindara to live up to it; the fact that she had managed to, so spectacularly, was a cause for celebration.

But amid all the jubilation was worry, and concern. Cosmos hadn't been seen outside his Realm in a long time, he had even stopped going to Council meetings to harass Celebria. Nothing was heard of Hiko, either, and Nova, fearful, found that Usirapi, her home Realm, was barred to her. She couldn't get in without risking losing her powers.

"Why would my father do that to me?" she asked Jikan Tai, one evening, while they were eating a stir-fry he had prepare. She was very worried. "Something horrible must be happening!"

The Guardian bit back the response that horrible things had been happening for ages. "I don't know. But you can still sense your mother?"

Nova nodded, near tears.

"Then she's all right. You would know if something was wrong," he told her, firmly. They both assumed she would, and he kept her from thinking otherwise. It was growing harder and harder for him to keep Nova from having a complete breakdown. She needed something to distract her, he knew, but he couldn't think of anything.

It was also becoming harder and harder to keep his feelings to himself. It was one thing he normally excelled at, but every day he found himself nearly blurting it out. He decided to follow his own advice, and concentrated on his supper.

"Could it be? Could Shao Khan be dead?" Liu Kang had asked, on Agri, staring at where the Emperor used to be, before being swallowed up by the ground, in a great quake. "Maybe it's too much to hope for."

"It's always too much to hope for," Johnny Cage had quipped. "Rayden? What do you think?"

The god was sitting with his sister Lindara, both gathering their energy together. The battle had taken a lot out of them. "He's not dead."

The three mortals, Liu, Johnny and Sonya Blade, were crestfallen at the news. "That means he could still come after Earth..." Liu realised.

Rayden shook his head, the white hair streaked with dirt and traces of blood. "No, not for a while. He'll take time to rebuild his forces, and besides, he has to declare the Challenge ahead of time. No, this is the last we've seen of him in a while, at least." He suddenly grinned. "Look at us! This is the second major victory we've won against Shao Khan, we should be happy! Celebrating! Something like that!"

"I would like a shower and a couple of stiff drinks," Johnny admitted, cheerfully, raising his hand. "Who's with me?"

Liu grinned, and Sonya... well, Sonya looked a little less grim.

Rayden clapped his hands together. "Lin? Do you want to... Lin?"

"I've been thinking," she said, quietly. All four noticed the change: normally, the goddess referred to herself as "we". "I've been thinking, I'm going to talk to my mortals, make some reforms."

"Good for you," Rayden replied, his eyes sparkling.

"I think I'll make a speech," she announced, arranging her robes, as though she had simply gotten in a slight disarray, and not been in a battle for her life. "Yes, that's what I'll do."

"And going home is what I'd like--" Johnny began, but Liu cut him off.

"I'd like to hear this," the mortal answered. "We'll go home after the announcement."

The crowd roared. Johnny Cage, sitting in the crowd to the left of the stage, winced and put a hand over his ear. "Enthusiastic bunch, aren't they," he commented, meaning the Agricolae gathered to hear their Goddess speak.

"She's certainly an inspirational speaker," Rayden admitted. "Impressive, isn't it?"

"Yeah. And how much of the speech did you write?"

"What? I resent that!" Rayden said, grinning. "Anyway," he continued, deciding to change the topic, "this is probably going to go on for a while, how about we get back to Earth?"

"About time!" Johnny crowed, getting to his feet. "I really need a drink right about now..."

Rayden created a portal. "This should take us to outside the Temple of Light..."

"Should?" Sonya inquired, politely.

The god glared. "I'm not up to full strength yet. If we happen to land in the river, I can't be blamed."

"You can, and will," Johnny deadpanned, stepping through, going home.

The trio of mortals and the god all sighed with relief. "Looks like the portal worked," Johnny observed.

"Actually--" Rayden coughed into his palm, embarrassed. "Actually, I meant to land us at the top of the hill."

The mortals all laughed, as he meant them to; their tension evaporated into the sunny Earth sky. They started up, towards the Temple, when they saw someone running towards them.

"Lord Rayden!" Kitana cried, nearly breathless. "I got your message!"

"Kitana!" Liu exclaimed, pleasantly surprised. He hadn't seen her in ages, after the Tournament she had disappeared, to "travel", she said; he guessed that she had been stirring up trouble in Outworld from the inside. "It's good to see you." They embraced, awkwardly, in front of everyone else.

"C'mon," Johnny urged. "Let's get going."

They all linked arms, happy at last to be free of the Tournament, lurking over their heads. They started up the steps, and as they neared the top--

"I tried as best as I could," Kitana explained, to Rayden, as they caught sight of the banners, of the decorations and monks milling around, celebrating. "But I didn't know what you thought would be appropriate--"

"It's fine, Kitana, really," he said, with a laugh. It felt so good not to have Mortal Kombat weighing down on his shoulders any more--

There was a sudden rumble of thunder, and everyone looked up, startled and bewildered. Clouds were brewing over the Temple, even though the sky had been clear, sunny and bright blue.

Shao Khan's scowling image appeared in the clouds.

Oh no, Rayden thought, dismally.

"I've come for your souls!" Khan roared, the storm gathering in intensity. The quintet looked to each other.

"I don't think so," Rayden replied, smartly, as they all dropped into fighting positions.

"--of all the nerve!" Suyuan finished, distraught. "How could he do something like this? It's all Thunder's fault! My son would never behave like this!"

Naturalis wrapped an arm around her waist, comfortingly.

"It's so distressing!" she continued.

Nova, on the other side of the Hall, could hear the Goddess of Winds plainly, and she sighed. "I wonder what he's up to," she murmured. Like almost everyone else, they were watching the scry, which showed visions of what was happening as Earthrealm was being merged with Outworld. Illegally.

"What do you mean?" Jikan Tai asked, curious, leaning on his staff. It seemed as though Rayden and his mortals were out-matched, but they did have the Creator on their side; Shao Khan had broken numerous rules. It was this hint of wickedness that had drawn in the crowd; by the time that Johnny Cage had died, by Khan's hand, they were hooked. It was impossible to turn away.

"I mean, this seems a little too blunt, even for Shao Khan," Nova explained. "If he had just waited, he could have declared Mortal Kombat legally. But this--what would drive him over the edge like that? To be so--"

"Stupid?" someone volunteered. It was Kerlan. "I've known Shao Khan since we were kids, and you're right; this is out of character for him. He'd never do anything if he was certain to be caught. But then Roma was the one that got him out of trouble, maybe with..." Kerlan faltered, even he was nervous about admitting that Cosmos had destroyed an entire Realm. "Maybe with her gone, there's nothing to hold him back."

They lapsed into silence, watching the scry. For some reason, the focus had shifted; they were now watching Shao Khan skulking in his throne room.

"What gives?" someone cried out. "I want to see how Rayden's doing--"

"Shut up, Voco," someone else hissed. "Look! Look at that!"

The entire Hall was riveted as someone stepped out of the shadows of Khan's throne room. The god's features became plain. It was Thunder.

Silence descended among the deities as they realised that Thunder was behind this outrageous attack.

"He probably thinks we can't see him!" Mizuno, Goddess of Water, and fellow Elder, fumed. "That idiot! What does he think he's doing?"

"We've got to do something about this," Logicalis, God of Logic and another of the Elders, replied, firmly. "We've got to stop this nonsense in its tracks!"

Across the Hall, Nova, Jikan Tai and Kerlan exchanged triumphant glances. "It's about time that they sorted Thunder out," Kerlan said, grinning. "Now the sparks are really going to fly."

And they did, unfortunately not the way that Kerlan meant. Thunder, sensing that his position was becoming temporary, urged his son to greater depths; Shao Khan pulled out all the stops and barred nothing. Thunder's voice in his ear told him what to do; Roma's voice in his heart gave him the strength to do it. He would get Earthrealm--or die trying.

As the battle unfolded, everyone in the Hall grew more and more tense. Nova clutched Jikan Tai's arm tightly as the duel between Rayden and Shao Khan progressed. "Why aren't they doing anything?" she whispered, her voice choked. "Why don't the Elders call it off?"

Jikan Tai had no answer, not one that he could give her, at least. But he knew what the problem was: bickering within the Elders was delaying any action, as it always did. He just squeezed her hand, reassuringly. She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head fiercely.

Suddenly, something happened, which Nova had missed; all she knew was when she opened her eyes, it was to see Rayden lying prone at Shao Khan's feet.

"No!" she screamed, startling everyone around her, who was too drawn into the scry to notice anything else, until she cried out. "No!" Her voice became more hysterical, and Jikan Tai had to hold her back, restrain her from reaching out to the scry. "No, Rayden, you can't die, please don't--!"

"He's not dead yet," Logicalis said, kindly, patting her shoulder. His face wore a look of fierce concentration. "He's not dead yet, and Khan still has to face Liu Kang."

"Liu Kang?" Jikan Tai blurted. "He's a mortal! He can't hurt Shao Khan!"

"Not normally," Logicalis agreed. "But with the Elder's help--"

This was why they hadn't acted. They were channelling their energies into another solution.

Jikan Tai, holding Nova, let himself be drawn back into the battle, praying to the Creator to let Liu Kang win, to let Shao Khan lose, once and for all. He prayed so hard, and held Nova so tightly, that he began to see stars in front of his eyes from the strain. Nova didn't complain, she was too absorbed, too worried to notice, or care.

"Please, Creator--" It seemed that all of the Hall was praying for Liu Kang's victory. Rayden still wasn't moving, but he wasn't dead; the fact that they could all see him proved that. There was still hope for him. "Please, Great Creator, help Liu Kang win--"

And then it was over.

With a burst of magic, thanks to the Elders, Liu Kang had done it. He had gathered his strength together and done it: defeated Shao Khan. Once and for all. Forever. The Hall watched, stunned silence, as Khan's body vanished in a smattering of sparkles; and then, as one, they raised their voices in a cheer.

There was a knock on the door. Startled, Nova and Jikan Tai looked up. Nova was reading a scroll on the couch, her feet up; the Guardian was making himself a snack, warming left-overs.

"Come in," he called, uncertain. No one ever came to visit him, and Nova insisted on seeing her friends at the Bar; he had no idea who it could be.

The door opened, and a very familiar figure stepped in. "Lord Rayden!" Jikan Tai blurted.

"Rayden!" Nova cried, delighted. She leapt up from the couch to give him a running-tackle hug. "How have you been? Is being an Elder all it's cracked up to be?"

Rayden swung her around, for old times' sake, although the swing wasn't as thorough as it used to be, for the apartment's sake. "It's... well... I guess," he answered, not really answering at all.

"You look unhappy. C'mon, come and sit down, Jikan Tai was just making some food..." She led him to the table. Rayden nodded to Jikan Tai and the Guardian nodded back.

"I was just cooking--"

"No thanks," Rayden replied, waving the offer away. He ran a hand through his hair, and Jikan Tai noticed, for the first time, how haggard he looked. "When Logicalis offered me my father's post, I leapt at it, but now..."

"Oh," Nova commented, not sure what to say. "Well, it must be nice not to have to take care of Earth any more," she said, at last, trying to find the silver lining.

"Yeah, nice," Rayden repeated, with a sigh. "Nova--I know I haven't seen you in a while--"

"Uh huh...?" she prompted.

"But I really need to talk to Jikan Tai. Alone."

Blinking, she shifted back, startled. "Oh. I see."

Rayden reached over the table to squeeze her hand. "I will make it up to you, I promise. But I have to talk about some... business... with the Guardian. Of time," he added, significantly.

This took Jikan Tai off guard. No one had asked for his services as Guardian yet.

Nova seemed a little hurt, but accepting. "Sure, whatever," she replied, nodding. "Do you want me to go to the Bar, or--?"

"We can go," Jikan Tai offered, but Rayden shook his head.

"The Bar is too public. The apartment is better. I'm sorry, Nova, but--"

"Don't worry about it!" she said, brightly, getting up from her seat. "Just let me know when it's safe to come back, kay?"

Rayden and Jikan Tai both nodded. She disappeared through a portal, leaving the pair alone.

"Nice place," Rayden commented, looking around. He gave a significant look to Jikan Tai. "I didn't know that you and Nova were... an item."

"We're not," the mortal said, hastily, hoping he wasn't blushing. "She's just staying with me, until the problems in Usirapi get sorted out."

"I see." Rayden sighed, and leaned back, his hands linked behind his head. "Jikan Tai--I know we've drifted apart over the years--yes, I know it was my fault to, but I've been busy and I'm not making any excuses for myself. But I need your help, Guardian."

"You want me to change time," Jikan Tai summed up, quietly.

Rayden nodded, sitting up straight. "This isn't the way it's supposed to be. Something's gone wrong."

Jikan Tai appeared at the Temple of Light, making sure that none of the mortals could see him. He still had the disturbing feeling that something was wrong with this plan, this outlandish idea of Rayden's.

"Johnny wasn't supposed to die," the god had said. "I'm not supposed to be an Elder. I can feel it in my bones, Jikan Tai. This isn't right."

"Have you done a scry?" he had inquired, a chill running through him. Rayden nodded.

"That's what led me to you," he admitted. "I asked the Creator the solution to the problem, and I was shown you."

But nothing else, Jikan Tai added now, silently, watching a few monks on late errands. Nothing that lets me know what I'm supposed to do.

Apparently, Sonya Blade had had a nervous breakdown, due to the death of her colleague and friend; she was here, at the Temple, watched over by Liu Kang, Kitana, and her partner, Jax Briggs.

The Guardian wondered if he could just change time by himself, the way he had done in the past, and then merge the time stream, which would smooth over any paradoxes. But that solution seemed wrong, somehow. He couldn't explain it, any more than Rayden could.

He had anchored the god outside the time stream, so that he wouldn't feel any effects from the change. Time was, of course, relative. By changing events here, he would only effect Earth's time line, and not interfere with that of the Omniverse. But Rayden might be affected.

"This is wrong," he said out loud, startling himself. He didn't want to start messing around with time; and who cared about a set of mortals, anyway?

I do, he heard Rayden reply. Please, Guardian. Just do your best.

Jikan Tai sighed. He still didn't want to be responsible for this whole mess. And he had no idea where to begin. Like everyone else, he had seen only an edited version of events, from one participants viewpoint at a time. He wasn't quite sure how everything had, indeed, unfolded.

And then a thought struck him. Jax knows.

That was it! He would have the mortals tell him how everything happened, and then he would fix it. They would be able to fill in the gaps.

He teleported to Jax's room.

The captain was sitting on the edge of his bed, unable to sleep, when Jikan Tai appeared, gliding smoothly out of the shadows. The mortal did not notice him, he was too deep in his own thoughts.

"You want to help your friend," Jikan Tai said, suddenly, startling Jax, who leapt up from his bed. The Guardian flipped his bangs out of his eyes; they had fallen in again.

"Who are you?" Jax demanded, anxious and on edge. He was inching towards a night table. Jikan Tai flashed time forward a few seconds, to see Jax pull out a gun; then the Guardian snapped time back, so that the mortal would know no difference.

"Don't bother going for your gun," Jikan Tai said, carefully, trying to sound as though he had simply known the gun was there. He decided to change his speech patterns, as well, to sound more, well, godly; he decided to sound like Medicalis. Medicalis was good when it came to sounding superior. He kept his face emotionless. "I may be called Jikan Tai."

"Nice to meet you," Jax replied, sarcastically, unnerved by the Guardian's presence. "I'm--"

"Jax. I know." Jikan Tai sized him up carefully. Jax was growing more antagonistic by the minute--who could blame him?--but the Guardian wanted to avoid any conflict. Better let him know who he was dealing with now. "There is no point trying to make a run for it. Liu is at the other end of the compound. Kitana is asleep. At any rate, none of them are at all powerful enough to defeat me, if it came down to a fight."

"Is that what it's going to come down to?" Jax snapped, bringing his fists up. Jikan Tai looked at him with disdain, and a slight wrinkling of the nose.

"The first aggressive move will be made by you," he said, as assurance. "I came only to offer you a solution to your problem."

"My problem? What--" Jax looked stunned as he realised what the Guardian was talking about. "Sonya!"

"I could mean no other," Jikan Tai remarked, dryly. "I have a proposal to make, Jax, that you may find interesting."

"I'm all ears." Jax folded his arms over his chest and waited. Jikan Tai looked around the dismal room. He felt cooped up, and wanted some air. He brought up his staff, teleporting the two outside.

"What the hell--!" Jax exclaimed, unnerved and off-balance.

"Please refrain from profanities," Jikan Tai requested, trying to remind himself that Jax wasn't used to beings with powers. "I have brought you here for a reason, Jax." He paused. How much should Jax be told? How well could he be trusted?

You can trust him, Rayden said softly.

"I am the Guardian of Time. I have the ability to move backwards, forwards, and even sideways among the time strings. I have come to offer a solution. As a wise man once said--" Jikan Tai tried to remember where he had heard this from, "or perhaps will say, before the answer can make sense, you must know the question. In your case, you must know the problem before you can know the solution." Jax stared at him blankly, and the Guardian sighed. He knew Jax was trying hard; he was simply out of his depth. So, like any teacher, Jikan Tai decided to use visual aides. He called up a simple reconstruction of the events leading to Johnny's death.

Jax stared, open-mouthed, as the quintet of fighters advanced on Shao Khan, who attacked Sonya with a whip. The images were faint, and the moonlight shone through them; there was no sound, and the entire display was too eerie for words. Johnny tried to save Sonya; he himself was caught, his neck snapped by the Emperor. Sonya screamed, soundlessly, her lips forming the word: "Johnny!"

"That was the death of Johnny Cage," Jikan Tai mused, out loud, thinking back to the vision they all had seen. He shook his head. "Now, to the crux of the matter: do you know the question yet?"

"Yeah, I think," Jax replied, slowly. "And I know the solution: go back in time, stop this guy from getting his terminal neck crick and bam! Everybody's happy." He punctuated his sentence by clapping his hands on the word "bam".

Jikan Tai felt lost in the ruins. Was that all it would take, simply change one scene and history would fall into place? It couldn't be that simple. But it was worth a shot; he could always repair the damage if it didn't work. "Do you feel up to the challenge, Jax? It is very dangerous." Jikan tai didn't feel up the challenge, but he supposed that didn't count for anything.

"I'd do anything for Sonya," Jax replied, without hesitation.

"Even not know her?" the Guardian asked. As he saw it, the changes to this time stream would wipe out Jax's involvement with the Tournament. Was it worth it?

Jax thinks it is. Look behind you. At Rayden's unspoken command, the Guardian whirled, his cape swirling around him. Kitana appeared at the Temple doorway.

"Guardian," she said, very solemnly, bowing. He did not know much about her people, but was sure they had a strict etiquette; he could tell that by her stance and deference to him. "This one is not aware of the problems he faces. He could cause irreparable damage to the time line," she continued, very submissive. "This mortal humbly requests that she join him."

Jikan Tai was subtly amused by the third person speech; but before he could give permission, Jax interrupted.

"Hey, I don't need any help!" he protested, angrily. No one paid any attention to him. Jikan Tai was studying Kitana, and she was meekly submitting. He could tell she was practical, and thoughtful; she would prove a welcome contrast to Jax's active personality.

What do you think, Lord Rayden?

I think it's a good idea.

"I will let the mortal go," Jikan Tai announced, sounding more like Medicalis than he hoped to. He heard Rayden snicker and instantly felt abashed. "But do not worry about Time. I am fully in control of the situation." They would need a talisman, to control their journey through time; he waved his staff in a tight circle and created a small pocket watch, the way he had created his staff, so long ago, focusing and drawing it straight from the time stream. The small clock flashed in the moonlight.

He stepped away from it, and Kitana darted in to pick it up. Then she stepped back, quickly, keeping her head bent. Jikan Tai gave a final look at her, using his time powers; her other selves stretched apart. Something startled him, there were so few. Not as few as Samantha's, the previous Guardian; but quite a lot less than the average mortal, at least. He let the selves vanish and brought himself to the present. If he was right, and the fewer versions leant themselves to the time powers, then Kitana should, on her own, be able to figure out how to use the watch. He decided to test her.

"I will leave you to figure out what you need to do," he said, raising his staff again. Energy swirled around him as he created a portal, and stepped through time, to where he had sequestered Lord Rayden. There, they could watch, without disturbing.

Jax and Kitana examined the small gold pocket watch. Jax held it, nervously, and then gave it back to the princess. "Here, you do it," he told her. She nodded, feeling a strange rush of power. She held the watch aloft.

"Timegate--open! Take us back to the point where Johnny Cage died!"

I was right, Jikan Tai thought smugly.

"Right about what?" Rayden asked, watching with curiosity. "Do you do this a lot? Watch from outside the time stream?"

Jikan Tai shook his head, his bangs slipping into his eyes. "Not in a long time."

"Nova keep you busy?" Rayden asked, slyly.

"Yes, Nova--Lord Rayden," the Guardian chided. "I told you, we're only friends."

"So you keep saying," Rayden mused. "So you keep saying."

Jax and Kitana didn't waste any time saving Johnny Cage from the clutches of Shao Khan. Flushed with victory, Kitana commanded the watch to bring them back home. They did, only to find the sky a deep, violent purple, the Temple in ruins.

"It's like Outworld," Kitana breathed, in horror. "The two must have merged after all!"

"But we won!" Jax exclaimed. "Remember?"

"Did you?" Jikan Tai stepped back into reality, looking at them both with curiosity. As he had thought, the simplest option wasn't always the right one. Kitana bowed at him. He didn't bow back. Just like Medicalis.

"We did," Jax said, confidently, referring to beating Shao Khan. Jikan Tai gestured with his staff to the world around them, letting it speak for itself.

Kitana gasped--she had realised the truth! So soon!--and blurted: "When we saved Johnny Cage, we must have started a chain of events that led to our losing against the Emperor."

Bingo, Jikan Tai thought, but did not say. The moment they had altered the past, the restructured future had flashed before his eyes. He was glad he had guarded Rayden--in this world, the god was dead. The Guardian decided to see how far Kitana could go on her own, and he stepped back out of the frame.

"That was a little disturbing," Rayden remarked, pale. Obviously he had seen the vision as well, his own death. "You will be able to fix this?"

"Of course, Lord Rayden," Jikan Tai replied, concentrating on the proceedings. The mortal pair were discovering exactly what had gone wrong, what had led to Shao Khan's victory. Their remarks and observations were turning wheels in the Guardian's mind, and he had a funny feeling that he couldn't explain.

"The whole thing points to Sonya," Jax was saying. "We've got to go back to our present--oh no! Our present no longer exists! We'll have to kill Johnny ourselves, no, wait--"

Jikan Tai decided his help was required. Bidding farewell to Rayden, he stepped back into the time frame.

"You see why time-travel is not accessible to normal mortals," he said, as he appeared. He really did sound a lot like Medicalis; more than he wanted to. He chuckled over the absurdness of it, his bangs flipping into his eyes; irritated, he flicked them out.

"How can we even exist here?" Kitana asked, quietly, shaking with the stress.

"My power is anchoring you outside the time stream." He was growing more and more sure that he shouldn't be doing this--but he couldn't explain why.

"Why are you letting us do this?" Jax demanded. "You must have known it was hopeless."

The sentiment shocked Jikan Tai, and he took a step backwards. "Nothing is ever hopeless," he admonished them, thinking of all the times when he had thought the same thing. He had to say something encouraging, otherwise they'd give up and he'd be stuck. "There are always more ways around a problem."

"Enough with the cryptics, Obi-wan!" Jax yelled, suddenly. Jikan Tai didn't get the reference but was sure it was rude. "Why can't you just tell us what to do?"

Because I don't know myself! "Because I am breaking enough rules as it is just letting you do this!" he snapped. That was true enough; he wasn't supposed to share his powers. The previous Guardian had warned him about it. He hadn't been able to see why, before. "But I was asked to do this by someone who can't interfere at all. I will do what I am, namely let you change the course of history, but I cannot do it for you!" He teleported back, furious, mostly at himself. He hadn't meant to come across that rude, or that angry; it was simply his frustration breaking loose.

He didn't know what to do, why did he expected them to? Why did he demand so much of them?

Because so much was demanded of me.

Shao Khan had appeared, the victorious Shao Khan of this time line. Jikan Tai was seized with a powerful urge to wipe his grin from his face. He decided to.

He reappeared, holding his staff in front of him. The Emperor was startled to see him; but not for long. "I do not fear you, Guardian, you're mortal as well."

"Not quite," Jikan Tai replied. Here, he was in control, and Shao Khan knew it. The Emperor looked ready to bolt, but Jikan Tai wasn't ready to let him get away. "Time stream memories flood." Waves of the energy washed over Khan and his entourage, filling them with visions of the different time-streams, overloading them with sensations. They collapsed.

Jikan Tai should have felt smug, or at least victorious, but he didn't. He just felt tired, and he wanted to get this all over with, so that he could go back home, to Nova. But maybe--maybe he should give the two one last chance. After all, they could barely screw up any more, and they might--just might--be able to come up with something that he had missed.

"I will take you back to the moment you left. I will repair the damage to the time- line myself." He paused. He was really sounding pompous, no doubt about it. For a brief moment of gaiety, he decided to play the role to the hilt. "From the moment I leave you, you have one final chance to do things properly! This time it will be final." Not quite, but they didn't have to know that, did they? He took a deep breath. "Guardian restoration! Timestream, repair thyself!"

"'Repair thyself'?" Rayden repeated, gasping for breath, his eyes watering. "You're killing me, you really are."

Jikan Tai smiled, slightly. "I was going for Medicalis."

"Even Medicalis isn't that pompous--I don't think you should quit your day job," Rayden remarked, sighing, wiping the tears from his eyes. "By the Creator, that was a good one."

"I tried," Jikan Tai replied, dryly.

His choice of words sobered Rayden up. "Did you mean what you said? That this time was final?"

"No," the Guardian replied, smoothly. "I just thought that might make them think about it a little harder."

Rayden sighed. "And they tell me that I'm mean."

They were almost on to something. Jax and Kitana both had an idea, and fleshed it out, together, fixing the bugs, refining the plan. The only bug was fixed when Sonya herself, woken from her nightmares, had come out for some fresh air, and heard them talking. She summed up what they were trying to do, and volunteered herself.

Jax and Kitana realised it might be the only way their plan would work.

"The only thing is--" Sonya said, suddenly, tiredly, "--is that we won't be the same sort of friends we are now. We've grown closer because of everything we've been through. If I change the past, then our friendship will go back to what it was before the Tournament."

"I can live with that, if it makes you happier," Jax replied, instantly, giving her a hug. "There's plenty of time to become better friends in the future."

Sonya nodded, as close to tearful as she ever got; she broke off her embrace to stand next to Kitana.

"Timegate! Takes us back to five minutes before Shao Khan arrives!" the princess yelled, and they vanished in a flash of light.

Jax sighed, and was suddenly aware that Jikan Tai had come back. The two mortals looked at each other, and then the Guardian raised his staff. The Jax of this time- line ceased to be.

"I have a feeling I've done something I shouldn't," Jikan Tai murmured, fearfully, as Sonya met up with her past self. "I think that--" He paused, lost in thought.

"It can't be that bad, can it?" Rayden mused. "I mean--Jikan Tai? What's the matter?" The Guardian had gone pale, and looked as though he was about to faint.

"I know what the problem is," he whispered. "I think so--I must check, to be sure." He disappeared, leaving Rayden in limbo, suspended outside of time.

"This is not good," the god muttered to himself. "I've got a really bad feeling about this."

"Quiet, and stop struggling," Sonya instructed her other self, who stared, wide- eyed with horror. "Now, listen. This is very important, got that, Blade? You have to ask Johnny for help. Whenever you need it. Do you get that? You have to ask him for help, your lives both depend on it."

"What...?" the past Sonya whispered.

"Just remember that. Ask for help." Kitana pulled on Sonya's sleeve; their time was up. Sonya pushed her past self back out into the procession; she hoped she had done the right thing. There was so little time...

"I know the feeling," murmured a voice behind them. The mortals didn't notice him; Kitana activated the watch. But Jikan Tai stayed behind, lost in thought. He was seeing the future unfold before his eyes, a dizzying array of images, disjointed and simultaneously, as strange as that was.

Then he saw it, and knew what the problem had been. In this time-line, Sonya asks for help; Johnny saves her and does so without being killed; and then down the line until the final battle, where Liu defeats Shao Khan. But--and this was a big But--Johnny's involvement had an unexpected side effect. An exchange between Johnny and Shao Khan led Thunder to conceal his involvement; in doing so, the Elders do not realise his role in the plot. They still help Liu, and Khan is still defeated; but Thunder remains an Elder. Rayden remains on Earth.

That was what he wanted, wasn't it? Jikan Tai mused. But this changes Omniversal time. He wasn't supposed to tinker with Omniversal time. He knew that... and yet...

Like Rayden, he was convinced that this was the way things were supposed to happen. Did the god know ahead of time? He couldn't have... and yet... Rayden was a constant source of surprises. Maybe this was in the vision that Rayden had received, and refused to comment on. In any case, it didn't alter anything.

He sighed. He was in this far.

The Temple was the same, it was the way they knew it. It wasn't Outworld.

They were successful.

Both Kitana and Sonya sighed with relief.

"Hey," called a voice, from the doorway. It was Johnny Cage, strolling out, hands in his pockets. "You two having a girl talk or something?"

"Johnny!" Sonya cried out, suddenly, running forward and embracing him. "It's so good to see you!"

"Yeah, I guess you would kinda miss me in the few hours between supper and now," he remarked, dryly, a little confused. Suddenly, he realised that Kitana was intently staring over his shoulder; he turned to see a unfamiliar man appear, dressed in black shimmery robes, a cape swirling behind him. He held a staff tightly, that glowed red in the moonlight.

"Guardian!" Kitana called out. "What--what will happen to Sonya in this new time-line?"

"I will merge you with your other selves to avoid the paradox you are no doubt referring to," Jikan Tai said, his heart heavy. In for a penny, in for a pound, as the expression went; though he had no idea what that meant. He had only heard Rayden say it once or twice. "As I said before, I can handle my job fairly well, mortal."

"What?" Johnny blurted, confused.

Jikan Tai hesitated for a moment. This was the crucial moment. The moment he blended the streams, they would be fixed. He would be unable to undo the damage. Could he change Omniversal time, without dire consequences? He didn't know. He paused, unsure. Great Creator, I don't know what to do--

The moment he said his prayer, a feeling of tranquillity descended on him, from nowhere. Of course, Rayden was right, this is the way things are supposed to be. He couldn't explain his feelings, but he knew to trust them. His staff began to glow. "Stream Integration," he whispered, casting the spell.

He stepped back out of reality, sideways, relieved and anxious, at the same time. It was done, and there was nothing more he could do about it now; but whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, he didn't know.

"I did as you asked, Lord Rayden," he announced.

"So I see," Rayden said, dryly, watching his mortals go back into the Temple, their memories wiped of their adventures in Time. "Good job, I'm proud of you. Everything fits together. It's a shame about Jax, but I suppose he'll pop up again."

"He will," the Guardian confirmed. Jax and Sonya were still partners, after all, and anything was possible. He paused, knowing that he had to say what needed to be said, but that never made it any easier. "One thing, Lord Rayden. You--you knew from the start that events in this time-line would turn you back from an Elder God, and that your father would be resurrected. Why would you want that?"

"I'd rather let my father have the post," Rayden commented. "Besides, it's better being a little less powerful than being stuck behind a desk, anyway."

Jikan Tai blinked. "I think you've been around mortals too long."

Rayden laughed, brightly, all his haggard looks fading, as he realised how much better things were for him. "I'll take that as a compliment."

"As you wish, Lord Rayden." Jikan Tai raised his staff. "Time to be going home."

"Nova?" he called, timidly. Everything about the apartment seemed the same--but how could he tell?

"Jikan Tai!" Nova emerged from her bedroom. "There you were--do you want to go out to the Bar for supper? I'm starving, and I'm sure you're too tired to cook--"

"Sure," he replied, with a smile. He decided to leave his staff behind--he could always call it up, if he needed it--and on impulse, he took off his cape.

Nova was impressed. He never went out in public without his cape. "What's gotten into you?"

"I've just... had a good day," he answered. The feeling of tranquillity had not faded completely; he was still feeling serene.

Nova grinned at him, not used to his bright mood, but enjoying it.

They sat down at the table, and Nova immediately began thinking about what she could have to eat--as Kerlan simply created the meals, instead of cooking them, she had unlimited options--and Jikan Tai decided just to have a glass of nectar. He wasn't really hungry.

The experience of changing Omniversal time--apparently for the better--had left him with a remarkable insight: he now knew to trust his feelings. If he did that, if he was sure about them, then he was probably right. And there was only one thing that he had never felt more sure about.

Nova lifted her head, to look at him, smiling. "What are you going to have?" she asked, curious.

"I think just a drink," he replied. He hesitated for a moment, and then leaned in. "Nova, I want to have a talk with you, later, about something."

"Oh?" Her own voice dropped to a whisper. "Why not here?"

"It's... personal," he managed at last. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea... but, he decided, it needed to be said. He needed to tell her, at last, how he felt.

"Really?" Nova's blue eyes sparkled with curiosity. "Why don't you tell me now? Dinner can wait."

"Are you sure?"


He took her hand, and teleported her away.

They reappeared in the gardens around the Great Hall, the remains of the First Realm; Nova looked at him, still curious, and he kept a hold of her hand.

"Nova," he said, unsure, taking a deep breath, "there's been something that I've wanted to say, for a long, long time, and I--I just can't keep it hidden any more."

Nova looked at him, her curiosity fading to a look of foreboding: she had a feeling she knew what he was going to say next.

"I--" Jikan Tai faltered, unsure of how to phrase it. How to do it justice. "I'm... in love with you."

Nova stared at him, wide-eyed. "Ah."

"I know, I know that you don't feel the same way," he said, almost miserably, as he saw that she didn't, "but I just had to tell you, I couldn't pretend any more..."

"You never did have to pretend," she said, softly, her eyes starting to brim with tears. "Oh, Jikan Tai, I never knew. I suppose I should have, but I just never thought about it, I've been too wrapped up in myself."

He started to say that's all right, but she pulled her hand away from his, and he lost his nerve.

She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry to have to say this--but you're right. I don't feel the same way about you. I love you as a friend--but nothing more."

His gaze dropped down to the ground, unable to meet hers, any longer. He felt as though his insides had been ripped apart, shredded.

She took his hand again, between her own. "I'm sorry," she whispered, and he saw that she was, that she was sorry for hurting him so deeply. He knew then that she really did care for him--as a friend.

"Besides, it never could have worked out," she added, almost as an afterthought. "I'm a goddess--you're a mortal."

Her father flashed before his face, sneering. Just a mortal.

He felt as though he would cry, but he didn't. He forced the feeling down and assumed his mask.

"Jikan Tai," she said, quietly, shaking her head. She waited until he was able to look at her again, and he did so, hesitantly. "I don't want to change anything--about us. Is that possible? Are you okay? Do you want me to move out?"

"No, no," he heard himself saying, dimly. "No, that's no problem. Things as they were."

She squeezed his hand again. "I'm going to go back to the Bar--are you going to join me?"

"In a little while," he told her. "I just... need to be alone, for a little while."

"I--I understand." She let his hand drop and teleported back to the Bar. He watched her leave, trying not to let the sadness overwhelm him. How could he go back to "the way they were"? That was impossible--how could he swallow how he felt--

He stopped himself, mid-sentence. He had done it before. He could do it again. If it made her happy.

He felt a shiver, and looked around himself. The gardens seemed too chaotic, with flowers bursting and bushes crawling over the paths, birds singing, leaves crackling- -he shivered again, and his staff appeared in his hand, and he knew that his cape had appeared with it. He could feel it brushing against the back of his legs.

He took a deep breath. He needed time to be alone, and he knew the perfect place. The Wood. There, he would be able to forget all about Nova. Or try, at least. Perhaps another pool would provide a distraction...

The End