"Uh, excuse me?" He saw one of the airport personnel and waved her over.
"Oui, Monsieur?" she asked, politely. He stared at her and she raised her eyebrows in a silent question.
"Uh..." he stuttered. The only French he knew was "oui, monsieur", which she had just covered. His brain finally came up with an acceptable gesture. He tapped his watch. She stared at him, uncomprehending. "What time is my flight?" he asked.
She blinked at him.
"What time is--" he began again, when an announcement came on, first in unintellible French, and then unintellible English.
"Flight Five-oh-two is now boarding," the man's garbled voice intoned.
"Thank you!" Johnny exclaimed to the startled woman, picking up his bags and fleeing to the gate.
He sighed, in line, and set his bags down.
"Nice timing," someone said behind him.
"Thanks," he replied automatically, before he turned. "Rayden?"
The God of Thunder was dressed in a white suit and sunglasses, with a carry-on bag and his white hair back in a ponytail. He looked like someone attempting to look like an agent, of some sort. "None other," Rayden agreed. "Hey, where are you going?"
"Cannes," Johnny said, showing his ticket. "I figure, hey, I might as well go on my vacation."
Rayden chuckled. "Vacation, huh?"
"That sounds nice."
"It sounds nice because it is nice. I'll have a nice, quiet vacation with no worrying about whether or not I can control my god-like powers, no having to protect friends from absurdly powerful insane goddesses. No funerals. No kicking. In short, a perfectly normal vacation." Johnny nodded to punctuate the normalness of it all.
"Ah." Rayden took of his sunglasses. "Sounds boring."
"It is--uh uh. No way. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, 'Hey, I'm sure Johnny would love to go save the world yet again. He's probably missing all the mayhem and murder'. The problem with that line of thinking, Rayden, is that I'm not missing all the running around and fighting. Not in the slightest." Johnny stepped forward, and gave his ticket to the woman behind the counter, who looked eerily like the woman he had tried to talk to before.
"That's not what I'm thinking at all," Rayden replied smoothly. To the woman he said something in French. She smiled, nodded, and looked to Johnny.
"What?" the movie star asked, confused.
"I told her you have my ticket," Rayden explained.
"But I don't have your ticket," Johnny snapped.
"What are you talking about? It's right there in your hands," Rayden answered, pointing. Sure enough, when Johnny looked down, a pair of tickets lay in his hands. He scowled, and smacked the other ticket down for the woman to scan through.
"Don't do that," he growled under his breath. "I'm not going with you. Okay? I'm going on vacation, and that's final."
Rayden looked hurt. "Why do you think that I'm only here to ask for something?"
"Because you always ask for something! Even when you came to visit me, it was just because Hiko threw you out!" Johnny paused. "That's not it, is it?"
"No," Rayden replied.
"Good. I'm still mad that you left me with the dishes, you know."
"Ancient history," the god dismissed.
"Not where I'm concerned. I'm not going on one of your missions, okay? Okay?" Johnny snapped.
Rayden glared. "If that's the way you're going to be," he retorted, slipping on his sunglasses and disappearing.
Johnny was startled by that; he would have thought the god would--he looked at the attendant. She was smiling, and holding out the single ticket to him. She had no idea that he'd been talking with someone else a moment ago.
"I hate gods," Johnny muttered, taking the ticket.
"Bon voyage," she said cheerfully. He mumbled something under his breath and started for the airplane.
Johnny Cage settled back in his seat, and fished out his novel (the new John Grishom. It was called simply, The Case, and Johnny wondered whether or not the author was trying, any more). He sighed happily to himself, and tried to absorb himself in the book.
"Good?" someone asked. Johnny jumped a foot as he found Rayden sitting next to him, trying to read over his shoulder.
"Stop that!" he exclaimed, slamming the book shut. "Why won't you leave me alone!"
"Would you like any refreshments, sir?" asked one of the stewards.
"No, thank you," Johnny said through gritted teeth.
"A packet of peanuts, please," Rayden replied pleasantly. The steward left, and the god leaned over to Johnny.
"I've been thinking," he said, in a low voice, "that maybe you're right."
"Maybe? Maybe?" Johnny repeated. "Maybe?"
"Yes, maybe. So I was thinking, you've done so much for me, that I'd do something nice for you."
"Like leave me alone? Let me get on with my vacation?"
Rayden gave him a look. "You can come visit the Temple for your vacation. Hiko would love to see you again, as well as Hichan."
Johnny sighed. "Rayden, as much as I would love, love, to visit your little Immortal family, living in a commune eating rice with a bunch of old monks for two weeks is no comparison to Cannes. None. Or as the French say, uh, none."
Rayden chuckled. "Love your accent."
"Are you sure I can't change your mind? Liu's already there. He's come to visit his grandfather," Rayden continued.
Johnny paused. It would be nice to see Liu again. "I...look, I'm already on the plane to Cannes, okay? It's kinda final."
Rayden gave him another look. "Okay," the mortal admitted, "I realise that's a sad excuse, but it's the best I can come up with."
"Why don't you just come and visit. Hichan's growing like a weed, she'll have her own Realm before you know it, and I mean, Cannes will still be there." Rayden checked his watch. "Oh yeah, for another decade, at least. Unless you carry the one."
"What?" Johnny exclaimed. Then he held up his hands. "No, don't explain it. I don't want to know, really." He sighed, and rubbed a hand through his hair.
"You won't regret it, promise," Rayden added hopefully.
"I already do," Johnny remarked. "Fine. I'll go."
"Good, good." Rayden clapped his hands, and the two disappeared.
Just then, the steward passed by the empty seats. For a minute he thought he had to bring peanuts to someone sitting there. But as the seats were obviously empty, he decided he just needed a break and a cigarette, and that was the end of that.
"Johnny!" Hiko exclaimed pleasantly, throwing out her arms for a friendly hug. "It's so good to see you again."
"It's good to see you, too," Johnny replied. He shot Rayden a look, which the god ignored.
"When I suggested to Rayden that it would be good to see you, I didn't realise he'd track you down," Hiko continued. Johnny paused. He turned to face the Thunder God.
"So you purposely came to convince me to visit the Temple," he said slowly. The deity shrugged, and clicked his fingers. His outfit changed immediately back into his normal robes.
"Well, my approach worked, didn't it?" Rayden replied. "Now. We've got you a room in our wing--"
"Your wing?" Johnny inquired, innocently. "You mean you don't bunk in with the monks any more?"
Rayden rolled his eyes. "I never 'bunked with the monks'. Stop smirking. They don't come into my wing, and so Hiko and Hichan get a little privacy, and I thought you would like some as well. If you would prefer..."
"Private wing is fine," Johnny said quickly. Just then there was a knock at the door. "I thought you said they don't-- "
"Come in!" Hiko yelled, over his shoulder. The door swung open and Liu Kang stepped in.
"Johnny! Long time," he exclaimed. "When Hiko said that it would be nice to see you again--"
"Don't start!" Johnny cried, holding up his arms in surrender. "I submit! You've won! I'm here!"
"Johnny's a little tired," Hiko explained to Liu. "He's been working very hard."
"That makes a change," Liu grinned. Johnny started to say something when he felt a sudden tug on his pant leg. He looked down to see a small child, around three years of age with curly white hair.
"You must be Hichan," he said with a smile, stooping down so that he was eye-level. "You've gotten big since last time I saw you."
Hichan regarded him with big blue eyes, and then looked up at Liu. Liu nodded. She turned back to Johnny, and held out her arms, the universal child-gesture for pick-me-up.
Johnny laughed, and picked her up, standing again. "Are you always this quiet?" he teased her.
Her parents both sighed. "No," they answered together, wearily.
"She's got two settings--asleep and full steam ahead," Hiko explained to him. "She's taken a great liking to Liu though."
"Lucky me," Liu agreed, only-half sarcastic.
"Uncle Johnny?" Hichan asked her new friend, suddenly.
"I suppose so," Johnny answered, slowly.
Liu grinned. "It's not half as funny sounding as 'Uncle Liu', so you're better off." He turned to Rayden. "The monks have finished the garden work and are retiring for meditation. I was thinking of joining them."
"No problem," Rayden agreed. "Just do whatever makes you comfortable."
Liu nodded, and headed back out the door. Johnny half- turned to Rayden for an explanation.
"Liu's been under a lot of stress, lately," the god replied. "He's come here to try and sort everything out."
"Ah." Johnny winced as Hichan tugged on his hair, apparently very interested in his side-burns.
"Yum, rice. Can't wait," Johnny sighed, at the table, looking at the other monks. Liu glared at him, but the others paid him no heed; for one, most couldn't speak english, and secondly, they all knew Johnny well enough to ignore him.
"It's good plain food," Liu told him. "I used to dream about it, when I was back in the States."
"I used to dream about it, too," Johnny admitted. "Mostly because it would be chasing me in nightmares." He looked into his bowl, and poked at something with his chopsticks. "What is this?"
"You don't want to know," Liu replied, with a smirk. "Try not to think about it."
Johnny paled considerably, and poked around the unidentified fried object to eat the rice.
There was a small tug on his sleeve. He looked down to see Hichan climbing up beside him, using his arm as leverage. "Me want," she said, pointing to the bowl.
"Me don't want," Johnny admitted, handing it down to her. She had a small wooden spoon with her, and used it to shovel most of the rice and vegetables (and the rest) into her mouth with surprising speed. And very little accuracy. The mortal brushed the food off his clothing while Liu chuckled.
"That's why I don't volunteer for active food service," Liu snickered. "And my wardrobe isn't dry clean only."
"Ha," Johnny sighed. "I laugh."
"I can tell."
"Me want," Hichan repeated, holding the bowl out to him.
"No, Hichan, that's enough for now," Liu told her. "Go hide! I'll find you!"
With a shriek of laughter, Hichan darted off, and was gone in seconds. "She likes to play hide-and-go-seek," Liu explained, beginning to eat again. "It's the only why to get her out of my hair for a little while."
Johnny bit back the response that came to mind concerning Liu's hair. "So, you tell her that she has to hide...?" he trailed off.
"She runs away, hides, waits and then eventually comes out to find out why I haven't found her yet." Liu shrugged. He looked up from his rice to find Johnny staring at him. "Don't look at me like that. Rayden was the one who first suggested it to me."
Johnny laughed. "That sounds like something Rayden would come up with. Actually, no it doesn't. It sounds like something I'd come up with."
"No need to be insulting," Liu smirked.
"Uncle Liu!" came a pitiful cry. "Uncle Liu! Come find me!"
Hiko's head snapped up.
"How long has she been hiding?" the goddess asked the suddenly sheepish mortal.
"Well...uh..." Liu trailed off. Johnny suppressed a grin, and leaned back in his chair. The two mortals and the two gods were enjoying their evening meal, as Johnny had not eaten with the monks and decided to call Rayden's cooking bluff.
Liu sighed and stretched. He got up, and then started walking in circles around the kitchen, making sure that his footfalls were loud. His friend couldn't figure out what was going on until he remembered playing hide-and-go-seek as a kid himself...
As Liu (loudly) walked by one of the kitchen cupboards, there was a sudden giggle. "Hey," he said in a exaggerated voice, rolling his eyes at the other adults, "I think I hear something."
"Really?" Rayden asked, also exaggerating his voice. "Whatever could be in that cupboard?"
There was another giggle. Liu swung the door open. "My goodness! It's Hichan!"
"Hichan!" Hiko exclaimed brightly, holding her arms out. The mortal passed the child to her. "Where have you been? We've been looking all over for you!"
"Me hiding," Hichan laughed, proud at fooling all the grown- ups.
"Well, we're all glad you're not any more," Hiko replied, giving her daughter a cuddle. "Want something to eat?"
"Eat! Eat!" Hichan squealed excitedly. "Me want!"
"I think there's still some rice left," Johnny said, peering over into the bowl.
"No, I think Hichan needs some vegetables," Rayden corrected. "We've already had some rice today, haven't we?" This was said to Hichan. She frowned, but didn't correct him. "Carrots?"
"No," she replied briskly. "No want."
"Hichan," Hiko said quietly, pulling her own plate, already cleared, in front of her. "I think you want some of this lovely salad."
"Yucky," Hichan insisted.
"I don't think so. Daddy made this salad. You'll like it." The goddess pulled a few leaves out (making sure to skip the bitter ones) and set them on her plate. Hichan looked dubious. She finally, hesitantly, took a piece of lettuce and started munching.
"Okay," she pronounced it. "Me want more."
Hiko pulled the plate a little closer and Hichan was free to pick any pieces she wanted. "There you go. Now, I think after supper--"
"No sleep!" Hichan squealed suddenly, agitated. "No!"
Johnny was startled by the sudden exclamation, and wondered how Hichan would know what her mother intended to say, exactly; but then he remember that she was a goddess herself, albeit a small one.
"It's been a long day," Rayden agreed with his wife. "But not just for little girls. We're all tired."
"I'm going to sleep, after supper," Liu agreed, nonchalantly. He nudged Johnny under the table, with his foot.
"So am I," he blurted.
Hichan didn't seem convinced. "No want to go," she sniffled, rubbing the back of her chubby wee hand across her eyes. "No sleep."
"Not right now, but in a little while." Hiko gave her another squeeze. "There's plenty to do tomorrow. Can't be sleepy then."
"What are we doing tomorrow?" Johnny asked, curious himself. He held up a hand before Liu could reply. "I know the monks are gardening. And as much as I love hard manual labour in the sun, I was thinking I could actually start enjoying my vacation."
"I've still got a lot of work to do, but you could go swimming," Rayden suggested. "I know the perfect beach, just a short portal from here--"
"Swim!" Hichan interrupted suddenly, clapping. "Swim!"
The mortal paused. "Uh..."
"Doesn't quite fit with your idea of fun in the sun?" Hiko smirked. "It would only be for a little while. She hasn't gone swimming in ages, we've been too busy--"
"No, it's fine," Johnny said with a smile. Babysitting wouldn't be that bad, for an afternoon. And then the gods would owe him one. Another one. "No, really. It's no problem."
Hichan cheered, still clapping. She paused, and then decided her hands would be better spent picking up lettuce. When it was done, she tried to climb down off her mother's lap.
"Don't go far away, bed time soon," Hiko reminded her. She scowled and flew off, no doubt to cram as much playing as physically possible into the time remaining.
As soon as she was out of earshot, both Hiko and Rayden sighed with relief. Rayden got up, to start clearing the dishes. "Sometimes, I swear by the Creator, that girl is going to wear me down."
"Oh, she's not that bad," Johnny observed. All three stared at him.
"You've only been here a day and a half. Try running after her after bricklaying all day," Liu commented.
"Bricklaying? You're bricklaying?" Johnny repeated. "I thought you were gardening--"
"I am," Liu replied. "I'm also helping with some of the renovations to the Temple."
"Oh." Johnny looked downcast. Hiko laughed and swatted his arm.
"Don't worry," she snickered. "No one is asking you to do anything like that. You're on vacation."
"I thought he was going to help me, tomorrow," Rayden frowned.
"He's on his vacation," Hiko answered, as though it was obvious.
"But when you invited him down here, I thought it was to help me--" Rayden continued.
Johnny exchanged a look with Liu, both mortals amused that neither deity was bothering to consult him.
"He can hardly help you tie the Realm together," Hiko chided. "He doesn't have his powers any more!"
"Tie the Realm together?" Johnny exclaimed, worriedly. "What are you talking about?"
"Oh, it's nothing," Hiko dismissed with a wave of her hand. "The fabric of your universe is simply unravelling at the corners, it's nothing to be worried about."
There was a stunned silence in the kitchen until Rayden broke it with a laugh. "Next time," he said to his bewildered wife, "I'll do the explanations." He looked to Johnny, and to Liu, who was similarly concerned. "It really is nothing; just a little renovation, a little housework. It's kind of like, I don't know, putting new hinges on a door, or something."
"It's not that difficult to put hinges on a door," Johnny replied, slowly. "Certainly doesn't require days of work."
"Oh. Well. Then I guess it's more like a complete over- haul of the foundation and plumbing, then," Rayden answered, cheerfully, starting to whistle as he cleared off the table.
Johnny just held his head in his hands. "I think I like being the ignorant sort of mortal better."
Hiko laughed and patted his arm. "It's nothing at all to be worried about. This sort of thing happens in Realms all the time. Well, not Maresium, but that's just because Mother lived in it long enough to fix any bugs."
"My Realm does not have bugs," Rayden interrupted her. "It has unexpected features."
Liu groaned. Johnny laughed nervously. "I can see why most people believe in an abstract god."
"Yeah, less nerve-wracking," Liu agreed with a grin. "Now that I know a sudden unravelling of the fabric of the universe could be impending, I think I'm going to go for a walk." He got up from the table. "Coming, Johnny? I can show you the new work being done."
"Sure," his friend agreed easily. "Thanks for dinner, Rayden."
"Hey!" Hiko exclaimed. "I helped!"
Rayden snickered. "Very true. She boiled the rice."
"It takes talent to boil rice properly," Hiko sniffed. He laughed again and reached over to kiss her.
"That it does," he replied. "You've mastered one of the basics. Next lesson, we'll move onto mashing potatoes."
Johnny gave Liu a poke to hurry up, and he did. When they were out in the hall, he sighed.
"What was that about?" Liu asked, confused.
"I wanted to get out of there before they get all smoochy," Johnny groaned. His friend gave him a look.
"I think it's cute," Liu answered. Johnny made a gagging sound.
"I don't. Now, what passes for night life here?" the movie star rubbed his hands together.
His friend frowned. "I thought we were going for a walk."
"Yeah, but that was just a ruse, right? Right?" Johnny's plaintive face turned into a disappointed one as Liu continued to stare at him blankly. "Oh, man. Cannes, I should've gone to Cannes!"
Johnny stumbled into the kitchen, yawning to himself. It was just past dawn, and he would have preferred to sleep in, but the monks were chanting their morning prayers (loudly), and the other inhabitants of the Temple were not bothered at all by waking up this early.
"Morning," Rayden called cheerfully, over a cup of (double, double) coffee. "Sleep well?"
Rayden was wearing the vest-and-trousers ensemble instead of his normal white robes, and it startled Johnny for a moment: the god only wore that outfit when he was planning something big. Johnny blinked a couple of times, waiting for his brain to supply information.
Ah. There it was. Renovations. "Gotcha," he mumbled, moving over to sit at an empty seat.
"A little slow in the mornings?" Rayden asked innocently, trying to hide his smile behind his coffee cup. Johnny scowled.
Hiko walked in, with a cup of tea. "Morning, Johnny," she said brightly. He grunted and laid his head down on the table. "Oh, not a morning person?"
"And everybody here is?" he moaned. "Cannes, I shoulda gone to Cannes."
"You've been saying that a lot lately," Hiko mused, "but don't worry. We'll go down to the beach, today, we'll have fun."
Suddenly there was a loud bang, and Johnny leapt upright, but it was only Hichan, emerging from the outside corridor and slamming her door shut. She ran to Rayden, who set his coffee cup down to pick her up. "Morning! Morning!" she crowed, settling in. "Me want eat."
Hiko laughed. "Do you ever not want anything to eat?"
Hichan puzzled over this, sarcasm not yet detectable to her. She decided to abandon that track of thought. "Eat!"
"Hichan," her father said warningly.
"Please eat," she amended. She made a grab for his coffee, but he moved it out of the way. Hiko brought over a few apple slices that she had been cutting, and a tumbler of juice.
"Do you want anything?" the goddess asked Johnny, as Hichan fell upon the apple ravenously. He made a face at the mess.
"Coffee, please," he replied to her. He sneaked a glance at Rayden. "Black."
The thunder god harumphed. Hichan offered him a slice of apple, which he declined. She then offered it to Johnny, who also declined.
Hiko brought his coffee over, and accepted the now slightly- sticky piece of apple. "Thank you, dear." Hichan mumbled something from behind her tumbler, which Johnny took to mean "you're welcome" or something close to it. She set the glass down, and wiped her face on her sleeve.
"Hichan..." Rayden repeated, and she looked at him confusedly for a moment before she realised what it was that she was forgetting. She scrunched her eyes closed and concentrated furiously. The apple remains and the stains on her clothes disappeared in a twinkle.
"Very good!" her father exclaimed, when she beamed at him. He gave her a congratulatory hug, which she returned joyously.
Johnny blinked. "I think I find that a little disturbing," he admitted, shaking his head.
Rayden looked at him, confused. Hichan also gave him a bewildering glance. "Why?"
Johnny shrugged. "I don't know. No caffeine and no sleep make Johnny go crazy," he muttered, taking a long draught of his coffee.
Hichan squealed. "Go crazy!" she chirped. "Johnny go crazy!" She immediately started to sing it, making up a melody to go with it. "Crazy, crazy, Johnny go crazy!"
"Way to go," Rayden muttered. He picked her up and set her down on the floor, where she looked at him dejectedly. "I've got to go, Sparky."
She clung to his leg. "Go where?"
Rayden pointed at the ceiling.
She followed his gaze. "Grandma's?"
All three adults laughed. "No, not Grandma's. Out there, I have to fix things."
"Why? You break it?" she asked again, this time setting off Hiko, who giggled to herself.
"No," Rayden insisted. "It broke itself."
Hichan gave this statement a dubious look, and that set Hiko off even more.
"I've got to go," the thunder god insisted, trying to pry her off his leg.
"No!" she wailed, clinging harder. There was a flash and she found herself in Hiko's arms. Thwarted and furious about it, she started to cry, and buried her face in her mother's neck. Rayden took that opportunity to gulp down the last of his coffee and disappear.
"Don't worry, Hichan," Hiko soothed, rubbing her back and rocking her. "He'll be home soon. And we're going swimming today."
The toddler sniffled. "Swimming?" She looked up, rubbing her eyes.
"Yes, but only good little girls get to go swimming," Hiko continued.
"Me good," Hichan replied quickly. "Be good."
"Then it's all good," Hiko answered, setting her down. The goddess looked to Johnny. "You still up for a swim?"
"Now?" he blurted.
"No, no, in a few hours."
"Oh, yeah, sure."
Hiko nodded. She gave Hichan a pat and the little girl ran off, out of the kitchen. "Hopefully we can wear her out before Rayden gets back." She shook her head. "He tries to play with her, he wants to, but he's so tired after work--"
"We'll tire her out," Johnny interrupted, confidently. "Don't worry, Uncle Johnny is right on top of it."
Johnny smiled, sunglasses down. "Okay, I'm ready for the beach."
The kitchen was empty save for Hiko and she looked startled to see him. "Oh, Johnny."
"You're not ready for the beach," he observed, dryly.
"No, Rayden's being delayed, I was going to bring him a lunch," Hiko explained, tiredly. Her hair had been pulled back in a braid and her outer robes were lying across one of the chairs. "Hichan's been a ball of energy all morning, I haven't had time for anything else."
Johnny was about to say something when there was a sudden sound of clanging. Hiko rolled her eyes and took a deep breath, obviously very close to her limit. He looked down just in time to see Hichan emerge into the kitchen. She had a bowl on her head and a tin pot in her hands, which she was banging with her ever-present wooden spoon.
"Hichan, not in here," Hiko said, her voice tight.
"Crazy, crazy," Hichan sang, marching in place, still banging the "drum". "Johnny go crazy, crazy, crazy."
"Hey, Hichan, ready for swimming?" Johnny exclaimed brightly, just before the goddess next to him seemed ready to lose it. "Time to go!"
The small deity stopped dead in her tracks. "Really?!"
"Yep, but first you have to put away--" Johnny trailed off as the pot and the bowl vanished in a twinkle. The girl looked up to her mother, proudly, who smiled tiredly and brushed a strand of hair out of her face. "--away your stuff," he finished awkwardly. He looked to Hiko. "Where's her swimsuit, towels, that sort of thing? I suppose she doesn't need sunblock."
Hiko smiled. "No, she'll be fine in the sun." She closed her eyes and held out her arms; two towels appeared. The mortal took them, and tucked them into a bag he had over his shoulder. Hiko kneeled down, drawing Hichan to her. "I want you to be good," she said, sternly. "You behave for Uncle Johnny."
Hichan nodded back. There was a flash of light and she was suddenly dressed in a small red-and-white bathing suit. "Good," the deity finished. "I'll see you for supper."
Hichan ran and took Johnny's hand. Hiko gestured, and a portal formed. As the mortal started through, she grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him towards her. "One other thing," she began. "Hichan's a little frightened of 'clawfish'; she had a bad experience with a crab once. If she starts fussing about them, just splash around, pretend to frighten them away, that sort of thing. When you want to come back, just call for me. I'll be keeping my mind open."
Johnny nodded. "We'll be fine," he said, with a sunny smile. "Don't worry about a thing. I'll keep a tight guard on her."
Hiko smiled back, and the two headed through the portal, which closed behind them.
The first thing that Johnny noticed was the smell of salty water. It seemed like forever since the last time he had been by the ocean.
Hichan squealed and jumped up and down. She immediately ran to the edge of the water, touching her toes in. "Cold!" she exclaimed, disappointed. She ran to the dry sand. "Hot!"
She turned and ran back to the small strip of cooler, damp sand. Finding that more to her liking, she plopped herself down and immediately started digging.
Johnny laughed, and got his towel out from his bag, flipping it over the sand so he could sit down. The other towel, smaller than his, he left in the sack. He had a bottle of water, his book, and some sunscreen, which he decided he should put on. He squirted some into his palm.
"Uncle Johnny!" the small deity suddenly squealed, running towards him. "Me want--" She paused, frowning, and sniffing. "What that?"
"It's sunscreen," he explained. "So you don't get a sunburn."
"Sunburn?" she chirped, settling down next to him on the towel.
"Never mind." Once the sunscreen was taken care of, and since Hichan seemed to be happy where she was, Johnny could take the first good look at his surroundings. It was a beach, tropical, lined with trees, set in an cliff-lined alcove. It seemed very familiar. There were flowerpot islands scattered in the bay, and the movie star realised with a start that this was the Mortal Kombat beach.
Where he'd come, almost five years earlier, to fight to defend his home and his Realm.
The sudden realisation took the brightness out of his mood; he felt sombre and more reserved. Why on earth had Rayden told him to go here? Wouldn't he realise what this beach could mean, to the mortal?
"Uncle Johnny," Hichan interrupted his thoughts, poking his leg. "No worry. All good."
He smiled at her. "You're right, Hichan. It is all good." She nodded, blinking in the bright light. Then she hopped to her feet, ran towards the water's edge and stopped, looking at him. He realised what she was trying to do.
"All right, all right, I'm coming," he sighed.
"Clawfish! Clawfish!" she screamed, running, terrified, to the beach. "Uncle Johnny! Clawfish!"
He looked up from his book, sighed, set the book down and got up to investigate. He waded out a few feet. Sure enough, there was a tiny crab that was scuttling away as fast as possible. This time, at least, there had been something in the water. The last few occasions had been false alarms.
Hichan clung to his legs, curious and hesitant.
"It's running away, won't hurt you," he told her. She whimpered, and held her arms up. He sighed, again, and picked her up. She was wet, but not cold; it would be impossible to be cold in this place.
"Me hungry," she said, rubbing her eyes, which he knew by now also meant she was getting tired. "Me thirsty, too."
"Let's sit out for a bit," he suggested, carrying her back to the towel. He dried her off, quickly, with her own towel, and then set her down on his. "I didn't bring any food, but I have some water."
He gave her the water bottle. Confused, she tried to take the top off, and when that didn't work, she held it out to him. He pulled the tip up, opening it. "Like this," he said, squirting a little into his mouth.
She watched him, and tried to imitate him, but ended up spraying water all over her face which started her wailing. He hurriedly wiped her face clean with the end of her towel. "I thought all babies knew how to drink from a bottle," he said, thinking out loud.
"Bottle?" Hichan asked.
He held it up. "Didn't you ever drink milk from something like this?"
"Milk?" she asked, still confused. "No like milk. Yucky."
"What did you drink when you were very young?" he continued, growing confused himself. True, he didn't know a whole lot about babies, but he was pretty sure they drank milk. "What did Hiko feed you?"
"Juice?" she volunteered, clearly not understanding where he was going at all. He shook his head, curious to find out what nursing Immortal babies drank, but at the same time, not very comfortable with asking Hiko about it. He held the bottle out to her, to see if she wanted any more.
"Me no want," she told him, happy to know the answer to something at last. "Play in sand?"
"Sure you can play in the sand," he replied, putting the bottle away.
"No, you play in sand too," she corrected. She dug her hands in, as demonstration. "Make Manors."
"Sand Manors?" he laughed.
"Sounds like fun," someone commented.
At the sound of the unfamiliar voice, Hichan scuttled behind Johnny, peeping out over his shoulder. He tensed up, surprised and startled and wondering how he didn't notice anyone approaching.
It was a tall, older man, caucasian like Johnny, although not fair-haired. He was dressed in a loud Hawaiian tourist shirt and cargo shorts. He had a back-pack. Standard traveller.
"Sorry to startle you," the man continued. His accent was strange, although it had been flattened out by years of living in the States, Johnny could tell that much.
"I thought we were alone," Johnny explained. "I didn't hear you walk up."
"I thought I was alone, too. But then I heard you and your daughter talking. The name's Albert, by the way; Albert Tykson." The man smiled at Hichan, who clutched Johnny's shoulder, her tiny nails digging in.
"Johnny Cage," he replied, twisting around to pull Hichan to his front. She was very nervous, so he kept an arm around her, to reassure her. "And this is--" his mind went suddenly blank. Hichan wasn't a very common name, for obvious reasons... "-- Allison."
Hichan looked up at him, confused.
"Nice to meet you, Johnny, Allison," Tykson replied, courteously, doffing an imaginary cap. "Do you mind if I sat down?"
"No, not at all. Free beach," Johnny replied, although his brain wasn't too sure if it was a free beach. He still wasn't sure where this was, after all.
Tykson just sat in the bare sand, sighing as he did so. He leaned back, supporting his head on his arms. "This is the life. I told them for weeks that I needed a vacation, and this seemed like the best time for it."
"I know the feeling," Johnny commiserated.
"But you know boards. They're always concerned with expenses and what-not. So I said it would be a private vacation and not any of their problem." Tykson smiled. "Thailand is great this time of year, don't you think?"
Thailand. They were in Thailand? "Definitely," Johnny replied. Hichan whimpered again, holding his arm tightly. Tykson seemed to notice that. "Hey--I'm not disturbing you, am I? I'm so sorry. I've been on my own for a few days now--"
"It's no bother, really," Johnny assured him. "Allison is just a little nervous around strangers, that's all."
"I know the feeling. You're smart to be, kid," the traveller replied. He rooted around in his pockets, revealing a slightly-mashed un-opened chocolate bar. "Here you go." To Johnny: "She's not allergic, is she?"
"Nope," Johnny replied, confidently. If a mortal couldn't harm an immortal, he was reasonably certain that a chocolate bar wouldn't.
Hichan seemed reluctant to take the chocolate directly from the stranger, so Johnny took it, and then handed it to her. Then she wolfed it down (although she did offer a piece to Johnny, who declined).
"Are you with a tour?" Tykson asked, once the peace offering had been accepted.
"Uh, yeah," Johnny blurted. "Um, Order of Light Tours. Very cheap. Me and Allison sneaked away, for a little time alone."
"Good for you," the traveller replied. "I think tours should let you experience places like this on your own. But that's just me." He smiled at Hichan, who now had chocolate spread over most of her face. "Cute kid. I love her hair. She's so blonde she's almost albino."
"Yeah, uh, it runs in her mother's family," Johnny replied, quickly. "Swedes."
"Yeah, no kidding." Tykson laughed. "She's very cute, makes me almost wish I had kids of my own."
Johnny just laughed, as well. It was very fake; he was getting unnerved by the stranger's presence as well as he was worried Hichan might do something that revealed her other-than- mortal heritage.
Tykson seemed to be picking up on the vibes both Johnny and the child were sending out. He looked at his watch. "Oh, wow. I've got twenty minutes to finish a forty-minute hike back to the hotel. I guess I might see you around. It was nice meeting you both, especially you, Allison." He beamed at them, getting to his feet.
"It was nice to meet you, too," Johnny replied. "Yeah, maybe we will bump into each other. At the hotel. Which is not that far from here." He made Hichan wave, just for the effect, as Albert Tykson disappeared into the tropical brush.
As soon as the stranger was gone, both heaved heavy sighs of relief.
"Me thirsty again. Water?" Hichan asked, looking up at him. She seemed to remember something. "Please?"
Johnny fished out the bottle, removing the cap so she could just glug down the contents.
"Oh no! Hizilla is attacking the city!" Johnny cried out, as Hichan stamped down, gleefully, on the sand castle. "Oh no, there goes town hall! There goes the movie theatre!"
"Temple," Hichan indicates, with her toe, right before the foot comes down.
"Oh no! Now she's destroyed the Temple! Monks are fleeing everywhere!" Johnny raises his voice to cartoon proportions. "Oh no! She's destroyed the Temple! Run, monks, run!"
She laughed and started jumping up and down, until the sand city was pounded out completely. Then she ran to the water, scooped a handful and ran back, dumping the water on the remains, while making odd booming noises. "Thunder!" she squealed, excited. "Big rain!"
"Oh no, a gigantic storm has broken out over the ruins of the city!" Johnny continued in his "tiny monk" voice. "Whatever should we do? Maybe if we pray, the gods will save us!"
This stopped Hichan in her tracks. She looked down at the sodden sand. "Mortals?" she sniffed. "Real mortals?" She started to cry.
"Oh, no, don't cry," Johnny exclaimed, pulling her over to him, so that she could wail on his shoulder. "No, they weren't real mortals. They were made up."
"Made up?" she sniffled. "For sure?"
"For sure. No mortals were harmed in the destruction of this sand castle," he told her. Naturally, she missed the joke, but seemed to like the way it sounded.
"Okay, then." She wiped her nose. "Play something else."
"You know," Johnny commented, "I think it's about time we started home. We've been here a long time."
Hichan's response was a long pout. "Tomorrow?"
"We can probably come tomorrow, sure," he replied, getting to his feet. She held out her arms and he swung her up. "Maybe we can even convince Uncle Liu to come."
"Uncle Liu!" she squealed. "Uncle Liu go crazy! No, Uncle Johnny go crazy!"
"That's right," he replied, with a sigh. She immediately started into her "Uncle Johnny" song, which she sang at the top of her tiny lungs.
"Crazy, crazy, Uncle Johnny go crazy--"
Johnny, still holding her against his hip, picked up the towels and his bag.
"--Johnny go crazy, crazy, crazy--"
He took a deep breath, and tried to focus his mind, which was not made an easier by "Uncle Johnny go crazy" being yelled into his ear. He opened his eyes as he started to say something to her about it, but Hichan picked up on his thoughts and shut up simultaneously. He nodded, and closed his eyes again.
Hiko. Hiko, I don't know if this will work, but can you hear me?
Loud and clear. Ready to come home?
There was a slight ripple a head of them, and then a portal formed, orange and yellow. Johnny took one last look around the pristine beach, and then stepped through.
"Long day?" Johnny asked, leaning against the doorjamb. Rayden looked up, jolted out of some contemplation. He was sitting on a bench, leaning against the wall of the Temple while the sunset over the mountains in the distance. Hichan lay in his lap, asleep, snuggled against her father's chest.
"Hmm?" Rayden asked.
"Long day? You look tired," Johnny repeated.
"Oh." Rayden sighed, rubbing a hand through his hair. "No, not bad. It's almost done, I've almost got it pinned down." He looked down at the sleeping deity. "You and Hichan must have had a long day of your own."
"Oh, it wasn't bad," Johnny admitted. "I'm happy to give everybody a break."
Rayden smiled his thanks and then turned back to face the sky. Hichan, disturbed by his movements, frowned, but didn't wake up. "I suppose I ought to get her to bed," the thunder god said, after a moment. "But at the same time, I feel like I should enjoy the moment while I can--"
"Before she gets too big?" Johnny finished, coming to sit on the grass, also facing the sunset, which was a marvellous spread of gold, red and orange.
"Exactly." Rayden seemed to want to say something else, but let it drop. It was okay; Johnny knew what he wanted to say, anyway.
I want to enjoy it, like I never got to with Nova.
There was a faint gurgle and Hichan seemed to wake up for a moment; she sleepily surveyed her surroundings and then nestled her head back down and closed her eyes.
In her mind, all was right with the world, and Johnny decided that was the way he felt about it, as well.
"Go crazy, crazy, Johnny go crazy," Hichan sang, banging her pan ferociously. "Crazy, crazy--"
"Okay, Hichan, that's enough," Rayden snapped, irritatedly. She was winding her way around the kitchen but made a wide berth around the god.
"crazy crazy johnny go crazy," she sang very, very quietly, under her breath, barely tapping the pot at all. Rayden sighed, and decided to let it pass.
"Where was I?" he asked the mortal.
"You were saying about how one of the galaxies seems to be corrupted but you're not sure what to do," Johnny supplied, chopping onions.
"Exactly. I know that astronomers have picked up its presence by now, so I can't just take it out. But it's got to go, otherwise it'll start affecting neighbouring space. I'm not sure what can be done." Rayden tasted the soup, then added some coriander.
"Make it blow up?" Johnny suggested.
The god gave him a glare. "Right. That's not at all suspicious."
The movie star shrugged. "I'm not big on my space-stuff. Isn't there something you could create, like a black hole, or something, that would destroy the galaxy but not unnaturally? If you get what I'm saying?"
"I think I do," Rayden agreed, thoughtfully. "A quasar ought to do the trick. It might take a little longer than I'd like, but it should get that galaxy out of commission."
"A quasar," Johnny repeated, sliding his mound of onions off the cutting board. "I like the sound of that. Sounds very... spacey."
Rayden laughed. "They're useful little things. I don't make them very often, only when I really need to."
"Oh. What are they?"
Rayden shrugged, as he swept the onions into the soup. "I don't know."
Johnny paused, his brows furrowing. "You don't know? You don't know?"
"I just make them up, to get rid of galactic debris," Rayden replied simply. "I think the soup's almost done."
"That's a good thing," Johnny replied. "Won't astronomers get confused?"
"By what? Quasars? Of course they will. But they think that it's just something big and important they don't understand, not... uh..." Rayden trailed off, fumbling for words.
"Not a celestial Hoover?" Johnny supplied, as he wiped the cutting board down. "Poor guys. I guess a new one will make them wet themselves in excitement."
Rayden shrugged. "If they want to believe there's a rhyme and reason to everything, then they're free to, but that means having to put up with a whole bunch of stuff that doesn't make any sense."
"You can be really mean sometimes, you know that?"
The god laughed. "So I've been told, on numerous occasions. I don't see what's mean about it. They want to believe the universe was created the way it was almost by accident; so I let them."
Johnny rolled his eyes.
"Daddy, what's quasar?" Hichan piped up, coming over to see what was cooking, and more importantly, whether it was done yet.
"It's a thing that cleans up big messes in space," Rayden replied.
"Cleans rooms?" she asked.
"No, it's not going to clean your room. Now, go find Mama and tell her that supper's ready."
Hichan obligingly marched off, banging her pot and adding a new lyric to her song: "Crazy, crazy! Quasars make Johnny go crazy! Crazy, crazy..."
"I hope she gets tired of that soon," Johnny remarked. Rayden's reply was a short laugh.
"So do I, but I don't see it happening. Where's Liu? Is he eating with us?" The god looked around. "How many places to set?"
"There's just us," Johnny answered. "Liu's eating with his grandfather, tonight."
"Oh. Oh well." Three large plates and one smaller one appeared at the table, accompanied by bowls and cutlery. "More for us," Rayden finished with a grin.
"More for Hichan, you mean. She's going to weigh as much as I do, if her eating habits keep up," Johnny remarked, sitting down at his place.
"Oh, no, she needs it for all the energy she burns up singing The Uncle Johnny Song," Rayden reminded him. Hiko appeared at the door, holding Hichan's hand. The pot, thankfully, was nowhere to be seen.
"Supper," the smaller goddess crowed. "Eat!"
"Looks lovely," Hiko said to Rayden. "Smells good, too. But I'm not feeling very hungry."
Rayden felt her forehead. "Your energy is all out of whack. Do you want to go see Medi after dinner?"
"I don't think it's anything like that," she replied. "I'm just tired, that's all."
Rayden harumphed, and took Hichan's hand, leading her towards the table. "Go sit down, I'll be there in a second. Uncle Johnny will help you."
Hichan nodded and bounded over, so that the mortal could lift her into her seat. She peered over the edge of the table, and then looked at him plaintively. Johnny sighed, and lifted her onto his own lap.
Rayden and Hiko, meanwhile, were having a heated discussion in muted tones a few feet away. Finally, Hiko stomped off, and Rayden, in turn, stomped over to the table. "Hiko's not hungry."
"Oh," Johnny replied, as though this was the first he'd heard of it. "No, Hichan, that's my supper."
"I think she might be coming down with something," Rayden continued.
"Really? Can gods even get sick? No, Hichan, these are my potatoes--those are yours."
"Of course they can. Well, not really. Not from germs, anyway. But bad spells, bad energy--it looks the same as when mortals get sick," Rayden answered. "She refuses to see Medi--I don't think she likes him very much, but that's not really any excuse."
"It's a great excuse," Johnny countered, playfully, until he saw that Rayden wasn't in the mood. "By that I mean a very stupid excuse. Very bad. No, Hichan, those are my potatoes--"
"And I know that nothing's really wrong, I'd know if something was really wrong, but it could turn worse, you know?" Rayden continued morosely.
"That it could," Johnny agreed, realising by now that a) the god wasn't really listening to him, just thinking out loud; and b) that his attentions would be better spent getting Hichan to eat her own food, and not his.
"And then it could be--" Rayden paused, his head snapping up. He looked, very hard, at Hichan, up at Johnny, and then out of the room at Hiko. He shook his head. "No, it couldn't be that. Could it?"
"No," Johnny answered firmly.
"You're right. It couldn't be." Rayden shook his head again, and started eating.
"No, those are my potatoes, for the last time--!" Johnny exclaimed again, just as firmly as before. Hichan paid no notice to him until he lifted her, an illegal spoonful of potatoes half-way to her mouth, and put her down on her own chair, where she immediately began to howl.
Rayden snapped out of his reverie. "What the--?"
Johnny held his head in his hands. "I just wanted to eat my potatoes," he whimpered, while Hichan continued to howl, her face turning deep red, indignant at being ejected. Rayden sighed, pulled Hichan's smaller plate over to him, and picked her up.
She was still crying when he presented her with a spoonful of food. Grudgingly she took it. Now, with her mouth too full to cry, she was silent, although she glared at Johnny from across the table. When she was done chewing, she opened her mouth and Rayden fed her again.
"You're getting too big for this," he warned her.
She gulped and opened her mouth, apparently not caring that she was too big for it. He sighed, and gave her another mouthful, picking at his own dinner while it was out of reach for her.
"You could have just let her eat your food," Liu admonished. "And gotten more potatoes afterwards."
"I know I could have, but that's not the point," Johnny argued. "It was the principle."
"The principle being...?"
"That she can't just take what she wants from other people!" the movie star finished, exasperatedly.
Liu started at him. "She's a goddess, you're a mortal--that means, she can, in effect, do what ever the hell she wants with your potatoes."
Johnny dropped his head to the table. "I give up."
Johnny lifted his head. "What the hell is so funny?"
"You," Liu chuckled.
"That's what I thought." Johnny sighed, heavily. "Speaking of her Infant Eminence, have you seen Hichan this morning?"
Liu nodded. "I played hide-and-go-seek with her. Don't give me that look, I really did play with her for a while. Then some tourist showed up at the Temple and I was called over to translate."
"Yeah. It happens occasionally, no big deal." Liu frowned suddenly, remembering something. "What was weird, though, was that Hichan followed me. Normally she's nervous around strangers."
"She wasn't around me," Johnny pointed out. "Maybe she was just curious."
"That might be it. The tourist was very nice to her, gave her some chocolate." Liu finished his coffee. "Turns out he was just lost."
"Oh," Johnny replied. "Did you give him directions?"
Liu nodded. "Then I went to help some of the other monks make the communal breakfast."
"Let me guess: rice?"
"You get used to it, after a while," Liu commented.
"I'm used to it already. That doesn't mean I like it, mind you." Johnny frowned. "Wow, now I really want a pizza."
Liu laughed again.
There was a flash of light, and Rayden appeared in the courtyard. He looked very distracted, and both mortals guessed he would have to be; he almost never used his powers around the monks.
"What's up?" Liu asked, while Johnny sat up.
"It's Hiko--she's really sick, I'm going to fetch Medicalis," Rayden replied, worriedly.
"Is she okay? Can we help?" Both mortals leapt to their feet. The god shook his head.
"No, no, she'll be fine, I'm sure of it. I just wanted to find Hichan, so that she could come with me. Someone needs to keep an eye on her, and Hiko's not up to it." He was trying to sound calm, but not doing a very good job of it.
"We'll do it," both Liu and Johnny replied.
"No problem at all," the movie star added. "You go, get Medi, and we'll watch over the fort. Temple. Whatever."
Rayden sighed with relief, although he remained very tense. "Okay. I guess that will be fine--I'll see you in a little while, then."
He teleported away.
"I wonder what's happened," Liu mused.
"Happened? He just told you!" Johnny exclaimed.
"Grandfather told me that the gods only become sick when something bad has happened to them," Liu explained. Johnny snorted.
"Coming from someone with experience, that's not exactly true. If it was, every god in the Omniverse would be comatose right now. No, I think Hiko's just sick, that's all." Johnny sat back down. Liu stared at him.
"Look at Rayden! Do you think he'd be that upset, if something wasn't really wrong?"
"Yes," Johnny replied simply. "Yes, I think he would. You know how he feels about her, he's high-strung when he thinks about anything...anything else happening to her. I'm sure she'll be fine. Trust me."
Liu grumbled, but realised, as Johnny had, that there wasn't much he could do in any case. "I guess I better find Hichan. She probably ran off to hide, thinking we were still playing."
"If that's the case, wait a little while and she'll find you, demanding to know why you haven't found her," Johnny smirked. "Uncle Liu! Come find me!" he wailed in a passable imitation of her.
Liu laughed. "I guess you're right."
Hiko lifted her head to see who it was that had entered. "Johnny."
"I brought you some water, I saw your glass was empty," he said, setting the new glass down on the end table next to the bed. He gently touched her forehead. "You haven't got a fever at all. You're barely warm."
"I know," she whispered, pulling the blankets around her tighter. "It's so cold in here, no wonder."
Johnny sat down, by her knees. "Rayden's gone to get Medi."
Hiko opened her eyes, blinking at him, furiously. "He did what? I told him not to, I'm just a little sick, that's all--" She struggled to get up but Johnny was quick to hold her down.
"I think he's justified," the mortal said. "You look terrible."
She grumbled and shifted around to her other side. "I don't like Medicalis. He's very...I don't know, I just don't like him."
"You're allowed not to. But you're still sick. That's the end of that." Johnny got up, after patting her leg reassuringly.
"Is Hichan okay?" Hiko asked, after a moment. "She's not sick too?"
"I don't think so. I'm not too sure where she is. She was playing and Liu hasn't been able to track her down yet. She's not in any of her normal hiding spots," Johnny reported.
"Oh. I could sense her for you--" Hiko struggled to get up, again, but Johnny held her back down.
"No, we've got it under control. Just rest. Go to sleep. Heal thyself. Whatever it is that you do." He started from the room. "Thank god I was never sick when I was an Immortal..."
Hiko lay her head back down, trying to breath through her nose and failing miserably. "I hate being sick," she sniffled.
"Johnny! There you are!" Liu came jogging up to him. "Have you seen Hichan?"
"No," Johnny replied. "No, I was just visiting Hiko--I thought you were looking for her!"
"I am," Liu insisted. "She's not on the Temple grounds, anywhere. I've had the novices combing the place. She's not here."
"Of course she is. Where else could see be?" Johnny tried to wave it off dismissively, but he was starting to become worried. "Liu...you didn't check down by the river, did you?"
Johnny felt a sudden chill. "Liu...goddesses can drown."
The mortal stared for a moment. "What? What are you talking about?"
"They can drown," Johnny repeated, starting off towards the river at a jog. "Mortals can't hurt them, but Realms can. If she decided to go swimming by herself--"
"Should we get--" Liu began, running to catch up.
"No, it'll worry her, I'm sure Hichan's okay," Johnny said, firmly. "She's okay, she's okay."
"This is very, very bad." Johnny repeated, scanning the shore as far as he could. "Very bad."
"It just means she's not by the river, that's a good thing," Liu corrected, jogging back towards him, having checked round the bend of the valley.
"Yeah." Johnny seemed unconvinced. "But she's been gone too long now just to be hiding. Something's not right, Liu."
"Maybe Rayden took her with him after all," Liu offered.
"He would have told us."
"Not if he was in a hurry."
Johnny accepted that, but remained doubtful. "I wish I still had some of my powers. I could pinpoint her in a second."
"Why don't we ask Hiko to?" the other mortal asked. "Just say, Hichan's hiding, we need some help to find her."
Johnny sighed. "I guess so. I guess we have to." They both started up the hill to the Temple when something caught Johnny's eye. It was a piece of fabric, mired in the mud and weeds at the edge of the riverbed. He stooped down and picked it up. "What the hell--?"
"That looks really familiar," Liu commented, standing over his shoulder. "What is it? A t-shirt?"
"A Hawaiian tourist shirt," Johnny answered. "I've seen this on someone, just recently--the tourist I ran into, on the Mortal Kombat beach."
Liu frowned. "No, that's not right--I saw it on the guy who showed up at the Temple, lost."
Johnny looked up, startled. "The one that Hichan followed you to? Liu, it must be the same guy. She had already met him before, that's why she wasn't nervous. And he gave her chocolate, right? That's what our guy did. Must be the same guy."
"No, Johnny, it couldn't be. You can't reach the Mortal Kombat beach except by magic. It's special, set apart from the Realm," Liu continued, his eyes growing wide. "If you met the tourist there--"
"That means he can use magic, and probably knows--"
"And probably knows that Hichan is a deity," Liu finished grimly. "You didn't tell Rayden about the tourist you met? Just me?"
Johnny nodded in the affirmative.
Liu frowned. "I have a bad feeling about this. Hiko's sick, just as Hichan ups and disappears?"
"Rayden's gone, it's just us to protect her," Johnny agreed. "This guy knew what he was doing."
Liu started up the hill. "Come on, we've got to find out where he took her."
"I want to phone ATTFOR," Johnny agreed. "If this guy has been acting up at all, Sonya and Jax would know."
"At-four? What?" Liu frowned. "I thought they were in the army--?"
"Long story. Just lead me to the phone."
There was a long pause. "Johnny, I don't know if I can help you," Jax replied, his voice staticky due to the long distance connection. "Can you narrow it down a little?"
"We want the location of people involved with mystical arts," Johnny replied, one finger in his ear, the one away from the receiver, trying to hear better.
"Johnny, we've got records about mystics from all over the world, and for years," Jax repeated. There was a faint sound of tapping and Johnny guessed that the captain was at his computer. "Can you give me any idea about his nationality, at least?"
"American, I'm pretty sure," Johnny replied. "Born somewhere else, but has lived in the States before. He knew about the Mortal Kombat beach."
"That does narrow it down, a little. Let me see. Americans." Jax typed furiously.
"Wait a second--I have a name for you!" Johnny blurted. "I just remembered it--Albert Tykson."
"A name would be good--what? What did you just say? Tykson?" The stunned silence that followed was not good, in the movie star's opinion. Jax cleared his throat. "That's not good."
"Tell me something I don't know."
"Tykson is, we believe, in the Iron Ring--a coven that runs out of New York. They're very strong, Johnny. I'm sure Rayden can handle them, but you or Liu..." He trailed off. "What exactly did they do to Rayden, anyway?"
"Nothing," Johnny admitted. "They've gone after Hichan."
"Hichan!" the voice exploded over the line. "They've gone after Hichan?! Those..." Jax lapsed into a string of obscenities and curses, some of them which were obviously picked up from the Hong Kong street. "I can fax you--wait. You're at the Temple, right?"
"Right," Johnny replied, finally putting his ear back near the phone.
"Dammit. The earliest I could fly over is...well, it would be too late, anyway. If it is the Iron Ring. We've been tracking them for years now, they run quite profitable business selling relics that belonged to Shao Khan, and they've got quite a long arm, if you know what I mean." Jax sighed.
"I do," Johnny replied softly. "Anything else you can tell us?"
"Well, I'm not supposed to, top-secret and all that, but..." the voice dropped a notch, even though (supposedly) no one was listening. "The earliest we heard of them was when they stole the Knife of Rodosi from Outworld. They've got connections in places most humans haven't even heard of. You've got to be careful. I think I'll fly out, anyway--"
"No, don't," Johnny replied quickly. "We don't need you getting in trouble. If we need back-up, Rayden or Hiko will portal you over, okay?"
There was a grumble. "Okay. Should I call Sonya, and tell her?"
"No. No, I hope this will be over in a few hours, once Rayden gets back. Thanks for everything, Jax."
"Call me when you get her back," Jax replied quickly. "I'll talk to you later."
There was a click and then the dial tone. Johnny set the cradle back on the phone. "Not good?" Liu asked.
"That's an understatement," Johnny replied with a sigh. He leaned against the wall, his arms folded and head tilted back. "She's in big trouble. We have to find Rayden, and tell him."
"Tell Rayden what?" asked a throaty voice, from behind them. Both mortals whirled.
"Hiko!" Johnny exclaimed. "You're supposed to be resting."
The goddess glared at them from underneath layers of robes, both hers and Rayden's. Her skin was too pale and she was wheezing. "I thought something was up," she explained, through her stuffed-up nose. "I guess I was right."
"Nothing's up, it's all good," Johnny insisted, steering her back out the door. "Go back to bed."
"Where's Hichan?" Hiko said suddenly, looking concerned. "Did you find her yet?" She closed her eyes. "Hichan, where are you..."
Johnny took a sharp intake of breath, his heart hammering in his head.
Hiko, likewise, seemed to be having problems breathing. "Where is she?" she gasped, distraught, her eyes snapping wide open. "Where is she? I can't sense her! I can always sense her! What's happened?!"
"Hiko, please--" Liu began, coming to her other side, but she pushed them both away.
"Hichan!" she cried, running out into the halls. "Rayden, she's gone!"
There was a crackle of thunder and Rayden appeared in a panic, Medicalis the God of Doctors appearing seconds later. "What's the matter? Hiko, what's going on?"
"Hichan!" the goddess cried. "She's gone, I can't sense her!"
Rayden had her by both arms. "Hiko, calm down, please--"
"Sense it for yourself!" she roared, flinching away from his touch. She was wavering, her balance upset.
Rayden took a deep breath, concentrating.
He's one of the best, Johnny thought. He can find her.
Rayden's face drained of all colour.
Oh no. "Rayden--" the mortal began, when the god turned on them.
"How could you let this happen?!" he roared. "You said you would take care of her!"
"Rayden, it's not what it looks like--" Liu began.
"It's not?! It's not?! It sure looks like it to me! I want to know where my daughter is, immediately!"
"Rayden, calm down." This was Medicalis, and he stepped between the enraged god and the mortals. "Hiko needs to rest. Calm down, Rayden, don't make me sedate you."
"I'm not going anywhere," Hiko whimpered. "We have to find Hichan."
"Your husband can take care of that," Medicalis told her, firmly, taking her by the arm. "You need sleep. Your energy is all out of alignment." He started to lead her down the corridor, pausing to talk to Rayden. "The mortals had nothing to do with it at all. If you would calm down, you'd sense that. And she's not dead, she can't be, you would know, wouldn't you?"
Rayden nodded, the energy around him starting to fade. "I would."
"Then she's not dead. She must be somewhere, blocked, shielded or something. You can find her, but not if you tear off in the blind rage." Medicalis pointed at Johnny. "That one thinks he knows where she is."
Johnny nodded. "I talked to Jax, I think I know where he took her."
"Jax took her?" Rayden exclaimed.
"No, not Jax--Albert Tykson. Look, let me start at the beginning..."
Rayden was pacing. "So you think this Iron Ring could have her?"
Johnny and Liu both nodded. "They waited for a moment when both you and Hiko couldn't protect her, and just snatched her away," Liu said, slowly. "It's my fault, I just thought she was playing, hiding, like normal--"
"No," Rayden interrupted, rubbing his eyes. "No, it's not your fault. Whoever did this obvious knows what they're doing. All we have to do is find out where in New York they are, and get her back."
"We should go, at once," Johnny insisted. "Jax said that they're dangerous people--"
"They can't hurt her," Rayden explained, rationally. "She'll be scared, frightened, but not hurt. She's an immortal."
"One thing I don't understand is why they have her in the first place," Liu admitted. "If they can't harm her--"
"Bargaining? Use her as a hostage?" Johnny volunteered.
"That could be it." Rayden stopped pacing for a moment. "Dammit, I wish I could just sense her. Reassure her."
"She knows we'll be coming for her," Johnny told him. "All we have to do is follow through on that."
"Right." Rayden straightened up. "You're right. Let's go." A portal formed in front of them, glowing and crackling with miniature thunderbolts. Without hesitation, Rayden stepped through, Liu and Johnny both following him.
"Isn't there are saying about it being nice to be back, but not under the circumstances?" Johnny muttered, as they walked from the back of the alleyway to the street.
"Not that I can think of," Liu replied. "Jax give you an address?"
The mortal shook his head. "No. He doesn't know where they are, in any case. Just New York, somewhere."
"It is," Rayden corrected. He hadn't moved more than a few feet from where the portal had let them out. He seemed to be concentrating. "I can probably pin-point her, from here."
"You can?" Liu exclaimed. "But--I--"
"I don't get it either. How could you be able to sense her here, but not at the Temple? You've got a far greater range than that," Johnny concurred.
"I know," Rayden snapped. "But now all I have to do is find an area that I can't sense. A negative space, where they're shielding her from me."
The two mortals watched for a moment as the god closed his eyes, and focused on some spot--some little section of the city-- that he couldn't sense, that he couldn't get a handle on it. After a moment, he opened his eyes. "Got it."
Both mortals exchanged grins. Rayden started to open another portal, when Johnny grabbed his arm. "Woah--wait a second. We can't just waltz in there. They know we're coming. They'll be expecting it."
"We need a plan, or a disguise," Liu agreed. "Actually, both would be good."
Rayden glared for a moment, then realised they were right. He sighed, and snapped his fingers.
There was a bright flash.
"What did that do?" Johnny asked, after a moment had elapsed with nothing happening.
"I've disguised us," Rayden explained, in an irritated tone of voice. "It won't show up to us, just to who ever we meet. It's a basic spell, Johnny."
Johnny snorted, picking up the sarcasm. "I wasn't a god long enough to pick up all the basics."
"Okay, guys, let's get going," Liu interrupted them, giving Johnny a shove towards the portal. It was hardly necessary for him to intervene; Rayden was already more than anxious to leave, and rescue Hichan.
The building, from the outside, was tall, and made of a beige-gray brick, and seemed indistinguishable from any number of buildings scattered throughout the city. That made it even more suspicious, in Johnny's opinion.
There was a guard at the front door. Rayden started up the steps.
"Excuse me," the guard said, stepping forward. "Can I have your pass, please?" Rayden made a big sigh of fishing something imaginary out of his robes. The guard took the proffered air, examined it closely, then handed it back. "Thank you, sir. Will you gentlemen please follow me? Mr. Lukas is on the third floor."
"We don't need any guides, thank you," Rayden said politely. "We've been here before."
"Ah. Well, enjoy your day, sirs." The guard touched his cap as they all walked in, past his post.
"Does that strike you as a little too easy?" Johnny whispered to Liu.
"Don't say things like that. You'll jinx something," was Liu's hushed response.
The guard flipped open his walkie-talkie. "This is alpha- four. they're in. Repeat, they're in."
The moment the trio was separated from the main traffic in the atrium, Rayden snaked off course, obviously knowing exactly where he should be going. He was heading to a staircase, past a bank of elevators. Liu noticed that all the elevators were heading to the main level--number one--at once. That was a little odd. More than a little odd...
He gave Johnny a push, shoving the mortal into the god and both farther by a few feet. "Get going!"
"What?" Johnny blurted, as the elevator doors opened and armed guards poured out.
"They know we're here!" Liu yelled, unnecessarily. Both he and Johnny took up fighting poses.
The henchman spread out in a semi-circle. "Give yourselves up," the leader commanded, "and the Master may be merciful."
Johnny laughed. "I can't think of how many times I've heard that, and it still cracks me up."
Rayden laughed as well, a dark chuckle. "Duck," he said simply. Both mortals exchanged glances then dove to the marble floor. The bolts of lightning exploded overhead, crackling and hissing. The guards tried to run, but it was too late; the lightning seemed to flow out of the walls and the floor, and up into them. They dropped, almost at once, thudding to the ground.
Both Johnny and Liu got to their feet, hesitantly. "Nice work," the movie star said, uneasily.
"Get their guns," Liu said, picking two off the first bodies he came across.
"Why? We can take 'em without guns," Johnny replied, although he, too, took a pair of firearms.
"Because the less guns they have, the less they can shoot at us," Liu snapped. He got back to his feet, and turned around to say something to Rayden. "Hey!"
The thunder god had almost disappeared; they had a final glimpse of him as he sailed into the stair well.
The room was deep underground, several floors. It was tall, three stories high, at least, and carved out of a deep, black rock. Several small niches along the wall held torches, the only light.
In the center of the circular room was a raised dias. On the raised dias was an alter, carved over with symbols. And on the alter was Hichan.
Rayden burst through the door. There were concentric circles painted in red on the floor; the smallest contained the dias and the alter. He passed the first without flinching. The second caused him to fall to his knees in pain.
A figure materialised from the thin air, from a hiding spell. "Lord Rayden. Welcome."
Liu and Johnny burst through the doors. "Rayden--Hichan!" The doors slammed shut behind them, and melted into the sheer rock walls.
"Gentlemen," the dark figure called. "Welcome. Welcome to the stronghold of the Iron Ring."
Other men materialised, lined around the wall. They were dressed in business suits and the like. Three were sitting cross-legged on the floor, equidistant from each other. Another appeared by the first figure.
"Tykson," Johnny growled.
"First Brother Tykson has been a great help to us," the leader said, proudly. "But I have not had the pleasure of an introduction, myself. I am Brendan O'Shea, leader and master of the Iron Ring."
"I'm going to kick your ass," Johnny replied, sharply. "What have you done to Rayden?"
O'Shea laughed. "Ah, Johnny Cage. I've enjoyed your films. You must tell me the name of your stand-in, he does marvellous work."
Johnny nearly flew at him, but Liu held him back. "Don't lose your temper, Cage," he hissed.
"You should listen to him, Mr. Cage. Liu Kang, the chosen one, hero of Mortal Kombat. The most despised name in our Order," O'Shea hissed. "After Lord Rayden, of course."
The god was struggling to get to his feet, the strain visible. "What--did you do--" he rasped.
"A simple spell," the leader admitted to him. "The circles are magically removed from the forces that govern Earth Realm. You have effectively stepped into a hostile Realm, Lord Rayden. A very hostile Realm." O'Shea stepped out from behind the alter. He stroked Hichan's head.
Johnny could see now that she was asleep, which was why she wasn't struggling or crying. "What do you want her for?" he yelled, furious. "She isn't a threat to you."
"Oh she isn't, you're right," Tykson replied, smugly. "She is a tool. With her, the great Master will be able to ascend to the heavens."
"Become a god," Rayden growled. "You must be insane."
O'Shea glared. "All those who are truly dedicated are considered insane. That's human nature; I hadn't realised so much had rubbed off on you. Your brother never showed any of these flaws."
"You're a follower of Shao Khan," Liu pieced together. "That's why you're trading in Outworld weapons."
"Very good." O'Shea reached into his jacket and pulled out a knife. It was thick handled, embossed and laden with gems. Rayden's eyes widened. "You recognise it, Lord Rayden? You should. It is the knife of Rodosi, and it is what I will use to kill your daughter." To emphasize his threat, he reached over, and stroked Hichan's head. "Then the Knife will transfer her powers, her immortality--no pun intended--to me." He seized a lock of her hair, and yanked hard.
She woke up for a moment, screaming, before the drugged sleep fell over her again and she fell to the stone of the alter. There was a slight echo in the great chamber.
Rayden was stunned speechless. He fell back to the ground. "You can't," he breathed. "You can't kill her."
"Can't?" O'Shea repeated, fingering the knife. "Can't? I think I can. I think I will. Unless..."
"Unless?" he continued.
"Unless you were to offer up another deity, one more powerful than this child," O'Shea finished, smiling.
"Don't!" Johnny cried, charging forward. He seemed to slam, face first, into a wall. It was where the first red ring was painted.
Rayden glanced back towards the mortals, and then back to Hichan, who was whimpering softly. "I'll do it."
"You'll do what? I want it official, now," the leader continued, drawing it out.
Rayden gritted his teeth. "I'll exchange myself for her."
"Good choice. Brother Tykson, if you please?" O'Shea gestured, and Tykson hopped down off the dias and strode over to the god. He hauled him up by the collar, Rayden too weak to protest.
"We've got to do something," Liu snarled.
"There's nothing you can do, Gentlemen. Neither of you have any magical abilities, at least, nothing that can compare to mine. Or any of my compatriots." O'Shea stepped away, momentarily, as Tykson dragged Rayden to the alter. "Feel free to witness this historic occasion."
Johnny pulled Liu over and whispered something briefly. Liu nodded.
The two sprang apart, each striking out at the man closest to them. Johnny knocked out his with a quick high kick to the temple. Liu dispatched his first, and second, by knocking their heads together. Before any one could make a move to stop them, O'Shea scowled, and a sudden gust of wind sprang up, pining both mortals to the wall.
"Do you think...?" Tykson trailed off, as he shoved Rayden towards the alter.
"No, they are of no concern," O'Shea muttered. He was stroking Hichan's head, again. The knife was held in his other hand, and he made no move to either release Hichan from the spell or remove her from the alter.
"You said you wouldn't harm her," Rayden snapped.
"Did I? I don't recall saying anything like that," O'Shea replied, amicably.
Johnny slammed against the wall and slid to the floor, groaning. The wind died down. He started to lever himself up on his elbows.
O'Shea was saying something to Rayden, who was by the alter, being held by that cretin, Tykson. A wave of pain rolled over Johnny, and he touched his crown, gently. His fingers came away sticky.
He had to get up. He had to... the room was getting fuzzy around the edges. He could begin to see Rayden's aura, as well as the aura of Hichan.
What had Hiko said to him? That the Fire power would remain a part of him?
Could he still use it?
He tried to sit up, fighting the vertigo. He could see an aura around O'Shea, and Tykson. Different from the deities--they were using magic, that's what gave them the glow.
The fallen businessman/warlock that Johnny had picked off was lying beside him, lacking any sort of aura what so ever. He wasn't magical, just a lackey.
Johnny squinted. It was getting hard to concentrate. There were three men, each sitting cross-legged, their eyes closed. The energy was pouring out of them in waves. He blinked, nearly falling forward. They were the key. They...
Johnny toppled over, his vision darkening. Liu...
Liu Kang was on his feet the minute the wind died down. He could see Johnny, several meters away from him. He was hurt; he couldn't stand.
And Rayden... Rayden was trapped, held down by Tyson or whatever his name was. And Hichan was still on the alter. Liu had to do something. He considered charging the field, just as a diversion, when something tickled at the back of his mind.
It sounded/felt like Johnny. But how could Johnny talk to him telepathically?
Liu was sudden aware of another point of view in his mind. The sitting men. They were doing something incredibly vital, something that needed to be stopped.
Then the vision faded, and Johnny's presence receded from his mind. Across the hall, the movie star collapsed to the ground.
Liu looked towards the sitting sorcerer. He was outside the first ring, he wasn't guarded by the wall. But Liu had no doubt that if he took one step towards anyone, the guards would all make sure he got no further.
O'Shea had Hichan by the hair. Rayden was struggling against Tyson but he couldn't save her. Johnny was unconscious. It was up to Liu.
With one fluid motion, he reached for his gun, and withdrew it. The first shot shattered part of the rock wall, over the head of the sorcerer. The second struck his leg. He cried out, and fell over, not being able to fall since he was already sitting down.
"No!" screamed O'Shea, frantically, bringing the knife down. Liu leapt towards the center, terrified that he was too late when there was a sudden peal of thunder. Clouds were brewing inside the chamber itself.
O'Shea yanked Hichan's head back. It would only take a second for the Knife to transfer her powers to him. It would take less than a second--a hand grabbed his arm, crushing the bones. He screamed again at the sudden pain and tried to elbow Rayden, to get him to let go. But the thunder god had other ideas.
O'Shea was thrown, like a rag doll, from the dias. The knife clattered on the ebony floor. "Get them!" he roared, clutching his injured wrist. Tykson was down, felled first by the deity, but the others were uninjured. They started forwards, some going after Liu Kang, but the majority heading towards the center, to protect their leader.
"You really have no idea what you're up against, do you?" Liu Kang sneered to them. He lashed out with his fist, which the first opponent blocked easily, unfortunately leaving himself open to Liu's other fist, which slammed into his stomach. He doubled over, and Liu picked him up and threw him bodily towards the others approaching. He made a dive for the knife, which lay only a few meters away. He could see O'Shea inching towards it.
The lightning was a sudden, immense flash that blinded O'Shea and Liu alike. It struck down, flowing into the floor, but missed the leader by a hair; he anticipated and managed to roll. His hand scrabbled out and the knife flew into it.
"I don't think so," Liu cried, leaping for him. The two went down in a tumble while lightning continued to crackle, as Rayden brought down the ones advancing on him.
O'Shea hissed, trying to get his hand close enough to rake the knife across Liu's face, but he wasn't very successful. "I could have been a god!" he roared. "I still can be!"
Liu was about to retort when someone grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him up, whirling him around and punching him, hard, in the face. He staggered backwards, startled and stunned.
Tykson stood guard as he leader got to his feet. The second-in-command was shaking, and his clothes were charred; there was a terrible smell of burning meat, but he was standing.
O'Shea scowled, and whirled at Rayden, who was standing with his back to the leader, protecting the still-sleeping Hichan from the advancing warlocks. The leader took pause, aim, and then threw the knife.
"No!" Liu cried. "Rayden--duck!"
Rayden whirled to face the danger, an unfortunate instinct, and was unable to duck in time. That didn't matter all that much, as he was able to teleport quickly out of the way. "This has gone on too long," he snarled, raising his hands over his head.
"Rayden--" Liu called again, frantically running forward before Tykson barred his path.
Again Rayden whirled, but this time he was unsuccessful to dodge the attack; one of O'Shea's lackeys had taken the knife and plunged it into the god's shoulder. He cried out, startled, and lightning seemed to explode throughout the chamber.
Liu was startled by the hot blast, a sizzling wave that crackled in his ears. He fell to one knee, but managed to withstand the heat and the pain. Tykson, already worn, collapsed. O'Shea was on his knees, grimacing.
Liu fished out his other gun, glad that he had taken two. He pinpointed one of the other sitting warlocks, neither of whom had moved since the fight began. They were unaffected, in their trance.
"If Number One gave Rayden his powers, let's see what Number Two does," Liu mused, to himself, firing. The man collapsed, again not fatally wounded, but his concentration and his spell broken.
On the alter, surrounded by dead and charred remains of mortals, Hichan awoke. She looked around herself, then started to scream. "Daddy! Daddy, help!"
Rayden was clutching his shoulder, the blood spreading, staining his robes a deep red. "Hichan!"
"Daddy!" she howled. He started towards her when he heard a clatter.
It was O'Shea, picking up the knife but clumsily dropping it. He had very little feeling left in his hand, but he finally managed to get a good grip. He got to his feet, advancing on the god.
Liu Kang, who was too far away attack in time, fired his gun. A personal shield formed around the leader, protecting him. "There's nowhere to run," O'Shea growled. "You're wounded, the brat's awake, your mortal's useless."
"Not quite," Liu corrected, succinctly. "Let's see what Sitting Guy Number Three brings."
"No!" O'Shea roared, realising his mistake. The gun rang out, and the third warlock was down.
There was a silence that descended down over the chamber. The clouds had disappeared when Rayden was wounded, but something else seemed to be roaring, off in the distance.
"What the hell is that?" O'Shea whispered, dead white.
Rayden smiled, slightly, with a touch of smugness. "Calvary's coming."
There was a sudden explosion of light, as the chamber was filled with fire.
Liu's first instinct was to run, or shield his face; but the fire didn't touch him. There was a bubble around him, shielding him from its effects and its terrible heat. What it didn't shield him from, however, was the screams and the terrible smell. Within moments, the fire died away, the chamber scrubbed clean, and empty. Johnny was untouched, as Liu had been. He still lay against the far wall, surrounded by several small piles of white ash.
Hiko stood in the center of the room, with Rayden. She held Hichan in her arms, and Rayden in turn wrapped his own arms around her. They were standing, silent, while Hichan's cries grew quieter, and quieter, and eventually subsided altogether. She snuggled against each of her parents, in turn. "Mama," she whispered, "Daddy."
Johnny groaned. "Why is it, that whenever I go on vacation, I end up coming back to work more stressed?" He sat up, Hiko rubbing his shoulders.
"Medicalis gave you a clean bill of health. You should be feeling fine," she reminded him.
"I know, I know." He rolled his eyes. "You're right about one thing though: I don't like him either."
She laughed, pulling away and sitting on the edge of his bed. "You know, you still have a week and a half of vacation time left. You can go to Cannes, really relax."
"What's this about relaxing?" Rayden asked, as he walked in. "That was doctor's orders for you too, I believe," his wife reminded him.
"Doctor schmocter. I haven't listened to Medicalis in my entire life, I don't plan to start now." Rayden sat down in one of the chairs, wincing as he did so.
Hiko shook her head, grinning.
Johnny tried to stretch. "I really do feel a lot better," he admitted. "I suppose I could go."
"Go? Why would you go?" Rayden asked, confused, ignoring the look that Hiko shot him. "We still have to go to the beach."
"That reminds me," Johnny snapped, "why did you send me there?"
"Send you where?"
"To the Mortal Kombat beach!" the mortal continued. "Did you think I was feeling nostalgic?"
Rayden frowned. "No...it's just a great beach. Is there something wrong with it?"
Johnny sighed, rubbing his eyes. Hiko patted him, gently. "Don't worry about it, Johnny. Just try to relax."
"I did," he said quietly, resting his arms on his knees, "and that's what led us into the whole mess."
"What are you talking about? I thought this Iron Ring had been planning this for a long time," Hiko replied, puzzled.
"They had. But I was the one that let Hichan eat the chocolate from that Tykson jerk. I should have wondered what he was doing there, but I didn't think." Johnny sighed. "It was the chocolate that let them kidnap her. I realised that after I got up. She ate it, and it made her, well, docile for one thing, but more importantly, I think it acted like a target, something that they could use to teleport her away without having to be present." He paused. "Well, I know I had to be present to teleport things... I could be totally off-base about this..."
"No," Hiko said thoughtfully, "No, I think you're right. It makes sense, anyway."
Rayden made a low growl, deep in his throat. "I don't like thinking about it."
"She's safe, now," Hiko reminded him, gently, reaching out and patting his leg.
"We thought she was safe before. I never thought about someone targeting her like that. I thought that any enemies would go after me, not her. She's just a little girl." He shook his head. "It's a scary thought."
"We saved her," Hiko repeated, firmly, although her voice wavered slightly. "We will do so in the future. She's safe." Johnny wrapped an arm around her shoulder, comfortingly, and she hugged him in return.
"It all ended happily," he said. "That's the important thing. The happy ending."
The door suddenly began to creak open. Hichan popped her white-haired head around the corner. "Mama? Daddy? Uncle Johnny!" Hiko held her arms out and the girl raced to them. In horror, all of the adults realised she was carrying her pot.
"Oh no," Hiko groaned, with a slight smile. Rayden rolled his eyes. Johnny flopped down on the bed.
"Cannes is looking pretty good right about now..." he mumbled.