Galaxies spun and wheeled. Nebulae formed and dissolved.
Stars lived and died.
And the woman danced.
In the middle of it all, she spun, leaped, and twirled, while the universe flowed around her.
Sasami watched, wonderstruck.
She'd seen dances before, back home.
Long, long ago, when she'd...
The dancers had.... how had it been?
Confusing patterns. Gestures she couldn't understand. Words they thought she didn't know. Stepping around in silly ways, like she'd been taught not to. Like they were now teaching her to.
And Ayeka had been there, and she'd lost sight of her Onee-sama in the crowd, and...
...as she'd stumbled through the couples, looking, looking, she'd...
Just for a moment, she'd seen the beauty.
Just for a moment, she'd *understood*.
Something about feeling, and motion, and the heart.
...One of the simple mysteries, when you're a child.
One of those things that lasts only for a moment, leaving only the feeling behind...
...it wasn't that she understood. Perhaps she wouldn't...
...but perhaps the dancer did.
The dancer's moves were fluid. Sparing. Doing only what needed to be done.
The dancer was silent. No music, no beat. Dancing to the rhythm.
Never its slave, though. Never its slave.
Moving to a rhythm of... the heart?
Or the soul?
Moving to feelings never spoken, never said.
But known, and understood.
Feelings she would come to understand.
Feelings she did understand.
But true, all the same.
The dancer swept her ballgown around her...
The woman curtsied deeply...
...then looked up.
And Sasami slowly stopped.
Realising that perhaps, some things, some feelings, were meant to be secret.
That maybe the dance had been private. For the dancer alone.
Then the woman smiled. 'Well. It's been a long time since I had an audience.'
'R-really?' Sasami said.
'Far too long...' the woman said. She smiled again. 'Thank you.'
'Umm... You too,' Sasami said. 'It... it was really beautiful. Thank you.'
'We all need thanks sometimes,' the woman said. 'Even if it doesn't seem like it...'
'This is beautiful...' Sasami whispered, looking around her.
'It is, isn't it?' the woman said. 'You see just how big it is, how old it is... and you know, no matter how long you live, you'll never, *never* see it all... which is why you should see as much as you can...'
'I couldn't do that!' Sasami protested. 'Not without my friends!'
'It's not for everyone,' the woman agreed. 'But it is there to be appreciated...'
'Yeah...' Sasami breathed. 'Like the way the maple leaves fall in autumn...'
'Or standing outside on a cold winter day...' the woman said, grinning. 'And letting the snow fall on you, flake by flake, while the wind whips 'round you...'
She shook her head, grinning. 'Been a long time since I could do that. Getting back into the swing of things, I suppose.'
'You've been... ill?' Sasami asked cautiously.
'...Hurt.' the woman said. 'It... was a deep wound.' Her face curved into a grimace. 'An explosion.'
Sasami looked at her. _Really_ looked, then. 'There was someone else...' Not a question, not a fact, but a /knowing/. The way she moved, the way she carried herself... the way she'd danced...
'My... partner.' the woman said.
'What happened to him?'
'There were no _physical_ scars...' the woman said.
Sasami shuddered. That left a lot unsaid.
As she knew.
The woman sighed. 'No physical scars. But it's never that simple.'
'No,' Sasami murmured. 'It never is.'
'No,' the woman agreed. 'Actions are hard to live with. Consequences are harder... and people are hardest of all.'
'But if we don't _try_... why bother with anyone? We have to at least _try_...'
'That's why they're also the easiest... _because_ we try. Because we try to reach out to someone else. Because we're capable of trying.' The woman smiled again. 'Everybody needs _somebody_... though there was this hermit I heard about once, but the point still holds.'
Her face darkened. 'Sometimes we need others as objects... and _that_ is a very, very dangerous thing.'
Sasami shuddered, remembering the cold, and the snow, and the emerald light...
'Ssshh. It's all right. It's all right...' Security. Warmth. Somewhere you can always return to. Someone who'll be there, even in the darkest nights.
Sasami raised her head.
Pale eyes. Pale hair. A smile that shone like the stars.
'Who are you?'
'Myself. With one other.'
'_What_ are you?'
'A Ship who is only half a Ship. A Ship of Time.'
'Ship?' Sasami whispered. 'Tsunami?'
'No. Not that one. I and mine... we were not at the Beginning. We never were... We are simply Ships.'
Sasami pulled herself away. 'You know Tsunami?'
'Not much.' The woman's pale eyes locked on her. 'But you know more.'
'Who _are_ you?'
'Who do you think I am?'
'Enigmatic, for one thing.' Sasami observed.
'Bad habit. It rubbed off a friend.'
The woman grinned. 'Got it in one. Long-term couples do get very similar over time...'
'So is _he_...?'
'Ah. Now _there's_ a question. No, he isn't a Ship. I doubt even he knows what he is, these days...'
Sasami frowned. That reminded her of someone...
The woman peered at her. 'Tsunami... Would I be right in thinking you're from the Juraian Empire?'
Sasami nodded. 'I'm from Jurai.'
The woman curtsied. 'Then... I am honoured to meet you, Lady of Jurai.'
Sasami genuflected greetings. 'I am honoured to meet you, Lady of Time.'
The woman shook her head. 'No. Not that. Just 'Lady', please.'
'A-all right.' Sasami said, apologetically.
'It's not you,' the woman said. 'The Lords of Time are... gone, now, and their titles were never ours...'
'There _were_ Lords of Time?' Sasami gasped.
The Lady nodded. 'Not _entirely_ gone, though. There are one or two who still remember...'
'The universe _does_ have a lot of amazing things... Like the Ships of Jurai... living Ships who bond to a living partner.' The Lady smiled wistfully. 'Like us, yet not like. Cousins, of a kind. Distant relatives... but sometimes, distant relatives are the only ones you have left...'
Sasami looked at the Lady again. Into her eyes.
'How about your friends?'
'They...' The Lady paused. 'They needed a rest. A holiday. They've been through a lot themselves...' She looked at Sasami again. 'Haii...? I thought so.'
'...There is one thing...'
'My daughter is ...still young, by our reckoning. She's still learning. About herself, about her friends, about what she can do. Be gentle with her. With her friends.'
The Lady drew her gown in around herself. 'Compassion.'
'Compassion?' Sasami whispered.
'Be gentle to her... Please.'
And then she woke up.
A dream. A true dream.
'Compassion...?' she whispered again.
'Go...ahh...don't...no...please...don't leave me... please... don't...'
Whispered in sleep. Lost in dreams.
'Ayeka-sama?' Sasami whispered.
Dreaming. *That* dream.
The bad dream.
Alone. Alone for so long.
Don't abandon her.
She laid her hand on her sister's shoulder, moved it against her hair, stroking it gently.
You're not alone, Onee-sama.
Even... even when you found out, you stayed with me.
Always there. Always there...
My big sister.
Slowly, Ayeka's breathing slowed. Calmed. Settled into the patterns of a restful sleep.
'Be gentle with her...'
Still learning about herself. About her friends.
Unsure of who she is...
'I will.' she told the dream. 'I will.'
He sat on the beach, watching the sun come up.
It's all over.
It must be.
Not even _they_ would prolong a wedding _that_ long... would they?
No... their parents would _definitely_ not be happy.
And when one wields a very sharp katana...
No possible way he could get there on time. No way he could...
...what? Declare his love?
What would be the point?
They had each other, and after... after what had happened, they _knew_ it.
And what kind of _coward_ would keep sneaking back into her bed in the shape of a baby black pig? Especially since... Ranma knew.
Oh, he knew what kind of coward. The coward unable to tell the girl he loved how he felt, because he kept stuttering, and fumbling, and Ranma kept interfering and calling himn 'P-chan', and...
Oh, what was the point?
He'd lost even before it had begun. They were in love, no matter how much they protested. Ranma had won a fight that no-one but he had even known was being fought.
And once... this once, he so wanted to win, but there was nothing he could do...
If only he'd got the words out.
If only he'd told her that he loved her.
If only he hadn't been afraid of what she'd say.
Afraid of the words that would break his heart in two.
Would that have changed anything?
Would he have won?
Or would it have broken Akane's heart?
(and his too, the dark voice inside whispers.)
Face it, Hibiki. The better man won. Again.
And you know it.
'HEY!! WATCH IT WITH THAT THING!!'
Ryouga Hibiki looked up.
A short black-haired girl (Skull? Skully? Something like that..) was standing over him, furious as...
He realised he was glowing black.
The Shi-Shi Hokendan Dan. The depression attack.
Ki-blast powered by the wielder's depre...
He'd nearly unleashed it. Nearly set it loose.
Nearly... lost control.
'_Honestly_. Sometimes I don't know why the Hell you guys play around with those things...'
'Go ahead. Doesn't matter...' He stared down. It didn't matter. He'd almost lost control of it. Nearly hurt innocent people.
What martial artist hurt innocent people? Let themselves go to the point where they _would?_
He wasn't a martial artist. He wasn't brave, or courageous. Not where it mattered. He'd almost lost control, lost in selfish depression.
He was nothing.
'HEY!! QUIT IT WITH THAT!'
And it was all his-
'What was _that_ for?!' Ryouga yelled, wiping the soot off his face.
'Well, I dunno about you, but _I_ don't wanna get blasted back home just yet!' the girl yelled back at him. 'Sheesh. You try to help someone...'
'HELP!? I nearly had my face blown off!' Ryouga yelled.
'Hey, I was _trying_ to help!' the girl pouted.
Mentally, a small part of Ryouga clicked its fingers. _Skuld._ That was it.
Which wasn't much help _now_, he had to admit...
Wait. Skuld. Megami.
He'd had enough time to think about it. Problem was, he wasn't _there_ for long enough to ask... And when he _did_... How do you tell someone you turn into a pig and need help to break the curse? Especially attractive women you barely know...
Admittedly, starting an argument with one wasn't the _best_ way to start talking...
'Then... I demand that you avenge yourself on me for rejecting your help.'
Skuld blinked. 'You _what?!_'
'Avenge yourself. On me. For daring to insult you by refusing your aid. Please.'
Skuld _stared_ at him. 'The Skuld Bomb didn't blow your brains out or something, did it? 'Cause that is the _stupidest_ thing I've heard in ages! Well, that and 'I want a Megami like you to be with me always'... wait, why am I telling you?'
'The ways of Megami are not for mortal man to know,' Ryouga said portentiously.
'Kami-sama, anyway...' Skuld muttered under her breath. 'Why he had to come up with that line...' She stared at him again. 'You _sure_ about this?'
'You asked...' Skuld muttered.
'SKULD BOMB AWAY!!!!'
When the smoke cleared...
'What was _that_?!'
'What you asked for.'
'But... But where was the magic? The spells? The blasts of ki?' Inwardly, Ryouga noted he was _pleading_ to be blasted, and winced. He _hated_ stooping this low...
Skuld thought about it. 'Well, if you're _that_ desperate... Wait, are you getting off on this?'
Ryouga vacillated. Lie, and get blasted? Or tell the truth, and get blasted? 'Umm.. No.'
'Okay... YOU BIG DUMMY!!!'
Light flared from her hand.
When it faded, the word 'DUMMY' was stamped in large bold letters across Ryouga's face.
'Ow. That... That was it?'
'Listen, I'm a Megami Second Class, Type One, Limited.' Skuld said huffily. 'What'd you expect, lightning bolts?!' She looked at him suspiciously. 'You_are_ getting off on this...'
'No... No.. it's.. it's...' Ryouga's self defense mechanisms noted that Skuld had brought out another Skuld Bomb, and warned him to hurry up before he - and they - found out what it was like to live with the Megami permanently. _Now._
Fortunately, one of the natural abilities of the Megami is the ability to understand teenage babble.
Which, unfortunately enough, was when a thought hit Ryouga.
What, exactly, was the point?
He'd be free of the pig... but what did that matter?
He had _nothing_.
The love of his life was gone.
His mission of honour upon Ranma... that was gone. _He_ was with Akane, had won her heart... and he couldn't bear to break that heart. Not now...
His Art, his strength and skill... he was losing control of that, too.
And he couldn't even find his way home.
What was _left?_
'Oh no...' Skuld muttered. 'Hey! Hey, can you hear me? Hey, snap out of it!'
She closed her eyes. 'Onee-sama is not going to be happy about this...'
'Ugggghhh.... Am I in Heaven?'
'No. Not unless the entry requirements got lowered... YOU IDIOT!! WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?!' Skuld shrieked. 'You could have killed *everyone*!!'
'Uh...' Ryouga stammered. 'Um...'
'_Honestly..._' Skuld said. She shook her head. 'Onee-sama would know how to handle this...' She pulled a sheaf of paper out and started flicking through it.
'Um... what are you doing?'
'Trying to stop you blowing everyone up, is what...' Skuld turned another page and winced. 'Oooh, nasty.'
'What? What is it?'
'See this?' Skuld's finger stabbed at a line on the page. Ryouga tried to read it, but couldn't. It seemed to be...
Skuld slipped a pair of glasses on. 'This line of code _here's_ basically an instruction to the Ultimate Force. You'll get wherever you want to go... but never in time.'
'Most people go from A to B.' Skuld said, peering over her glasses. 'You go from A to # to ^ to 3 to f to S to B.'
'Yes...?' Ryouga said slowly.
Skuld frowned. 'There's been a recent change to the code. Close proximity to temporal energies, I think... You're starting to wander in time.'
'Yup. Don't know how it happened, but... Now, you're wandering through time as well as space. The old code's still in operation, so you'll still eventually end up where, but not quite _when_...' Skuld looked up. 'In other words... you're the very first human time machine. How's it feel?'
'Oh, Kami-sama...' Ryouga moaned.
He spun round. 'Wait... You said code. What sort of code?'
'Computer code. Naturally.' Skuld sniffed, as if to suggest that anyone who didn't know _that_ was an idiot. 'And since it's an instruction to the Ultimate Force itself, it's permanent.'
Ryouga sank deeper into the sand. 'Ohhhh....'
'Of course, there're at least two ways I know of to stop it... You could make a wish...' Skuld frowned, flicking through the sheaf of papers. 'But you're on the backlog, so yours comes up in another ten years...'
'Or...?' Ryouga said hesitantly.
'Or the Ultimate Force could shut down.' Skuld's frown darkened. 'And unless you _really_ wanna put the Universe in danger of destruction...'
I'm a threat.
I'm a threat to everyone around me.
I'm a threat to the Universe.
I'm on the wish backlog...
'What _is_ that?!' Ryouga asked.
'This?' Skuld said, pointing to the sheaf of papers. 'It's your file. Asked our temps to fax it down...'
File? Temps? Fax?
Oh God. He couldn't even escape _there_. They had his _file_...
He couldn't even _die_ in peace.
'God_dess._' Skuld corrected primly. 'Lessee... Pig curse. Yuckyuckyuck...' She frowned again. 'Authorial Force?'
Ryouga blinked. 'Authorial Force?'
'Subsystem of the main computer. Like the Ultimate Force, apparently... Oh, _that's_ why Izzy doesn't want to change back...' She peered closely at the code, then closed the file.
'Want the good news, or the bad news?'
Ryouga really, _really_ needed some good news. However, if he got the bad news second... hello, depression. 'Bad news.'
'Bad news is... you're always gonna be cursed.'
Deeper into the sand we go...
'Good news is... you can be cured of turning into a pig.'
'_What?!_' Ryouga stuck a finger in his ear to clear it out. 'Sorry, _what_ did you say?'
'You're always gonna be cursed... and you can be cured.' Skuld grimaced. 'Sorry. Lemme correct that. You can be cured of being a pig - yuck! - but you'll end up cursed again... but not necessarily with being a pig.'
Always lost. In space and time.
Always without Akane.
Without his honour...
Without his _Art..._
Nothing at all...
Skuld blinked. 'Wait a minute, wait a minute...' She flicked through the file again. 'They didn't. They _didn't_... BWAHAHAHAHA!!!'
'What's so funny?' Ryouga mumbled. Probably found out about Akane... What else could it be? The Megami probably used his life for All-Eternity Comic Relief... as the star turn.
'They've only gone and listed you as a time machine...' Skuld said, grinning her head off.
'SO...' Skuld took a deep breath. 'We're the Megami of Time, but time _travellers_ come under Demon Central's protocols... Kami-sama laid down the protocol before we were born,' she explained to Ryouga's increasing incomprehension. 'Onee-sama tried to get it changed, but Kami-sama said 'uh-uh'. Why he wanted _that_... But time _machines_...'
'So... we _could_ get it changed, and call up a demon to try and nab you - yuck! - or...' Skuld looked around conspiratorially. 'We could leave it as it is.'
Ryouga considered this. Summon up a demon, or leave it as it is.
His luck couldn't get any _worse_, could it?
Fine. If the Megami wanted to call him a time machine for the rest of his existance, so be it.
He told Skuld.
Skuld _beamed_. 'Brilliant! Wait 'till I tell my sisters!'
'What's _brilliant_ about it? Another joke for the Megami water cooler?!'
'No... As a time machine, you're under _our_ jurisdiction.'
'Us - Megami of Time. You - Time Machine.' Skuld said, _very_ slowly, as if talking to a baby. 'You - we defend and generally stick up for. We - your patron goddesses. Understand?'
Skuld closed the file. ' 'Course, only if it doesn't override an existing contract...'
Ryouga considered this.
He'd lost everything. _Everything_.
And he now had three wouldbe patron Megami.
One of who could barely even do magic.
His life was a hellhole.
He had nothing left in life.
Except practicing his languages, geography and history.
But he was a _fighter._ What was the use of that?
Wait. Patron Megami. Fighter.
Fighter in their cause.
_Cause_. A cause. Their cause.
Championing their cause.
The cause of Time.
He rolled the phrase around in his head.
Mm. Maybe it'd grow on him.
'So? Whaddya say?' Skuld said eagerly.
Ryouga thought about it.
Why not? Why not, indeed?
'Yes. Why not?'
'YEEEEEESSSSS!!!!!' Skuld punched the air in excitement.
'So... err... what now?'
'Now?' Skuld blinked. 'Now we celebrate. With ice cream.'
She strode off in the direction of the hotel.
Ryouga picked himself up off the beach, and started to follow her.
There were worse causes, he reflected.
To his surprise, he found he was smiling.
'Ohhh. Brilliant. Brilliant. What _happened_ last night?'
Jack took in his surroundings.
It wasn't his bed. For that matter, it wasn't his bedroom.
From the kitsch value of the furnishings, a hotel.
Definitely a hotel.
Sigh. Here we go again. Wake up confused and dazed in a hotel bedroom, with no idea of what happened last night.
Another wonderful day in the life of Jack Ryder, investigative reporter.
Although he had a damn good idea what _had_ happened last night.
He checked the bed. No-one there. No-one had been there, either. That was a relief.
Although who in their right mind-
Stop right there.
He'd hate to think he'd woken up in someone _else's_ room
*Still wanna spend the nights alone, Jackie boy?*
He grinned humourlessly. *Not alone. Never alone.*
There was a note on the bedside table.
Familiar handwriting. As familiar as his own.
'All work and no play makes Jack a crazy boy...' he read. 'Sheesh. Why don't I just change my name to Dan Quayle, get it over with...'
That reminded him. That assignment he'd been working on-
Wait. If he was in a hotel bedroom who-knew-where...
He crawled out and opened the curtains.
His eyes widened.
This place was _big_.
For starters, there was an Olympic-sized swimming pool... directly beneath his window.
Then there were the palm trees...
_Tacky. Probably _real_, but still tacky..._
_Oh no. Oh no._
...and the ocean.
Jack closed his eyes.
He wasn't in New York any more.
And he had the sneaking suspicion that if he went down to the beach, and walked around, all he'd find would be more ocean.
Stranded on a desert island...
...because someone decided he needed a holiday.
There might be concerns for his sanity - might even be true (they didn't know _how_ true) - but this?
A holiday cure?
And there was something else...
Jack shook his head. It'd come back...
Soon, he hoped.
Oh yeah. Someone was gonna pay big time for this.
Problem was, he'd probably enjoy it.
*Now that's unfair, Jackie-boy.*
*Unfair? Listen, have you _seen_ the way things are going? Check that, you're probably out there dancing in the streets... The truth needs to get out, _now_ more than ever.*
*And what happens when you crack, Jack? Make a new plan, Stan? Just listen to me...*
He grinned. *Yeah, I know. But _someone_ has to bring it to light...*
*Light and darkness, darkness and light, sane-crazy, crazy-sane, here we go again, jiggidy jig*
*Someone has to bring it to light... The people don't have a right to know, they _have_ to know...*
*What about me, Jackie-boy? You gonna let that little piece of madness out? Out and about, for the almighty public to see... ?*
*No. Not yet.*
*Needtoknow. Who needs to know? Or needs to go?*
*You were saying?*
*Who was saying? This isn't me, it's you.*
*But we're one and the same...*
*Never one, never the same. Going round the bend, Jack. Better let it out...*
Something began to sink in.
Check the clothes.
On the floor.
Wallet. Money - say 20 dollars, credit card... but no passport.
Unless he was in the USA or Canada...
No-one would be that insa-
Check. He knew just who'd be that insane.
No way off. No way out. Until he decides.
As he decided to bring you here.
With everyone else.
Like the woman who'd been floating three feet above the pool.
Not just any desert island, but an island with _supertypes._
And, by extension, massive collateral damage.
Make sure of this.
Who would open a holiday resort for supertypes?
And why? Why would anyone do that? It wasn't as if they paid more for saving the world.
He laughed humourlessly.
A large amount of power amassed in one place.
Whomever was doing this _could_ be altruistic, and simply act out of a desire to help others.
Even supertypes needed a break now and again, after all.
Jack doubted it, though.
_Was_ there a deeper plan behind all this? A deeper Truth?
Was that why he'd been brought here?
The truth is out there. And in here.
Beware. Beware, Jack...
Beware the Creeper.
Alone in his head. A rarity, but something Jack Ryder found a relief anyway...
So. He'd been brought here for a holiday?
He laughed silently. Oh yeah. Really perceptive, Jack. Some reporter you'd make...
Something else is going on.
He had to admire the audacity of the idea. Dangle what Ryder wants more than anything else in front of him, and watch him go.
'All right.' he whispered. 'If you think this truth's important enough... let's do it.'
Deep in his mind...
...and utterly insane.
A thing sculpted by madness, given flesh by insanity.
The laughter of the only thing that kept Jack Ryder sane.
The laughter of the voice in his mind.
The laughter of the Creeper.
Copyright 2001 Imran Inayat