They stood together at the end of it all, in a pool of black light, watching the last of the stars fade. What had begun in fire and fury – an explosion so massive that it had echoed for billions of years – was ending with little but a sigh. Just dust, drifting away like litter floating forgotten on an ebb tide. They didn't speak aloud – the sound would never have carried, and they had no need for voices anyway. They spoke within each other, as they waited to see whether they too would dissolve and drift away.
The end, then.
Yes, the end. A beat. Are you afraid, Sapphire?
I'm not sure. Are you?
I'm not sure either. Fear is... not unknown to me. It feels uncomfortable. Alien. I don't think that it's what I'm feeling now.
Interest. Her head cocked on one side, as she attempted to analyse her thoughts and feelings – in so much as she had feelings. Concern. What comes next?
You can't see?
I see... Her eyes glowed blue, the brightest light that could be seen anywhere in the skies. Most colour was gone now, and somehow even Steel's grey suit had a gaudy brilliance about it, set against the paling universe. I see endings, but also... beginnings? No, not beginnings, exactly. I don't understand, Steel. It's like an end that isn't an end at all; and yet is.
Show me. He took her hand, his fingers closing around hers, bridging the gap between them. The contact crackled in her mind, and in his. He saw something of what she was seeing then – dust and dying fires, drifting out into a vast expanse of nothingness. Reality itself washing away into the unimaginable question of what lay beyond. And then... coming back?
Time going backward, he mused, and felt her question, her understanding and her wonder, all brushing at once through the edges of his mind. Perhaps, when it finishes, it has nowhere else to go but back on itself. Where else is there at the end of everything?
The universe is to form itself again, but backwards? Her eyes ceased to glow, and she looked out upon the stars with her normal vision. A clever trick. We should have known that our old enemy wouldn't give in so easily.
Quite. In theory, the end of the universe should have given us a sort of victory, even over Time.
So has it won, then? She stared out to where the dust motes, that had once been stars and worlds and systems, were vanishing beyond their sight. We can't ever beat it, can we. Not if it's going to come back even from after the end of it all.
You forget, Sapphire. His hand was still holding hers, and she felt a gentle pressure, making her turn to look toward him. If there is no end – or, rather, if the end is not truly the end – then it's not over, is it. There can be no winner or loser if the battle merely continues.
And if Time is merely to go backward; if it's all going to play itself out again...
... if not necessarily in quite the same way...
... then we shall be here again too.
Precisely. He smiled his taut, thin-lipped little smile. You and I, Sapphire. Always.
Her own lips quirked upward at that. Some might call that a sentence.
Perhaps it is. They could feel it now – the end – a tugging within and without of them, beginning to pull them out into the trailing dust. It didn't hurt. It felt, thought Sapphire, rather like the pull of an insistent but elusive memory in the back of the mind, and yet flooding throughout her body, taking her weight, her mass, her form. She wasn't sure when her hand lost its hold upon Steel's. Perhaps it never did.
The end, she thought, as she floated out into the dust – as she became dust, and then became nothing at all. Somewhere within the nothingness, Steel's own fading consciousness answered her.
And as eternity consumed them, Sapphire smiled to herself with lips that she no longer possessed, and waited to feel his presence beside her once again. Waited for rebirth. Waited for battle to be rejoined.