A Ranma ½ / Tenchi Muyo! crossover story
by Brian Randall
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ belongs to Rumiko Takahashi and Viz Communications. Tenchi Muyo! belongs to Hitoshi Okuda and Pioneer LDC.
Additional credits: Takada Yuuzou and Kodansha (3x3 Eyes), Takada Yuuzou and A.D. Vision (Bannou Bunka Nekomusume Nuku-Nuku), and Tatsuya Egawa (Golden Boy).
Notes: Diverges from Ranma after volume 24, continuation for OAV 2 in the Tenchi universe (well, one of them). Nuku Nuku is from the OAVs, not TV. Sailor Moon occurs, well, at some point in the series, but it's something of an alt anyway. 3x3 Eyes diverges just before OAV2. This fic uses the bizarrely vague 'Pick One!' scenario. Enjoy.
Kintaro studied the girl in his viewscreen, glancing for a moment at the relayed data from the other GP craft on the reaver's trajectories. Flipping a switch, he raised the channel security, so that no others could listen in. "Yep," he said, nodding. "Kohito's fine, according to Maintainer Shiname."
"Are you sure?" the girl asked anxiously.
Kintaro smirked. "He's just resting — but try not to tell anyone. This information is classified until the investigation is over." Turning his attention back to the monitor that showed the reaver's trajectories, he raised an eyebrow as the three objects disappeared, whatever force that had caused them to vanish also disrupting communications for a moment.
"… understand," the girl said, nodding as the static cleared. "I won't tell anyone but Washuu-sensei. Is that okay?"
"Um, I sure hope so," Kintaro said, grinning. "Thanks for your help with the reavers."
"And thank you for the help of the Galaxy Police," Ami said, bowing her head slightly. "Are more ships going to be coming soon? Washuu-sensei said she wanted to know about that, if there are."
"I'm not sure," Kintaro admitted, scratching the back of his head nervously. "If I find out more, I'll tell you, though."
"Thank you. Thank you very much," the girl said again, bowing her head before the connection terminated.
Kintaro sighed, and tapped a finger against Yukinojo's console. "Hey," he said, as the computer's 'face' emerged. "I'm going to check outside the ship for anything that's damaged."
"Understood," the computer returned. "I will monitor for incoming messages through Shizu-oh."
After the last of the Home Fleet passed through the Gate, Tenchi allowed it to shut, nearly sagging with relief. The Tenchi-ken had been gripped tightly enough to leave indentations in his palm, and he knew — this time — how much of the power that had gone into the attempt was his, and how much had been Tsunami's. And far too little of the power that had gone into it was his own.
Ryouko and Ayeka watched closely, not rushing to his side, lest he appear weak before the court. He recovered himself, standing up straight, and glanced out the viewports at Jurai, the Home Fleet and all of the Galaxy Police transports surrounding the Throne to every side.
Turning his back to the screens, Tenchi strode to the massive seat beneath the Throne, and carefully lowered himself into it. "Proceed to Jurai," he said tiredly. Gripping the Tenchi-ken tightly, he asked the tree to open a communication link with the leader of the Galaxy Police convoy.
She seemed moderately surprised to see him, and saluted smartly. "Sir?" she asked. "Do you require anything of me?"
"I just wanted to thank you," he explained, offering a weak smile. "Without your help, this matter would have likely been much worse. So, again, thank you."
The woman nodded her head, smiling. "Always a pleasure to help—"
Tenchi reeled suddenly, the connection between the Tenchi-ken and the Throne coming violently active, buzzing an angry warning into the back of his head. He stood up straight, wincing, as more communication links activated in the air surrounding the Galaxy Policewoman's image.
All of them regarded Tenchi with apprehension, and the Court slowly increased the volume of its questioning murmurs. Tenchi wobbled on his feet, one hand gripping the arm of the seat, trying to sort out the message he was receiving from the Throne. "The reavers on Earth… have destroyed the orbital platform," he said slowly.
Each of the nineteen Juraian captains of Home Fleet vessels bowed their heads. "According to what Shizu-oh has relayed to the Throne," Tenchi said quietly. "Those remaining on Earth are in substantially more danger than we thought."
"What can we do?" Yohito asked, shaking his head, his distress visible across the communication link. "That's a seven-day journey, at best. Can you open another Gate, Tenchi-sama?"
"No," Ayeka answered flatly, before Tenchi could open his mouth. "Another Gate cannot be risked at this time."
"There is, however, another possibility," Karau interjected, stepping away from the Court. "Your Eminence, if I could speak alone with you for a moment?"
Tenchi frowned at Karau, then directed his gaze to Yohito. "You want to go back to Earth?" he asked.
Yohito nodded quickly. "I wish to honor my brother."
Turning his attention back to Karau, Tenchi asked, "Would you be opposed to Yohito's involvement in this meeting?"
Karau pursed his lips thoughtfully studying the captain, then shook his head in negation. "I do not find it objectionable, Your Eminence."
Yohito bowed his head. "I will take care of my passengers, Masaki-sama, and then join you, if you find this acceptable."
Tired, and upset at the limits on his powers and control, Tenchi merely nodded. "Make it so," he said, rubbing at the bridge of his nose as he settled back into his seat.
Away from the Court, and attended — as always — by Ayeka and Ryouko, Tenchi sat at the head of the table in one of the Throne's smaller meeting rooms. Yohito and Karau sat at opposite sides of the table, regarding him levelly.
Ayeka broke the uncomfortable silence. "Karau-san… what is it that you believe that you can provide that could make a difference, here?" she asked carefully.
Karau frowned, glancing at Yohito, and offered, "Perhaps you're familiar with the hyperspace bypasses that rumor says the Laruma have access to?"
Ryouko snorted, rolling her eyes. "That's just a myth — there's no such thing," she grumbled.
Yohito, however, allowed some of the tense worry to drain from his face, and turned to regard Karau curiously. "You're saying there's a way to get there faster?" he asked skeptically.
Karau hedged uncomfortably. "This is a secret of the Laruma, and of Ginraii, and I would not have it shared lightly," he warned.
"What do you want?" Tenchi asked, frowning.
Karau made his face neutral, and explained, "From you, nothing, Tenchi-sama, but from Yohito-san, I would ask merely that he respect Ginraii, and not share the secret I divulge, and to allow my brother to help in your investigation."
"You have my word of honor as a member of the Tatsuki clan," Yohito replied instantly.
A smile played about Karau's lips, and he ducked his head in a nod. "Very well, Yohito-san, though I do not know that you will enjoy what the process requires of you."
"What is it?" Ryouko asked, intrigued. "There are no usable hyperspace bypasses. I would know — I asked Washuu — living things can't survive in them for more than a few minutes."
"You are correct," Karau said, nodding at the woman. "The Ouke-no-ki, as Tsunami has told us, draw their energy from subspace, however, which limits how that power can be used in hyperspace. And, Tsunami has told us that when an Ouke-no-ki is not powerful enough to form a Light Hawk Wing on its own, it may pool its power with the power of other Ouke-no-ki to create them."
"Yes," Yohito said, frowning. "I know this."
"But did you know that the Ouke-no-ki can enter subspace?" Karau asked turning his attention back to Yohito.
"Why would they want to? It's larger than realspace," Yohito objected. "How can you possibly go farther in less time in subspace than you can in hyperspace?"
"By pooling energy. Ginraii uses this ability only when we have to, because the influx of power can harm Ouke-no-ki if one is not careful. But if you were to find my brother, he could take you to the Ginraii fleet that's headed towards Earth. If you join with that fleet, your own Saryu-oh and Genoh's Vidarr would be able to push them through subspace to Earth in less than a day — you would only lose the time it took to meet up with their ships, and they're far slower than yours."
Ryouko blinked, clearly impressed. "Washuu would love to study that," she said, nodding. "I guess you use the Light Hawk Wings as subspace sails, and ride the current? What do you do if it's not going where you want it to go?"
"We ask Tsunami," Karau explained, grinning. "If the cause is just, she listens, and the currents change to suit her desires."
"I'll do it," Yohito said, nodding. "We'll get more ships to Earth, sooner, and I'll be able to investigate my younger brother's accident. Is this acceptable, Your Eminence?"
"I don't see why not," Tenchi allowed, shaking his head. "I wish I could just create a Gateway, but Tsunami said that it would be unhealthy for me to try again. If this works, then I won't have to. Very well then, Yohito. I trust you."
"Thank you," the captain said, rising from his seat and bowing deeply to Tenchi. "By your leave."
"As you will it," the boy dismissed.
Sighing in frustration as Herb slipped — again — Ranma caught the other girl, and growled, "Okay, Herb, this is getting ridiculous. There's at least one hundred meters with no ledges above us, and the moss is so slippery I don't think I could have handled it if I couldn't levitate."
"What would you suggest, then?" Herb asked carefully, trying to twist about enough to see Ranma from her awkward position.
Ranma set Herb on a ledge, and shook her head and sighed. "Climb onto my back, and we'll just go up slow enough we don't make your Phoenix People angry. It's going to be dark soon, and I don't know how well you can see without light."
"You make a solid point," Herb said wearily. "I do not understand how you can climb so far, and not be tired."
"It's just as easy for me to fall up as it is to fall down," Ranma said indifferently. "Levitation is part of me, now."
Herb said nothing for a moment, then nodded, and climbed onto Ranma's back. The girl began to drift upward, sighing once more. Herb stared resolutely at the wall of the mountain before them — no handholds were visible, as Ranma had said.
Ranma was able to control her curse, somehow. Herb had studied long and hard, and while she knew of the cure easily enough, she did not know how to control the curse while she still possessed it. "So," Ranma asked quietly. "Why are you still cursed?"
"The last time I went to Jusenkyou, the pools were dry. When I returned again, they had flooded. Mint and Lime were sent to wait there until the pools returned to normal, and then inform me so that I could cure myself," Herb offered.
Ranma snorted, shaking her head, and muttered, "They must have forgotten, or taken their time getting there — the springs looked pretty normal when I was there yesterday."
"I told them to tell me when the springs changed," Herb muttered, anger entering her voice. "They must have returned to normal before Lime and Mint arrived."
"Oh, and then, they didn't see the change," Ranma said, nodding slightly. "I guess that explains that. I can take you there for the cure, sometime, if you need it."
Herb made a pleased noise. "I would be in your debt," she said. "I had spent my time in the Musk library trying to find a way to control a curse that one could not readily cure, but to no avail. Tell me, Ranma, how is it that you control your own curse?"
Ranma froze, stiffening enough that Herb could feel it from her position.
"Ah, if you do not wish to speak of it, I will not press," she offered hurriedly.
Shaking her head, Ranma relaxed slightly, and increased their upward pace slightly. "No, that's not quite it…. It's that I'm not really cursed, anymore. I mean… like you said, I ain't entirely human anymore."
"You do carry the blood of demons?" Herb asked quietly. She did not want to upset Ranma, but her curiosity needed to be satisfied.
"Masu aren't demons," Ranma said indifferently. "They're… they're from space, or something. I asked Washuu about it, once, and she explained that Masu are, um, living anti-matter, or something like that. I didn't understand much of what she said."
"The woman is very wise," Herb observed. "I do not entirely understand, but would guess that she speaks of the cessation of all things. That would indeed be the blood of demons." Ranma stiffened again, more slowly this time. Carefully choosing her words, Herb added, "It speaks well for your spirit that you do not allow the destructive tendencies to control you, and instead use that power to protect."
Ranma relaxed, then tried to turn, and look Herb in the eye. "Is that what it's like for you, being part dragon?" she asked.
"Similar," Herb said, nodding. "I can only guess, for I do not know what it is to live without the influence of my heritage, but I sometimes know that were I not to have the blood I did, I would act differently."
"So it makes you do things differently, that you wouldn't otherwise do," Ranma mused, straightening out to face the cliff wall again. "I guess I sometimes get that," she said.
"What urges do you resist?" Herb asked, intrigued.
"I don't know," Ranma confessed. "Mostly I just want to protect Washuu, and Tsunami," she said, somewhat evasively.
Herb nodded, accepting that answer. There was likely more to it, but she would not be the one to provoke Ranma further. Instead she leant back slightly, looking upward. "The mountain grows more difficult," she observed, what few ledges were still visible in the waning light were only centimeters wide, if that.
"I get the feeling that your friends chose this mountain for a reason," Ranma grumped. "It's not supposed to be climbed."
"Then perhaps the truth of the matter is that flight is the only way," Herb muttered. "Then I would have been played for a fool by my own—" She broke off, sighing. "It is not important. We draw near the peak."
Ranma nodded, accelerating slightly. "If this doesn't make them happy, I don't know what will," she surmised. "I see a platform or something, up there. Let's stop at that last ledge, and climb the last few meters, okay?"
"Agreed," Herb said, shivering slightly. Ranma came to a halt, turning to allow Herb to climb off.
That near the peak, the nearly vertical mountain walls gave way to a curved rocky slope, a few fissures in the stone granting solid purchase, as Herb hopped away. Ranma adjusted her sword's position on her sash slightly before leaping onto the wall next to Herb. She smiled at Herb, then jerked her head upward in a nod. Moving together, the pair launched themselves upwards, scrabbling for a moment on a bit of loose shale before the edge of the platform, but arriving atop the level area only a half heartbeat apart.
The platform itself was cobbled, all of the stones rounded and raised. There were no rails, and though the majority of the cobbles were gray, the outer border of the area was lined in green, yellow stones weaving subtle patterns through the entire length. Easily two hundred meters across, the center of the courtyard was cobbled in red and yellow — no, not yellow stones, Herb realized. Gold. The red and gold stones were lain in the pattern of a phoenix, the points of the lowest seven pinions gold, each set with a single sparkling ruby the size of Herb's thumb. The lone visible eye of the creature was a jewel the size of one of her fists in her current form.
Both Ranma and Herb stared at the mosaic for a moment before Herb forced down her awe at the display enough to look upward. Standing above the head of the phoenix in the stone, and flanked by a number of winged warriors, was the god of the Phoenix People. His robes were an immaculate red with gold trim, his ruby-bright sun-golden eyes fixed on Herb and Ranma. A pair of massive feathered wings rustled behind him, the arc of the folded appendages rising over his shoulders, while the outer edges jutted out at his sides. Borne in each of hands was a pair of short staves, one topped with a ring, and one with a crescent-shaped blade.
"Congratulations," he said, his voice carrying across the distance as though he were standing only centimeters away. Herb winced, and did her best to stand proud, while Ranma allowed her jaw to drop slightly, impressed with the display. "We did not expect that any could surmount our peak, but you have." He frowned, studying Herb closely. "Of course. We see now that you are of the dragon."
The god's mouth twitched upwards in a small smile. "You are, at best, a pale imitation of us, Musk." His eyes wandered across Herb's damp white robes and golden armor for a heartbeat before they locked onto her own eyes. "But you amuse us, and for that, you will not be destroyed." His eyes flicked over to Ranma, and in a slightly less amused voice, he said, "Though you are not known to us, and are incidental."
Turning his attention back to Herb, the god concluded, "Speak then your name, Musk, and any one request that you have."
Ranma frowned, crossing her arms over her chest. "He's going to want to do it the hard way," she hissed to Herb. "Why do they always want to do it the hard way?"
After replacing the robe he had lost to a reaver in the battle, Mousse wandered about the Amazon encampment, one slow footstep before the other. A thin stream of water ran from his bangs, dripping across the lenses of his glasses. The ground beneath his feet squelched softly, mud not strewn with hay or gravel to lend it some resistance to being churned into a sticky mess.
Raising his eyes, and ignoring the water on his glasses, he peered about the village. The village he had grown up in. With Shampoo.
It was a far cry from the way he remembered it, though, with all the children gone. The women standing about were more tense, offering him only a terse nod instead of the tradition of asking after his mother. His mother, who had vanished with the children that had been evacuated. He tried not to dwell on that, turning his thoughts instead to the girl who he had given his heart to, so long ago.
She, of course, had vanished a few days before Ranma had supposedly left, and though Mousse knew the reason, it still shocked him that Ranma had managed to do it. Ranma seemed to have a near aversion to touching girls, some days, and yet he had frozen Shampoo with the shiatsu spots he had learned from Cologne. That wasn't nearly as impressive as the fact that he had managed to get her — as a cat, the form which terrified Ranma so — into Akane's suitcase without the girl actually knowing that it had even been done. In Ranma's desperation, he had saved three girls. All Mousse had ever managed to do with his desperation was make Shampoo angry.
Stopping beneath the eaves of a hut near the center of the village, Mousse spied the blurry form of a few girls sitting beneath a large awning, talking quietly. He leant against the wall of the lodging, raising his hands and inspected them closely. The words were nothing new to him, but Ranma had actually cared enough about Shampoo to see that she was safe. Mousse wondered if he ever could have made his hands release Shampoo, the way Ranma had.
The other part of that saying, if Mousse remembered it correctly, was that if he couldn't let her go, then… then he didn't really ever love her at all. "Shit," he swore softly, pushing himself away from the hut, and wandering back through the outer edges of the village again.
That was an even less welcome thought, despite the reality of the situation.
The evidence was there, as little as he wanted to acknowledge it. He wandered aimlessly, feet finding purchase in the mud, his thoughts slipping far more easily. "Why?" he mumbled to himself. "Why do I figure this out now?"
A wall entered his field of vision, distorted by the water across his lenses. Blinking he raised his head, and glanced toward the door in the wall nearest him. A heavy wind blew at that moment, pushing a sudden load of water off of the roof onto him.
Cold water. Of course, it did nothing to him… not anymore. But he didn't want to think about it regardless. Sighing, he stepped into the door, shaking his head to dislodge some of the moisture. "Hello?" he asked, removing his glasses to clean and dry them with a handkerchief kept within his robes. "Anyone here?"
A soft mumble answered him, too faint for even his hearing — heightened through years of training to compensate his weak vision — to completely make out. Hurriedly putting his glasses on, he squinted at the source of the noise, asking, "Did someone say something?"
Peering about the darkened room revealed a pair of forms — one resting on a cot, apparently asleep, the other sitting on a chair, slumped over and asleep. Both of them were familiar to him — the sleeping blonde in the chair was Haruka, and the girl on the cot… was Minako.
"Oh," he said quietly, scratching his head nervously.
And that made him wonder further. What was it about Minako, anyway?
The darkness of the neighboring healer's hut was oddly comforting, Ryu's steady breathing letting Makoto know that he still lived. The depth of his wound — and his final words before he fell unconscious — worried her endlessly. But Usagi and the other young woman were able to seal the bloody gash and purge whatever the reaver had left inside him.
Now he slept, as he had since his wounds had been mended, only a few hours ago. But his color was better, and Makoto knew he was going to be okay. More importantly, she remembered his final words, and all that they had suggested.
Climbing from the wooden chair, she sat on the floor near his cot, sighing quietly, and leant against it, resting her head on his slumbering chest. "Ryu-chan," she murmured tiredly. "You're going to be okay, and I'm going to be with you forever."
In the other cot across the room, as Makoto began to doze off, she thought she heard something from Ryouga's cot, but when she roused herself to peer at him, he was still, breathing the long slow breaths of the sleeping. Sighing softly, she leant against Ryu again, and allowed herself to fall asleep.
"So, Amatera Omiki was Serenity," Usagi murmured quietly.
Tsunami nodded in confirmation, smiling pleasantly at the blonde, and the dark-haired Hotaru. "So you're saying that you're the goddess of the people who we're supposed to have come from?" the smaller girl asked curiously.
"From my people, yes," Tsunami said slowly. "But do not think that I am trying to tell you that you must follow me. Amatera broke from Jurai, but I hold her and her kin no ill will."
"Hmm," Usagi mused. "Mamo-chan said that we needed to worry about what happens next — I guess since there's not going to be a Crystal Tokyo like we wanted, we need to ask you, right? Yosho-san said that we were rebels, after all…."
"But you are declared rebels because of Amatera's actions — and, I admit, a failing on my own part. Had I been there…." Sighing, the young woman rubbed at her temples. "Suffice to say that I was not paying as close attention as I should have, but I've no great love of politics. I can, however, order that Jurai accept you and forgive what they may perceive as past transgressions."
"So you can fix it?" Hotaru asked, folding her hands in her lap.
"I certainly hope so," Tsunami said, ducking her head slightly. "I do not think that those who fight here should be punished for what good deeds they do."
"I don't think so either," Usagi said, shaking her head. "But talking about things like this makes my head hurt."
Tsunami giggled quietly. "Very well," she said, smiling. "What would you prefer to talk about?"
Usagi looked distant for a minute. "It's been a long time since I've had a really good meal," she admitted. "I don't like the stuff that the soldiers gave us."
"Well, perhaps something can be done, then," Tsunami suggested. "I believe that I know my way about a kitchen well enough, if someone would be willing to let me use it."
"Can you show me how you cook?" Hotaru asked hesitantly. "I want to learn how to for…." She trailed off, blushing slightly. "Well, I want to learn how to cook, too."
Tsunami smiled widely, nodding at Hotaru. "I can certainly try!" she said happily.
In the dark void somewhere beneath Tokimi's hall, Serenity, once Amatera Omiki, moved about. There were places where the distance between the realms ran thin, and though she was not allowed to cross over, sometimes certain influences could be exerted.
Her form was the same form she'd worn when Tokimi had stripped the flesh from her, and declared her to be the first of those she wished to elevate. The dream, then, shared between the two of them, was to create a perfect world with the powers of Tokimi that Tsunami and Jurai had denied them.
But Tsunami had not meant to deny them, Omiki knew, at least now. "Higurashi," she whispered, calling the threads of memory that Tokimi had bound to that realm up carefully, and examining them. Like fine shimmering cords of silver, they spun a web before her, brief images flashing in the panes. All of the dreams Tokimi had stolen from him. Other memories, too, were sealed with.
An oppressive darkness, deeper pitched than even the immutable void surrounding her, and the sensation of fear, and panicked breathing. Omiki pushed that memory away carefully. "What horrors must be endured?" she wondered aloud. "And why would she seal this away, and not another?"
Surely it would be to the goddess's advantage to rob Ranma of something else — perhaps his memories of how to fight, not something like a dark fear of cats. What reason could she want to take that away, and leave so much with him?
"Perhaps," she mused quietly, studying the web, "it is that if he is reminded of something that is sealed, then the seal will break?"
And that made sense, but… but for the fact that it meant that his fear of the small creatures in the pit would be easily returned to him, and then the seal would be sundered. She narrowed her eyes, looking more closely. While she was no longer mortal, there were still limits to her comprehension, and she expected that Tokimi's exceeded her own.
The pain of another dream, and in the center of the web, the crux that it all hinged upon… the fire-haired woman that Tokimi claimed was her sister. Beyond that, Tokimi's insistence that a promise be forged between them. "Perhaps, then," she whispered.
Slowly, it began to become clearer to her. The goddess, being complex as she was, was still simple on some levels after all — or at least enough so, so that Omiki could unravel the plan behind the web. Tokimi wanted Ranma to bring her sister to Tokimi.
That was the core of it. Tokimi wished to bend Ranma's will, to coerce him into bringing Tokimi's fire-haired sister to call. But she would not let him remember it until he had her cooperation.
The why of that eluded her for a moment, before becoming painfully obvious. "Of course," she breathed. "This one, the fire-haired woman… Ranma's memories name her Washuu. If Ranma knows that Tokimi wishes to capture her, then he can protect her in the waking world. That is what he must know!"
Plan firmly in mind, Omiki banished the web of memories, and sank down as close to the waking world as her form could allow her to reach. She could ill-afford to contact Washuu or Ranma — Tokimi would watch them closely. Tsunami's own limitations wouldn't allow her to remember all that happened between the worlds. But there was still another, not one of her own, which Tokimi would also watch, one that she could influence, setting events into motion.
What was the name of Ranma's grandmother? Cologne, of course. She could be used, as little as she might be aware of it, even with Omiki's slowly-waning power.
"What is your boon?"
Herb shuffled nervously, eyeing Ranma with frank disapproval. She cleared her throat quietly, and bowed low to the ground, speaking without rising. "Most noble and honorable lord of the Phoenix People, my name is Herb, of the Musk tribe. Blood of the Imperial Black Dragon flows through my veins, passed down from the founding of our tribe."
"We know this," the god said irritably. "Your ancestor was known to us. He believed himself great, and challenged us to combat. While he did not win, neither was he destroyed, and for this reason my grudging respect is given. Make your point."
"You respect strength?" Herb asked, rising to stand again.
Herb smiled softly. "Then you know that I am strong, and despite my strength the one at my side has bested me in combat twice." The god raised an eyebrow, studying Ranma closely. Herb breathed a quiet sigh of relief, and thought it best not to mention the times that she had defeated Ranma before the meeting at mount Horai. "Are you also aware of the fiends that eat away at the very Earth itself?"
"I am," the god said, glowering. "The defilers concern us, and because I must attend to them, I wish you to finish this quickly."
Herb blinked, not expecting the shift from the royal 'we' to the singular form. "Ah, of course. They are a concern to us as well. My brother-in-arms, Higurashi Ranma," he paused, indicating the redhead, who nodded gruffly, "has traveled far and wide, scouring the globe for allies worthy of helping in this cause."
"Oh?" the god said, folding his arms across his chest. "And now, for some reason, you believe that your strength is enough to warrant our attention, and thusly, our aid?"
"It is our hope, yes," Herb said quickly, motioning Ranma to be quiet before the other girl could speak. "We would be willing to give you something in exchange, of course."
"Think you that we would need to bargain with you?" he said disdainfully.
"And here it comes," Ranma snapped. "This is where you tell me how bad-ass you are, and it degenerates into a slugfest — which I'll win, of course — before you agree to help. If you aren't too keen on reasoning, violence suits me just fine. Get Herb some hot water, and I'll take you on one-on-one."
The god stared at Ranma in shock, the members of his court gasping for breath and drawing away. "You think yourself a fighter?" he asked Ranma quietly.
"Damn straight," Ranma said, walking forward two steps, and removing her sheath from the sash of her red robes. "I've killed more reavers than I can count, and I've watched friends and people I care about die. I'm not going to watch anymore of them leave because some winged pretty-boy thinks he's too good to help me and work with the rest of the defenders that have already learned better."
"You… aggravate us," the god announced, one eyebrow ticking wildly. Herb took several steps away from Ranma, silently gathering her ki to herself in preparation for the battle Ranma seemed ready to invoke. "But at the same time, one who can defeat even the weakened spawn of an insignificant dragon in this tired world is intriguing. Tell me, 'Ranma', what blood flows through your veins?"
"Masu, youkai, human," Ranma said, shaking her head and shrugging. "What does it matter?" Her sword rattled against its sheath as she threw it to the ground, smiling grimly. "You'll help us once we kick your ass, right?"
The god glowered, striding forward menacingly. "Your annoyance outweighs my interest," he declared. "My holy cleansing fires will unmake you."
"Let's do this," Ranma said quietly.
Outside of Mihoshi's ship, Kintaro sat astride an opened engine casing, and checked through an interface to monitor for damages. The handheld unit chirped acknowledgement that a maintenance cycle was complete, and Kintaro shook his head, disengaging the plug and transferring it to another console.
Mihoshi, finally having completed her report to her superiors, leant against Shizu-oh, recovering her breath and considering her partner. He was so studious, and at the same time, so relaxed. She found herself smiling while watching him work on the ship.
Shiname was inside the ship itself, tending Kohito, and using what power Shizu-oh had to spare to heal him. That left Mihoshi alone with Kintaro, which also gave her a little bit of time to think about things.
"Kintaro?" she asked quietly.
The boy suddenly stiffened, and raised his head, though he was staring into one of Shizu-oh's external displays. Mihoshi straightened from her position, and stepped forward, frowning. "Kintaro? Is something going on?"
She stepped forward a few steps, watching Kintaro stare at the viewscreen showing the Earth. "…small one," he whispered, the sound just barely reaching Mihoshi.
"Kintaro?" she asked again? "What's going on?"
Shaking his head suddenly, and giving her an embarrassed laugh, Kintaro apologized, "Sorry! Was just thinking of, uh, a cousin of mine. Nothing important. Anyway, I think I'm just about done—" He broke off, slipping off of the rounded engine casing, and scrabbling wildly at the lip of the opened panel to catch himself.
Mihoshi giggled at the sight, Kintaro dangling from one corner of the engine casing, his feet only a meter or so above the ground. "Er… whoops," he said, laughing quietly. The lessened gravity aided him as he scrambled back atop the ship. "I'm just about finished here, Mihoshi. Once I close it up, we should be ready and able to move if we have to."
"That's good," Mihoshi said happily. "We'll just stay here until it's time to go, though. How is your cousin, anyway?"
"Er… behaving himself, I hope," Kintaro offered, finishing up his examination of the engine. "We'll see."
The girl in the red robes was tensed for battle, hands raised and prepared to move anywhere, body dancing lightly on her feet. Saffron had known a great many people who considered themselves 'strong' in his lives, and the girl did not rank as high as many he had known, but there was something… something there.
Something that unnerved him greatly. The touch of magic, of course, hung on both of the girls before him. On the Musk girl, he suspected Jusenkyou, though the sense of Dragon was strong, too. But Ranma… Something in her aura defied his understanding. She had called herself 'Masu', among other things, and it rang more true than anything else the girl had said.
"A moment," he said quietly. "We would know what you were before we destroy you."
Ranma rolled her eyes despairingly. "I'm Higurashi Ranma." That also rang true, and Saffron could sense that the girl told no lie. "A defender of the Earth." That, too, rang true, but something…. Something there rang deeper.
"Who do you serve?" Saffron asked suspiciously.
Ranma blinked, taken aback. "I don't serve anyone, I just look out for people who are important to me."
"Yes," Saffron said distantly, feeling the echoes through Ranma's aura. "A woman with hair of fire, and another… the color of the living sea. Who are these people?"
"You know Washuu and Tsunami?" Ranma asked, surprised, and losing her offensive stance.
At the paired names, a flash of recognition slammed through Saffron, staggering him to his knees, wings flaring wide as his hands slapped against the cobbles of the courtyard. The twin staves of the Gekkaja and the Kinjakan clattered noisily just outside of his reach. The eyes of the women named by Ranma surged through Saffron's mind, memories more ancient than any he could name to mortals flaring brightly. "In the beginning," he said hoarsely, "there was placed a guardian for this world. He is departed now, and I see why."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Ranma snapped irritably. "Are we going to fight, or not?"
Another touch surged through Saffron's mind, staggering him again, and he gasped for breath. He could feel the cold moisture of the stones beneath him, and was painfully aware of the eyes on him from his alarmed court. "We will not battle," Saffron stated flatly. "I will ally myself with those you represent."
"Why?" Ranma asked, trading a thoroughly confused glance with Herb.
"Yes," Herb questioned, "what brings about this sudden change of heart?"
"Those older than I demand that it be so," Saffron said, rising to his feet. "There are those that even I fear offending, and for them, my aid is yours. I may not call you friend yet, but in the name of this Earth, I will call you ally."
Ranma shifted, blurring and expanding slightly, female form giving way to a much more masculine form. "I'm not going to complain," Ranma said, bowing to Saffron. "I guess we didn't get along so hot from the start, so let's try again. I'm Higurashi Ranma."
"It is most unique to have met you," Saffron said, nodding politely in return to Ranma's own bow. "My name is Saffron." Smiling slightly, he offered, "I would know what you know of our enemies, that we could better combat them… ally."
Washuu rubbed at her temples, not entirely certain what Cologne had meant by her suggestion that Ranma might be in trouble, but displeased nonetheless. "Well, one way or another, it looks like you want something to repulse water from your fighters, and the battle is going to take place at Jusenkyou, right?"
Cologne and Norris glanced at one another, then nodded in tandem. "That's right," the elder said quietly. "Do you think we have any reprieve from the reavers?"
"For the rest of tonight, probably," Washuu said, shaking her head. "They've lost a full third of their forces, and one nest. The fact that they built it as close to the village as they did suggests that they have more, however."
Norris mumbled rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "We probably shouldn't stay in a single place for too long," he said finally, shaking his head. "One way or another, they're likelier to find their way here the longer we wait. That beacon keeps them here instead of wandering around wherever there might be innocents, but we need to do what we can to keep them from finding our base of operations, right?"
"True enough," Cologne acquiesced, apparently dismissing what had been troubling her previously. "We only need to last two days. Do you think we should leave the village tomorrow, then?"
"Yes," Norris assessed. "Then we can use the time we have to plan a round-about route to Jusenkyou — if we run across them while moving, they won't know where we're headed, even if they can tell which way we're moving, right?" He turned to Washuu for confirmation.
"It sounds reasonable to me," she assessed, "but their abilities seem to grow by leaps and bounds, so it would be best not to assume."
"And even better to not stay in one place for too long," he insisted.
"I'll agree to that," Washuu said, nodding. "But for all that, it would seem that this meeting is over, wouldn't it?"
Norris, Cologne, and the assembled elders nodded their agreement, and began to rise from their chairs. "Then we should be sure that we rest well tonight, so that we can manage the next day and a half. Agreed?"
"Agreed," came the response, from all present.
"Well," Washuu mused to herself, "that takes care of that. Now where is Ranma?"
After one of Saffron's servants had fetched Herb the hot water that Ranma had requested, the three stood about loosely, the western sky aflame with the light of the setting sun. Saffron's servants were completely silent, unable to understand what was going on, and even Herb seemed reluctant to speak overmuch, confused by the unreality of the situation.
Coughing slightly, Ranma prompted, "What do you know about the reavers, Saffron?"
"The defilers live beneath the Earth, it is said," he replied distantly. Shaking his head, his sun-golden eyes fixed on Ranma, focusing intently. "They consume everything, and no power that the People's Republic of China can muster can halt them."
"That's right," Ranma said, frowning in consternation. "There's more to it — they can slide through solid objects, and their blood is acid… but how do you know about China?"
"They came looking for me," Saffron said, scowling darkly. "My servants questioned those who came too near."
"Okay, I guess," Ranma mumbled. "Anyway, Herb thinks that you've got what it takes to drop reavers, and since Washuu says that they have fast breeding cycles, we're likely to need to see just how well you can do that. What can you do?"
Saffron smirked, tucking his twin staves into his sash, and raising his arms over his head, palms upward. "The fire of the Phoenix People is mine to command," he said quietly. From above his fingertips, streaming upward faintly, a thin plume of fire shot several meters into the air.
"Is that all?" Ranma asked skeptically.
His smile slipping, Saffron growled, "That was the least of my powers — watch, Ranma, and grow wise."
The thin stream of fire flared suddenly, widening and roaring outward, shedding light atop the entire mountain as a column of raw, living flame show upwards in a massive cone. Racing on and consuming the lowest edge of a trailing cloud, the fire raged hotly. Ranma stared upward, dubiously impressed as Saffron allowed the fires to vanish.
"That's nice, but fire doesn't do much to them," Ranma warned, still looking at the sky. "Is that all?"
"My servants and I can do more, I assure you," Saffron grumbled. "Where does your power lie?"
Ranma snorted, retrieving his sword. "I fight," he said blandly, summoning a blade of blue energy to his hands. "I use the soul of ice to freeze the reavers when I can."
"Then the Gekkaja will be of some use," Saffron mused, removing the crescent-tipped staff from his sash. "Very well. When do we begin fighting?"
Ranma opened his mouth to respond, but fell silent as the gem at his ear suddenly came to life, Tsunami's concerned voice asking, "Ranma? Where are you? Are you okay?"
Sighing, Ranma raised one hand to Saffron, allowing the bar of energy to dissipate, and touched the gem with his other. "I'm fine, Tsunami, that fire was our new ally. I guess me and Herb are about underneath that fire, right now. Can you tell Washuu and Cologne we'll be back soon?"
"Very well, Ranma-san. Do take care," Tsunami said, the sound feeling as though she were whispering into his ear. He shivered slightly at an imagined breath of air against the side of his head, and glanced around nervously.
"Anyway," he continued dropping his hands to his sides, "for what that's worth, we should get to the village. How many people do you have here, Saffron?"
Saffron shook his head, glancing at the assembled Phoenix People behind him. "How strong are we?" he asked.
"We are five hundred and twelve strong," one of the female Phoenix People assessed quietly. "Lord Saffron, why do you agree to help these people? Do we truly need their strength?"
Herb glowered darkly, muttering beneath his breath, and Ranma spared him a glance before turning to pay attention to Saffron again. "My judgment is not to be questioned," Saffron snapped. "Powers greater than you can imagine have staked their claims in this combat, and the one my loyalty lays with backs this boy. Let that be the end of this, Kiima."
"What are you talking about?" Ranma asked, scratching his head. "Who 'backs' me?"
Kiima's eyes went wide, and she backed away in alarm, while the rest of the assembled Phoenix People gasped in shock. Even Saffron stiffened in surprise, slowly turning back to face Ranma. "You know our tongue?" he asked quietly.
Belatedly realizing that his hand was still touching the jewel on his ear, Ranma shrugged, lowering it. "I didn't even notice you were speaking another language," he admitted nervously, the words repeating through the gem in a strangely foreign tongue.
"What language is that?" Herb asked, obviously unsettled by the discussion.
"Enochian," Saffron muttered, switching from his own tongue back to Japanese. "The language of my people. It is of no import — when do we battle?"
"Probably tomorrow," Ranma said, crossing his arms over his chest. "Almost certainly the day after, but we don't know for sure. Of all your people, how many will fight with us?"
Saffron glanced at Kiima, who hesitantly offered, "One hundred and fifty of us stand battle-ready… Ranma-san."
"That's not too bad, I guess," Ranma agreed, nodding. "Okay, Saffron, you're going to want to get your people to Australia if they're not going to fight — I can ask Washuu to set up her Gate to get them there faster, if you want, but I think it would be best for everyone if we all stick together."
"Very well," Saffron grumbled. "If you are in the Joketsuzoku village, then we know where you can be found, and we will be there within a few hours."
"Sounds good to me," Ranma said, uncrossing his arms and tapping on the gem at his ear again. "Washuu? Are you there?"
Voice slightly irritable, the scientist responded, "Yes, Ranma, I'm here. Why aren't you back yet?"
"Working out some details with Saffron," he said defensively, while everyone else — unable to hear Washuu's voice — shifted about uncomfortably. "He wants a way to get some of his people to Australia, where they'll be safe, but he's got one hundred and fifty people who will stay to help us out."
"Oh?" Washuu's voice shifted abruptly, annoyance giving way to hope. "Well, that's not so bad, then. The Gate is already calibrated for Australia, all I'll need to do this time around is assemble it — it will be ready in a few minutes."
"Great," Ranma enthused, nodding at Herb and Saffron. "Me and Herb should be back pretty quick — Saffron wants a few hours to get his people ready before he comes to the village."
"That's fine, Ranma. I've got something planned for you when you get back." There was a pause, as a sudden chill ran up his spine. "And I intend to talk to you about running off to fight with people who can blow up mountains, too."
"We didn't blow up a mountain this time!" Ranma protested. "Saffron was just… uh… showing me a fraction of his… um… true power…." He stared, blinking for a moment, then quickly asked, "Uh, that's not much better, is it?"
"I'll see you shortly," Washuu said quietly.
Dropping his hand, Ranma quickly relayed, "Washuu said that the Gate will be ready soon. Just bring everyone to the Joketsuzoku village when they're ready, and everything should be okay."
"You can speak with her across the distance?" Saffron asked, intrigued.
"Uh… yeah, the gem lets me hear her. Anyway, we'll see you later. You ready to get back to the village, Herb?"
"Yes," he said quietly, his voice subdued. "This was a most… odd… day."
Ranma shook his head, sighing, and mumbled, "Tell me about it."
Some hours distant from the Juraian homeworld, alone on his ship, Yohito offered a quiet prayer on the bridge of Saryu-oh. The Ouke-no-ki sent him vague reassurances that all would be well, and he shrugged uncomfortably, fingering the key about his neck.
"Tell me when you establish a connection with Vidarr, and please bring it onscreen," he said, breaking the silence, and glancing about the bridge. The wooden deck was thirty meters across, and extended another fifteen meters behind him. It stood at the front of the ship, and offered a view of the onboard gardens that even Juraian warships bore.
He spared a moment to wonder if the Laruma cared as much for greenery before banishing the thought and focusing on his brother. If Kohito had survived, then his condition would likely be kept secret — they knew it was sabotage, so it was merely a question of who was responsible.
The only people aboard the ship at the time were either Tatsuki or Masaki. The Masaki had no reason to commit such an act of treachery, given that one of them held the throne. Yohito found the idea of another Tatsuki trying to kill his younger brother completely foreign, and that led him to believe that one way or another the matter was far more complex than he had wanted to consider.
Obviously someone had done it, and it was someone who would have had access to Kohito's ship — likely someone on board, though who would be willing to destroy the ship they were on and put themselves into as much danger as they had begged even more questions. What reason was there for someone to do such a thing?
It baffled him, and he readily admitted that he was better suited for things military than subtle investigation. But at the same time, his brother's welfare was a ready concern for him. His ruminations were interrupted as a communications screen popped up, Genoh standing on the bridge of Vidarr, a crew of Laruma tending the consoles behind him. "Tatsuki-san?" Genoh said curiously. "What are you doing out here?"
"Looking for you," Yohito replied without preamble. "The Emperor sent me to join with you and hasten Ginraii's arrival on Earth."
Genoh furrowed his brow suspiciously, and said nothing for a long moment. Shaking his head and sighing, he asked, "You're talking about— How do you know about that?"
"Your younger brother told me, Laruma-san, and I've given my word of honor." Genoh seemed unconvinced, and Yohito hastily added, "I'm requesting permission to join with you, Laruma-san — while I have obligations with my ship to Jurai, and the Emperor, I would willingly volunteer my craft to Ginraii for the duration of this mission."
Blinking in astonishment, Genoh bowed his head. "I accept. Join with us at the coordinates I'll relay to you — Freya-oh is already at the rendezvous point."
Glancing over the coordinates as they scrolled across another display, Yohito nodded. "I should reach that point in about three minutes — I don't see any sign of the other ships, though, Laruma-san."
Genoh smiled softly, and shook his head. "Just wait there, Tatsuki."
Nodding, Yohito clasped his hands behind his back, and bided his time. The crewmen behind Vidarr's captain busied themselves with various tasks, Genoh himself occupied with some calculation or another. After a long minute, Saryu-oh's sensors reported the approach of another ship, and all systems halted.
Another screen activated at his unspoken request, displaying the other ship as it approached. Saryu-oh sent a notice to Yohito — establishing a connection between the Ouke-no-ki for the mission. Yohito tried not to pay too close attention to the tree's chatter, though he was aware of it.
"Okay," Genoh said suddenly, Vidarr drawing closer to Saryu-oh before the ship was halted. "We'll fold from here, and then join up with the rest of the fleet — once we start moving, you'll be on the lowest point of orientation from our current plane. Do you understand?"
"Not entirely," Yohito admitted. "I've never tried to sail through subspace before."
Genoh smirked, as crackling blue energy began to engulf his ship, flaring out from the edges and forming a blazing nimbus. "It's not that dangerous — trust your Ouke-no-ki. He trusts you."
Yohito nodded, allowing Saryu-oh to take control, as the telltale blue surges built up about his own ship. "Anything else I should know?" he asked nervously.
"Be prepared for the mother of all headaches in the morning," Genoh warned. The crackling blue force became tinted with white, thick strands of corded power occasionally licking between the two ships. "Here goes—"
Yohito bit his tongue as a sudden wave of nausea swept through him, nearly staggering him to the wooden deck. "Ugh," he groaned, suddenly woozy. "What just happened?"
"Shift in the current," Genoh said over the connection, somehow clearer than it had been only a minute before. "Bad timing, but good luck, all things considered. Welcome to subspace, Tatsuki-san. Have a look around."
Shaking his head to clear it, Yohito raised his eyes to the viewscreens, blinking in confusion. The display showed only the jumbled chaotic blue light and madly swirling eddies of the stuff that subspace was made of. "I don't… Saryu-oh, sensors," he mumbled.
The ship seemed to hum in contentment, sensors whirring to life and scanning actively. The active scan returned the location of a ship nearby, lost in the swirling ether to visibility. Vidarr, of course, though the link had already established its location. Sweeping deeper into the void yielded another location, and another ship… and another… and another.
Blinking, Yohito shook his head, and stared in stark confusion at the readouts in front of him. "Laruma-san, I… I don't understand — how can you have this many ships? Surely the Amatera ships haven't lasted until today!" he exclaimed, as the numbers and positions continued to add up, now in the low hundreds.
"We tend our trees well, and in exchange, they give us more seeds," Genoh said, smirking. "We're only blessed with three from Tsunami herself — Vidarr, here, Freya-oh, also here, and Gaeron-oh, in the Masagiri system. All of the other ships here are fourth and lower generation — all of them combined can form only a single Light Hawk Wing."
"Ye gods," Yohito breathed, the numbers still counting up. "How… how have you managed to get so many ships and all of Jurai not know of it? If…." He trailed off, biting his lip and remaining silent.
"How? Jurai doesn't care to watch us, most often, Tatsuki-san. We're scum, and ignoble porters. They're content to ignore us and pretend we're a problem far removed from their world." He frowned across the screen, and crossed his arms over his chest. "And I know what you're asking — why don't we stage a revolt, hmm?"
Yohito nodded nervously, wondering what he'd gotten himself into.
"It would displease Tsunami." Genoh smirked, shaking his head. "I'd like to speak with you on this later, Tatsuki-san, I'm sure you've learned a lot more than you've expected, but we need to get into position. Rear scouts have reported that a surge is headed towards us, and we need the sail in position to catch it."
"Understood," Yohito mumbled, allowing Saryu-oh to follow Vidarr's instructions. His ship rolled through the ether, coming to a rest on the periphery of the fleet, his 'upward' orientation facing the center of the array.
Slowly, with Saryu-oh's aid, the plan became clear — the ships were in a formation like a dish, the three main ships — Saryu-oh, Freya-oh, and Vidarr arrayed at three opposing points. Each of their ships, he knew, could summon three Light Hawk Wings, and the remainder of the fleet would summon an additional Light Hawk Wing, though he wasn't certain how they would fit together.
"Tatsuki-san," Genoh warned, "this requires some precision. Saryu-oh has shown you the pattern you need to use, right?"
"I believe so," Yohito said, faltering. "I don't see how it works, but I know what I am to do."
"Good enough. We'll do it in five seconds. Understood?"
"Okay. Freya-oh will lead off and pass to me — you pick up, and then the rest of Ginraii follows suit on zero. You go on one. Five."
Felt, more than seen, the Light Hawk Wings expanded from Freya-oh, the anchor-point set before the center of the fleet.
The wings began to expand clockwise slowly, filling only a third of the circular formation that Yohito was more familiar with from his military operations.
"Three," Genoh said, his voice wavering slightly.
Vidarr began generating another trio of Light Hawk Wings, the anchor-point meshed firmly against Freya-oh's.
The wings expanded, filling another third of the circle that Yohito anticipated. He frowned, seeing a hole in the center of the formation, but Saryu-oh indicated that it needed to be there, and it was almost time for him to—
"One, Tatsuki-san," Genoh said, his voice strained with worry.
Shoving aside his concerns, Yohito summoned the Light Hawk Wings, Saryu-oh nearly overwhelming his senses with the sudden surge of power that fed into the ship from the space about them. The Light Hawk Wings merged with the Wings that Vidarr had projected, and swiftly proceeded to close the distance between them and Freya-oh's.
"Zero — Ginraii, go!" Genoh barked.
Blinking, Yohito watched as the remaining ships combined all their power, their Ouke-no-ki forming a single wing before the not-yet bridged gap between Freya-oh and Saryu-oh's ship. Though much, much smaller, the single wing expanded counter-clockwise, filling in the small circular gap in the center of the sail and overlapping it by a good distance.
"Huh," Yohito breathed, impressed with the management of the operation. Utilizing the full ten Wings of the Light Hawk allowed them to mass more surface area than a single Wing would allow, and that meant more pull from the subspace currents.
"All hands, brace for impact," Genoh warned, offering Yohito another of his smirks.
"Impact?" Yohito asked dumbly, one hand reflexively dropping to clutch at a rail on one side of the central console. Any reply Genoh might have given was cut off in the sudden rush of the oncoming energy surge, focused on the sail, hauling the fleet along with it.
Saryu-oh's request was met with approval, as the entire sail-structure folded slightly, the interior bulging inwards and leaving it to resemble a cone with hundreds of trailing Juraian — no, Yohito corrected himself — Ginraii ships streaking across subspace. "How… how fast are we going?" he managed, maintaining his balance only through his grip on the rail.
Genoh slumped over his console, clutching a rail of his own in the viewscreen, but grinning widely. "Take the distance between Jurai and Earth, and divide it by the ten… nine and a half hours it will take us to get there," he offered. "For what that's worth."
Yohito was unable to completely resist the sense of euphoria that flooded him from Saryu-oh, as the ship drank of subspace's power. "I see," he managed. "This is certainly new!"
Washuu stood between two of the huts in the twilight, light from a large fire in the center of the village dancing across her field of vision. Her shadow flickered and wavered before her, and a few smaller fires on the side of a nearby hill twinkled like distant stars, outlining a path upwards. She offered the hill a faint smile before schooling her expression, and crossing her arms over her chest.
A surge passed through the night air, a familiar, tingling presence, and then Ranma floated before her, Herb clinging to his back and peering over Ranma's shoulder cautiously. Ranma lowered to the ground, unsettled, and the Musk prince dropped to his side, coughing slightly, and not meeting Washuu's eyes directly. "I must speak with my men, Ranma," he said apologetically. A hard glint shined in his eyes as he turned away, adding, "I see from the fact that the village is still standing that they've managed to restrain themselves."
Ranma snorted, and nodded at Herb, who bowed slightly before marching into the darkness.
Washuu cleared her throat, eyeing Ranma with one eyebrow arched upward.
"This is about the fire, right?" Ranma asked, scratching the back of his head nervously.
Washuu said nothing, merely watching Ranma.
"Uh, we didn't blow the mountain up, or anything," he protested, fidgeting uncomfortably. "It was just… uh… oh, shoot. You're mad at me, aren't you?"
He said it as though he weren't certain how to deal with the concept. "No," Washuu said, shaking her head, and uncrossing her arms. "But I was very worried. I trust you, Ranma." She smirked slightly, reaching a hand out and resting it on Ranma's shoulder. "You should know that; I didn't even think of trying to stop you when you went to save Tsunami."
"Oh," Ranma breathed, relaxing very slightly. "Um, so, Saffron's people will be here in a bit. Is the Gate ready?"
"Yes," Washuu said, releasing his shoulder, and shaking her head. "Anyway, before we take you up the hill tonight, you should have something to eat — unless I miss my mark, you haven't eaten in far too long."
"Oh, great, more rations," Ranma grumbled, absently lowering one hand. Ran-oh-ki scuttled from the darkness behind one of the huts and leapt into the outstretched limb, climbing to Ranma's shoulder. "Can't wait to get more of those."
Washuu grinned as the gurgling of Ranma's stomach betrayed him. "Tsunami made it for you,," she assured him.
"Oh," Ranma said, brightening instantly. "That's different. What do we need to do on the hill later?"
"Cologne said that there was a ceremony that she wanted you to go through — she's agreed to let Tsunami and I take care of it." Washuu beckoned Ranma to follow her, and began walking towards one of the lodges.
"Ceremony?" Ranma asked, balking.
"Just something Cologne asked to be done — it's something that all warriors are supposed to go through among her people. Don't worry, it's not dangerous. Tsunami and I were filled in on the particulars."
"Okay, then," Ranma said, relaxing. "I guess that means it'll be fine."
Lounging on a bench before the kitchen in one of the larger lodges of the village, Nuku listened to the sounds coming from within. Last time that there had been cooking going on, she had asked to be a part of it, but this time she felt more like sitting it out. Something about flying with Ran-oh-ki left her feeling temporarily drained.
Tsunami's gentle instruction explained things to Hotaru, as the two set about turning ingredients into food, and a few other cooks in the large room added their own comments and idle chatter. Nuku tuned it out, for the most part, save to record something that the two discussed about Ranma. She could review it later, but for the present, it was warm, and she felt like a nice nap.
She hung in that pleasant space between sleeping and wakefulness, enjoying the warmth, the contented chatter, and the other small things that reminded her of the times that she occasionally experienced before meeting Ryunosuke. But those thoughts reminded her too much of what she'd lost, and she sat up suddenly, rubbing at her eyes and staring around, sensors extending to report what her eyes couldn't make out immediately in the darkness.
A fair sized group of Marines sat at one of the tables, conversing in low voices, and another table housed a group of Amazons, eyeing the Marines speculatively from time to time before sinking back into their quiet huddle. There was no sign of the Musk, and the only Marine she recognized was Pavel, who seemed somewhat removed from the antics of the other men.
Yawning, she retracted her sensors, reaching her arms into the air and stretching. "Where's Ranma-papa-san?" she mused aloud.
Tsunami answered her, ducking through the kitchen door and bearing a small tray, "Ah, don't worry, Atsuko-chan, Washuu-chan said that he would be back soon."
Cocking her head to one side, Nuku watched the young woman carefully set her tray one an empty table, and smiled encouragingly at her. "Okay," she said sleepily. "I hope he gets here soon, I'm tired."
One of the outer doors for the large hall swung inward at that moment, Washuu striding in, and trailed closely by Ranma. Bouncing to her feet, Nuku leapt across the tables, narrowly clearing the Marines, and tackled the boy. "Ranma-papa-san!" she caroled gleefully. "You're back!"
Staggered back, Ranma caught her, and gave her a lopsided smile. "Heya, Atsuko," he grunted, setting her down. "I wasn't gone for long, was I?"
"I guess not," she admitted quietly, releasing Ranma, only to swivel and hug Washuu tightly. "I missed you too, Washuu-mama-san!"
"Ack!" the taller redhead winced slightly, prying Nuku's arms from about her. "Careful, there, Atsuko. We're not all as tough as Ranma, you know."
Nuku pouted, but settled for a gentler hug.
"And I was only gone for a few minutes, anyway," Washuu added after a moment, patting Nuku on the back comfortingly. "Still, we have a busy day tomorrow, so let's get something to eat, hmm?"
"Sounds good to me," Ranma commented, nodding at all of the Marines, as they watched him intently. "Um. Hey." The Marines all nodded back at him, slowly turning their attention back to bowls of soup and small loaves of bread. Spying Tsunami, he smiled brightly, and crossed the room.
Tsunami waited demurely next to the tray that had been set out for Ranma, until he approached. "Uh, hi," he said quietly, scratching the back of his head. "So, what's this ceremony thing tonight about?"
Though the light of the setting sun had faded, Rei stood behind one of the numerous lodges about the center of the Amazon village, Makoto's sword in her hands, and held offensively.
One of the Amazon women — Pei-Lin — stood at her side, studying her stance. The blue-haired woman looked to be in her late twenties, but carried her swords carefully enough to suggest that she had studied them from her infancy. "Is good enough," she said after a moment, shaking her head. "You… used to longer weapon, maybe, not used to sword that you have?"
"I think so," Rei said quietly, sheathing the blade and allowing it to vanish. "I seem to remember a sword… it was longer, and heavier." She shook her head, sighing. "I'm sorry. Does this mean you can't teach me how to use the one I have?"
Pei-Lin shook her head, brushing a few strands of blue hair from her eyes. "Teach you, yes." Rei's eyes widened hopefully, and Pei-Lin shook her head again. "Learning…. You already know. Learn different, days, weeks, maybe months. Not hours. You fight tomorrow. Fight as you do. Learning different now will not help." She offered a sympathetic smile, hands resting on the hilts to her twin blades, sheathed at her side.
"I understand," Rei said, slightly deflated. Still, if the Amazon warrior woman said she was good enough, that was something. But… "Pei-Lin-san, can you tell me how your swords were able to hurt the reavers?"
Pei-Lin arched an eyebrow suddenly, prompting another blue lock of hair to spill across her eyes. She brushed it away absently, and said, "Is great Joketsuzoku secret." After a moment of silence, she smiled, and said, "Is gift from elder for being great warrior. Use the power of love… live? Not sure of that word. Use that power in blades."
"And the other women's weapons, too?" she asked, confused.
"Kura-Wan, no. She have great skill. She believe weapon is special, but it is her, not spear," Pei-Lin responded, eyes distant as she gazed at the stars. "Kura-Wan believe she lead us because her weapon is greater than ours. We follow Kura-Wan because she is strong, and does not see her strength." She frowned, uncertain of the translation, then shrugged, smiling at Rei. "You, also very strong. How does your sword hurt monsters?"
"It's magic," she said quietly, offering a shrug. "Makoto-chan used to use this sword, I think… or who she was a lifetime ago. I don't remember how it was made, though." Sighing, she rubbed at her temples. "I remember there was another sword… it… it made fire." Struggling to retrieve the memories, as poorly settled as they were in her mind, she falteringly explained, "It burned as hot as the sun when I wielded it… but I can't remember why I used it, anymore!"
Pei-Lin clicked her tongue, pulling a silk handkerchief from her sash, and dabbing at tears of frustration that Rei hadn't even realized she shed. "What goes before stays before," she said gently. "Sometimes, dream of Kura-Wan long ago — when Pei-Lin was her lover and Kura-Wan was man. Pei-Lin does not like man, likes Kura-Wan." Rei blinked, absorbing that information, as Pei-Lin offered her a smile, and pressed the blue-silk cloth into Rei's hands. "Is there for you to learn. Is not there to make you who you were again."
"What do you mean?" she asked, clutching the handkerchief tightly.
"Learn from mistakes, yes?"
"If no mistake, no next life. If old life, then mistake. Learn from mistake, don't make mistake again. Understand?" She cocked her head to one side, eyes slightly widened with concern.
"I understand," Rei said quietly. "You're… you're right."
Pei-Lin straightened her head out and nodded. "Rei is a good girl," she stated proudly. "Pei-Lin can not have child of her own, so for now, you will be Pei-Lin's daughter, yes?"
Face flushing slightly, Rei nodded.
"Good! Then eat! Tomorrow very busy."
Rei giggled slightly, unable to resist the course charm of her self-proclaimed 'mother' for the moment. "Okay," she said agreeably. "Where do we go to eat?"
"Three halls," Pei-Lin said pursing her lips thoughtfully. "Your friends in south hall, Pei-Lin think. We go there, yes?"
"Okay," Rei said amiably.
By the time Ranma had finished eating, his table had attracted a few more people than he had expected. Hotaru and Nuku sat, one on either side of him, Washuu and Tsunami sitting opposite him. He looked guiltily at the bottom of the bowl of soup he had just finished, easily twice the size of any of theirs. "Uh, thanks, Tsunami, that was really good," he managed, grinning sheepishly.
"I helped!" Hotaru said enthusiastically. Tsunami ducked her head, embarrassed about something, and nodded, still smiling.
"Oh? Well, then good job," he said, offering her an encouraging smile. "But, uh, what happens now?"
"What do you mean?" Hotaru asked, confused.
Turning to look at Tsunami and Washuu, Ranma frowned. "There's supposed to be some sort of ceremony thing, right?"
Washuu nodded slowly. "Yes…. It's about time for that."
Hotaru bit her lip, glancing around worriedly. "Can I come?" she asked hesitantly.
"I'm afraid not," Tsunami said, shaking her head. "But don't worry — it should not take long."
The girl pouted, obviously displeased with the arrangement.
"Hey, are you still carrying my handkerchief?" Ranma asked her. Brightening instantly, she pulled it from her pocket, showing him the carefully preserved cloth. "Just hang onto that for me for a bit, okay?" he asked, smiling at her encouragingly.
"I will!" she exclaimed, throwing her arms around him and hugging him tightly. "You still smell nice," she said, releasing him after a moment.
"Er… thanks, I guess," he said, rising from his seat and glancing around nervously. The Marines were chatting among themselves, quiet chuckles echoing from their table, and the Amazons were surreptitiously watching him, giggling when he glanced in their direction.
"I think that Ranma-papa-san smells nice, too," Nuku assessed.
"It was raining, so I got a free shower," he joked, feeling his face warm up with embarrassment at being the center of attention. Washuu and Tsunami laughed softly, and rose from their seats, walking towards the door of the hall. He eagerly followed them out, escaping from the giggles of the Amazons and the coarser laughter of the Marines.
Stretching happily, Ami heaved a sigh of relief, and finally snapped the lip of her laptop closed.
Yakumo leant against a wall nearby, looking at some distant point through the ceiling. "What are you looking at?" she asked, cocking her head to one side.
"Pai," he answered, shaking his head. "I can feel her sometimes… when she's thinking of me."
"Who's Pai?" Ami asked, rising from her seat on the floor of the lodge, and pocketing the Mercury Computer.
"The girl who has my soul," he answered distantly. "It's… don't worry about it." Dragging his eyes away from that point, as though it cost him some great physical effort to turn his head, he asked, "So what was all that about?"
"I just finished reprogramming the Ethos array with the information we've gotten on the reavers," she said, smiling.
"What does that do?" he asked, frowning.
"If any more of them try to leave the planet, and the Ethos array is in line, it will automatically lock on them thirty-five kilometers above the planet's atmosphere, and then shoot them down." She sighed, shaking her head. "If I had thought to do it before the reavers attacked the orbital platform, we could have defended it."
"We didn't know the reavers could go that high," Yakumo soothed. "I was in their… mind… and I didn't see that one coming." He sighed, hitching the kinetic displacement beam that he had used to replace his positronic rifle higher up on his shoulder.
Ami offered him an encouraging smile. "That's true. Regardless, we've got this much of a defense active — I've already told the Galaxy Police about it, so he can alert anyone else. I also checked in on the Australian peacekeeping forces."
"Oh?" Yakumo frowned. "I'd been so busy thinking about things here that I forgot about that. How is it going?"
"Not as well as it could, but far better than it might have," Ami said. "The Galaxy Police and Marines that were sent there are working to keep rioters in line, but it's not hard to imagine how upset all those people are, after everything they've been through."
"That's true," Yakumo acquiesced. "Still, in a few days, it'll all be taken care of, more or less. Right?"
Ami nodded, stifling a yawn.
"Anyway, you've been working on that thing all day," Yakumo said, leaning forward to inspect her more closely. "Why don't you get something to eat, and then call it a night?"
"Ah…. Of course," Ami said, sighing. "I suppose that did slip my mind."
He nodded, gesturing her to a table. "Have a seat. I'll grab something from the kitchen."
Ami sat down at the table he had indicated, further from the fire than she had been sitting, but close enough to still feel a little of its warmth. She stretched again, heart gladdened for being able to do some good again, and still thinking of Kohito.
She glanced up in time to see Rei approach, glancing back at a woman with blue hair, and waving. The woman said something quietly before vanishing into the darkness outside, and allowing the door to swing shut behind her. Rei sighed softly, then took a seat opposite Ami.
"Hello," she said softly. "I haven't seen you much today."
"I guess we've been busy," Ami said apologetically. "Where is everyone else?"
"Let me think," Rei said, concentrating. "Makoto is with Ryu. The last time I checked, Minako was still asleep, but Mousse-san was watching over her in the healer's house. Haruka and Michiru are together somewhere, Usagi is with Mamoru, and Hotaru is with Ranma, I think." She frowned, considering that.
"Setsuna?" Ami prompted. "What about her?"
"With… with Yosho-san, actually." She shrugged. "She wanted to talk to him about Jurai. I guess everyone else is 'with' someone. It's just me and you alone, Ami-chan." She glanced up behind Ami, and smirked slightly. "Or maybe just me."
Yakumo made a curious noise, approaching with a pair of trays. "Didn't know you were bringing friends," he commented. "I'll be right back." He deposited a tray before each of the girls, and whirled, disappearing into the kitchens again.
The trays each bore an earthenware cup of water, a large bowl of some thick stew, and a small loaf of black bread. Ami stared into her bowl to try and hide the blush she could feel forming. "Rei!" she protested quietly, her voice an annoyed squeak. "Yakumo isn't interested in me that way!"
"Oooh!" Rei teased. "You're on a first name basis already!"
"Rei!" Ami straightened up, allowing a pained grimace to cover her face for a moment. "Yakumo's soul belongs to another girl, who's already left this planet. As far as I can tell, she has his heart, too. I…." She swallowed nervously, then blurted out, "I like Yakumo, Rei, but he's already set on someone else."
Flinching, Rei's smirk faded into an expression apologetic worry. "Ah," she said quietly. "Then I guess it is the two of us. I'm sorry, Ami-chan."
There was a moment of silence before someone stood behind Rei, asking politely in accented Japanese, "Is this seat taken?"
Ami glanced up at the newcomer, a tallish boy in white robes with golden-scaled armor, and blue hair. He brushed a forelock of white hair from his golden eyes, smiling rakishly at Rei as she spun to stare at him, gasping quietly.
"N-n-no," the raven-haired girl stuttered, blushing faintly.
"And then maybe it's just me," Ami teased back at Rei. Turning her attention to the newcomer as he took a seat, she commented, "I think I've seen you before — or perhaps a sister—" She cut herself off suddenly, smiling guiltily. "Or are you like Ranma?"
"Something like that," Herb hedged. "My name is Herb. I am the prince of the Musk." Turning in his seat, next to Rei, he addressed her, "I fought next to you today. Your performance was admirable. I would know more of you, if I could."
"I… my name is Hino Rei," she managed. "I'm just… you were great, too."
Smirking, Ami interjected, "She's the princess of Mars, you know."
Herb's eyebrows rose, and he turned to regard Ami curiously. "Is that so? Well, that's certainly interesting." Turning his attention back to Rei, he suggested, "Perhaps we could forge an alliance, then…."
Ami giggled quietly, as Yakumo approached, taking a seat opposite from Herb, and setting another pair of trays down. "Thought we'd need an extra," he said, smirking. "And I forgot spoons the last time, anyway."
Herb inclined his head to Yakumo. "Greetings. I am Herb, Prince of the Musk."
Yakumo grinned and waved a hand at Herb. "Fuji Yakumo. Nice to meet you."
"So, what exactly is this whole ceremony thing, anyway?" Ranma asked.
Washuu clicked her tongue, shaking her head. "It's for the occasions where outsiders are accepted into the tribe, and become warriors. Cologne said that Tsunami and I were able to serve in the capacity of an elder, though." She smirked, glancing at Tsunami. "Right?" she prompted.
Face slightly flushed, even in the darkness, Tsunami nodded. "That is so," she whispered.
"Okay, I guess," Ranma mumbled. "So, what do I have to do?"
"Well, first off, you need to stand here for about ten minutes," Washuu said, nodding.
Ranma stopped, glancing about himself. "Okay," he said uneasily. The three of them had stopped at the very edge of the village, trees visible in the distance, along with the still burning torches that outlined a path up the hill. "Anything else?"
"May I have your gems, Ranma?" Tsunami asked softly. "It's of some small importance…."
"Okay," he said uneasily, handing the young woman the gem from his ear, and then the one from his wrist.
Washuu smiled brightly, and held out a bracelet for Ranma. "The limiter?" he grumbled, putting the bracelet on.
"Yes. Now, in about ten minutes, you'll head up the path, following the torches, then clean yourself off in the bathhouse. On the other side of that, there's a large natural hot spring."
Ranma blinked at that, then shook his head. "I'm suddenly having second thoughts," he protested. "I mean, what if something happens—"
He was silenced as Tsunami made a soothing noise, pressing a single finger against his lips. "Trust us, Ranma," she said quietly. "We trust you."
"Okay," he said, once Tsunami removed her hand. "What do I do after that?"
"You will know," Washuu said, smirking. "Now wait here."
He sighed, nodding in silence as the pair strode off into the darkness, his eyes refusing to shift spectrums and allow him to see their heat signatures. He concentrated, staring at the stars, Ran-oh-ki on his shoulder, and focused on his heartbeat, counting off the seconds.
When he judged ten minutes must have passed, he nodded to himself, fixing his eyes firmly on the nearest torch and striding forward. The path was well beaten, packed soil, and clear enough that even with nothing more than the occasional torches to guide the way it was simple to navigate.
In short order, he reached the top of the path, Ran-oh-ki sniffing the nighttime air curiously. It ended before a low stone building, the wooden doorway closed. Cautiously, worriedly, he opened the doorway, and peeked in. A lantern hung from a hook offering light to the room, and he entered it, closing the door behind himself.
The room's stone floor sloped slightly, a shelf near the higher end holding bathing gear. Shaking his head, he removed his robes and folded them, carefully stowing them on the shelf. Ran-oh-ki hopped from his shoulder as he removed his robes, then sat atop them, curling up and dozing off.
Rolling his eyes, Ranma turned to a basin of hot water that sat in one corner, and set about washing himself. Once he was done, he dried himself with a towel, and reached for his robes. His hand halted, nearly of its own accord, a faint whispering voice telling him that he wouldn't need them. He blinked, studying Ran-oh-ki closely. The creature was apparently asleep, and Ranma doubted that it could send a message in the same whispering voice he had heard….
Shivering slightly, he grabbed a modesty towel and secured it about his waist before cracking open the door and peeking outside carefully. Thanks to the light of the full moon, and the cleared clouds, he could see the entirety of the hot spring. It was thankfully deserted, and he opened the door the rest of the way, striding out the door, and stepping into the spring's warmth.
"Nice," he whispered, glancing up at the moon. The nighttime stillness didn't answer him, and he shrugged, walking to about the center of the spring before sitting down, hissing slightly. The water was hotter than he had expected, but not unpleasantly so. Shifting about for a bit, he found a rock to lean against, and stared up at the stars, running a hand through the spikes of his hair.
Washuu and Tsunami had said he would know what to do next, but he wasn't certain; so instead, he simply relaxed. The stars sparkled overhead, glittering like jewels. He was suddenly stricken with the memory of the last time he had seen stars like that. "Damn," he whispered, staring upward. "Has it been that long since I've thought about any of you?" he asked quietly.
He rubbed his eyes tiredly, thinking of the three girls he had fought for what seemed so long ago. "I guess that's pretty much done with," he whispered. "Can't leave here, not until everything's been dealt with."
"You can," a quiet voice notified him.
He jerked upright, springing to his feet and whirling about. "Who's there?" he asked quietly. The voice was eerily familiar, but at the same time…. It wasn't Washuu or Tsunami, he was certain of that much.
"You will know me again, Ranma… dear… You fought for me bravely, after all."
"Where are you?"
The shimmering steam parted for a moment, seeming to coalesce into the form of a woman, garbed in an iridescent white gown. The image solidified, the woman's features sharply defined against the blackness of the night. Long blonde hair flowed down to her ankles, and she drifted a few centimeters above the surface of the spring, toes occasionally seeming to touch the gently lapping wavelets.
Ranma tried to summon his battle-suit, and levitate, but was unable to — Washuu had placed the limiter on him, after all. "What are you?" he asked suspiciously. "Some kind of ghost?"
"That, and something more… and something less," the woman replied sadly, shaking her head. The longer Ranma stared, the more certain he was he could see through her — as though she were partially transparent. "This place is a focus of the people who live in the valley below. They believe their ancestors speak to them through it."
"So you are a ghost," Ranma said, dropping his hands to his side.
She nodded slowly. "I apologize, Higurashi-sama, it was my meddling that brought you here — a mere suggestion in the mind of your grandmother." Her head bowed low, as her hands clasped together before her chest. "I hope that you can forgive me."
"I guess," he said quietly. "But why did you want to talk to me? I mean, there are plenty of other people in the village, right?"
"None of them are as close to what I am, and what I was, as you," the woman said, shaking her head slowly. "I…. I do not have much time in this place. I wish to warn you — the warning can only be given here, and you must heed it, Higurashi-sama."
"You can call me Ranma," he said, frowning. "But what's the warning?"
"Hotaru," the woman said quietly. "There is…. Ask Setsuna for the history of Hotaru — what she does not remember, perhaps Ami can. It is imperative that you know what only they can tell you — I apologize again. Too much, I am bound by the one I would break with, if I could. But I am bound, still…. Higurashi-sama, please, watch over her. She must not die here, on Earth."
"What?" Ranma asked, confused at the sudden influx of information. "I don't want anyone to die," he grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest, and unconvinced that he should heed the glowing apparition.
Biting her lip, the woman raised her eyes, full of worry and pleading. "Please, Higurashi-sama, I do not know that… that the one who binds me will let any other than you protect her."
"Okay!" Ranma grumbled, sighing in resignation. "Tsunami, Washuu, and Hotaru — I'll watch over the three of them as best as I can!"
The woman smiled happily, clapping her hands together, and allowing some of the worry to fade from her eyes. "Thank you, Higurashi-sama. I know that you can do it."
Ranma opened his mouth to comment, but bit his tongue, as the woman cocked her head to one side, eyes closed, and dissolved into sparkling motes of light, which twinkled brightly before fading away.
Sighing, he sat back down in the bath, shaking his head.
"That was weird," he grumbled, rubbing at his temples and closing his eyes.
"What was that, Ranma?" a voice asked him sweetly.
Ranma cracked one eye open, glancing to his left surreptitiously. As he had almost expected, Tsunami was there, smiling at him sweetly, and wearing absolutely nothing. Her body seemed to nearly glow in the moonlight, sparkling drops of water outlining her even without his vision being actively enhanced. His eye closed quickly. "Um, nothing," he mumbled. "What does this have to do with the ceremony, exactly?"
"Well," Washuu said, from somewhere to Ranma's right, "after you meditate alone for a bit, you're supposed to be joined by those who care about you, and they welcome you into the tribe, usually with wine."
"We decided to forgo the wine," Tsunami said apologetically.
"Uh… how long was I meditating?" he asked, concentrating, and trying not to notice the occasional surges of water as someone moved nearby. "And why exactly did you two choose to get naked and climb in here with me?"
"For the first, you seemed to be lost in thought for nearly an hour after we got here," Tsunami answered. "Is something wrong?"
Washuu spoke before Ranma could answer, "And for the second, if you would prefer, we can go get Cologne instead, Ranma."
"Uh… an hour?" He climbed to his feet, needing a moment to balance with his eyes still closed. He could distantly sense Ran-oh-ki in the bathhouse, still asleep. Not even the limiter seemed to be able to shut that out. "Okay, first off, I have to hurry, because Saffron said his people were coming here soon, and I think the Joketsuzoku might get a little panicked when they show up. Secondly, didn't we agree that we'd wait until this is over before making me choose?"
Washuu sighed audibly. "Ranma," she said softly. "If you insist, then we can head back to the village, but we're not trying to make you choose. You don't have to try and make a choice between us."
"Now or ever," Tsunami stated firmly. "You shouldn't let that trouble you so, Ranma, when there are more pressing concerns to worry about."
"Uh…. Okay, I guess," he said quietly, shaking his head. "Um, I'm going to go get dressed and wait for you on the path." Taking a deep breath, he stepped forward, still keeping his eyes closed.
Halfway through his first step forward, his toe found a crack in the bottom of the pool, and rather than right himself, he tried to levitate upward — forgetting the limiter. Managing a cry of, "Gaaah!" he tilted forward, flailing, and splashed into a thankfully soft landing.
Tsunami made a sudden alarmed noise, and he snapped his eyes open, coming face-to-face with… Tsunami. "Uh," he managed, realizing that his awkward landing had placed him atop her, and she was still completely naked. "Sorry!" he yelped, leaping away — with his eyes open, this time — and bounding over to the door of the bathhouse, chased by Washuu's laughter and Tsunami's more nervous giggle.
Cologne sat before the bonfire in the center of the village, and puffed slowly from her pipe. Only two days home, and already time to leave… this time for good. She sighed, glancing at some of the others watching the fire. Kura-Wan sat a short distance away, her and Jian-Di sitting with their backs against one another. Jian-Di stared up at the stars, while Kura-Wan stared into the fire, distracted.
Further away, a trio of Musk warriors sat, two of them hulking brutes stealing glances at the women, then staring guiltily into the fire. The third was a small, quick boy, darting about and staring at everything as though it was new to him.
Marines were scattered about, chatting quietly with Norris, as he explained what was going to happen next. A few ignored him, lazing about the fire, or trying to strike up a conversation with one of the women. Few of them reciprocated.
Cologne sighed, shaking her head, and tapping out her pipe. Ranma should be completing the ceremony soon, and that was as good a chance as any for Washuu to get close to Ranma, she guessed. She spared a moment to wonder why she had brought the ceremony up before dismissing the thought. She wouldn't do something if it were a bad idea — not something like that.
Ranma's voice alerted her, and she glanced towards the source of the noise, not entirely surprised to see Ranma leaping to the side of the fire, Washuu and Tsunami tucked under either arm. He landed a short distance away, sliding for a moment before coming to a halt, and setting the pair down. "Now can you remove the limiter?" he asked plaintively, holding his right hand towards Washuu. "We've gotten to the fire, right?"
"Yes," she said shakily. "But I don't think it works very well."
"What do you mean?" Ranma asked, as Washuu took a bracelet from Ranma's hand.
"It's supposed to reduce you to the power that you would have before you became Masu," she explained.
"Oh, then it worked about right," he assessed, nodding. "Can I have my gems back?"
Tsunami giggled at that, giddy from the passage, and ducked her head slightly. "I have them, Ranma," she assured him. "Give me your hands, please?"
Ranma nodded, glancing at the people around the campfire — all of whom were watching him at the moment — before holding his hands out to Tsunami, palm upwards. Tsunami reached into the folds of her robe and produced a small blue stone. Gently, she pressed it into his right wrist, where it began to glow softly. "You've done well and bravely, Ranma, and I wish to offer whatever aid I can for you, though Ginraii requires some measure of my attention at the moment." She pursed her lips thoughtfully, then smiled, retrieving another gem from with her robe, and pressing it into Ranma's left wrist. "I created another while I was on Jurai, while… while Tsunami and Sasami became what I am now," she explained, sighing quietly. "I hope it aids you, Ranma." Reaching into her robe a third time, she plucked out a third gem, which she placed beneath Ranma's ear. "Be careful, and be well, Ranma. I have wishes, but I will be patient."
Washuu pursed her lips thoughtfully, while Ranma stared at his wrists in dumb shock. "Two permanent gems?" he asked quietly. "That's… that…." he straightened, staring Tsunami levelly in the eye, then bowing low. "I know I can do more, with this. Thank you, Tsunami-chan."
The young woman giggled quietly, blushing, and lowered her gaze, covering her mouth to try and hide her smile. "For you, Ranma."
"Hey!" Washuu protested suddenly, jarring Ranma upright. "I'm cute too, you know!"
Ranma stared upward then, blinking at a bright flare of red across the heavens. "Yeah, that's true," he responded absently, shaking his head. "Talk about timing." Blinking, and apparently unaware of what he had just said, he asked Washuu, "Is the Gate ready?"
She nodded, face slightly flushed. "Er…. Yes. It's in the back of the meeting hall at the moment. What's going on up there?" she asked.
"Saffron's way of saying hello," Ranma answered quietly.
Cologne gasped, shaking her head, and demanding, "What do you mean, 'Saffron'?"
Ranma blinked, turning to assess the woman. "You know him?" he asked. He held out a hand to indicate height and said, "About this tall, loves fire, has wings, and calls himself the god of the Phoenix People?"
"If you've angered him, we're doomed," Cologne said quietly. "He is more powerful than—"
"I've heard it before," Ranma grumbled. "He's already agreed to help us. I'm going to go up and say hello, show him where to land. If you can tell Herb he's coming, that would be good."
Her meal largely untouched, Rei found herself completely at a loss as to how she should act around Herb. The boy seemed to have a certain lack in his awareness concerning members of the opposite sex, and Ami wasn't being very helpful, seeming to enjoy Rei's struggle.
She couldn't place what it was about him that attracted her to him, but she knew it was there, and guessed it worked both ways, because he certainly seemed interested in her. "So, we, um, we're supposed to be the protectors of this world," she said, struggling for a conversation topic.
Yakumo wasn't much help either, just eating quietly and watching Rei and Herb with frank amusement. "Aren't we all?" Herb asked quietly. "That is what Ranma started this all for, isn't it?"
"Actually, he didn't start it," Yakumo said, rubbing his chin. "I think I heard on the radio when he joined, though. I was just hitchhiking into Tokyo then. The people in Tokyo had set up an organization called… eh… 'Defense', I guess. They had some motto about why the name was so cheesy. Anyway, it was set up by a man named… Noriyasu Seta. He and someone named Oe Kintaro started it up, and got other people to join before any reavers actually reached the city. Someone named… give me a minute here…. I asked around a lot — I was going to join, before the order to evacuate was given." He drummed his fingers against the table in thought, then nodded. "Aoyama something. Someone with that name started trying to fight the reavers, and within a few days, everyone who thought they could help make a difference joined up."
"Oe Kintaro?" Ami asked, blinking at Yakumo in surprise. "But he's the man on the Galaxy Police ship that I talked to about… um… about the Ethos array."
"Maybe he works for them, and that's why he joined Noriyasu," Yakumo said, shrugging. "Who knows? But I know Ranma — I spent a while talking with him on the ride out of Shanghai. He's not exactly modest, but wouldn't want everyone to think he was in charge of Defense — Noriyasu stepped down and gave control of that to Washuu."
"Interesting," Herb remarked. "Who else is in that group, then?"
"Well, if Ranma's part of it, then everyone who's fighting with him is," Yakumo said, shrugging again. "But the distinction is a little fuzzy, I think. I mean, the Marines are Marines, and they used to be part of America, but Norris-san said they're fighting together with everyone else for Earth. Doesn't matter what they used to be; we're all together, right?"
"This is very true," Herb agreed, bowing his head slightly. "I forget myself. Even if Ranma did not start it, he has made quite a difference. He has united my forces with those of the Joketsuzoku, and the powers of the phoenix people, as well."
"The who?" Yakumo asked, frowning.
"Ah, they live—" Herb cut off suddenly, spinning about in his seat and staring at the door as it slammed open.
Standing in the doorway, staff holding the door open, Cologne snapped, "Herb, Saffron is coming, and Ranma asked me to tell you."
"Even better," Herb said, grinning. "Follow me and see for yourself."
Swallowing nervously at a sudden feeling of worry that shot through her stomach, Rei nodded, and climbed to her feet. Herb strode swiftly through the door, and Rei trailed after him nervously. Outside, it took her a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimness, until Herb took her hand, and led her towards the central fire.
There, everyone stared upward, squinting, though nothing was visible for a moment, until a blinding blaze of fire lit up the night sky, a ball of flame a hundred meters across at least, soaring slowly upwards. Directly beneath the conflagration, two figures hung, slowly descending towards the ground, while dozens — perhaps hundreds — of figures further away circled outside the radius of the flame.
The light continued long enough for Rei to finally identify the figures in the sky, when they were less than a dozen meters away from the village. In his red robes, arms crossed over his chest, both wrists flaring with blue sparks of light, was Ranma. The other figure, with a pair of wings that trailed fire, beating slowly against the night air, and with one arm raised towards the heavens, was the man from her dream. The one that, even in the vision, had seen her.
"No!" Rei gasped, drawing in breath to shriek. "NO!"
Herb grabbed her, spinning her about in his arms, and swiftly clamping a hand over her mouth while she attempted — futilely — to yell about the complete and utter wrongness of it. How could that man be here? They had changed the future! They had changed what Serenity had shown them, and made it something else — how could it still end that way?
She sagged, unable to wrest herself from Herb's grip, and whimpered, leaning against him heavily. "Be very careful," he whispered tersely. "This is Saffron, the god of the Phoenix People. He must be treated with respect. Do you understand?"
Rei nodded weakly, and Herb released her mouth, allowing her to gasp for breath. "I'm sorry," she said, frustration running thick through her voice. "I…. I need to talk to Ranma."
"Right now?" Herb asked, one arm still wrapped across Rei's chest. "What is so imperative?"
"I can see the future sometimes," Rei said quietly. "I'll explain everything in a moment."
Herb sighed, and released her. "Very well," he said. "I trust you, then."
"Ranma!" she cried out over the whisperings of the others present. "Ranma! I must speak with you!"
He glanced towards her, then shrugged, whispered something to the winged man, and dropped from the air to land near her. The winged man followed shortly, furling his wings as he landed. "What's up?" Ranma asked, ignoring the incredulous gasps from the villagers, as everyone assembled to watch the spectacle.
Falteringly, Rei began to explain the dream she'd had, what seemed so long ago, aboard the Kitty Hawk.
After the explanation was complete, the winged man crossed his arms over his chest, frowning darkly, and shaking his head. "Ill tidings," he intoned.
"I don't quite get it," Ranma said. "Anyway, everyone meet our new ally, Saffron. Most of his people are going to go to safety, but some of them are going to stay and fight with us. Before I forget, though, I need to talk to Meiou. This might have something to do with that dream. Is she around?"
"I am," Setsuna answered, stepping away from Yosho, and emerging from the crowd. "What do you need to talk about?"
"Someone… someone in a white dress asked me to talk to you about Hotaru," Ranma said uneasily. "A ghost, I guess. She wants me to protect Hotaru. Is there something you're not telling us?"
Setsuna pursed her lips thoughtfully, then nodded. "Let us find some place more private, before I explain everything," she said quietly.
"Fine," Ranma grumbled, "but Saffron's part of this, so he should be there, too."
"Acceptable," Setsuna said, nodding. "I've found an abandoned building that will be adequate for the task." She glanced around, then sighed. "I supposed it would come to this…."
Setsuna shook her head, then said, "Follow me, Higurashi, Saffron. Ami, Rei, you should come, too. I'd rather not include anyone else I didn't have to." Yakumo shot Ami a questioning glance, but said nothing.
"I'm coming too," Washuu interjected insistently. "I'm supposed to be in charge of this whole thing, thanks to Noriyasu-san and Norris."
"Fine," Setsuna said, shaking her head. "But no more." With that, she spun on her heel, and began to march away.
Rei watched Ranma expectantly, but for his part, the boy just shook his head, sighing. "Man, just when I think I've got a grip on things, something else comes up," he complained. "Sorry about that, Saffron. Let's see what this is all about."
Once all of the attendees of the meeting were crowded in the abandoned house that Setsuna had indicated, she scanned them all, and sighed. "I'm not even going to ask who told you enough to know that I'd know about that, Higurashi," she said, shaking her head and looking him in the eye. "But I do want to know why you want to know."
Ranma nodded, explaining, "Like I said — the lady who wanted me to protect Hotaru said that I needed to ask you about her history to understand why, first."
"We would seem to have a great many clues," Washuu said thoughtfully. "We have Rei's dream, and whatever apparition advised you…. This would be much easier if I still had my lab."
"Perhaps," Setsuna said quietly. "At any rate, Hotaru is the Senshi of Saturn. The Senshi of death."
Everyone but Ranma stilled, staring in surprise. "This has to do with her telling me that she was made to destroy the world, right?" he asked.
"If all other measures fail, that is her purpose," Setsuna said, frowning at Ranma. "I have vague recollections, sometimes, of the processes involved from my former incarnation — I remember that there was a project concerning her at some point that I wasn't allowed to know more about than the name of. I suspect that's what this is all about." She sighed, and added, "I believe that Serenity told you to ask me, or else I'd never mention this."
"Serenity?" he asked. "Doesn't ring any bells. But she also told me that she," he said, nodding at Ami, "should be here."
"What was the name of the project?" Ami asked. "Perhaps if it's in the database on the moon, I can retrieve the information on it."
Setsuna nodded, eyeing Saffron uneasily, then turning her attention back to Ranma. "The project was called 'Silhouette'. That's not much to go on, but there was no Senshi Saturn until after it was complete, so I believe it's the key." Turning to address Saffron, she added, "I agree to let you know about whatever we discover here because it may involve you directly. If Rei's dream is at all accurate, you might be able to help us stop it."
"Perhaps," Saffron murmured. Ami focused her eyes on her computer screen, apparently tuning out the rest of the people in the room. "I have no interest in seeing this world destroyed — I cannot leave it."
"What do you mean?" Ranma asked, cocking his head to one side. "What's keeping you from leaving?"
"I am bound to this place in ways that are difficult to put into words," Saffron said, grimacing. "Suffice to say that whatever outcome we face, I must stay here. If the situation were ever dire enough to warrant it, I would sooner see this place destroyed than hand it over to the defilers that you speak of. But even my power is not so great as to destroy the world that spawned me."
"I've found it," Ami said, clearly agitated. "But the file is sealed."
"Sealed?" Washuu asked, calling up her terminal. "Give me a moment, I'm sure my computer can—"
"No, that's not it," Ami said, shaking her head. "I… I'm the administrator to the system. I can give myself access to it, it's just… it's the only file on the entire system that I can't access automatically."
"Is it?" Setsuna asked, alarmed. "What…. What does it say?"
"It says…. Here we go. It says that… Oh, this is about the Ginzuishou. Ah… originally the Ginzuishou was a single crystal…." Ami blinked at that, then shook her head. "It was about the size of a fist, and spherical. The technicians who worked on it didn't know where Amatera Omiki got it." She sighed, scanning through more of the information. "Um…. I think that the original crystal was…. Oh, the original crystal was made from something that had an inherent magical taint. They refined the crystal into two active components, one pure, and one impure… of course, the two crystals. The Ginzuishou was kept by Amatera, and the other was locked away where it could do no harm."
"That worked quite well, didn't it?" Setsuna grumbled. "This seems like the kind of thing that I think I should have been told about."
"You could be right," Ami said quietly. "But, there's more. They used the pure crystal for synthesis, and wanted to copy it to make power sources for other things. Ah… for… for us?" She shook her head. "They wanted to make additional crystals for the Senshi. They would work like the Ginzuishou, only less powerful."
"I see," Setsuna said, clearly disturbed. "I remember none of this. What does this have to do with Senshi Saturn?"
Ami bit her lip, tapping a few keys, then gasped in shock. "Oh," she said quietly.
The room was silent, everyone studying her expectantly.
"Well?" Ranma finally prompted. "What's it say?"
"Ah… the crystals… they wouldn't work in a refined state — they required both components to be active in order to function. So Amatera… Amatera had one made for each of the Senshi, and one more for… for her lover." She swallowed nervously, and added, "One for each of the Senshi except for Senshi Saturn, who received…." She trailed off, shaking her head.
"Received what?" Washuu asked quietly, placing a gentle hand on Ami's shoulder.
"She… she received the dark mirrors for all of the other crystals," Ami concluded, biting her lip. "Amatera's hope was that Senshi Saturn's energies could be manipulated in such a manner that the taint was physical instead of spiritual, resulting in Senshi who wouldn't live long enough for their full powers to manifest, while allowing the rest of the Senshi to operate without such limitations. The… the file here says that Senshi Saturn was to receive the dross of the other crystals…."
"That's pretty screwed up," Ranma said quietly. "So Hotaru's going to be weaker because of all the stuff that they stuck her with, right?"
"I'd need to investigate more closely to be positive, but at a guess, it means that if there's some sort of corruptive mental influence, that Hotaru would be more susceptible," Washuu reasoned. "Someone trying, for example, to control her thoughts. I think that's what you're supposed to protect her from, Ranma."
Setsuna shuddered suddenly, nodding. "That's true. She has been… It is something to watch for," she concluded lamely.
"So that's it?" Ranma asked, clearly disappointed. "All that just to make some girl sick, and easily controlled? That's pretty stupid."
"There's more," Ami said defensively. "It's just all very technical."
"At the core, I believe Ranma is right," Setsuna said apologetically. "It was calculated this way due to the nature of where our power comes from. This means that almost all of Usagi's power came from the Ginzuishou… so, for whatever reason, her ability to heal is innate." She rubbed at her forehead, and sighed loudly. "So much to deal with all at once…."
"This is all very interesting," Saffron said crossly, "but I fail to see what it has to do with me or my people."
"I doubt there's a link," Ami said apologetically.
Setsuna shook her head quickly. "I was hoping we could get some clue about Rei's vision, and Ranma's role in that. Hotaru has the power to destroy the world, but if she were to try, it would kill her," she explained.
"That would be the clue, then," Ranma said, nodding. "I was told I couldn't let her die on this planet. So I guess this means that if you want to blow up the place because the reavers start to win more, or something, Saffron, you're going to have to do it without her help."
The winged man nodded his understanding. "And your role, Higurashi? Would you destroy the world?" he asked quietly.
"Not on your life," Ranma stated flatly. "I'm here to defend it, not kill everyone."
Rei sighed, shaking her head. "I feel like I've just wasted everyone's time," she said mournfully.
"Perhaps not," Washuu countered. "We know what to watch for. We don't have to worry about it long, regardless. In a day or so, this should all be over, right?"
"We shall see," Saffron said quietly. "This place is too confining for me — I will leave now." With that, he opened the door, and slipped outside, pulling his wings tight to himself as he passed beneath the doorway.
"Enough of that," Washuu said, clapping her hands together. "Let's get some sleep before tomorrow."
"Sure," Ranma replied absently. "I'll just check on Hotaru first."
This time the dream was nothing more than absolute darkness. But the darkness was warm, and there was the sensation of gentle arms wrapped about him, a soft body pressed into his back, and warm breath brushing against his ear.
"What's going on?" he asked, blinking in a vain hope to clear his vision of the endless blackness.
"Be careful," a quiet voice warned in his ear. "We are hiding here — you created this place in the shadows between… between her realm and the waking world to protect me."
"Oh," he said, closing his eyes. "Shit. You tried to get me to remember everything, didn't you?"
"I'm sorry," she said apologetically. "I do not have enough power to say what needs to be said. It will take another to bring your memories to the fore."
"Crap," Ranma said clearly. He did not want to be so close to the woman, but after the horrors she had endured at Tokimi's hand, he couldn't begrudge her the closeness in the endless void they were hiding in.
"I need to know that I need to protect Washuu," he finally said. "Why did you say I needed to protect Hotaru?"
"I cannot…. I cannot say her name to you when I appear in such a manner, Ranma. I am sorry. But the bindings placed on me… Tsunami cannot remove them all, not until…." She trailed off, sighing, and Ranma felt her press her face against his neck, hot tears striking his skin. "To come so far, to no avail," she whispered. "I've fought so hard, and changed so much, but not in time."
"It's not entirely hopeless," Ranma countered. "I'm still trying to protect Washuu anyway, right?"
"Then we have that," Omiki allowed. "But for now, rest. Rest, and hope that the seal on these memories can be broken."
To be continued.
Author's notes: Special thanks to the entire Refuge staff for help on pre-reading this one — without them, it'd have been even worse.
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