A Duet of Pigtails
By Libby Thomas
Based on the characters and storylines of Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi and Magic Knight Rayearth by CLAMP
Shock to the System
In the middle of the Forest of Silence, a high-speed race was going on. A small figure was darting in and out of the branches of trees and thickets with a speed borne of fear. Behind the figure, a cacophony of noises sounded, dangerous and frightening under normal circumstances, but far worse in this place and time. The small amount of light that filtered through the treeline into the forest enhanced shadows and stretched nightmarish imaginations to the point that the small creature was flying like a creature possessed, in flight for its life...which wasn't that far from the truth.
Zig-zagging through a thin glade of blue trees in order to hide from whatever was causing that whiny sound, the figure finally alighted--more like slumped--onto a branch to catch breath. The sound went silent for a few minutes, and there was nothing to be heard, save for the omnipresent oppressive silence of the Forest, and the ragged breathing of the small being.
The fairy wiped a heavy amount of sweat from her forehead, and pushed the matted hair out of her eyes. She took breaths in large gulps, her chest heaving up and down from the exertion. Her muscles were tired from the sheer number of miles that she'd had to fly, far more than any sane pixie would do. But the truth was, there were no such things as sane fairies anymore; with the destruction of Mondeo, it was a very likely reality that all that was left was Minica, the daughter of the recently deceased fairy leader, Primera.
Violet-gray eyes searched the horizon, nervously, searching for something. Minica stood on the branch, trying to keep quiet while gasping for breath, trying to be calm while staying alert for her pursuers, and fighting back the tears from watching everything she knew die. She was at the moment, failing at all three, and the statuesque fairy stood in her torn tunic and leggings, tired, sore, jittery, and crying over the death of her mother. Her short, bobbed black hair fluttered in the light breeze, and she listened for some--any--sound that would give her a warning that her hunters were drawing nearer.
The forest grew quiet, a bit too quiet. All that she could hear was the hammering of her heart as it beat in her chest, the half-gulping, half-sobbing sound of her anguish, and nothing much else. That changed abruptly as a high-pitched whine sounded from nowhere, and a silvery-green slash of light appeared above her, detonating the immediate section of the tree above her. Without even thinking twice, Minica leapt into the air and took to the wing again, her survival instinct and the need to tell Castle Cephiro above all else. If anything, it would be Sanctuary for her--and most likely, home for the rest of her days.
Behind her, a sound like an unholy roar thrummed, and it sounded like it was coming closer. Her would-be pursuers were drawing closer, and the race for her life began. As she reached a relative clearing in the Forest, there would be little or no chance of hiding; she would be a clean, perfect target for them to hit. Desperate to survive, she dived low, skimming the ground with her body by mere centimeters, barnstorming through fallen logs, inching over rocks and stones, and performing more stunts than a flying circus. She was running out of options, and the hunters after her were bearing down on her with a speed she could barely keep ahead of. Worst of all, she still had miles to go before she would be near Castle Cephiro, and unless she ran into a bit of luck, she wouldn't arrive there at all.
As she zoomed past a rock, the object was hit by the same lime-colored wave of light, and it burst apart, shards of the stone flying to the four winds. A good-sized piece of the rock hit her on the back of the head, slamming her down to the loam. Despite the spongy softness of the earth, Minica skidded to a painful crash. Shaking off the dizziness, she fought against her flagging strength and readied to take to the air once more, but three successive, well-placed shots around her told her the inevitable had happened. She was a prisoner, if lucky; most likely, carrion.
Holding on and trying to muster up a brave front, a guttural and harsh voice behind her rasped, "Another bug for Daimler's collection, and the best one, too. Don't worry, little butterfly," the man commented in his ugly voice, despite the mock-smoothness of his voice, "You'll make a pretty display." Around him, there were other voices that had clearly broken into peals of laughter, enjoying his twisted sense of humor, as though death was a topic of light conversation. As the man's voice droned, she began to whisper prayers to the Goddess, to the Pillar, in hopes of a better afterlife than the death she was so clearly about to receive. Unknowing as to what she was doing, the man commented, "Best of all, you'll have company even in death--we're mounting you next to none other than the fairy leader, who I killed with my own hands--Primera, or something like that."
Something happened within the mind of the small being. Her mother's murderer, here, about to kill her as well. Silently, while Minica admitted to herself that she would never see the grand spire that was Castle Cephiro again, nor would she avenge her mother's death, she could exact a punishment of her own on the killer, something that while not fatal to the man, would still be quite painful. Turning around and ignoring the stinging sensation of the tears in her eyes, she snarled, "You killed my mother!" and pointed her palm at him. A green slash of energy lanced out and struck the killer in the right eyeball, popping it like a party favor.
He shrieked in pain, falling back and screeching, "To Hell with what Daimler said! Obliterate that little minx!" Minica suddenly faced what was three gray cylinders being pointed at her, each one with a green glow inside them.
A scream sounded, but not hers: "Get away from her, NOW!"
One of the would-be killers went flying back, propelled by a very painful kick. A blue and white blur appeared from nowhere, a primal force of fury attacking the quartet of thugs bent on killing Minica. Something flashed--the glinting steel of a sword, slicing one of the rifles in half, followed by a fist into the face of the second thug. As he fell, Minica's defender, a human female, charged the third combatant, who'd already trained his rifle on the woman and had already fired. The woman flicked a finger in his direction, and the laser splashed harmlessly against a rippling blue shield. However, that had given her enough time to leap into the air and come down upon him with a viciously fatal downward slash that nearly cut him in half. There was no response from Primera's killer, as he'd gauged the situation and beat a hasty retreat, melting haphazardly into the woods. Seeing how easily they were defeated by the woman, the two surviving thugs got up and made ready to attack in tandem, when the woman leapt in a spinning, ballet-like manner and laid a kick across the faces of the two men, bringing them down for the final time.
The heroine turned to face the final person, but the mechanical hum of a hovercycle taking off, already racing back into the depths of the Forest of Silence; her horse couldn't keep up with such a machine. Sighing, the woman put away her sword, then, calling her steed to her side, went over to the young fairy. Gently she bent down to scoop up the pixie, carefully and lovingly, a look of worry creeping into the woman's delicate features.
Slowly, Minica opened her eyes, looking at her savior. She opened her eyes to face a woman with long black hair, and piercing, enchanting indigo eyes. Her delicate features showed both beauty and strength, and it was enhanced by the athletic cut and curves of her body. She wore the throw of silks, scarves and clothing that was common to the world of Chizetam, though over this she wore Cephiran armor. The look in the woman's eyes was one of anxiety and worry, obviously directed at her.
Minica gave a wan smile and said, "Onnesama. You came to save me," before passing out in the woman's hands again. The Cephiran warrior then gently checked the fairy to see if there were any wounds. Satisfied that none were present, and that the smaller being was likely out of danger, she gingerly hopped on her steed and softly rode out in the opposite direction from Minica's assailants. Within minutes, the pair were swallowed up by the darkness that was the Forest of Silence, off to a destination unknown.
Hikaru woke up to the steady beeping of hospital monitors. She felt completely drained, exhausted beyond words, and in some serious pain. But she was alive, she'd defeated that witch from Cephiro, and had probably saved dozens of lives in the process. Not good enough, but not too shabby, either. It was enough to earn her a decent enough time for recuperation, though not enough to forgive her own self for not responding quicker, for not doing more to stop the slaughter that had occurred.
She heard a soft breathing to her side, and with a painful turn of her head looked at Ranma, half-covered by a blanket, sleeping in the chair next to her. A glimmer of wetness shone in Hikaru's sienna eyes as she realized that her husband was there by her side, as though he would fight the very essence of pain itself to ensure that nothing would harm her again. Despite the pain, she reached out to him, took his hand in hers and held it, feeling the warmth of his hand, the vibrancy of his ki, and the love she knew he had for her. It was there, in its entire splendor, all for her, and once again she was glad she had him in her life.
Still holding onto his hand, she drifted back into a more comfortable, easier sleep.
"Tofu," Nabiki commented, "I'm sorry to bother you at such a late hour." Indeed, that was true. It was about two in the morning, and Tatewaki had Dr. Ono Tofu flown in on one of the company helicopters. Tofu didn't look that great, but the truth of it was, she didn't know what else to do.
"It's okay, Nabiki," he half-said, half-yawned as he rubbed his eyes. "This is family we're talking about. I'm glad you did call. Kasumi and I would have been extremely worried otherwise. How is she?"
"You can ask the attending physician, Dr. Serikawa. He might be able to shed some light on the subject." With that in mind, Nabiki took her brother-in-law over to meet the doctor currently in charge of Hikaru. No sooner did the two meet than they'd begun bandying the medical condition of their charge. Nabiki, seeing that her job was done and that she was now nothing more than a fish out of water, stepped away from the conversation and allowed the two to continue. She was at the moment, looking for her husband or Satoru, but then remembered that both had taken Kuu and Akama to the Unryu farm. Ryoga and his wife didn't live too far from here, so they would all stay the night there and return in the morning. Ukyo, refusing to leave Ranma and Hikaru's side, was currently asleep on a couch in the visitor's lounge. Not really knowing what to do, the brunette headed off to the cafeteria for some tea.
Upon arrival, however, she saw Akama and Kuu's savior being questioned by one of the many police detectives here at the hospital; the national and local police were interviewing as many of the survivors as possible in a desperate attempt to try to make sense of the whole mess. She hadn't had a chance to meet the gentleman yet, but she owed him a debt of gratitude and honor for saving them, and never let it be said that Nabiki didn't pay up on what few debts she had. Time to settle accounts, not to mention get my mind off...other worries, she mused. Steeling her flagging will, she strolled up to the group, whose members were already well into the deposition.
"Well, well, well," the Japanese man said, his face an unreadable visage, not giving away any sort of emotion, though his voice hinted at a sort of passive annoyance. His face was handsome in a rough way, though his deep verdant hair was turning gray at the temples, more from stress than from age. His body was muscular and well built, and he moved with the grace of a panther, despite the current confinement to a business suit. "Well, fancy seeing you here, Michael Tseng. Or should I say Special Agent Michael Tseng of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, AKA Tseng the Mallard."
Michael tried to look offish about the whole thing. "Well, well, well. Senior Operative Oshiro Jubei, JSDF Security Section, better known as Kurogatana. Long time no see." He gave the older man a rakish, kid-like grin, then leaned against the back of a chair. "What brings you here, Jubei?"
Oshiro gave a dismissive wave. "When weird shit like this happens, the JSS always gets involved. Question is, what are you doing here, Michael? Word is that you've slipped your leash and came here to wash something. Worse, that Washington's not making the calls on this, and they're not happy with you. When Washington's not happy, my guys hear about it in full Dolby stereo. So what's the tale?"
The younger man raised his hands in submission. "Believe it or not, Jubei, vacation. Donovan kicked me off the roster for a few--said I was getting a little too out in unrealityville. I went to Fujikyu with a charming young lady I met at Narita when the defecation hit the oscillating air conditioner. I'll admit to having weapons and such--you know how I am--but innocents were jeopardized, and I wasn't going to stand on ceremony waiting for a 'Mother-may-I'. If anything, Washington's pissed because Donovan didn't let them know in advance that I was being shut down for a couple, but when the report goes in, I'm sure they'll understand. And the only washing I'm doing is my hair while in the shower. Problem with that?"
"So you're here on vacation, hmm? In an amusement park? That's not your style, Michael."
"Jubei, we've known each other since Peru, four years ago, right? You know I'm not going to BS you. I needed to get away for a while. Everything reminded me of Theresa, and I really was becoming unglued." He shrugged; Jubei was an acquaintance, and knew how much Michael had hurt over the death of his wife. "The girl I was with wanted to go to the park, and I relented. Admittedly, yes, I would have rather taken in something less pedestrian, but you can't have everything, right? Maybe if I'm lucky I can talk her into kabuki or something later this week."
Jubei smiled. "Same old Michael. Honestly, though, I'm surprised you actually went out with someone else. I thought I had you pegged for the 'mates-for-life' type."
Before he could answer, a voice said, "There you are!" A slender pair of arms wrapped around his, and a young woman leaned into him as she said, "I've been looking for you all this time, Michael-kun. I've been so worried!"
"Well, here I am, Shiki," he said, trying to hide the mixture of relief and puzzlement from his face. But, it had been enough to prove his story. Turning back to Jubei, he asked, "Anything else, Inspector?" The tone of his voice indicated to Jubei that the girl was in the dark about his true occupation.
"No, Tseng-san, but if you remember anything else, I would like you to give me a call. My number's on the card. Other than that, I hope this experience will not dampen your vacation in our country. Have a pleasant evening." With that, the supposed detective for the National Police walked away, melting into the distance.
"Thanks for the save, Shiki," Michael remarked as he watched his colleague depart.
Smiling as only a young girl could, she replied, "I never did care much for the police, whether it was Japanese National Police--" and her voice dropped by several degrees of temperature as she frostily continued, "--or the American FBI, Michael." The smile was gone now, replaced with a look that while couldn't be described as hostile, wasn't exactly as welcome as it was earlier. "Who are you, Michael, who are you really? Who have I given my heart to?"
"Given her heart to--?" Michael thought. He was about to reply when a new voice commented, "Excuse me, Mr. Tseng?" Michael turned to face that voice, and probably one of the sexiest women he'd seen in quite a while. He knew who this was, obviously: Tendo Nabiki. An already very attractive girl in her teens, she'd become quite the hardbody now, and being a typical male, something stirred for just a second in him even though he quickly fought it down. However, Michael planned to return to Honolulu as soon as possible, and avoid the old gang as much as he could; even if he was tempted, the platinum band on her right ring finger indicated that someone else had already gotten a hold of her--Kuno, maybe?
Nabiki bowed to the man, sincerely and honestly. "Mr. Tseng, my name is Kuno Nabiki. I'd like to thank you for saving my nephew and friend. My family is indebted to you." As she looked at him, she thought he looked just a bit familiar, like someone she might have known in her past, but those were few and far between, the thousands of 'clients' she had long ago not withstanding. She mentally shrugged; maybe he just had one of those sorts of faces that always reminded a person of someone they knew long ago.
Michael nodded. "It was no problem, Kuno-san. Anyone would have done the same." He grinned, adding, "and actually, it added a dimension to my vacation that I hadn't expected." He would have said more, but then Shiki stepped in between them with a sort of predatory attitude.
"Okay, Kuno-san, we thank you for your appreciation," Shiki said, in as much a dismissing tone as possible. "Michael-kun and I were only too glad to help." It was clear to both Michael and Nabiki that there were predatory tones and a hint of a challenge in her words, but the simple fact was that the girl couldn't back them up to either person.
Still, Nabiki hadn't come seeking a fight, and the girl was probably still a bit rattled from her earlier experiences, so such an event wouldn't do to improve her situation. So rather than deal with the rather bratty Shiki, Nabiki bowed and said, "Again, I thank you for your efforts, Tseng-san. Few would have been so noble or kind." Reaching into her purse, she pulled out one of her business cards, and gave it to him, saying, "Please give me a call sometime tomorrow. I'd like to take you and your...associate...out to lunch as a token of my gratitude." Nothing further to say, she thanked him once again and left the cafeteria, not bothering with the tea.
Shiki watched the woman walk off, and a smile lit her face. Turning to Michael, she whispered, "Well, we'll worry about that later. As for now, Michael, you still have some explaining to do."
The man did a double-take. "I do?"
"Yes," she nodded, dreamily. "While I don't mind having a man of action in my life, I do have to know when you'll be out of town. That way I'll have plenty of surprises planned when you return home, right?" She gave him a sunny smile. "After all, that's what girlfriends are for, ne?"
It took Michael just about all of his willpower to prevent himself from groaning. Something at the pit of his stomach told him that this girl was going to be a problem for quite some time, and that, of course, was something that he really didn't want to deal with. Especially since he really wasn't over Theresa, and this girl was years younger than him. Then again, maybe this was something that he needed in his life--someone new to share it with. Mentally sighing, the young man wondered if this girl, however, was that particular someone.
Minica woke up the next morning to the smell of something cooking. She lifted herself up, finding herself in a small knapsack that would have been perfect as a sleeping bag for her. She felt a few bruises and was completely exhausted, but other than that, she seemed to be fine. With a half-second's more of the aroma, she easily identified what was cooking: Plug and gear, that traditional Cephiran meal that was a staple at breakfast tables all over the world.
A voice above her said, "I'm sorry, Minica-chan, but this is all I brought with me from the palace. I was planning to stop this afternoon for supplies before heading off on my mission." The woman placed a tea saucer in front of the fairy with the food on it; the small platter was a bit oversized for the fairy, but it had to do under the situation. On it were one of the cooked stubby gray sausages that were called plugs, next to it was a pan-fried portion of the flat, star-shaped tubers that were commonly referred to as gears. Also on the tea platter were fairy-sized silverware. "It's a good thing that I'm used to carrying fairy utensils, right?"
"Thank you," the fairy said gratefully before diving into the food with gusto.
As Minica ate, the woman commented, "So, Minica-chan, do you want to tell me what you were doing in the Forest of Silence? You know how dangerous that place is, and if it was me you wanted to see, I was planning to stop in Mondeo this afternoon for supplies." At the mention of the village, Minica broke down into a sob, softly crying. Immediately, the woman abandoned her own food and moved to the side of the young fairy. Whatever had caused Minica to start into tears so rapidly heralded something that was probably going to be unpalatable to the ears of the human woman. Picking Minica up and giving her a gentle hug, the woman softly cooed, "It's okay, Minica. I'm here for you. I'm here for you."
The crying ceased after a few moments, and as soon as she caught her breath, a sobbing Minica explained exactly why. When she was done with the tale, the woman sat there, her eyes wet from tears, her face pale and her hands balled in fists. The entire fairy race save for Minica, obliterated in a matter of minutes, if the tale proved true. The fairies were in the period of the Festival of Mondial, the most important holiday for the pixies, and a holiday which no less than every fairy on the planet attended in their capital of Mondeo. The odds were extremely high that the entire race was, in fact, victims of genocide. The woman fought back tears; although some of her closest friends had been fairies, she had to be strong for Minica, who needed her now.
Silently, the pair began to pack up the campsite, readying for a journey that would go to Mondeo as planned, but not for the much more placid reason that had been there earlier. Now, a pall of darkness had settled on this already sorrowful trip, and both somehow knew it would get worse before it would get better. As both mounted the horse, with the human in the saddle and Minica seated just behind the pommel, they silently, quietly rode on their journey.
After a few minutes of relative quiet on the deceptively placid plains, Minica cleared her voice and asked, "Onnesama? I was wondering: what were you doing in the Forest? And why aren't you with the others at the palace?"
The woman cleared her throat and answered, "Well, you know the Forest, despite the danger, is the fastest route from the palace to the Jeweled Coast. The queen asked me to investigate the situation there. One of the crystal islands fell from the sky a month ago, and no one's heard anything from the shore villages since then. We're expecting the worst, but we're honor-bound to see if there were any survivors. Since no one else was available, Her Majesty asked me." The woman paused for a second, then in a quiet voice, added, "The other reason is that I had to get out of the palace for a while. Too many...memories."
Minica nodded. "I'm sorry, onnesama. But at least we're together, and at least our father is safe, isn't he?"
The human nodded at her younger fairy sister. "He's fine, from last I heard. And I hope he stays that way. If things get any worse, he may be all that we have left."
Nothing more was said as the two siblings rode off towards the remnants of the once-proud village of Mondeo.
"Thank you for coming, Tseng-san," Ranma said in the most formal tone he could. "I appreciate your assistance to my child and my wife's friend, and I am fully in your debt." Ranma admittedly had a hard time with the words, but the tone was heartfelt. He was blaming himself profusely for not being there to help Hikaru or Akama in their time of need, but at least someone had shown the courage to, and Ranma was not one to let his honor slide. But the words themselves weren't the only thing on his mind. "If there is anything I can do to repay the debt, Tseng-san, please let me know."
"It was the least I could do, Saotome-san," Michael said, keeping his voice as cheerful and honest as possible, despite the war in his mind. Here he was, after all this time, face to face with Ranma. Both of them had changed a lot, but Ranma more so, especially in his maturity. Michael was no longer facing the brash, impulsive asshole that he'd known when he was younger; this Ranma was an adult in every sense of the word. Still, it's hard to keep myself from bashing his head in, even though I no longer have a need or desire to. Some things never change.
It was a quiet period at Le Chateau D' Japponaise, a posh French place in Shinjuku where Nabiki usually took her clients for business lunches. Two days had passed since the inexplicable attack at Fujikyu, and true to her word, Nabiki decided to take Michael--with the tag-along Shiki at his side--out to lunch and for a pleasant chat. Although she had also insisted that Ranma's place was with Hikaru, and that he'd do much better being with his wounded wife than at lunch, both pigtailed adults insisted on Ranma's presence there; Hikaru even said she would have been there were it not for the various second degree burns, multiple lacerations, and broken ribs. At any rate, Hikaru would be spending a lot of time in bed until she fully healed, and that would give Ranma the chance to thank his son's rescuer. Additionally, if worst came to, Kasumi also said that she would be happy to help around the dojo until Hikaru was back on her feet. Cornered by both her siblings and her sister-in-law, Nabiki relented.
So here they were, Ranma staring at Akama's hero, and for the life of him, all he could think of was really how much Michael Tseng bore a similarity to his old foe, Mousse. Sure, there were clear changes, and even Nabiki agreed with him when he'd mentioned it to her. Trying to steer the conversation to something more neutral, he asked, "So, Tseng-san--"
"Just 'Michael', if you would," the American answered. "Tseng-san sounds too much like my father, and no one's ever called me Mike."
"Okay, then, just call me Ranma, then," the martial artist said, smiling. Whoever this guy was, he was at least more personable than Mousse had been. "So, then, Michael, what do you do for a living?"
"I'm just a businessman for your typical American conglomerate. Nothing much, just the 9 to 5 bit. Certainly not anything as interesting as you."
"I beg your pardon?" Ranma asked.
"I read about your dojo in a magazine during the flight here. Apparently, your school is noted for a rather unorthodox style of kempo, and is one of Japan's more noted institutions, right?"
Ranma issued a half-voiced groan, while Nabiki gave a sunny grin and said, "I'm afraid that article's my fault. My little brother and his wife are too dedicated to their arts to deal with business angles, so I try to give them a hand from time to time. A friend of mine was the writer for that article, and she had no problem doing me a favor, especially since she knows the dojo's reputation first-hand. We even managed to end up on some of the local maps."
Shiki blinked, as though she was seeing something for the first time. "Waitaminit...Saotome? As in the Saotome-Tendo no Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu Dojo in Nerima?" Ranma nodded, and Shiki went into histrionics. "Okay, Saotome-sensei, I, Nijirono Shikisai, heir of the Nijorono School of Freestyle Shotokan challenge you! We'll see whose dojo's better, yours or my mom's!"
Ranma sat there, merely raising an eyebrow at the words. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me, Saotome-sensei. I challenge you!"
Ranma turned to Nabiki. "Sis?"
Nabiki smiled, instantly understanding what he meant. "I'll have to pen in a date and time after I check with my secretary. My schedule's rather tied up over the next couple of weeks."
Shiki was horrified. "What? You're refusing my challenge?"
"No, we're having you fight someone a little closer to your skill level. This way you won't be too embarrassed when you lose," Nabiki said in her most sincere voice. "Like I told you yesterday, Shiki, you're okay, but you need a little finesse in your style. You're probably one of the best martial artists for your age, I don't doubt, but there are very few in this world like my brother--a genuine prodigy at martial arts."
Temper rising, Shiki bolted out of her chair. "Okay, lady. You and me, here and now. Unless your family school is worthless and both of you, cowards." Nabiki sat there, refusing to be ruffled by a kid; Ranma, taking a cue from her, held his bile in check and did the same. The look on Michael's face could only be described as somewhere between 'I can't believe this' and 'Shiki, you're making a scene'. Unperturbed by the scene she was causing, her ki aura flared to life as she said, "Well, what are you chickens waiting for?"
Ranma calmly said, "Okay, you asked for it." Without bothering to rise from his seat or even taking his eyes off the rather strong ki aura being put out by the girl, he dug into his pockets, producing a coin. Bringing out into the open, he pointed it at her and without any sort of ceremony, intoned in a rather bored voice, "Happogojuensatsu."
At once, Shiki began to feel herself weaken as she saw her ki being sucked--SUCKED?!?!?!?--right into Ranma's palm, through the coin he held. Using every bit of strength that she had, she tried to fight it, but it was to no use--whatever sort of ki move this was, it was incredibly powerful and extremely dangerous. Worst of all, Ranma hadn't even really bothered to move, and here he was, completely beating her. A second or two more, and she would black out from the strain, but still she stood there, not budging an inch even as her body began to wobble from the abrupt energy drain.
Ranma spoke after a second. "Please, have a seat, Shiki. I think I've made my point." Feeling dizzy and just a bit relieved, the girl managed to plop down into her chair, feeling as though she'd just been through the battle of her life. As she panted for breath, completely spent, Ranma reached over and took her hand and whispered, "Happo Tsurisen Gaeshi Kaiteban." The ki wafted out of his body, straight back into hers, and after a second or two, she began to feel back to normal. With a satisfied smile, Ranma sat back in his chair.
Michael looked astonished. "Incredible! I've never seen anything like that!" Well, not at least since the last time you fought Ninomiya Hinako, he added silently. Michael wondered when the last time the schoolteacher and Ranma ran across each other and gave him the chance to learn that move. "Where on Earth did you learn such a peculiar move?"
Pocketing the coin, Ranma commented, "Just a little something I've picked up over the years. I don't like to use it much, since I consider it cheating, but there are some times when it comes in handy." Looking at Shiki, he said, "You know, if you get good enough some day, I might teach you the defense for that."
Shiki blinked. "Why on earth would I want to learn the defense?"
"So it can never be successfully used against you again," Michael muttered. Ironically, the girl at his side seemed to be acting very much like Ranma had during his teenage years. Somewhere between his marriage to Akane and now his second wife, Ranma had been tempered. Maybe Kasumi had finally rubbed off on him.
"Oh. Thank you, Michael-kun. In that case, I accept, Saotome-sensei," the girl said, primly.
At this time, the food arrived, allowing them to eat, and forestalling any further conversation. Considering how the light chatting had gone, perhaps it would be for the best.
Kasumi turned towards the stairs, her voice emitting concern. "Oh, Hikaru-chan, you shouldn't be out of bed. You need to recover before you do anything strenuous." With Hikaru injured for the next few days, Kasumi offered to help around the dojo, since Ranma would be taking over both the martial arts and kendo classes in the interim and would be too busy to attend to household chores. It was only natural that Kasumi wanted to do something to help out her brother and his wife, and if there was anyone who knew every nook and cranny of that old house, it was Ono Kasumi.
"It's...ugh...alright, Kasumi-nesama," Hikaru said through gritted teeth. Despite her numerous injuries, the redhead gingerly hobbled down the stairs, intent on making it to the bottom of the flight. She'd been released from the hospital the previous day due to Tofu's cognizance, on the condition that she remain in bed for the majority of her recuperation period. Already a few hours had passed, and she was already trying to get back on her feet. "I just...erg...wanted to check on my children." Seeing the broom in Kasumi's hand, she asked in a strained voice, "Is there anything I can help with, Kasumi?"
Kasumi looked at the petite redhead with her usual smile. "You'd help best by staying in bed, Hikaru-chan. I have everything well in hand, and besides, you have to be well so that you can take care of your children, ne?" Right on cue, the twins began to cry, and with some effort, Hikaru turned around and painfully proceeded back up the stairs to her children.
As Hikaru reached the top of the stairs, Kasumi watched the petite woman with a mixture of love and bittersweet memories. Although Akane's presence was sorely missed, having Hikaru around made up for it. But although the redhead was a bit sunnier in nature than Akane had been, nothing could ever really make up for the loss of Kasumi's dear youngest sister. Additionally, the house tended to be quieter without the combative woman's presence, something even Ranma felt, and though this had been Kasumi's home all her life up until her marriage, time had passed on ownership and residents of the Tendo home. But that was just one of the things that had changed in the lives of the last two Tendos.
Kasumi thought about that as her eyes softly wandered to the family shrine near the doorway of the house. The world had turned, and what was once a proud family now was gone. With her parents and Akane gone, and with no male heir, the Tendo name would depart into the mists of time, even though the bloodline would survive through Akama and any children Kasumi and Nabiki would have. And although Kasumi and Nabiki were married and with their own lives, and practical adoptees of the Saotome family now, she still missed her loved ones very much.
"I love you Mother, Father, Akane-chan," she whispered, both to herself and the shrine. For a second, she felt as though she somehow connected with it, as though the ancestor spirit had wandered through the house and enveloped her in a comforting embrace, but that feeling immediately faded into the here and now. Feeling as though she'd somehow gotten her message across, she went back to the task of getting the house in order. After all, even though this home housed the Saotome family, it was and would always remain the Tendo dojo--something that had never been in question--and as the oldest of the family, it was up to Kasumi to ensure that it stayed at its cleanest and brightest.
"Kasumi?" Hikaru's voice flittered from upstairs. "Could you come here for a second, please?" Hikaru's voice broke in mid-pitch, and the older woman feared the worst. Trying to think of what was wrong, Kasumi went up the stairs into the twins' room--which at one time had been her own--and stared as Hikaru held the two infants, tears in her eyes. The redhead held her children as though she feared that they would be pulled away from her at a second's notice. "I can't, Kasumi. I can't let them."
"What do you mean, Hikaru?" Kasumi asked. This had already been the second time in the past couple of weeks that the redhead had been so dejected like this. Ranma and Hikaru had already gotten over that little difficulty, but what else did that leave?
"I promised him," she said in a mournful tone, "but I can't. Not while he's in danger. While my loved ones are in danger." As Kasumi sat down in a chair next to Hikaru, the redhead gently handed Hikama to her sister-in-law, whispering, "See? Hikama just loves his Aunt Kasumi."
"He's beautiful, Hikaru-chan," Kasumi said, gazing at the little bundle of joy in her arms, remembering when she held both Hiro and Akama, not so long ago. "But Hikaru, if you're in danger, Ranma will protect you. He loves you more than anything, and Chardan-san, as far as I can remember, was the only one who had a claim on the children."
"Onnesama, this is about more than mistakes Ranma made in the past, or people having a claim on my children. This is about someone wanting to kill me, even at the expense of murdering thousands of others in the process. I'm a threat to my husband and children, and that is something that hurts me more than you can imagine." Hikaru looked at Kasumi with a terrible cast in her eyes. "Kasumi, I'm afraid for Ranma and the kids. I'm endangering my family, and I have to do something about it, but Ranma would never agree to it. All he can think of is how Akane died, and then me. And I don't blame him for that; if the situation were reversed, I would worry, too. But someone's trying to kill me, and I don't want them to come after my family next."
As she sat there, continuing to talk to her sister-in-law, the red-haired woman made her decision. So long as the threat was out there, she and her family would never be safe. By no means did she want to return to Cephiro in any way, shape, or form, but there didn't seem to be much of a choice anymore, was there?
With a sad turn of her head, she headed for her bedroom. Not so much for the bed, but for her purse, and the cel phone that it contained within it. She had to call her husband and tell him of her change of heart on her promise.
The ride through Mondeo was otherworldly. Nestled on a small mountain only 1300 meters or so tall, the fog had yet to lift from the area, despite the time of day. The young woman, bound on her horse, rode through the curtains of dense gray, able to see the immediate growth around her, but not much else. The blanket of dim precipitate gave the place an eerie, holistic look, as though there was something sacred, alien about this place.
The image of that was shattered when the smell of charred wood and smoke wafted through the air. The woman gently told Minica to steel herself, that it would not be easy. Indeed it would not; the young woman had numerous friends amongst the little people. And as she approached Mondeo, the stench grew stronger, not only with that of wood, but a smell that was even more worrisome...what she had the misfortune to know as the carrion scent of burnt flesh. From behind her, she could hear the tiny sounds of Minica gagging, and that made the girl fight all the harder to control herself from doing the same.
Finally, the pair reached the clearing that was the fairy town of Mondeo. Sadly, the visibility was clear in this location, and seeing its condition, the girl would have preferred it remain obscured. The village, a miniaturized version of a human town, was almost completely razed to the ground in several places; those that weren't showed signs of heavy flame scarring or impact damage. Lilliputian bodies in every twisted and mangled condition lay on the ground. Small domesticated animals, used as beasts of burden, were hiding in corners or also amongst the dead. The few landmarks that had been in this habitat had been crushed into the ground, unrecognizable from their original conditions.
The woman got off her horse, taking care to guide its steps away from the damaged town; the horse, sensing something horribly wrong, was already skittish and the girl didn't want to agitate things any further. Tethering her horse by the guesthouse designed for human accommodations, the girl told a sobbing Minica to stay put. The young fairy wasn't the type to want to be around this sort of mess; this was a soldier's work, and not that of a pixie agriculturist.
A few hours later, the woman, covered in soot and ashes, and dirty from having buried several of the town's residents, crumpled to the ground by her horse. She'd just built a mass grave for the entire town; one human-sized grave plot was all that she needed. What was left of the town would remain as the grave marker for what had transpired, and she would have to talk to Guru Clef about setting up magic wards to keep this place as it was, a memorial for a proud but now decimated tribe.
There was a soft flutter of wings, and the last known member of that race landed gently on the girl's shoulder. "Onnesama, are you okay?" Minica held onto the human woman's neck as though it were here only lifeline left in this world. At the moment, that wasn't too far from the truth.
"I'm just tired, Minica-chan," the human responded in a dull voice. "Thinking about how the world will deal with this. I'm not sure how I'm dealing with this right now. I don't know how you are, and you were here for--" The woman bit off her words. The fairy had just, for all intents and purposes, lived through hell. There was no need for the young woman to remind her of that. So instead of continuing, she said, "Minica-chan, I have to get to the coast soon, and with this war, I'm afraid we don't have time to sit here. We have to leave soon, and you know what that means."
Minica nodded, as a solitary tear worked its way down her cheek. "Will...will you give me time to say my goodbyes, onnesama?"
"I have to as well, Minica-chan." A solitary tear, the first of many, worked its way down her cheek. "I had friends here too." Getting up to her feet, the woman headed back towards the grave town of Mondeo, both ready to say goodbye at the site of one of the first atrocities of the war. The fairy sat down on her shoulder, already unashamedly crying over this mausoleum that had once been a thriving town.
An hour later, the pair began a slow trot away from the town, headed towards their next destination, their footsteps likely the last sounds that would ever be heard in this town.
"Hikaru, you can't be serious about this," Ranma said into the small cel phone he held in his hand. He'd stepped away from the coffee table conversation that he, his sister, and their guests were having at the moment. Nabiki steered him away when she found out it was the redhead on the other end, and that was the only call that Ranma was willing to leave the table for, at any rate. Now, it wasn't looking like such a hot idea.
So far, the group had had a wonderful lunch, and had discussed other things besides martial arts and the like. When they had found out that Michael was here on a working vacation, Nabiki immediately called her secretary and cancelled the rest of the day's appointments. With that in mind, she was going to be showing Michael and his rather bratty escort around the town. So far they'd seen a lot of the major sites in town, and at the moment, they had stopped at the Garden Café, an artsy little place across the street from the Imperial Gardens. Known for its modern art sculptures and water fountains, the place held little comfort for Ranma right now.
Meanwhile, Hikaru's voice, sounding determined yet shaky, continued to pour through the speaker: //Anata, I've made up my mind. This is something I have to do, or we'll be running forever. They came to that park to kill me. They would have killed all of us if I hadn't fought back, and you know that. I know what emotional cost it had on you to bury Akane, but think about how it would have been if you'd had to have buried me, your sister, and our son, and gone to Kuu's funeral as well.
//Ranma, I can't let them do that to us. I have to fight back. I have no choice but to go back, even if it's the least thing I want to do.//
Ranma had to prevent himself from crushing the phone in his grip, or to shout into the line. "Hikaru, what about our children? What do I tell them? That their mother's gone and she might never come back? What about the twins? They're not ready for you to leave so soon."
//I'm not sure,// she answered after a moment's hesitation. //My parents were always wandering around, training, and left us younger kids in Satoru's care until they died. I don't want that for my children.//
"And I don't want them on the road, Hikaru," Ranma replied, feeling helpless, as though he was fighting a losing battle, one in which he would lose his wife. "I did that when I was a kid, as did Ryoga and Ukyo, and all three of us can tell you that's no way for a child to grow up."
//I know.// He could hear her pain on the other end, feel her desperation and the conflict inside her soul. //Anata, this isn't something I want to do, but I have to protect all of you, or we'll never get any peace. And,// she said, taking a second to contemplate, //there's another reason why I told you all of this, anata. I want you to come with me when I go.//
There was only one thing he could say to that. "Okay. I'll go with you. Maybe I can leave the children with Nabiki. I'd rather not, but if it's the only way I can keep you safe.... We'll talk about this tonight when I come home, okay?" She said she'd be eagerly waiting for him, and gave her love and regards to Nabiki and the others before hanging up on her side.
Emotions bubbled up in the young man. On one hand, he felt relief at her asking him to join her. It would mitigate his fears about not being able to protect her and to be there for her, and it was just another way of her showing how much she loved and cherished him and what they had together. On the other hand, there was the problem on what to do with their three children. The only sensible thing to do would be to leave them behind in the care of either one of his sisters or her brothers, Nabiki probably being the best choice. But to do so would be to do something that both were very dead set against on: not being able to have their family together.
But what good would having the family together be if they were going to be plagued by assassins all the time? Sure, Ranma would fight off anyone who came near them, but even he had to admit that he couldn't be there all the time. Hikaru might be capable of protecting herself--she'd more than proven that at the park--but what about the kids? Also, what if the list of targets expanded to include other relatives and friends? Several of them could take care of themselves, but what about the non-combatants like Kasumi and Kuu?
As much as he didn't want to admit it, Hikaru was right. Distasteful as it was, there was no alternative other than to take the fight to them. The only thing that bothered him was her words that on that other world, she was revered as a goddess. So if that were the case, what could have happened on that world that would make them send people over here to kill the one they worshipped? He didn't have any answers for that, instead choosing to stare at the mock waterfall sculpture that rained water down into the fountain.
"Ranma?" Nabiki's voice radiated concern. He should have known she'd come and spy on him. Not so much out of her old ways, but more out of love and concern for him. Almost as an afterthought, she said, "We're getting ready to go over to the gardens itself, and...."
"How much did you hear, Nabiki?" His tone was neither accusing or insulted. If anything, he could use her advice right now.
"To be honest, I only caught you saying goodbye to her," she answered plainly. "Ranma, you know I haven't...done what I did when I was younger--"
"Spying, you mean?" he said with a smile on his face as he turned to face her.
"Well, yeah, if you want to call it that. But the point is, I haven't done it in years, because I know that you'll tell me when you're ready to." She then crossed her arms, looked straight at him and said, "And frankly, I think you'll want to tell me now why people from Hikaru's homeworld are attacking us."
"I don't know why, and..." Ranma's brain kicked in as he realized what his sister had said. "Nabiki, what are you talking about? Hikaru's not an alien. I think you've been watching too much Urusei Yatsura."
"I'm sorry, Ranma," she parried, "maybe I should have been watching Ah! Megamisama, instead?" Nabiki had to admit, he'd gotten much better about hiding his surprise over the years. Only someone of Nabiki's caliber or someone who'd known him for a long time could see through that iron visage. "She told me, Ranma. Not everything, but enough. I find it pretty weird that you married a goddess, Ranma."
"Tell me about it," he mused.
"But the main thing I want to know why someone is threatening my brother and his family. I want to know because I won't stand for it; neither will Tatewaki. I want to know, because I intend to do something about it."
"Nabiki, this isn't your fight," he said. "I won't allow you or Kasumi to be dragged into it." Seeing her eyes narrow, he backed off a bit and added, "Look, sis, I know you mean well, but this isn't some corporate raid, or even anything that we've dealt with in the past. I don't know how to describe it. There's no real way to describe it, I guess." He sighed. "Besides, this isn't like when Akane was dragged off one of a million times, or when you guys were nabbed on Toma's island."
"No, you're right, it isn't," she said, her eyes dark in a mix of sorrow and determination. "This time, you have people able to ready themselves for it." She ran her hands through her hair and sighed openly. "Ranma, my parents are dead. My sister is dead. You and Kasumi are all I have left as links to my life. I've been powerless for too long, seen my loved ones perish and not being able to do a damn thing about it. After a while that gets on your nerves.
"I have a chance to do something now, and I'm going to. I know that you and Hikaru are more than capable of defending yourselves, and would probably end up rescuing me more than half the time. But how would you feel if you were in my shoes? You taught me my family's arts, and your own." Holding up her hands, she said, "and how could you feel to have that power and not be able to use it?
"The other day, at the park and in all that mess, I finally mastered a ki attack--I wish you were there for that, you would have been so proud--and I was able to use that to defend myself and others. Maybe it was a one-time thing: I haven't been able to do it in the past couple of days, but at least I was able to do it. I was able to protect and defend, just like you. And now you want me to stay out of it? No way.
"You know me, what I'm capable of. We've learned a lot from each other, but not everything. And while you may not have taught me everything you know, neither did I teach you the same. But most of all, you know that I've always done what it took to protect my family. And I'll continue to do the same, with or without your approval. You may be head of the family now, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stand by and let you and Hikaru shoulder this alone. Not one damn bit."
"Nabiki...." he pleaded, even though he knew that he'd lost--no surprise there. He couldn't refuse her, neither in the days when she held something over him; or now, when she simply reasoned perfect sense.
"Forget it, Ranma, you know both my mind--and yours--is made up." Turning away from him, she commented, "Well, I have our guests to attend to; join us at the gate when you're ready. In the meanwhile, call Hikaru and tell her that I'll be there tonight, so we can figure out exactly how to deal with this situation. We do have to be prepared for action, you know." Nothing more to say, she headed off back into the café to gather up her guests.
As she walked off, Ranma stared at her, utterly incapable of speech. He blinked a few times, then turned to look at a nearby fountain, which looked like a cross between Pac-man and a clam. Not knowing what to say, he merely watched as the jets of water went from the tubes on the top down to the ones on the bottom, channeled into a destiny that had been preordained for them. Not, he reflected, too unlike what he was feeling at the moment.
On the balcony of her private chamber, Fuu sat, wearing a blouse and slacks, sipping tea and watching the evening sky. She didn't look much like a Wind Knight or a queen at the moment, but more like the innocent girl she was, seemingly so long ago. Placing the cup on the table and looking once more at the stars, she tried to make sense of them, either trying to discern constellations, or maybe search for the Milky Way. She had once theorized that Cephiro wasn't so much in another dimension, but possibly in another galaxy, maybe even another star system in the local area.
None of this was helping her calm down at the moment. The fact that her best friend and husband were out there somewhere, and her not knowing if they were even alive, made her feel more powerless than she'd ever felt before. Worse, she knew that this as-of-yet unnamed enemy was involved in wholesale slaughter, and the reports about the death of Mondeo were proof of that. Worse yet, the apparent death of Primera was a heavy blow to Fuu. The little fairy was a close friend, and to hear of her tragic fate cut Fuu even deeper to the bone than she was already feeling.
But the worst of all was that for all her power as the Wind Knight, it was all useless. Cephiro needed their queen on the throne to guide them into battle, to assure the people that the kingdom stood tall. By Ferio's and Umi's capture, not only had the kingdom been negated to a degree in its leadership, but the action had also effectively crippled the Magic Knights as well, rendering both out of action. Fuu's friends were capable generals and more than an asset in the field, but without her own power out there to deal with the situation, that left them exposed. Such an action could not be tolerated, so that left Fuu only one recourse.
That recourse was to summon Hikaru back to Cephiro, a decision that Fuu had been anxious over, since. The fates knew that Fuu wanted to see her other best friend badly, but never under these circumstances. It would have been hard enough, knowing what came between them once. It would be worse now. Far worse. And even so, there were still questions to be answered in all of this: was she still alive, and able to come? How much had she changed? Was she married? What was her life like now, after so long apart from her friends and back on Earth? Would she still be the same bright and bubbly Shidou Hikaru that the blonde remembered, or was there now a person far different?
From out of her shirt, the queen pulled a pendant locket on a golden chain round her neck, and opened it. The picture was still there; of a time so long ago when they were just teenagers, the three of them, a happy trio. Oh Hikaru, I'm so sorry to have to have called you, Fuu thought, thinking a prayer to the goddess of this world that was more than just a deity to her. But you're my only hope now. I just hope you'll answer.
Tapping the magic crystal on the table, she looked once more at the reports coming throughout her kingdom. Five towns, including Mondeo, had already been ransacked. This still-unidentified army was engaged against her forces; the smaller number of the enemy was offset by the fact that their firepower and mystic arsenal was superior to that of Cephiro's, it seemed. And to tell the truth, she had no idea if the enemy was as small as they appeared, as reports had only given information on smaller groups with more power than Cephiran troops.
The situation's growing worse by the minute, and there isn't a damn thing I can do about it, Fuu mentally snarled, shutting the binder with a frustrated shove. She sighed, uncertain of what was next. Grabbing her tea again, she took a sip and went back to staring at the stars, hoping that for just a few brief minutes, all that was transpiring would make sense.
Suddenly, a bluish-white glowing sphere appeared at her side. Knowing what it was, she didn't bother to move; she'd seen plenty of these messenger orbs in the past few days. //Your Highness?// the orb intoned. //Lieutenant Alero here.//
"Yes, go ahead, Lieutenant," she intoned. Alero, one of Zazu's mech pilots, was currently part of the home ground. A relative newcomer to the Cephiran forces, the young man showed a natural, instinctive skill in piloting the mecha that was the technological mainstay of the military. Additionally, he'd shown so much promise that he was commissioned as an officer by Ferio himself a few days before his fateful ride out to Hiace. Currently serving as Presea's aide de camp, he was quite a talented, impressive young man, and an asset to his world and queen, now more than ever.
//You're wanted in the War Chamber, my queen. It see--// The voice cut off suddenly, and Fuu brought her head up short. That never happened before.
//Gimme that,// a voice sounded, and she sighed in relief. Not only was it not an immediate threat, but the voice was very familiar. //Fuu, I hate to break your attempt at relaxation,// Presea said, //but we just received word that the ARK CEPHIRO has engaged two starships up there. Both are heavily armed and fired first. The markings are unfamiliar, and they're not from any of the other worlds.//
"I'm on my way there," Fuu said, rising from her seat. She knew exactly what the weaponsmaster's unspoken fear was: if the ARK CEPHIRO was destroyed by the enemy ships, they would have uncontested control of the air, and every Cephiran was a sitting duck. Worse yet, in addition to the crew of the ship being at risk, Ascot was aboard as the situational commander, and if he was lost, that would be a blow to Fuu and her circle of friends.
Taking one last look at the stars, Fuu whispered, "Starlight, star bright," canting the old Western lullaby, then making her wish as was the tradition. She just hoped that her wish would come true, and that Cephiro would make it out of this mess intact.
Because right now, the chances of that were growing astronomically slimmer and slimmer.
Fetid, rotting slop was thrown on Ferio. "Wake up, little man," the guard said. "You wouldn't want to miss the daily show, now would you?"
From where he was, shackled against the wall and temporarily flash blinded by the sudden harsh luminescent change, Ferio cringed at what he knew was to come. He was physically in better shape than the others, seeing as he was left physically unharmed, and was relatively unbothered, save for the slop they fed him, the fact that he'd been in the same clothing for a few weeks now, and that he was very unkempt. With the exception of the some minor details, it would look more like Ferio got the best of the lot.
The truth, however, was far worse. He'd been placed in a separate cell from all the others, far enough away from them to prevent chatter between the individual prisoners. Sadly, however, their fates were being given to him in the most horrific way possible: he got to experience the pain of what was happening to the others, courtesy of what was being done to them and a few creative magic spells by his cell-keepers. In short, Ferio got to experience every horror that his comrades were experiencing, from the near regular atrocities the men were forcing upon Umi, to the daily regimen of torture that they were giving to LaFarga. Every once in a while, they would execute one of the men that remained of Ferio's guard, and he would feel the simulated pain of being skinned alive, shot in the head, death by gassing, or whatever perverse pleasures the guard would inflict on them...and by extension, him.
Silhouetted by the light, framed as darkness, the man who threw food on him sneered, "And what shall we do to them today, Ferio? The Lady Umi has had more than enough rest since her dalliance with Captain Arnage." Captain Arnage, as Ferio knew all too well, nearly killed Umi, beating her into submission, then strangling her as he had his way with her. When he left her, she was extremely fortunate to be alive. Ferio could still feel the fear and pain that she endured throughout that ordeal. That, and many others.
The voice continued, not expecting an answer from him. "I could go on and on about what we could do with the Lady Umi, but I suppose you're the imaginative sort, so I can just let you fill in the blanks. And besides," he said with a vicious cast to his voice, "I haven't even begun to catalog what we could do to your other friend, LaFarga."
Ferio growled a short bark of anger, snarling, "Leave them alone, damn you! I'm the one you want, not them! I am King--it is I who you should put to your fiendish tests!"
"Spare me your nobility, O King of Cephiro," the guard said in mocking tones. "I care not for your bullshit. Besides, you're in luck today. Lord Daimler has decreed today to be a personal holiday for us, since we have captured the town of Grand Marquis." The guard noted that Ferio's shoulders sagged a little, as they should have; Grand Marquis was one of the largest cities on the planet, as well as one of its largest military garrisons. "The fortress was razed to the ground, admittedly, but we did negligible damage to the homes, with minor casualties." There was a pause, then, "As a result, Lord Daimler feels that even you deserve a little leniency, so I've been told to give you an option: you will be given a day to spend with one of your comrades, Lady Umi or Lord LaFarga. One will be brought here to keep you company for the day, while the other will be subjected to extreme torture."
"Bastard," Ferio spat. He was reminded of the old Cephiran fable that his sister had read to him when he was younger, a intellectual puzzle called The Challenge of the Demon's Choices. He knew the concept to be universal, because he was also present when Fuu had told their children a story from her homeworld, a similar tale known as The Lady or The Tiger? However, now, he was placed in the role of Sir X'Terra from the Cephiran tale, the prisoner of the other. He was being offered a cruel choice, one that would give one of his friends a respite but would plunge the other into unspeakable pain. But, as King, did he have the right to decide which one would be the one to suffer?
He had no alternative, though: despite the fact that he knew who was to suffer at his choice, he also knew that person would agree. LaFarga might be on the verge of dying from the torture, and he might never get to see his wife again, but that was a small price compared to when they were both in the same cell, watching what they had been doing to their third friend. Yes, LaFarga would understand Ferio's choice, and encourage it. Yet Ferio couldn't bring himself to feel proud about his choice as he mumbled, "Spare Umi. Bring her in."
"A wise choice. She needs a rest anyway, the men say she's been boring as of late and needs some time to rest before she can entertain men again." With that, he strolled back out the door, towards the glaring, harsh light. Turning momentarily, he muttered something in that strange, guttural language that was theirs, then walked away. Two more men tossed a limp, dangling, but obviously female figure into the room, laughing, then walked away.
The woman hit the floor, whimpering in pain as she did so. Ferio, stretching his chains as far as he could, leaned forward and whispered, "Umi?" In the few seconds she didn't move, he took a good look at her. She was scarred, bruised, burned, bitten, and lashed in countless ways, her body a network of welts, discoloration, and scars from the shattered beauty that was her face to the tips of her toes. One eye was swollen shut from a brutality done to her; her nose also appeared to have been broken more than once. The monsters had shaved off any sort of body hair on her in a fit of cruelty; while her hair had come back, it was currently far shorter than his and would take years before it was the length that she'd had it at so long ago. Lastly, they'd stripped her of any dignity whatsoever, leaving her with no clothing but a dog-like collar that glowed as blue as the summer sky; her power was probably being kept in check by the artifact.
As injured as the woman was, she managed to scuttle instinctively towards the nearest corner, sobbing, "Stay away from me, please...."
"Umi, it's me, Ferio." At the sound of his voice, she seemed to stop trying to crawl into the deepest nook of the corner and stared blankly in his direction, as though such a miracle like that was not possible. "Yes, Umi, it's me. It's not a joke or a trick."
"Ferio? Is that really you?" she asked, her voice as small and timid as a mouse in the forest. When he nodded, she approached slowly, cautiously, looking at the bedraggled, bearded prisoner. When she finally recognized him for who she was, she crawled into his arms, breaking down into an uncontrollable sob, unable to even speak. All he could do was to hold his friend gently, and try to do what he could for her, which was, to tell the truth, not much.
"I want to thank you all for coming," Hikaru said, seated gingerly on one of the ground pillows, staring at all of those around her. "Frankly, I didn't know anyone else was going to be here, but...." She looked at Nabiki, who merely gave a Cheshire cat's knowing grin. Nabiki had dragged several people into the situation; namely, all of their friends and plenty of relatives, and even looped that American and his crazy schoolgirl galpal into it. Nabiki had dinner catered and brought to the dojo to speed things up, as she apparently didn't want Kasumi tied into making dinner, though she eagerly would have.
As Hikaru looked around at all the faces assembled, she dimly remembered what Ranma had told her a few times before: that the nice and kind Nabiki was also one of the more ruthless people he knew, and that she would move mountains for family, regardless of the cost. When she had been younger, he said, she was so determined to make money for the family to keep them afloat, she did it in rather unorthodox ways that made her look like a gold-digging ice princess. When Hikaru had first heard that, she couldn't believe that Ranma would say such things about his sister, seeing that there was no way she was like that. Seeing the look on Nabiki's face now, somehow, she thought that maybe there was a kernel of truth to his words--quite a bit, especially in light of the fact that this roundup had been all Nabiki's orchestration. Hikaru had only planned to tell Nabiki that both Saotomes were leaving--not the whole crowd. Apparently, Ranma's older sister had other plans.
From where he was seated, Satoru focused on his sister. "Well, Hikaru-chan, we're here, so you have our attention. In fact, a lot of us are gathered here--it almost looks like a war party."
"Um, Satoru-nisama," she answered in an embarrassed tone, "that's exactly what this is."
"Huh?" Ryoga asked, clearly in over his head--as usual.
"Perhaps this will explain." Hikaru nodded to Kuu, on the other side of the room. Without any attempt at being ceremonious, Kuu held up a small candle. Hikaru simply stared at it for a second before thrusting her hand out and canting, "Hi no ya!" A thin, arrow-like blast of fire leapt from her hand, tore across the room and perfectly slammed into the extra-large candle wick, which had been made larger not for targeting purposes, but so that the fire arrow wouldn't impact against anything else.
Most of the eyes in the room grew extra-wide at that display, knowing that was no ki attack, but a blast of fire. Having caught their attention, Hikaru thus began her tale of her life in Cephiro, how it started, continued on through two wars, and to the very end, when she was "crowned" as the Pillar of that world. She then went on to describe her life afterwards, from Fuu's marriage to Ferio, to Umi's betrayal. She filled in every detail, and as she spoke, two things happened.
The first was that despite their utter amazement at how different Hikaru was than they thought, they noted a considerable change in her as she spoke. To the people that knew her on a regular basis, Hikaru was a charming young woman with a skill for the sword art, but not much more than that; a few knew of her pyromancy, but thought it to be ki. Now, as she spoke, her demeanor changed, as did the tone and timbre of her voice: it slowly changed from her normal tones to that of a woman who knew how to command troops as sure as any general in an army; the voice of authority. Additionally, the look in her eyes changed as well, from the warm, friendly light that they associated with Hikaru, to a steely glitter that seemed sharper than any blade and stronger of purpose than any zealot. This, then, was the woman within that few of them had ever known.
The second, though not noticeable to many in the room save Nabiki, was a definite glitter of pride in the countenance of Saotome Ranma. It was more than just a pride in his wife that she'd noticed; it was the praise of a fellow warrior, one of which had, if even half of what Hikaru was saying was true, faced things just as frightening as Saffron or Taro. Ranma swelled up with a joy towards his wife that could not be measured in easy terms. It was as though during the period of her discourse, she was proving herself to easily be the equal of Ranma, something that added up to another reason he cherished his second wife just as much as he did his first.
As the minutes wore on, the majority teetered between disbelief and amazement at the person who sat on the cushion over by the go table. She wasn't who they thought she was, not by a long shot, and they would never have that impression of her, ever again. And as she concluded her reasons for going back to Cephiro, they knew that their respective worlds, whatever walks of life they were from, would never be the same again.
"I feel that having all of you here to hear this might not have been a good idea," Hikaru said. "I only wanted Ranma to come, if only to prevent the worry that he'd feel over my placing myself in danger. But Nabiki says she'll step in, and I see she's roped you all into this, too. Well, I can't stand for you being drawn in. If you want to come and help me, I'll welcome your help gladly. But only if you want to.
"The world as you know it is about to change, and I don't want any of you to be hurt in this. This is my battle, and something I need to accomplish. But I'd gladly have you at my side." Smiling and once again the Hikaru they all knew, she said, "Take some time to think about it tonight. If you really wish to come, be here the day after tomorrow at eight in the morning, if you would." Her eyes glistening with something that could not easily be described, she whispered, "Thank you all."
A few hours later, the group had moved to the engawa, discussing what had just transpired. Though most of the guests had left, Ryoga, Ukyo, Satoru, the Kunos, and Kuu remained behind. Feeling exhausted after her speech, Hikaru had gone to bed for the night. The Saotome children had already gone home with Kasumi and Tofu, where they would stay until--if--their parents returned.
"Ranma, you're not goin' anywhere without us," Ryoga said to the pigtailed martial artist. "Don't even try to talk me out of this one, Saotome."
"What about Akari? She's a few months pregnant, isn't she?" Ranma reminded his friend. "You know I'd love to have you at my back, man, but how can you leave Akari when she needs you the most?"
"She'll be fine, Ranma," he answered. "She'll understand what's goin' on, and why I need to go with you. Besides, Hikaru said she'd bring us back after a few seconds, so I won't miss a thing."
"I'm afraid you don't understand, Ryoga-san," Kuu commented. "The gateways to Cephiro are neutral ground. Hikaru has no control over it and no control over what time she can bring us back. Every time she's passed through a gate, the time differential has varied. The first time was a second. The second time was a weekend. The third time was a week. The timeframes seem to grow longer. You could be separated from your wife for months or even years. Do you want that?"
While Ryoga looked as he'd been slapped, Ukyo spoke up, staring straight at the man she'd loved all her life. "Look, you probably know what I'm going to say but I'll say it anyway. I only have two things in this world: you and my restaurant. One's not any good without the other. Ranchan, I'm going with you, and nothing you say is going to change my mind. I don't have to worry about the restaurant, because I've closed it before for vacations, and..." she paused for a second, as though gathering courage, "...if I don't make it back, my will shows your family as the sole heirs."
"Ukyo, I...." Ranma was lost for words, not knowing what to say. But he did know how to thank her. Wordlessly, he took her in his arms, embracing her in a warm, loving hug. When he broke off, he whispered, "Thanks, Ucchan."
"You're welcome," she said, blushing.
"Well, that's my sister that's going into that mess," Satoru commented. "I've watched her grow up, and I'm not going to let her--or you, Ranma--die on some forgotten world. I'm in."
"Verily, as am I, Saotome," Kuno replied. "Though foes we once were, brothers in bond are we now, and my blade is yours. Your family is in threat, including my lovely wife, and none shall threaten the House of Kuno or its affiliates and hie away with such a scurrilous act." Ranma nodded, accepting both of his brothers-in-law into the fold.
"Well, if you're going, then I'm going," Kuu said, with an unusually firm tone in her voice. "If Fuu's in trouble, then I should be there for her. I'm not a fighter like the rest of you, but I'll do whatever I can."
Ryoga looked up, looking from Ranma to Ukyo to Nabiki. "I'm not letting you three go without me. You're the closest friends I have, and though my wife might need me, you do. I may get lost, but I don't run out on my friends."
"Well, then it's settled, then," Ranma said, sounding actually a bit relieved. "Like Hikaru said, everyone be here when we're supposed to go. I know that some of you have last-second business to attend to before we leave, so it's best that you take care with what little time you have left before we take off."
Eventually, they all filed out, leaving only Nabiki and Ranma, as Kuno was charitable enough to see Ryoga to the subway on the way to the Kuno manor. Ranma turned to his sister just as she was about to leave as well. "Nabiki, do you think we're doing the right thing? We're not kids anymore, and can't just wander off and scour the countryside like we used to."
The young woman's brow furrowed. "I don't know, Ranma; I wish I could answer that. And I'll admit that I'm afraid of all of this. But I'm more afraid of losing my family, and I'll use whatever shitty skills I have to protect my loved ones." Reaching over, she gave Ranma a quick hug and said, "Tatewaki and I have some last-minute details to take care of, but I'll be by sometime tomorrow. I need help with that ki problem I told you about."
Ranma nodded as his sister walked out onto the engawa. "Not a problem, sis. Oh, and Nabiki?"
"Thanks, for everything." The sunny smile she gave him was enough to warm his heart for a while and him renewed hope. "Oyasumi, Nabiki."
Michael woke up in his hotel room, drenched with sweat and panting in the darkened room. He gulped heavily, not so much trying to gasp for air as gulping it in for fear of his life. Wiping the sweat off his brow, he frowned, then pulled himself out of the bed and went to the balcony.
He had that damn nightmare again. He knew it was pointless, useless, but try telling that to his overworked imagination. It was always the same, too. He would arrive fresh from his mission in Iraq, just looking forward to taking a few weeks of downtime with Theresa, who should have just got home from some business in the capitol while he was out there. It was time to spend some quality time with each other and start working on that family they'd always wanted--he knew she went on about it enough times.
Walking into their lovely little home just off Diamond Head, noting that Theresa wasn't home yet. However, there were a bunch of messages on the answering machine. A couple from Theresa's friend Rei, one or two from telemarketers, one of them from his buddy in the Army up at Wheeler, inviting him and the missus over for a BBQ, and then one from Donovan, the one that plunged him firmly into hell.
Michael sank to his knees, shivering, as a silent cry of pain came to his lips. He stared at the moon, waning in the cloudy evening sky, and shook like a palsied man. "Theresa...." he sobbed, though another name came to his mind as well: Xian Pu. He'd loved twice and lost twice, and now there was a third one at his door. Could he afford to love again? He wasn't sure.
Forcing himself back to his feet, he walked over to the minibar and grabbed an Asahi. Popping it open, he went back to the balcony and stared out at the somewhat peaceful view of the Tokyo Friendship Bridge and beyond that, Tokyo Bay and the Pacific. Seating down in one of the deck chairs, he continued to watch the endless motion of the sea, feeling the breeze blow across him and hearing taxis driving around Ariake Island, shuttling people to and from the attractions there.
Gazing back into the evening sky, he whispered, "Theresa, what should I do?" There was a chance that if he went with this group, he could die. That, he didn't care too much about, as he really didn't have much to live for. He figured he'd have to tell them his real profession, not that he considered that an issue; in fact, it might be a plus in this situation. His secret and past could be revealed, and they might turn on him, he theorized, but then brushed aside that thought. Ranma was honorable, that much he knew, and he trusted him now so that wasn't an issue.
So what was it that he was so afraid of?
"You're afraid of love, aren't you?" The question drifted on the breeze, musical in its tones. "You're afraid to love, and what you feel isn't entirely right, but you know its something that comes to you." Michael craned slightly over the tip of the balcony to look at a young woman, drunk as hell and tottering home alone, singing a beautiful song, though he couldn't place the tune. After a few minutes though, her boyfriend picked her up and put her in a taxi. Thus, the music ended.
But not without its cause. "Am I afraid of loving again?" he asked himself. After a second, he shook his head. Nevermind the nonsense; he had two days to prepare for what he was about to do, and had to come up with sufficient bullshit reasons why he should "officially follow this possible threat to National Security".
Besides, he thought, as he got out of the chair and went back inside, it was likely that Shiki wouldn't come. She was, after all, just a martial artist who knew nothing about war. She was probably more accustomed to beating up school bullies, and the incident at the park merely a nightmarish event in her life. In any case, though Michael thought she was cute, he certainly didn't feel the need to invest in a girl throwing himself at him, especially not in the situation that he was about to face. War-borne romances never worked out.
Downing the rest of his beer, he went back to bed
Seated in the rock garden in her home, Shiki was sitting, meditating. Actually, meditating was probably not the most accurate term for the situation. "Perplexed" would fit much better. This was something she'd never really dealt with before, and she wasn't sure how to handle it.
She'd fought against the monsters of her childhood horror. No biggie. She'd met the man who she was sure was the one she'd marry someday. While that was important, that wasn't the issue at hand. She'd run into some of the most powerful martial artists around. Nothing big there; someone had to be second best. Until that day, she always thought that honor of "almost as good" applied to everyone else.
The past couple of days had taught her differently.
She'd lost. Repeatedly. Lost in ways that really, truly counted. One of her best friends died just the other day, killed by those creatures, while Shiki could do nothing in time. Shiki, always wanting to envision herself as a hero and worthy of the heritage of her family's dojo, proved herself to be nothing more than a kid with a good-luck streak when it came to fighting. A lucky streak that deserted her just as she needed it the most.
Since then, she'd put up a brave face in front of Michael, and used her aggression against the Saotomes, but what good did that do? Nothing. She was still just a ho-hum martial artist, a simple girl that the great Saotome Ranma didn't even bother to deal with. She was nothing.
As she sat there, tears building in her eyes, a simple question came to her mind. And if you are nothing, who will avenge Mariko? Who will show the enemy that they cannot murder blindly? Who will be at Michael's side to love him and fight for him?
ONLY ONES OF HONOR CAN DO SO. The words, inscribed on the large rock in the middle of the garden, spoke to her. Her mother had told her that a dozen times, had said that no matter what, it was the basis of who they were and why they came here. Nijirono Aoi had brought her daughter from China to give them a new chance at honor and life. Nijirono Shikisai had grown up to become a beautiful young woman with talents that few had.
She was not nothing. She was a warrior, as true and sure as those she'd met in the past few days. And warriors, to ply their trade true, must have honor. And to satisfy that honor, justice must be served. Only Shiki could deliver that justice.
Rising from her seat, Shiki walked into the house. She had to leave a note for her mother that she would be going on a training trip and a mission of justice, to avenge her friend. But before that...
Shiki went over to the quarry section of the garden, the area with the large boulders she and her mother used to practice some of their more powerful moves. Whispering, "As sure as I am Nijirono Shikisai, I vow that I will avenge the death of my friend and all those that have suffered at the evil that was foisted upon us! I swear it on my family honor!" Pulling her arms back, she gathered ki as her aura flared into emerald flame. "BAKUSAI TENKETSU REIZAN!" Fist cocked, she punched the ground, as her hand began to glow with emerald energy, swirling like a star on the verge of going nova. Upon impact, the ki discharged into the earth, and a massive burst of rocks and dirt blasted into the air, as a snarling, rippling blob of energy appeared in the hole. The pulse of ki then raced along the ground, tearing apart everything in its path until it crashed against a massive stone, splitting it in half with no problem.
Admiring her handiwork, Shiki smiled. The Bakusai Tenketsu was one of her family's oldest moves, another art that no one save her family could master. She'd be surprised if anyone outside of herself and her mother had heard of it. For the longest time, she'd been working to refine it, and now she had done so, into a more potent form.
Heading back towards the house, she grinned. Saotome-san might be good, but there's no way he could know moves as powerful as my family's arts. Maybe if I offered to show them to him, he might teach me that ki-draining move. Or better yet, she thought, reflecting on Michael's words, the defense.
Nabiki threw a punch at Ranma's head, which he easily danced out of. However, she was quick on the turn and launched a roundhouse that Ranma had to move at a split-second to outmaneuver. As always, he never threw punches and mainly just dodged, but unlike Akane had, Nabiki took it as a sign that she merely needed to be faster. She already knew that her brother respected her martial arts skills; she merely needed to expand on them.
There were no classes today, nor would there be for a while. Ranma had already called all the various students of both the Saotome-Tendo martial arts school and the Saotome-Shidou kendo school and explained that there had been a family emergency, and thus the school would be closed for about a week. Hikaru had wanted him to only close down for a day or two, but Ranma insisted on a week, as it would give them a few days to recuperate, once they returned from the crisis in Cephiro.
With nothing going on, Nabiki had taken the day off from work to spend it all with her brother, working on her skills. She wanted to go into battle with no doubt of her skills, and he readily agreed. So far, she'd kept at him, refusing to let up until either she was the victor, or most likely, Ranma got bored and tapped her out, signaling the end of the match.
Well, time to show him a few of her new moves, she thought. Leaping back, she called up her aura as a ball of ki formed in her hands. Crimson light danced on her lemon yellow gi, giving it a temporary hue of pale orange as she focused her power into the attack. Thrusting her hands forward, she released her Tenka Atsuryokuha...
...only to see it fizzle out as it left her palms. She was so surprised, that she barely felt Ranma tap her on the shoulder, ending their sparring match. Panting, she grumbled, "What happened?"
Ranma leaned against the wall, barely perspiring; he had to admit, Nabiki was giving him quite a workout--she was improving by leaps and bounds, and at the rate she was going, she'd be almost as good as him someday. A part of him idly wondered why she'd not kept up with her arts for the longest time; Nabiki was proving to have better potential for martial arts than Akane did, if only because she was calmer. A second later, a phantom pain seemed to tap him on the head, a psychological reminder that Akane would have bashed him for a remark like that, without realizing it was meant as a compliment for Nabiki.
Akane.... Time obviously didn't do much to still his love for her...or the pain of her loss. Shoving it back down into a corner of his mind, he promised himself he'd deal with it later. He briefly looked at Nabiki, and her face showed the flicker of concern. Did she know what he was thinking of? Probably. Ironically, Ranma and Nabiki as siblings were closer than Akane and Nabiki were.
Stop that, Saotome; change the subject. Analyzing what she just did in comparison to what she told him she'd done a couple of days ago, he asked, mainly to get his mind refocused, "Well, did anything feel different from what you were doing now as opposed to what you were doing then?"
She opened her mouth to say something, then paused, as thought she suddenly thought better of it. After a second, she continued, apparently back on the original line of thought. "Well," she admitted, "I don't think so. I focused my emotions into the blast, and hoped that would be the thing that would do the trick. But it seemed to sputter out."
Ranma stood next to her and put his arms around her in an instructor's grip. "Okay, focus." Nabiki did so, and felt the aura flicker back to life. "Think about the emotion you've chosen, then loosen your hands, and let me guide you. Nabiki did so, conjuring the images of her loved ones in her mind, feeling the warmth of her aura as it grew stronger and stronger. "Okay, let it go, towards the dummy by the wall." Nabiki punched forward this time, carrying the blast through her right fist as the energy rocketed out, boring through the dummy--and the wooden wall behind it. The blast was finally stopped by the outer wall of the compound as it heavily dented the plaster and stone, severely damaging but not destroying it.
"Hey, it worked, this time," she said, looking at her fist, then the path that the wave of destruction had caused. Turning to Ranma, she inquired, "Why now?"
"Well, I thought about it, and remember, you're not learning my family's arts, you're learning yours. You throw attacks just like Akane, and your father before that. You don't release it through your palms like me and Ryoga, you propel it forward by punching." He went over to the bench in the room and grabbed a pair of towels, handing one to Nabiki, sighing as he did so...
...and leaving Nabiki with her entry. "Ranma," Nabiki said in a somber voice, "I'm not going to tell you to forget about her and I wouldn't expect you to, and I know you've moved on, but do you think there'll come a time when you can think about her or talk about her without the pain? It's been five years now."
"It still hurts, though. I don't think that will ever change, sis," Ranma replied in a calm voice--at least he managed to move that far. "Don't get me wrong, I've learned to move on, but I'm always going to hurt a little when thinking about how I lost her. But maybe that was part of the grand design of life." He placed his towel around his neck, looking down at the wood of the floor. "I'm still trying to figure out how to explain it to Akama."
"Why do you say that? How hard can it be?"
"Nabiki, he's always had a redhead in his life, and a woman with short, dark hair. To a baby, my female form was Hikaru, and Akane was you. That's the only life he's ever known, Nabiki. No matter who gave birth to him, Hikaru is his mother. And believe me, I do plan to tell him about Akane when he's old enough to understand, but it's not going to be easy."
Nabiki sat down on the floor, where Ranma quickly joined her. "You know, Ranma, between you and me, sometimes I feel as though she's not gone, like she's right here with us still." For emphasis, she tugged on the top of her gi, the article of clothing once having been used by Akane on a regular basis. "Maybe it's just me, knowing that I've lost both my parents and my youngest sister. Hell, not even Natsume and Kurume ever returned; maybe they found their real family and we've lost them, too."
"I don't look at it that way," he responded. "I was an only child for most of my life. Then, I married into your family. I may have lost my wife, but I also gained two of the best sisters anyone could ever have."
Nabiki favored him with another of her sunny grins. "Same here, little brother. You know, it doesn't seem so long ago that you and I couldn't really sit in the same room and talk like this."
Ranma nodded. "Yeah, I know--we were different people then, though. Besides, it reminds me of a quote I once heard: all changes affect you in different ways, but in the end, they're all for the best."
Nabiki arched a brow in amusement. "Oh really? How so?"
Ranma pointed a finger at the wall and grinned. "Well, one good change is that at least now we can afford to pay for fixing the walls in the dojo." Nabiki's answer was to giggle at that.
Asleep in her bed, Fuu had tried to get a decent night's sleep. That ended when her youngest child, Altra, entered the room. "Mother, when will Father come back?"
Fuu stared at the little princess. Altra looked very much like her deceased aunt Emeraude, from the long flowing hair, down to the elfin smile the girl usually wore. About the only difference was that Altra had inherited her mother's eyesight, so the girl wore a pair of glasses that were similar to Fuu's own. "I miss him. And now with him not here and Marino out on there as well...."
Fuu sighed. How could she explain things to her daughter? She was, in Fuu's opinion, too young to learn about the ways of war. But just how much older was Fuu when she first came to this world? Not much older, certainly not much wiser. But Fuu's was a different set of circumstances, and she hadn't even thought of motherhood back then.
"Well," Fuu said delicately, sidestepping the current issue, "would you like to sleep here for the night?" When the girl nodded somewhat eagerly, Fuu slid over, allowing her daughter to crawl into the sheets. "Feel better now?" Fuu inquired, and the girl shook her head.
"I'm worried, Mother. Why are we being attacked? Is that what Father is out there, doing? He and Marino? Are they okay? What about Aunt Umi and the others?" She turned her head to look at the window, and watch the stars. "I'm afraid that they'll hurt us."
Fuu hugged her child and played with a lock of her hair. "We'll be okay, Altra-chan. Your father and the rest are out there fighting to protect our people. You have to be brave and believe in them, Altra. You're a Princess, and people expect you to be brave." Kissing her daughter on the forehead, the Wind Knight added, "No matter what, there is always hope."
As if in answer, a bright light began to glow on Fuu's dresser. The light came from a single rose made of solid Mikasa crystal from Japan, on Earth. The crystal rose began to glow brighter and brighter, filling the room with a soft, warm red light. The crystal, amongst the King and Queen's most valued treasures, had been a wedding present from a close friend higher up on the rank chain than they were.
"What is that, Mother?" Altra said, squinting to look at the rose, as it filled the room with a light bright enough to illuminate the huge bedroom.
"That, dearest heart," Fuu laughed, tears of joy welling in her eyes, "is the light of hope."
Altra, thinking about that for a second, asked, "The Pillar Goddess, Mother? Is it her, after all this time?"
"No, not merely the Goddess," Fuu answered, hugging her daughter close to her in an exhilaration of joy and relief. "Something more important. My friend is coming." Hoping out of her bed and running to the balcony, she pointed her hand into the air and loosed a blast of her magic, a tight spiral of jade wind that fired out into the air like a beacon light. "Hear me, my people, and rejoice," the queen yelled joyously into the night, "for the Pillar is coming! Hikaru is coming!" Granted, it was probably not the most brilliant time to make her proclamation, but the people of Cephiro had to know that the tide would soon turn.
Her words and actions did not go unnoticed, for within seconds, the contingent of Cephiran nobles who were still in the palace had come to the queen's door. "Fuu!" Carina said, being the first through the door; one of the younger nobles of the land, the young woman was also involved in the war. "Is it true?" The young woman stopped short and was nearly knocked over, being jostled by all the others that had filled into the room. "Hey, d'ya mind?" she snarled to the rest.
Fuu's response to hold up the glowing crystal rose. On that day, Hououji Fuu, the Queen of Cephiro and Wind Knight, swore that she'd never seen such rapt looks of joy at any time in her life.
Morning came to Nerima, and with it, the group assembled on the lawn of the Saotome home. The group had arrived en masse, with no one bowing out. Surprisingly enough, even the girl Shiki and the American had shown up as well. The whole scene looked like something out of a decade past: Ukyo, with double bandoleer of her throwing spatula knives and battle spatula; Ryoga, backpack, umbrella and all, ready for action; Satoru and Kuno, dressed very casually, but with the swords of their families at their sides, sharpened and ready for action; and the American, Michael, standing also in casual clothing, looking unconcerned and unarmed, though everyone suspected that wasn't quite the case.
Standing next to Kasumi, Kuu was making the final checks on their supplies. Having really no fighting abilities, she'd taken for herself the position of being the person in charge of the supplies. Though Hikaru stated that it wouldn't be needed, since she could come up with anything off-hand, Nabiki suggested that it would be best to have some supplies on hand in the event Hikaru was otherwise occupied. Goddess though the redhead might be, she was still human and subject to distractions and misdirection.
But the truly impressive sight were the four martial artists in the group. All four blazed with power that was so potent that it could be felt. Ranma stood in the center, giving his son a quick talk before they would leave. He wore his long sleeve red tang, the shirt that was as much his trademark as the pigtail. At one side was Hikaru, looking in only slightly better shape than she had a couple days back. For some reason that wasn't clear, she wore similar clothing to what she wore at Fujikyu. She held her twin children in her arms, and was also involved with the conversation that Ranma was having with Akama. The third in the group was Nabiki. Sitting on the grass next to Ranma, she was looking around at everyone and everything, as though she feared she might not see it again. Likely due to her loyalty to her brother, she too was dressed in a tang, this one a sleeveless forest green. The last of the four was the teen, Shiki. She came dressed in a peach gi with rolled up sleeves and the heavily decorated black belt that signified her mastery of the Arts. Ironically, Kuu noted, it was interesting to see the three Japanese artists dressed in Chinese clothing, with the Chinese girl dressed in Japanese gear.
The chime on her watch sounded, and Hikaru said, "Well, that's that. Time to open the gateway." Turning to Kasumi and reluctantly handing over her children, she said, "Please take care of them, Kasumi-nechan. They mean the world to me."
"I will, Hikaru-chan, Ranma-kun," Kasumi vowed, taking her niece and nephew into her arms.
"Take care of your brother and sister, Akama-chan," Hikaru said as she hugged her oldest child. "Listen to your aunt and uncle, and make us proud, little one." Young Akama turned and hugged his mother fiercely, then his father--Ranma had long since moved past his father's somewhat antiquated sense of manhood. Finally, the young boy went and hugged Nabiki, sadly looking at the three adults most prominent in his life. Then, trying to be brave as his father, mother and aunt, he grabbed Hikari and strode off to stand next to his Aunt Kasumi.
As Kuu gathered up the stuff she was to carry, she asked Hikaru, "Will they be safe? I mean, they made it over here once, so what's to stop them from trying again?"
Before Hikaru could answer her, both Kuno and Michael said, "Don't worry; I've got that covered." As both realized what the other had said, the two looked at each other uncomfortably, not sure of what the other meant by his words. Neither, however, was forthcoming as to what plans had been made for their guarding of the Saotome home, but instead gave each other knowing looks.
"Okay, everyone stand back," Hikaru said, as she focused. Closing her eyes and putting her fingers together in a temple, she began to open the gateway to Cephiro.
Ranma whispered to Kuu, "I thought she could only do this at Tokyo Tower, and with her glove," to which the blonde responded that since her Ascension to Pillarhood, she could open the gate wherever she chose, and that her gauntlet was nothing more than a beacon now. Though with her Pillar's magic limited only to gateways on this world because of the gods on this side, she still had the pyromagic of the Fire Knight, which obviously had been good enough.
As the pair continued their chat, Hikaru's fire aura flickered around her, tiny slivers of it flickering and tapping the grass around her, yet not scorching it. Heat waves danced around her, giving her an otherworldly, supernatural look. Suddenly, though, the red aura turned into a bright white light, as the flame aura was subsumed by her greater power, that of her goddesshood. A wind felt only by Hikaru pirouetted around her as the ivory-hued mana spiraled around her, the Knight Commander in the center of a double helix.
There was a flicker of soft red, and her clothing melted away, leaving her fully unclothed. As the magic continued to spiral around her, most watched in awe as the various scabs, wounds, and birthing scars on Hikaru that she'd gathered the past few weeks disappeared, her skin firming, body toning, muscles returning to their normal strength and agility; and Ranma, Nabiki, Satoru, and Kuu giving the other men present dark stares as they wiped away nosebleeds.
Finally, there was a second burst of soft red light, and a uniform of sorts snapped into being around her. A dress of bright red with white and gold accents and matching armor, popped into being. White knee-high boots with gold appeared, as did bracers of the same décor. A fiery cape of red settled on her back, and a tiara that looked like the sun coming over the horizon settled on her brow. As it did, Hikaru, eyes still closed, broke her handclasp, and drew her arms back, as her back arched, floating off the ground. Finally, she pointed at the air, tapping it gently.
A rip in space occurred where she tapped the air, revealing a rosy maw in the air that rapidly expanded to slightly larger than human proportions, a wormhole where one wouldn't naturally occur. As it stabilized by means of a golden hoop flashing into being around its edges, the magic whirlwind stopped around Hikaru and gently set her back on her feet. Wiping a bit of sweat from her brow, she said in an embarrassed tone, "Sorry about that; I can see I'm out of practice."
Seeing that she was wearing the uniform of the Fire Knight, she said, "I think this is a bit too flashy for me nowadays." Snapping her fingers, there was a moment's flash of fire, and when it disappeared, her tang and pants had returned, and her gauntlet had disappeared. In its place, the red Escudo gem and its golden setting had been inset into her old uniform's bracers, now shorter and similar to Ranma's own black ones.
Smiling, she said, "Well, ikimasho?" Taking her husband's hand, she ushered everyone through the portal, waiting until all that was left was her, Ranma, and Nabiki. Taking a second, she placed her head on her shoulder, and sighed.
In a cracking voice, Nabiki looked at the house that she'd lived in for most of her life. "You know, I'm really going to miss this place," she whispered. Putting up a brave front, she smiled and said, "Well, see you two lovebirds on the other side," rushed over and gave her older sister a final hug, and moving forward, stepped through into the portal.
Finally, all that was left was Hikaru and Ranma. "Together, anata?" she asked, earnestly.
"Always," he said, smiling.
Taking a final time to wave goodbye to Kasumi and their children, Ranma and Hikaru turned and walked into the portal, stepping into...
Part Six: The Return
I'd like to thank all my fans and pre-readers for waiting for this long awaited new chapter to the saga. I've been busy lately, and at one point even considered turning over the series to someone, but thanks to your support and mails, this series will keep going for a long time.