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Act IV: Body and Mind

A Ranma ½ story
by Brian Randall

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ is property of Rumiko Takahashi and Viz video

Notes: This act screams to be written in a surrealist style. I make no promises.

Safely ensconced within his skimmer, Keitaro removed his pipe from his pocket, and a moment later, his father's card. "Sorry, Dad," he whispered. "I know you hate it when your kids ask you for help."

He rose from his chair and moved to the large steel door that he could hear the guards pounding on. When their armor proved too weak to batter down the steel that the Musk had mined, smelted, refined, and then given to the Tendo clan to forge, they would resort to a pneumatic ram.

Placing the card against the reverberating door, he tapped it once with his pipe, pleased at the small glow that suffused it, sealing it to the door. And more importantly, sealing the door from the outside.

He studied the image on the card, the sign of infinity, and a genially smiling man completely aware of the precipice he pranced upon. He smirked, ignoring the other images — the animal following the figure, the flower in his hand. "Thanks, Dad."

Retreating from the door to the bridge of his skimmer again, he eyed the monitors and telltales. "Heavy, heavy, heavy…" he sighed, as he plotted how to retrieve her without aggravating an already dire situation. "Gotta figure this one out," he muttered. "There's a way."

Hands bound before her, she sat in the empty supply closet, alone. She had tested the bonds briefly, but given up.

The soldiers who had bound her knew what they were doing, and her own foray into martial arts had been decidedly brief. She was the farthest thing from a warrior she had ever known of. Hands trembling, she raised them to her collar, asking in a quavering voice, "Keitaro?" He voice caught, and she coughed. "Keitaro?" she asked again more clearly, fumbling for the communications pin. "Are you there?"

His voice answered three heartbeats later, tinny and small through the miniscule communications device, "I hear ya. What's wrong?"

She tried to calm herself. "I'm scared, Keitaro. They tied me up and locked me in a closet. I don't know what's going on."

"Never should 'ave trusted them," he remarked sadly. "I'ma gon' have ta track ya down. Can you sing, Ranko?"

She stared at the slim light of light that shone underneath the door, frowning. Not 'Miss Tendo', but 'Ranko'. Stifling a hysterical giggle, she asked, "What should I sing?"

"Do you know 'Sweet Blue Days'?"

This time she did giggle, failing against her panic, but quickly stopped herself. "Yes, my mother loved it. Why do you want me to sing?"

"To track you down," he replied, annoyance staining his voice. "The bunker's pretty thick, and stops most of the Tama's sensors dead — added to the guards I got pounding the beat on my door already… Oh, never mind. I'll do it," he grumbled. She blinked. That song was a duet…

Keitaro's voice, strong and resonant, began calling softly through her communication pin. Drawing herself out of her stupor, and pressing the button to lock the communication link open, she picked up from the second verse, singing along with him.

His voice assured her, as he left her to sing alone, "That's good. Keep it up."

The liquid surrounding her rippled, shimmered, and fell before her will. The gelatinous substance began to thicken, stiffen, then shrink, dissolving into a bluish powder.

A calm, collected corner of her mind noted and filed that information away, as she sat up, still clad in her torn Chinese clothing. The wound on her chest had sealed itself, now little more than a scar and a memory. The more present part of her mind seethed icily, and she extended a hand towards the glass barrier between her and the sniveling, cowardly men before her.

The glass compacted, shimmered, and finally shattered, as a thin layer of ice swept out from around her feet, enveloping everything.

"Vengeance," she whispered, staring at the small islands of safety around the two men, clinging to one another like frightened children. "Vengeance."

Their relationship, he knew, was hardly traditional. It was something that had begun out of necessity, and evolved from that.

What it had turned into, however, was something very real, and worth more to him than all of the steel his people could mine for their allies. More than his heritage.

And so much more – oh, so much more — than their lives.

Ki-flame became true flame in the blink of an eye, bathing and pouring from his body like molten hate itself.

They would pay.

Shia Hai stood at the remains of the icy spire, now a rudely bisected pile of icy chunks. The serrated edges gleamed in the light, and she drew her goggles down to protect her eyes. Tactical displays and updates scrolled by slowly, and she thumbed them off, trusting her aides to notify her if there was a problem.

The compound was still and quiet below her. Her earplug carried the faint murmuring of technicians as the operation proceeded. A faint message came across the link as the power-armored soldiers admitted their inability to penetrate the hull of the… unclean thing's vehicle.

She left the command to her second, and switched off all but the most important channels. Whipping her shoulder-length hair about wildly, a stiff wind rose. Her gear protected her from the cold, much bulkier survival and thermal protection than Miss Tendo had worn. Miss Tendo's flagrant preference to comfort and fashion fell short in Shia Hai's own perception, however.

The Tendo girl's clothing might have protected her from the cold, but it wouldn't stop bullets. Her clothing, of course, would stop conventional ballistics, and was tested to block out the majority of the rads in a blast. Surviving the blast was a risky proposition at best, but it would allow her to weather the fallout and live to serve the People another day.

Sighing audibly, she stepped through the single channel that cut completely through the icy ruins that had only a day previously been an impenetrable fortress. It galled her that the key to the puzzle had been an… Amazon… instead of a product of the People's own hard work.

It galled her too that they were attempting to harness something they didn't completely understand, but that wasn't her concern. She was simply a liaison, and since the retrieval process for their weapon of choice was complete, there was no need for her. A message came across the communications link, informing her that Miss Tendo had been placed in protective custody.

"Thank you," she said, activating the return link. "Continue."

Her own command could override any present, but there was no need to. Nor was there a need for her to manage anything else personally. The People's Army was a finely oiled machine.

She smiled grimly, ignoring the squeal of static as she stepped to the center of the icy hills.

Seven large pieces, and numerous small ones. Perhaps… perhaps she could be thawed out of the chunks of ice that encapsulated her remains. Shia Hai sighed, sitting on a larger block. "I never got to know you that well," she mused. "But I feel you've been a part of my life."

Falling silent, she allowed her eyes to drift across the circular depression. A fine, solid spray of red coated the entire area. What the shaped charges hadn't turned to ash, they had melted, only to be refrozen into smaller pieces. "Ironic, since the culmination of my life was the absolute destruction of yours," she mused.

The faint breeze picked up again, prompting her to raise her scarf over her mouth. She chuckled wryly, climbing to her feet and staring down on the remains below her. "Spiteful?" she asked. "It's too late now. Nothing can be done… no power can revive you now, and if it can, this entire area will be molten glass at this time tomorrow."

She leaned forward, gathering the pair of discarded weapons. She'd just as soon not have to touch them with her own hands, but they were too dangerous to leave lying about. "You, my pretties," she addressed them as she held one in each hand, "should have been destroyed."

Dropping them behind her, she fished a cigarette out of her pocket, and lowered her scarf. The wind had stopped for the moment, and she intended to enjoy one last minute with Akane, the part of her life that would be gone shortly. She eyed the iron ring dubiously, lighting a safety match and inhaling sharply.

The acrid smoke poured into her lungs, and she sighed, blowing towards the crater. "You know it's not personal," she said. "It's just a control thing. We probably can't control you. Hell, I'm not convinced we can manage Ranma."

She laughed bitterly, tapping the ash from her cigarette behind her respectfully, rather than on the remains of the one she addressed as a comrade. "Damned fools. I'd just as soon keep my hands free of the affair. No 'magic', no… Just the People. I just want the People to be strong." A grimace crossed her face, and she puffed silently for a minute before saying, "Like I say, it's not personal."

And, chillingly, the squealing static on her communicator shattered, a faint voice saying, "I forgive you…"

Shia Hai bolted upright, dropping her cigarette. "Who said that?" she snapped out, on edge from the voice.

The answer came, "… but I don't know if he can."

And then there was silence.

Shia Hai tapped on her communications links, stunned to find them all dead. The mountain chose that moment to jump, knocking her to the ground unceremoniously to land roughly on her backside, as clouds of black smoke and white fire shot upwards from around the icy monument's remains.

Anger. It overpowered every other aspect of his being, burning through him to sear his very senses away into a white-hot miasma of fury.

He threw his arms wide, vaguely aware of the liquefied steel and seared flesh that spattered freely about him, the pristine white surface of the mountain beneath him boiling into steam, not pausing for a moment to flow as a liquid.

Great white clouds billowed about him, and still, he pulled on the wellspring of energy inside him, pouring his all into the rage.

And on it flowed.

Wrath. She remained calm, composed.

A fleeing technician froze literally, flesh becoming ice, and then colder, breaking down into cold component parts. She nearly smiled. Nearly.

More cold. She focused herself and her being tighter, attempting to perfect the focus. Steel walls shattered about her, engines and electronics reduced to coldly smoking ruins.

But one place resisted her perfection.

Summoned, she turned her attention to the small island of resistance.

Voice trembling, choking back tears of fear and worry, the girl quavered uncertainly, trailing off when the walls of the closet about her shattered, exploding away like tissue rent by an angry titan.

Before her, in a loose, relaxed stance, still clad in her Chinese clothing — old Chinese, not modern — stood before her a form she recognized clinically as Ranma.

But the blazing red hair, shimmering and iridescent with ice, blue eyes, colder than the deepest chill she had even known, and an expression that spoke nothing of emotion reminded her of nothing more than Shiva, or perhaps Charon. The red-haired goddess of death reached towards her, the cold about her hands so intense that the very air was reduced to liquid — and was halted by a sparkling flash of amber and gold.

Ranko belatedly realized that more than anything else, Keitaro had been right. Not 'Ranma', oh no, 'Ranma' was a name for a person. The being was so much more than merely a person. It was the Ranma. And she spoke, calm, composed, dulcet tones, "Who are you?"

Finding her voice only after Keitaro's epithet in her ear cured her dumbness, she said, "I'm… Tendo Ranko."

Impossibly cerulean eyes blinked twice in confusion, and much of the cold about the redhead seemed to dissipate. "Indeed?" Those same blue eyes narrowed to slits, and the cold resumed, intensified. "And you are responsible for what was done to Akane?"

"Never!" Ranko managed, backpedaling frantically, falling backwards. "I… I always wanted to meet my uncle and aunt! I never wanted anyone to get hurt! I'm sorry!"

Her eyes screwed shut, and all was silent, though in the distance she could hear yells and the sounds of a great fire. A heartbeat later, and her own breathing sounded, Keitaro having fallen silent. A hand grasped her wrist, and she was hauled unceremoniously to her feet. Her wrist bindings shattered, falling to the floor at her feet.

The girl standing near her suddenly seemed to be very human, and smiled grimly. "Okay, I'm real sorry about that. Let's go…" the softness leaked out of the girl, as she drew her hand back, becoming cold again. "Go to Akane."

Ranko nodded numbly, seeing the wreckage of the compound. Meter thick steel bulkheads, reduced to icy splinters of metal, living quarters — everything. Including the multi-million dollar equipment that was needed to restore the frozen to life. She followed behind Ranma gingerly, as the redhead stalked forward.

Somehow, she couldn't regret the loss. Machines could be replaced later, and if they were kept out of the hands of people who would abuse their power, so much the better. "Tell me," Ranma's voice said stiffly, "how did you stop me?"

Ranko shook her head, admitting, "I'm not sure. Keitaro asked me to sing… I think he wove a spell."

"Something like that," the man muttered across the communications link.

Ranma nodded, apparently satisfied with the answer, and strode from the remains of the compound into the fiery bowels of hell itself.

Heaving for breath, Keitaro placed his pipe in a pocket with a trembling hand. Protecting Ranko from that kind of power wasn't easy, even with his father's help. "Sorry, Dad, it's gonna get a whole lot uglier, too."

Straightening, he staggered to the doorway. The power-armored guards had bigger and more dangerous things to worry about at the moment. He retrieved the pipe from his pocket and knocked it once against the tarot card on the door. Its amber glow faded, and it dropped from the door to land in his outstretched hands.

"Tama," he said suddenly, addressing the ship's computer.

It chirped a simple query at him.

"Are they still jamming communications, or can we reach Qinghai yet?"

The computer chirped negation.

Keitaro grunted, and returned to watching the telltales. "Figured as much," he muttered sourly. "Not like they'll miss this anyway."

Ranko staggered back, raising an arm to shield herself from the flames as they erupted from the ground nearby, cleansing the Earth of snow in a mere instant. But the fires did not touch her, balked by the same glow of amber and gold that had shielded her from Ranma before Ranma had calmed.

Cocking her head to one side, as though considering, Ranma smiled. "So," she said softly. "Herb."

Ranko stepped back worriedly, hovering on the line between the baked Earth, and the shattered and frozen steel.

Ranma stood in the midst of the ground, either not minding or not aware of the flames. "Where did this all come from?" Ranko asked anxiously.

"Herb," Ranma said simply. "He is in pain, and angry." Ranma's arms spread, rising above her head. The fires near her snuffed out immediately, steam turning back to ice and falling upon the ground to shatter with gentle bell-like noises. The snow from behind the compound flowed upward, surging like a great wave preparing to overbear the girl.

Ranko swallowed nervously, feeling very small in a battle between giants. The smoke and fires died down, revealing a stretch of blasted and baked ground between the compound and the monument that had only recently housed Ranma and Akane. An island of snow protected from the heat and the fires neatly ringed the structure.

And in the center, a man robed in heat, a column of white and yellow flames rising about him. The pillar of fire billowed upwards and out, a Dragon of flame coiled protectively above the man. He leaned forward, and as he did, so too did the Dragon of fire, hissing and spitting angrily at an APC as it limped across the snow in the distance.

The APC fired vainly, steel shells liquefying before they reached him, as Herb lashed out again, streams of fire hot and angry enough to rival the sun its brightness and severity flying true to lick for only a moment across the steel frame. The vehicle halted suddenly, and shuddered once in the manner of a dying beast before collapsing into a steaming puddle of molten ore.

Ranko's tongue stuck to her mouth, and she staggered away, fearful. The man's eyes lit upon her, and flickered only briefly, but the mere glance left her breathless, and mortally afraid.

Where Ranma had been calmly collected and clinically efficient, Herb was a wildfire, uncontrolled and unrestrained. Ranko stumbled back until Keitaro's voice reached her suddenly, and she realized he had been yelling to her for some time. "… damn it, girl! STOP! You're gonna back into the goddamned dragon! Get a grip on yourself! I can't move without drawin' Herb's attention, and my father's not going to protect EITHER of us from that!"

"Okay," Ranko said, eyeing the dragon of flames as it stepped forward, one molten and flowing claw slamming heavily into the earth. "Where should I go?" she asked, afraid.

"Left. AWAY from the APC. Towards the Tama. Don' get too close yet — the guards nearby're still runnin' aroun' in power armor."

Ranko paused, still following the line of scorched earth and frozen steel. She turned to look behind her slowly, alarmed. Above Ranma, like an obscenely beautiful mockery of perfection, a gleaming and crystalline Dragon of ice hunkered, watching Herb's own fiery companion, considering. A mammoth tail twitched, and Ranko fell down wincing as the sound barrier cracked over her head.

Herb reared his head back and yelled for all he was worth, the coruscating waves of flame thickening from a steady rush to an outright blast, the searing heat making Ranko flinch even from over a hundred meters away. Ranma cast a glance towards her, frowning, but her attention returned to Herb as his shout ended, the fiery manifestation before him stepping forward once more in challenge to Ranma's own.

Ranma's lips quirked in a strange smile, as the creature above him flowed forwards, body of ice, but moving like a rushing torrent of water. Herb's power was so blatantly obvious, and Ranma's so frighteningly subtle. They were likely perfectly matched in every respect.

Ranko quivered, body tense with worry, and scrambled to her feet. "Wait!" she shouted. "You can't fight! We can't fight! Not here! It's not safe!"

The two gargantuan creatures and their respective masters turned to look at her, Herb with a confounded anger, Ranma with a calculating curiosity.

She swallowed nervously, as Keitaro chastised her, "You done got yourself killed, girl. I was starting to like ya, too."

Herb stalked forward a step, then paused, and Ranma nodded knowingly, banishing her servant of ice and power into a fine icy mist. "It is as she speaks," Ranma said calmly. "You must calm yourself before it is too late."

With effort, the man did so. The serpentine leviathan above him puffed out, leaving only smoke and memory to tell of its passage, a thin drift of snow already hiding the evidence of his wrath. Ranko could still see the bubbling puddles of steel that had once been vehicles, though the Tama was out of sight — behind a low rise. Herb growled, his voice too deep and rough, sounding as though he were the Dragon, not a man, "I will listen. I will heed your words, Ranma, but know that my anger will be satisfied!"

Ranma nodded, brushing past Herb to approach the single crystal spire containing the flaxen-haired Amazon in front of the wreckage that had been his own tomb. Herb bristled, and Ranko rushed to catch up to the pair. She was shocked — so carefully had Herb concealed it behind the hulking form of the Dragon of flames. And so well protected, it had not even melted in the slightest.

Ranko licked her lips worriedly, as she came to a halt. Ranma studied the woman, frowning. Herb simply clenched his fists and fumed, his body too hot to approach as closely as he would have liked. Ranko stared into the crystal enclosing the woman, eyes wide in surprise and betrayal. What had she missed? How had she come to be frozen so?

"I think that I can… if we can take her to Japan, and keep her frozen, my father has a lab—" She cut off suddenly, as Ranma raised a hand to silence her.

"No," she said calmly. "This can be fixed easily. Herb, you overreact. Thaw her quickly — she knows the Soul of Ice."

Herb's eyes flew wide, and he transformed instantly from enraged warrior to shocked little boy. Ranko shook her head, too confused and unbalanced by the day's events to be further amazed. As Herb's hand came into trembling contact with the crystal of ice, it melted, not slowly, but suddenly, the entire structure rippling once and then falling away like jelly.

The man caught her, sinking to his — suddenly HER knees. Herb was cursed just like Ranma, and in the cold… She grimaced, and gave off a sudden wave of heat, leaving the moisture in her clothes to warm suddenly, before steaming away.

Kneeling where he was, the woman across his knees held tenderly to his chest, he rocked back slowly. "You're okay?" he asked worriedly.

The woman stirred slowly, sleepily, and shivered. Ranko shook her head. She'd raised the dead and watched Dragons fight. This was merely another impossible thing to add to the list. "Airen… you're warm tonight…"

And before Ranko, staring in confusion, and Ranma who was neither smiling nor frowning, Herb, onetime Prince of the Musk, current Chairman of the Council of the Qinghai Confederacy, wept. As if magic, when his tears struck the woman in his arms, she changed; her glamour dissolved. Flaxen locks gave way to violet strands, as eyes and face shifted from a faintly Nordic woman of the ice to a woman Ranko remembered from her own childhood.

"Shan Pu," Ranma intoned gravely. "We meet again."

Ensconced within the icy tomb of Ranma's desecrated lover, Shia Hai backed away from the narrow entrance. More of a defile than anything else, she realized sardonically.

"How appropriate," she muttered, pulling her scarf across the lower half of her face, and dashing back to the center. She slid to a halt, crampons in her shoes biting into the ice and arresting her before she could stumble into the still-untouched bowl of ice that contained what was left of Akane.

Hands trembling, she gathered the two staffs from the ground. If anything could stop what she had seen, it would be those weapons.

The breeze about her picked up, and her communicator spoke once more, "… that's not the way," before falling dead silent.

Biting off a curse, she flipped on the tactical displays for her goggles, only to find them dead.

Ranko watched curiously, as the Amazon rose to her feet, standing proudly, while Herb fretted over her, layers of heat washing off of him in tangible waves. "I am well," she said stiffly, unable to meet Ranma's calm, cool gaze. "It is… good to see you again."

Ranma nodded wordlessly, and reached a hand towards Shan Pu in friendship. "The circumstances are strange," she allowed.

Tentatively, as though she was afraid of being bitten, the Amazon extended a hand to meet Ranma's. The redhead took her hand and smiled warmly, the ice and cold once again fading. "If only we could have met under friendlier skies," the Amazon said.

Ranma nodded, drawing her hand and retreating into her icy shell again. "Time grows short," she said, turning away from the pair and staring towards the memorial that held Akane. Ranko swallowed nervously, wondering how thorough Shia Hai's men had been. Perhaps… perhaps it wasn't too late.

If nothing else, she could hold hope. She followed behind Ranma worriedly, marveling for a moment that a woman — or any being at all — could be so short and yet feel so much taller.

Ranko remained silent, glancing behind to see Shan Pu and Herb both following nearly at her heels. Herb studied her, and nodded in approval, before looking away.

His wife offered Ranko a friendly smile, dashing forward a few steps and catching up with the girl. "Ranko," she began, slowing as she drew near. "You are very brave… and very smart. We're both sorry that you've had to get involved in this, but—"

"STOP right there!" a voice cried out, interrupting the woman.

Shan Pu dropped into a tight, ready stance, protectively gliding in front of Ranko. Only a few meters ahead, Ranma stood, at her coldest and calmest yet. Shia Hai stood at the end of the defile, a handgun shaking in her grip.

Ranma merely raised an eyebrow, and Shia Hai threw the gun down, tugging the Kinjakan from her belt. "What are you doing?" the redhead asked blandly, her voice completely lacking inflection.

Herb growled, less moving and more flowing to Ranma's side, the nearby ice melting at his passage, and reforming as he stopped, both of them staring past Shia Hai to the crater behind her. Shia Hai twitched nervously, holding the Kinjakan before her like a talisman to ward off the pair. "I can't let you come any closer, I don't know what you're planning, but this… this place is dangerous. It's too dangerous to let you bring her back! She has no control…" the woman trailed off lamely, as Ranma and Herb exchanged an almost bemused glance.

"I… I'm… It's my job to stop you," she protested weakly. "I can't let you risk reviving the Ice-Wraith."

Ranma actually smiled, not a friendly, amused smile, but the mechanical smile of one whom is merely being polite in their chosen duty. "Move," Ranma whispered, one hand slowly rising to tap Shia Hai's chest gently. A point of purest blue leapt from her finger, like a spark, and the Kinjakan whined fiercely, growing warm too late, as Ranma drew her hand back.

The bluish spark fizzled for a moment, and Shia Hai stared dumbly at her chest. Heavy-duty thermal gear cracked sharply, and Herb casually stepped forward, landing a single brutal kick to the woman's chest. She flew backwards, slamming into an icy spire as the front of her armor fell away like dried autumn leaves, striking the ice below and crumbling into frigid dust.

"Hmm," Ranma mused aloud. "You saved her life."

Herb sneered at the woman, pinned against a column of fallen ice, her protection gone. "She attempted to hurt my wife, Ranma. She did that to your lover," he growled, pointing. "Death is too good for her. Eternity in the Summerlands, tended by my people. And it will not be the kindest tending." He concluded by spitting, being careful to not desecrate the tomb below.

"We will let her decide," Ranma said, crouching at the lip of the crater and peering downward. "She is still here, in spirit. Her form survives in broken pieces."

The tall man's fire faded, as he peered into the crater to look. "What are you speaking of?" he asked, confused.

"The spark is extinguished. I can repair the shell, perhaps… but I cannot replace that vital spark." Ranma's eyes narrowed, and he asked Herb, "Do you know where such a spark could come from?"

The man hedged, nodding. "Indeed, though it would only hold for a month, perhaps more… but not longer."

Ranma smiled, and Ranko's heart caught. Judging by the way that Shan Pu grabbed her wrist, the Amazon was also caught by the beauty of the moment. "Then let us work."

The computer chirped loudly, jerking Keitaro out of his meditative trance. The communications link had been shut down when Ranko entered the monument — he wasn't about to impinge on the reunion that would be going on in there.

His father had never known them personally — any of them. But that didn't lower Keitaro's respect any. Family was family.

He thumbed the engines online, watching the last of the guards stagger away. The display indicated numerous vehicles flying away, all of them quickly. It was the kind of thing that Keitaro recognized instantly, and took only a moment for him to take into account.

"They've had about an hour, I hope that's long enough to say goodbye!"

Grabbing the steering yoke firmly, he stomped on the accelerator, making the skimmer jump nearly twenty meters into the air before he kicked the levs online, cruising downwards at an angle to skim across the snowy ridge sheltering the Tama from the compound. Between the compound and the monument lay a vast swath of smoking Earth, slowly being snowed over.

"More idiots," he muttered, eyeing his navigational charts. The Tama spun sharply, skidding to a halt a half-meter over the thin layer of snow before thumping heavily to rest near the passage into the monument.

He left the engines running as he opened the hatch, not bothering with his cold-weather gear. He wasn't planning on being away from the ship long. "Yo!" he yelled, backpedaling as he nearly slammed into a well-built Amazon, shielding Ranko from him. "Boss-man! We got incoming. Unless you think you can do Saffy's little, 'nuclear fire don't hurt me none!' trick, I highly recommend that we relocate our asses about fourteen miles ta the north, and fast."

"I'm busy," a voice answered quietly, leaving Keitaro to blink.

"Uh, right." He turned to look at the woman before him. "Oh, heya, Boss-lady. Anything we can do to speed things up?"

Shan Pu quirked her lips in a smile. "You're a very special kind of idiot, aren't you, Keitaro?"

He grinned, flashing his father's card at her. "Yeah, the best. I hear that I take after my dad."

Behind the Amazon, Ranko stared, jaw agape. "You're a spy?" she asked, confused and hurt.

"Oh, yeah, well, ya know how it goes. Jus' a little." He pocketed the card absently, spinning his pipe from his pocket to clench it in his teeth.

Shan Pu cleared her throat loudly, shooting Keitaro a reprimanding glance. "Agent Koara is one of our best."

He nodded absently, glancing over his shoulder. "Thanks for the ego-boost, Boss-lady, but we still got an incoming somethin' that's making everythin' the Tama can see head for high-groun', if'n ya know what I mean?"

The Amazon nodded in understanding. "I see. Tendo, you're well advised to get aboard the Tama and wait with Koara there. If Herb and Ranma cannot finish what they're doing here in time…" She hesitated, grimacing. Waving a finger at Herb in warning, she bounded away, bouncing upward, and removed a half-moment later, he chilled and shivering form of Shia Hai in her hands. "Take this with you, too. We'd like to retrieve the Kinjakan and Gekkaja."

Grimacing, Keitaro tossed the prone woman over one shoulder, and trudged towards the Tama. "Miss Tendo," he called back over his shoulder. "I'd like if'n you could help me get ready."

She followed hesitantly, as Keitaro tossed the woman carelessly into one of the empty crew compartments. He disarmed her, taking the Gekkaja and the Kinjakan and stowing them in the front cabin. Sealing the main hatch for the moment, he took a quick inventory of the ships vitals.

"Too much weight," he said sadly.

Ranko shook herself out of a daze, and turned to look at Keitaro. "What do you mean?" she asked, confused.

He pointed towards the door furthest to the rear of the skimmer. "Too much cargo, if we wanna get faster, we should lose the heavy stuff."

Nodding in understanding, Ranko dashed to the cargo section of the craft. Keitaro watched her go, and shook his head, trailing after her. There was a good chance they wouldn't be getting home at all, if the Dragons couldn't hurry. "Well, Dad, you've helped me out so far, maybe just one more time for the day? I promise I'll talk to Mom…"

Ranko looked back from sliding a crate towards the rear hatch of the Tama curiously. "Keitaro?"

"Nothin'," he assured her, opening the ramp, and rolling the crate into the snow. "Jus thinkin' about my mom."

The girl nodded, wincing as millions of dollars of fragile equipment crashed to the ground below the craft. "What was your mother like?" she asked, moving on to the next crate.

"Oh," Keitaro sighed, helping Ranko move the heavier box, "I dunno. Excitable. Really in love with my father. Kinda tragic, that."

"Why is that?"

"Oh, well…" He paused, grunting to raise the crate over the lip of the ramp, and sending it tumbling to the snow below. "Eh… that's kinda hard to explain. Maybe some other time. My mom was special, though."

Ranko nodded in understanding, sliding yet another crate forward, this one lighter than the last. "What do you mean?"

"Heh, well," Keitaro shoved the box after the last, grimacing. "Anyway, Mom was special 'cause she was fey 'fore the Fall. Long before." He paused, eyeing Ranko frankly. "She's a mess some days, pining over Dad, afraid to go outside because people'll stop believin' in her…"

The girl shivered. "That can't… happen, can it?"

"Don't think so," he said, shrugging. "We can live in cities, and I ain't never seen or heard of it happening, so… I dunno. I think really she's just sayin' that's the reason, and it's Dad that makes her sad, but either way…" he trailed off, shoving another crate off the craft. "Either way," he resumed, "I want to see Ranma back safe, an' then maybe we can look for the other dragons."

"What happens then?"

"Well," Keitaro temporized, frowning, "best as I can figure, we get to be real. Without just being theory, or 'delusion'. You ever get tired of growin' up, and people telling you that medicine can fix 'thinking you can do things that are obviously not possible within the realm of physics'? 'Cause I did. I got real tired, and… When people don't believe, it stings."

Ranko nodded slowly, awed. The girl had forgotten to aid in the removal of the boxes, but Keitaro couldn't fault her, and preferred to keep his own hands busy while he talked.

"Anyway," he continued, "Mom was real nice about the entire thing, and real supportive, but sometimes — and I love her dearly, don' get me wrong — she could be a real brat." He shook his head, tipping one last crate over the ramp. "Anyway, I could always do some stuff when I was little, and learned more as I got older. Mom, she used machines, me, I started using the pipe when people started looking funny, and when I bought her, the Tama."

The computer chirped at him, and Keitaro snorted. Ranko stifled a giggle, hitting the button to close the rear hatch, as Keitaro jogged amidships.

The side hatch opened at Keitaro's touch, and he ran past Ranko, brushing against her in the narrow corridor. "Oops," he allowed. "I'm gonna get to pilotin'. Close the door when everyone's in."

The girl helped something as he squeezed past, and mumbled something that sounded like a confirmation.

The ball of contradictions wrapped in confusion and topped with an accent that was sometimes there, and sometimes not slid smoothly against her, and then beyond, dashing towards the pilot's compartment. She shook herself out of her stupor, and stepped into an alcove, monitoring the four that passed her. Not thinking about things, and only aware of the Tama's rumbling engines lifting it upwards, she slammed her palm against the emergency seal, which slammed the hatch shut with a jarring finality.

Not taking any more time, she gestured vaguely towards a side-compartment, and dashed past the small crowd in the larger corridor to take a seat next to Keitaro. He was seated in the pilots seat, wrestling with a sudden wind. "Things'r gettin' nasty," he muttered, as Ranko belted himself into the seat next to him, and called up the tactical relays.

It only took a moment to tie the Tama's sensors into the private satellite she had monitoring the situation. Keitaro glanced at her sharply, but she only offered him a placating smile before turning back to her frantic typing at the terminal before her. A fifty-two-character code was transmitted upwards, and the satellite above came to life, sensors and communications gear activating to provide Ranko with all the information she could possibly need.

Using the connection to link to Tendo Heavy's mainframe, she directed a few simple queries to the main computer, before focusing her attention to the extended tactical information that the satellite offered. She frowned, linking it into the Tama's own readings, granting Keitaro's sensor suite the benefit of Tendo Heavy's most advanced satellite.

And there, about three hundred kilometers away, but closing quickly, was whatever NR Xinjiang had chosen to fire at them. "Oh kami," she breathed, as the computer chirped at the mainframe's analysis of the object. "It's a nuke…"

Silence filled the cabin after her announcement. She looked worriedly over her shoulder to see that Herb, Ranma, Shan Pu and Ranma. The three looked at her, Herb in fury, Shan Pu with a face pale and drawn of blood, and Ranma with a maddeningly calm coldness.

"What can be done?" she asked after a second, prompting Herb and Shan Pu to look at her.

"Well," Keitaro said, pointing to a spot on the map, "we can set down here, and pray. The Tama ain't gonna carry us clear of that unless it's a dud. You got a good idea?"

"Pray?" Ranko asked unhappily. "I thought you were full of good ideas and clever plans to escape."

"Just my Dad's luck, and his help when he's willing," the man muttered sourly.

"Can he help us now?" Ranko pleaded.

He frowned, glancing at her. "I can ask," he said uncertainly. "But I don't know…"

"It is worth attempting, if no other plans will save us." Ranma straightened suddenly, maintaining her balance despite the turbulence. Cold demeanor melting again, she asked, "And, uh, can I get some hot water?"

Ranko actually snickered for a moment, before reminding herself of the loss that Ranma must have faced. "Yes," she said, remotely notifying the mainframe to keep the technical data updated. "It'll take a minute," she warned, crossing the floor by the aid of handrails, and working her way towards the galley.

The galley sat just behind the command deck, and Ranma followed her into the chamber. A small kitchenette was built into one wall, and another contained a snug fitting breakfast nook. Ranma took a seat in the nook, glancing about the small collection of posters curiously.

A great many of them featured artifacts from what Ranko had always assumed was Koara's homeland, though that was obviously not the case, since he had been raised in Japan. 'Out' was simply his way of stating that even if he was from nearby in a geographic sense, he bore little true relation to his neighbors.

Ranko silently padded over to the coffee machine, surprised to find the pitcher already full. She eyed it hesitantly, then added some cold water to the mix before handing it to Ranma. The redhead nodded her thanks, and poured the jug over her head.

Ranko could barely restrain her excitement. It may have been a mundane pleasure, but she dearly wanted to meet her uncle in his proper form. She watched raptly, as red hair became black, the swell of a bosom became a fine and well-muscled chest, curved hips shifted, become more masculine, so that in the space of less than a heartbeat, her uncle was once more male.

He set the pitcher down, just in time to catch Ranko barreling into him. "Uncle Ranma!" she called out, sobbing. "Finally! I'm sorry! I'm so sorry about Auntie Akane!"

Ranma awkwardly patted the girl on the back comfortingly. "Don't, ah, worry. She's sleeping now, but she should be fine once we get her to Jusenkyou."

Ranko broke away from her uncle, mouth hanging open in shock. "Are you serious?" she asked slowly, not able to believe his words.

He nodded, as the girl took a seat across the table from him. "How?" she asked, confused.

Speaking slowly, he looked away from her, studying his own hand intently. Not meeting her gaze, he spoke softly, his voice oddly resonant, "Our bodies are mostly water. I can rearrange that, a little." He sighed, shaking his head. "There was not enough of her left for me to put back in her own shape, so I used what was at hand."

"What?" Ranko didn't understand. Had he rebuilt Akane, somehow?

"I recreated her physical form using my own as a map. We need to take her to Jusenkyou. There's a cursed pool there with the image of her true form. If we can take her there, then the risk of her spirit burning out will destroyed."

Ranko absorbed that slowly. "Wow," she managed, unsure of what else she could say.

The boy across from her merely nodded, running his hand through his hair. "So," he managed, tearing his eyes away from the table, and looking about the cabin again. "How long has it been?"

Ranko giggled, shaking her head. "I guess there's a lot of catching up to do, huh? You've been asleep for more than twenty years…"

Keitaro set the skimmer down in the shadow of a rocky shelf, scant protection that it would be able to provide. Flurries of snow outside were flung upwards as the craft came to rest uneasily, gyros and stabilizers emerging to hold it steady.

"Okay," he announced over the intercom. "We're here, and about six miles away from impact. And, uh, three minutes." He stood, turning to face Herb and Shan Pu in dismay. "We coulda gone faster, but the damn NR Xinjiang guards beat up on the Tama's propulsion. We're just plain not gonna make it, sorry."

Herb shook his head, standing and releasing his wife's hand as he did so. "We won't give up," he announced.

Another voice joined his from the doorway, smooth and calm, but obviously male. "No, we won't. Tell me, who are you?"

Keitaro felt an unmistakable shiver ascend from his heels, climbing his legs to rise up his spine on its way towards his scalp. Before it could end, he stepped forward, between Herb and Shan Pu, and dropped to one knee, head bowed. "Beggin' your pardon, Boss-man, Boss-lady, but like I tol' you and Saffy, my loyalties are to this guy."

A bemused laugh echoed across the room. "You still haven't told me your name yet."

Keitaro fumbled at his pocket, and produced his father's card. "My name is Keitaro Koara, and I be the Fool for the King o' Cups." Ranma accepted the card, and a moment later reached down to lift Keitaro back to his feet.

"That's nice. Now, how can you help us stop what's about to destroy us?"

Hedging nervously, Keitaro admitted, "Myself, I got the ability, ya see, but I don't have the power yet. Dad says it comes after a while, but, uh… I don't got what he says I need to get that power yet."

Herb crossed his arms over his chest. "And Ranma gets a fool," he grumbled. "You're a fool indeed, if you cannot think to ask your master for power."

Keitaro felt his face redden. "Uh… oh, yeah, I knew that. I was jus' testin' ya." Coughing, he turned away. "So, uh, if you hang onto my father's card, an' gimmie your power, we can try an' stop it." His voice carried far more confidence than he felt.

"Good enough," Ranma said suddenly. "Can we get on top of this before it starts? Shan Pu, please watch over Ranko and Akane. Herb…" he trailed off, raising an eyebrow.

Herb nodded, smirking. "Why not?" he said cockily. "I've got anger to burn."

Nervous, Keitaro motioned to the access hatch, and then began climbing the ladder. "Here's to hoping," he said, a quaver in his voice betraying him.

Ranma chuckled, ascending the ladder behind Keitaro, and Herb smirked at them both, rising to stand atop the Tama without using the ladder. Snorting, the King of Cups motioned Keitaro to prepare.

He did so, drawing his pipe from his pocket, and spinning it experimentally across his fingers. "Here goes nothin', and a whole buttload of it," he muttered.

Ranma laughed genially, placing a hand on Keitaro's left shoulder, as the man held the pipe before him, bowl pointed away, stem facing east. Herb placed his hand on Keitaro's right shoulder.

"In the name of my father," Keitaro said unsteadily, before halting suddenly. That wouldn't work.

He cleared his throat loudly, seeing a glittering, sparkling point of light break through the heavens, streaking downwards to the south. "In the name of the King of Cups," he intoned, feeling the bidden power course through him, from Ranma, and again from Herb, though more weakly. "I seal this site, here and now!"

Gold and amber, blue and red, chains of light erupted outward from the bowl, cracking it, then setting it alight in a wash of primal color and energy. The colors bled through the pipe, sundering it, leaving only dust, and the light coming from Keitaro's hands himself.

The chains wrapped around a nothingness, spinning into a disk twice the size of the Tama, and then twice that, a wall of power between themselves and the nuclear strike. Runes, his father's symbol, flared to life on the disk, bathing the entire area in a saturated… safe… light.

Ranma's grip never faltered, nor did Herb's, until there was a flash of light, and then… nothing.

She woke with a start.

Moonlight, a mirror, cloth in the window rippling softly, and the music of a faint flute.

Her eyes found her hands, wrapped in bandages, already loose and falling away. Lower, a soft-furred blanket, and beneath that, a thick cotton shift protecting her body from the cold.

The room was warm, and a sharp crackling noise alerted her to a fire behind her, low and dying, but the coals still warm.

Her hands rose, almost of their own accord, and tugged her bandages off. Swinging her feet over the floor, she was pleased to notice a thick fur rug protecting her from the stone of the floor.

Slowly, details began to filter in, as the door opened, and a boy stepped through, bearing a candle, and a tray, laden down with things that smelled pleasant. Her mouth watered, but she resisted the urge to simply chase after the food, managing to ask, "Who are you?"

The boy smiled, setting the tray on a small bedside table, and taking a seat in a wicker and bamboo chair. "Well," he said, shaking his head, "that's a long story. They call me the King of Cups, here, and an ally to the Qinghai Confederacy. My name is Saotome Ranma."

One particular detail clicked into place, as the rest sluggishly followed. "I love you," she informed him, still not touching the tray, loaded down as it was in a soup-bowl, and whole loaf of bread.

His smile widened at hearing that. "It makes me more happy than you can ever know, that you tell me that," he said, wiping away a stray tear. "I've died and come back from the dead for you, and brought you back from the brink itself."

She tackled him, less aware of moving, and more aware of lying atop him on the fur rug. She was keenly aware of the contact between them, more than anything else. "Yes," she said, her nose nearly touching his, her breath warm against his face, as his was warm against hers. "I love you more than anything, love you enough to come back, afterwards."

He said nothing immediately, merely staring into her eyes joyously. "You remember, then?"

"My name is Akane Tendo, and you're my fiancée," she said flatly. "What more do I need to know?"

"Your curse?" he said worriedly.

That brought her up short, and she stood, staring down at him in confusion. He rolled to his feet, and snapped his fingers, pointing towards the mirror in the room. "I'll get some hot and cold water for you," he whispered.

She stared at herself in the mirror. Everything was as it should have been, as far as she could tell. "Being dead for years can probably throw a girl's perception off," she mused, more and more memories returning as the moments passed.

Ranma returned a moment later, bearing a bucket and a kettle. He set both on the floor, as Akane watched him expectantly. "Now," he explained in a lecturing tone, "I did the best I could with what I had to work with. So you're in your cursed form at the moment. We, ah, we can lock it for you later, if you'd like. Um…" he trailed off, handing her the hot water kettle apologetically.

She doused herself without hesitation, curious to see what would happen, and dropped the kettle in surprise as her fingers suddenly shifted proportion, and she lost a few centimeters of height. She stared at her reflection in the mirror in bemusement. "I'm you!" she exclaimed. "I've got your curse… Why?"

"Ah, I'm really sorry… I just did the best I could with what I had to work with," he apologized worriedly.

She stared at herself in the mirror, her reflection so familiar, and at the same time, oddly alien. "I can live with this," she said, smirking. "If this is the worst of it — you always said that this was the body you preferred anyway."

His further protests were silenced by an exuberant kiss.

Atop the library that the union of the Joketsuzoku and Musk tribes had forged, Keitaro Koara leaned against the central stone spire, playing his flute softly. He let the last few notes trail off, eyeing the stone guest cottages that sat to one side, set off pleasantly by the deceptively friendly glow of moonlight off of Jusenkyou's springs.

At his side, Herb and Saffron both gazed up at the stars, richer and brighter in the lands of Qinghai Confederacy, thanks in theory to the lessened light pollution. "You've done well," Saffron remarked, his feathers rustling slightly in a faint breeze.

Herb nodded, and added, "Indeed. For a time, I thought all was lost."

Keitaro flushed nervously, twirling the flute in the manner of his favored pipe. "It wasn' me," he admitted. "I jus' gave it structure. Ranma and Herb did it, not me."

"Good enough," Saffron mumbled. "It pleases me to see that no harm has fallen you, or Ranma." He paused, considering, and added, "That you protected Miss Tendo speaks well of you, but…"

Herb picked up where Saffron trailed off, "You did promise that you would serve me, Keitaro. And I can forgive you for choosing to serve Ranma, but it does not please me."

"Hey," Keitaro grumbled, "no one's perfect. I thought I was supposed ta follow you, but when Ranma talked in the Tama, that tol' me that he was the one I hadda follow."

Herb nodded, still gazing at the stars. "Perhaps," he allowed. "I had grown used to having an ally as useful as yourself. Perhaps it is merely bitterness speaking."

Saffron nodded, rising to his feet and stretching his wings out. "Indeed," he mumbled. "It is not supremely important, but the arrival of the King of Cups bodes well."

Turning jovial once more, Keitaro grinned, commenting, "And boy am I glad that's over!"

Saffron laughed, folding his wings in, and shaking his head. "Not over, young one, not yet. There are still two pillars out there, and then there's the matter of Shia Hai."


To be continued.

Author's notes: And that's the end of act four. What to conclude the compass points with? A journey to the center, of course…

Special thanks to Ginrai and Slacker for pre-reading. You guys rock.

Act V
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