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Part 3

A Ranma / Tenchi Muyo! crossover story
By Brian Randall

Disclaimer: Ranma belongs to Rumiko Takahashi and Viz Communications.  Tenchi Muyo! belongs to Hitoshi Okuda and Pioneer LDC.  Among others…

Additional credits: Rumiko Takahashi, Viz Communications (Inu-Yasha), Pioneer LDC (El Hazard), Sunrise, TV Tokyo/Bandai Entertainment (The Vision of Escaflowne), CLAMP, Kodansha, (Magic Knights Rayearth), TV Tokyo and Ken Akamatsu (Love Hina), Takada Yuuzou, and A.D.Vision (Bannou Bunka Nekomusume Nuku-Nuku), Fujishima Kosuke, (Ah! Megami-sama) and (You're Under Arrest), Miyao Gaku (Devil Hunter Yohko), Takashi Yabara, Viz, SNK (Fatal Fury), Yuzo Takada, A.D.Vision (Blue Seed), And of course, Tatsuya Egawa (Goldenboy).

Notes: Diverges from Ranma after volume 24, continuation for OAV 2 in the Tenchi universe (well, one of them). This fic uses the bizarrely vague 'Pick One!' scenario. Enjoy.

"It'd be nice to think that everything was black and white, and we were good, and the reavers were bad, but…. They didn't care. They weren't things that could. Can't make their own choices, or anything…. So how do you say that they're any more evil than any other weapon? Certainly, dangerous… but evil? You have to be able to make decisions for yourself, to be evil…. Like the [defenders]."

—Counselor Aric — Interview for G.N.N., Old Terran Year 2008

Seta blinked at Washuu for a long moment, looking at her over his glasses, stopping only to grab a phone when it rang. "Hello? This is Defense. Urashima-kun? I see…. Okay. Head to the harbor before it goes down. Right. We'll try to rendezvous there at… five o'clock tonight, then, unless something else comes up first. Right." He hung up the phone, sighing.

Oe frowned at the wall chart, scratching his head. "We're in trouble. Who was that?"

The murmurs and phone calls resumed, the various people in the office returning to their own duties. Apparently oblivious to Washuu and Yosho, Seta drawled, "That was Urashima-kun… Koalla-san's defensive perimeter is going to give out in about six hours, maybe less…. Most everyone is already evacuated, right?"

Oe grimaced, glancing between a few points on the chart and giving some numbers back to Seta. Washuu didn't have the time to spend worrying about that, and shook her head, trying to stop distracting herself. "I need to get to Nerima."

Seta and Oe broke off their calculations to stare at her. Yosho moved to stand beside her, showing his support. Seta shrugged, glancing at a report. "Well, we need more coverage in the Yoko… hama…" he trailed off, seeing the raw worry tinged with anger in Washuu's eyes. "Um… yeah, Miyuki and Natsumi can take you there…."

Ranma shook, lurching to her feet, and trying to calm herself. Her clearest memories since meeting Washuu were her father, and the girls… but the girls were out of her reach for the moment, and her father…. "Pops…" she gasped, eyes flaring with emotion. She was only dimly aware of the people around her, moving away to avoid the reaver's fumes, or possibly her aura, but she was too hurt and alone to care.

Nodoka shook nervously, not understanding how Ranko was able to… fly… and unnerved by the dark, crackling aura that flared about the girl, cold seeming to emanate from her as she slumped to her knees. The older woman looked to Kasumi for support, but she was only able to stare, her mouth a round 'o' of shock.

Ryouga edged away, not quite understanding what had happened, and trying to sort things out. He blinked, as realization set in. "No," he whispered. He glanced at Mousse, who was staring at Ranma with undisguised anger, and the two shared a nod.

Ranma had spirited away their loves, and Ranma would pay.

Ranma flailed, soaring across the yard and plowing into the wall across the koi pond from Ryouga's first blow. She climbed to her feet, staggering, and shook her head, trying to clear it from the punch. Ran-oh-ki had tumbled from her shoulder, and was standing before her protectively, hissing angrily at Ryouga.

"What…" she mumbled, rubbing her jaw in confusion, and turning to stare at Ryouga and Mousse. "What the hell?"

Mousse lashed out with a length of chain, catching Ranma off guard and tangling the redhead. "Saotome! What have you done with Shampoo?"

"And Akane-san! Saotome Ranma, if you have let her come to harm, I swear…" he trailed off, marching forward angrily.

Ranma's jaw dropped, and she was unable to react before Ryouga reached her, slamming his fist into her stomach and angling upwards sharply, knocking her backwards and then to the ground. She choked, spitting out blood, disoriented and confused, while Ryouga knelt down in preparation to strike her again.

Ran-oh-ki snarled, leaping at the large martial artist's fist, and biting it sharply. Ryouga cried out, flinging the creature towards a wall, hard.

Hissing, and feeling the pain from the link when Ran-oh-ki failed to phase through the wall, Ranma drifted upwards, allowing the chain to sink through her, and grabbed the startled Ryouga's neck. She nearly laughed; able to ignore whatever pain she was in, but not able to withstand Ran-oh-ki's. Mousse and Ryouga were only able to gawk, as Ranma slowly tightened her hands around Ryouga's windpipe. "What do you think you're doing?" she seethed. "Who are you talking about?"

Mousse had the presence of mind to answer, as Ryouga's face began to color, "Ranma! You don't even remember your own fiancée?"

Startled again, Ranma released Ryouga, allowing the boy to drop to the ground, and stared about her, stunned. "Ak… Akane… I remember her… and… Shampoo… of course… and Ukyou!" She shivered, rubbing her head. "I remember," she whispered hoarsely.

Ryouga climbed to his feet, stepping back warily, as Ran-oh-ki limped back to Ranma's side. Wiping at his bloodied hand, the lost boy snarled, "Well what the hell did you do with them?"

Ranma's head snapped up to meet Ryouga's gaze, and she glowered at him. "I sent them away. On my pass. I got them to think Ukyou was me, and sent her with Akane, and then put Shampoo in the suitcase… so they'd all get away…."

She shivered again, wrapping her arms around herself. "But… a reaver attacked… something went wrong… I got… I stopped it. I got them onto the ship anyway…." She shuddered, dropping to her knees, Ran-oh-ki plaintively nuzzling her ankle. "I won… I saved them…."

Ryouga stared for a moment longer, then hung his head and turned away, remaining silent.

Ranma blinked, remembering suddenly, and turned to look at Nodoka and Kasumi, both still frozen with shock. Trembling, Ranma climbed to her feet, taking an unsteady step forward. "Mom?" she asked, eyes wide with worry and bright with unshed tears. "You're okay?"

Nodoka stepped back, shaking her head. "No… no, you're not Ranma." She giggled, slightly hysterical. "You're not even Ranko… I don't know what you are…."

Ranma was struck by the emotional hammer-blow, staggering to fall to her knees again. "No," she gasped, fighting back tears and confusion, "Mom! It's me! I'm Ranma!" Nodoka stepped back further, disappearing into the house, her hysterical and frightened laughter trailing her. "But…" Ranma choked out, turning to Kasumi.

Kasumi took a step back — only one — and the disappointment with herself shone on her face for it… but Ranma knew what it meant, and staggered to her feet, stumbling across the yard to lean against the crumbling wall, away from the woman. Eyes wide, she stared at her feet, struggling to breathe… she didn't need to breathe. Stupid, she told herself, forgetting… forgetting you aren't even human anymore.

Nabiki watched the newcomers leave, having to wonder at the coincidence. Ranma was gone, though. The Ranma that she had known. It was reasonable to think that there was another Saotome Ranma, possibly even one capable of fighting the monsters…

Still…. She stood suddenly, setting down her phone, and approached Seta and Oe, both of them trying to hash out some numbers on a clipboard before the main map. "Okay," Seta said, tracing a line, and tapping his chin thoughtfully, "we've only got a rough estimate, and that's about ten million people to evacuate. Most of them have already been moved to the harbor area, right?"

Oe nodded, rubbing at his eyes tiredly. "That's right," he said, glancing at some of the figures, "we're out of carriers, really… but… there is a way to get more people out."

Seta glanced over the numbers again. "Freight?"

"Essentially. We just need to find a way to offload whatever — at this point — useless cargo they're carrying, and then make temporary shelters below decks."

Frowning, Seta shook his head. "That won't work." Oe blinked, setting the clipboard down and drawing a small book that had been tucked into his belt out. He flipped to an empty page, while Seta waited, then wrote as the man spoke. "There's practically no usable space in a lot of those freighters below decks. However, we can take the existing freight, and throw it out, leaving the boxes. Some of those could be converted to temporary shelter."

Oe slipped the book back into his belt behind him, nodding. "That's true. I'll arrange what I can to take care of that."

Seta nodded to him, slapping the boy on the shoulder. "If we're moving out in six hours, plan it, then try to grab some sleep. You've been working for nearly three days straight, and we've got to figure out how to move more than ten million people."

Nodding again, Oe wandered back to a corner desk, and began discussing something with the man there. Seta turned to Nabiki expectantly. "Tendo-san? Is there a problem?"

She shook her head, glancing around the office. "Not at the moment, but I need to get home to check on something."

Seta nodded, absently withdrawing a cigarette from his pocket and placing it in his mouth before he remembered the 'no smoking' rule. Sighing, he placed it back in his pocket. "Understandable, Tendo-san. Hopefully we'll see you later?"

She shrugged, glancing towards the tactical map. "I'll probably be moving to Central Defense East, now. They're going to need more help at the moment."

Grimacing, Seta studied the map again. "Agreed. Keep in touch, and say hello to Koalla-san when you see her."

Nabiki nodded, grabbing her purse and running out the door. She just had to know…

Washuu opened the door, worming her way free of the tiny patrol car before it even stopped. Yosho was there before her, catching her before she could hit the ground, then setting her down and backing away.

She spared a momentary glance for him, ignoring the traffic police as their vehicle slid to a halt, and pushed herself to run all-out towards Ranma. She could see the shorter redhead, gone pale with shock at something, and hear her through the communication link, whimpering softly about her mother. "Oh, no!" Washuu whispered, grabbing the diminutive redhead in an embrace and raising a warning hand towards the two boys she did not recognize in the yard.

Ranma stared at her, confused, and Washuu made a soothing noise, pulling Ranma back, towards the waiting car. "Ranma? Are you okay?" Ran-oh-ki was busy nuzzling Ranma's cheek, trying to get a reaction from the girl, while she mumbled, shivering. Not with cold, Washuu knew, but pain, and not even physical pain, at that.

"Oh… Ranma… Yosho? We need to find a place to take him, if we can." Miyuki and Natsumi stared, climbing out of the patrol car and blinking in surprise.

Miyuki sighed, shaking her head. "Central Defense East isn't far from here…."

Washuu nodded, managing to get herself and Ranma into the car, while Yosho nimbly leapt to crouch on the roof. Natsumi stared at Yosho before climbing into the car again, and muttering, "I remember when we used to bust people for this nonsense, and now we're actively encouraging it."

Miyuki grinned, accelerating slowly to give Yosho time to compensate and avoid being thrown. "I remember our initial meeting, don't forget." Blanching, Natsumi fell silent.

Washuu shook her head, glancing over at Nuku, still seeming to be asleep where she had been left, and then back to Ranma, no longer crying, and instead simply staring blankly. "Oh," she whispered to herself, "what else can go wrong?"

"…and thus, in accordance with the ruling of this, the Supreme council, we will be dispatching the primary volunteer force to colony 0-315 later tonight. Through use of the Throne, a force of no less than twenty cruisers will be dispatched, with an estimated capacity not to exceed twenty million refugees."

Tsunami blinked, trying to brush off an odd pang of… hurt… and distraction that she couldn't quite place. The bespectacled Counselor reading the missive nodded to himself, mumbling, and began reading the next paragraph.

"The secondary task force, which should be able to contain the larger mass of refugees will arrive at a point approximately three months from this date —" he broke off muttering. "We're going to need to calculate the exact hours on that one. Humph."

Adjusting his spectacles again, he surveyed the rest of the Supreme Council, then turned back to the missive before him. Tsunami masked a thoughtful frown. Jakugo, she thought his name was, though he was not memorable. Aside from which, the odd, slow melding of Sasami's mind and hers left much confused…

"Three months from this date. It is the express understanding of this council at this point in time that because of the expenditure of energy involved in the process, that the Throne will be used only one time, however, in order to increase the capacity for transport, it will be used both to transport the initial survivor wave to, and from colony 0-315."

He sighed, shaking his head, and Tsunami found herself struggling to pay attention to his speech. On the one hand, she knew it was important, and how much so, but at the same time… the man had a gift for explaining things in the most long-winded and dull manner she had ever known.

"I trust we can all agree with this ruling?"

A side effect of the slow fusion, she told herself, nodding along with the rest of the council. She would have to try and find a way to contact Washuu and ask her opinion on the subject.

Turning away from Jakugo, Tsunami carefully studied Tenchi, sitting to her left and holding Ayeka's hand beneath the table. He looked as though he wished to object, but grudgingly nodded. "That'll…" he trailed off, clearing his throat. "I agree with said ruling at present."

The counselor nodded, shuffling through his papers and setting them where any could review. "In that case, I move that we take a recess until after the initial rescue operation." At Tenchi's expression, he smoothly supplied, "This should give any interested parties a chance to observe the mission directly."

Tsunami had to hide a smile at that. Dull or not, the man had a clever tongue. A wonder that that intrigued her when the content of his speech did not…

Tenchi glanced at Ayeka, who nodded very subtly. The boy placed his hand over the green disk before him, followed shortly by everyone else at the table. There was a subtle, but present feeling of relief from all present, as the Emperor rose, knocking on the table twice with his scepter. "This hearing is adjourned. We will reconvene after the initial rescue operation returns." He cocked his head to one side, as everyone rose, and said in a slightly less formal tone, "Tenchi… I would speak with you privately."

Blinking, Tenchi nodded, while Ayeka backed away nervously. Tsunami rose smoothly, pacing towards the Emperor sedately, while the rest of the Council drifted away, some of them murmuring about softly about various details and measures.

The Emperor stared at Tsunami for a long moment, seemingly ready to challenge her presence, but stilled when Tenchi drew near with Ayeka. The princess bowed demurely, backing away when she saw her father's expression. Ayeka shot Tsunami a glance laced with confusion and worry, then let her eyes rest on Tenchi, as she drew out of hearing range.

"Hmm…" Azusa remarked, looking Tenchi over from head to foot.

Tenchi blinked nervously, seeing both Funaho and Misaki standing behind Azusa attentively. "Yes?" he asked, apprehension apparent in his voice.

Azusa shook his head, walking around Tenchi in a slow circle. "You manage yourself… poorly, within our courts."

Tenchi grimaced, standing still and saying nothing.

"I would prefer that… your grandfather… claim the throne."

Tenchi blinked, his grimace lessening to a frown. "What are you trying to say?" he asked, rubbing at the trefoil mark on his forehead.

Azusa sighed, turning to look at his wives, who both remained impassive for the moment. "If you convince my son to return with the refugees, then I will see to it that the evacuation proceeds more swiftly."

Tenchi's jaw slowly fell, and his hands twitched. Tsunami could tell by his expression and demeanor alone that he was forcing himself not to draw the Tenchi-ken. "So," he grated out, breathing deeply, "you're saying that you're letting my home be destroyed, and the people of my planet die, simply because you want my grandfather to come back and take over for you?"

Tsunami frowned at Azusa, crossing her arms beneath her chest, but saying nothing. Azusa merely shook his head, explaining, "It is not as you say it. I simply advise you that should you convince him to return, the evacuation of your home world might move more swiftly. Other than that… you are dismissed."

The boy before Tsunami only gaped, unable to do anything, as the Emperor whirled, stalking away quickly to be trailed by his wives. Ayeka closed the distance between herself and Tenchi swiftly, taking his hand before he could speak. "Tenchi-sama," she said in a low voice, "let us return to your quarters. We will be leaving for Earth later, and you will need to rest before we depart to account for the time difference."

Tenchi wrenched his attention away from the swiftly receding figure of Azusa, nodding dumbly at Ayeka, and allowing himself to be led away.

Tsunami watched him walk away, feeling faint bemusement at his departure. There was still some small hurt, but she could see that Tenchi was pained, too. As was Ayeka, and, to a degree, Ryouko.

Ironic… she knew so well that she loved Tenchi… and that Tenchi did not love her back, even if he did have concern for her, and he did care. She wiped at one eye absently, unable to hold back the hurt that grew when she thought on it too long.

But his pain lessened, as did theirs, when they were together. How could she begrudge him that?

She sighed, shaking her head. There was grief, but beyond that, she was secure in the knowledge of the people who still did care for her, even worlds away. The mere knowledge that they were there was enough to counter the pain she knew she should feel.

But the worry for them began to gnaw at her, the more she thought of them… she needed to see them again to make sure all was well — she might not have another chance, having to throw herself into the complex politics of the Juraian government to help Tenchi.

She sighed, shaking her head, and whispering to the silent, empty room, "Oneesan, Yosho, I worry about you, and miss you… Ranma-dono… I hope you are safe. I hope you are well when I return."

Nabiki rubbed at her temples, shooting a particularly scathing glance at Mousse and Ryouga, both of whom were still looking stunned. "Okay," she said softly, trying to put together what she could from their story. "Your team fought a monster, and Saotome-san died killing it."

They nodded.

"Then Ranma showed up, just in time to see his father die."

Another nod.

"And then you tried to kill him."

Very hesitantly this time, they nodded again.

"And then Ranma explained that he essentially sacrificed himself to save Akane, Shampoo, and Ukyou." She had to fight to keep a note of admiration out of her voice. He was clever to manage that — cleverer than she had originally suspected, that was certain.

The next nod was very meek.

"And then Ranma tried to talk to his mother, and she freaked out because Ranma's gained some weird new powers, and called her 'Mom' in his cursed form… and you just stood there, letting him suffer?"

The next nod was even meeker, as the two boys cringed before Nabiki.

"Okay, then. When I find Ranma, I'm going to bring him back here. And both of you idiots are going to apologize. Kami! The poor boy just lost his father! Do you—" she cut herself off abruptly, rubbing at her temples, and closing her eyes. "Never mind. Where is Ranma's mother? And Kasumi?"

The boys pointed mutely towards the stairs, and Nabiki rose, taking a deep breath to calm herself. "Okay. You two, call the civil department, and get help removing that thing from the backyard. Once that's done, I want you to find Daddy, and talk to him about finding a suitable resting place for Saotome-san's remains."

They nodded again, making her wonder if they could do more than that. At least it was something, though, that they were ashamed of their actions. She was half-afraid they'd be proud…. Sighing, she climbed the stairs, wondering idly where her father had gone…. She didn't think he'd run away, like the old man had just after Ranma disappeared.

Shaking her head, she dismissed the thought, knocking on the door to Kasumi's bedroom. Her sister answered it hesitantly after a moment, peeking out, then ushering her inside and closing the door behind her.

Nabiki smiled half-heartedly at Kasumi, then turned her attention to Nodoka, sitting on Kasumi's bed, and breathing heavily, eyes wide as she stared at the floor. Her makeup was perfect, her hair all in order, and her kimono was only slightly rumpled. She looked every inch the lady. How like a china doll, Nabiki marveled, so perfect, and yet so fragile… and so unyielding.


The woman seemed to struggle for some modicum of control, and managed to school her expression, hiding her hysteria externally. Smiling genially at Nabiki, she asked, "Yes, dear?"

"Can you talk to me about what happened?"

Nodoka twittered nervously, "I don't know! I saw, but… I don't know!" Shuddering, she managed to calm herself, and said, "I… I saw Ranko-ch… I saw Ranko, and she was wearing the most shameful outfit—" She giggled hysterically into her sleeve for a moment, then started over, "I saw Ranko, only, she was glowing, and… and she was able to make a chain go through her, and… and… and those boys kept calling her 'Ranma'…."

Nabiki smiled glumly. "Yeah… well, that's a long story. What else?"

"She… she… the girl called me 'mother'! But… but she's a monster — her eyes, you should have seen them! She's not…" she trailed off, shivering. "I thought she was a monster come to take me away, next. Like one of the ones that… that… where… where is Genma?"

Nabiki sighed, turning towards the door and striding forward briskly. Kasumi halted her progress, her expression cross, and raised a hand in warning. Nabiki rolled her eyes, whispering, "The poor woman's in shock. Snap her out of it, and get her ready to meet Ranma. If I can, I'm bringing him back here — back home."

Kasumi nodded dutifully, looking at Nodoka with worry. "Yes, imouto-chan…. You're right. Good luck."

"Luck," Nabiki muttered, already on her way out down the stairs. "I'm going to need it…."

Ranma stood at Washuu's side, as the taller redhead studied, 'Central Defense East.' A large, low building, with a massive generator situated to one side, half of the windows boarded up, and smoke pouring out of chimneys on the opposite end. Her attention, however, was focused on Ranma, who stood at her side as though lifeless, not reacting.

Washuu, sighed, and moved towards the building.

Before the doorway, there was a large table covered with papers, weighted down with a multitude of small paperweights, and a massive radio transceiver. The radio hissed for a moment with static, making Ran-oh-ki hiss back briefly before he returned to trying to get Ranma's attention. A young man wearing glasses and with his sleeves rolled up frowned at the papers, muttering to himself occasionally.

He glanced up when Washuu stepped towards him, nodding. "Hello, welcome to C.D.E. I'm Urashima Keitaro, and right now I'm managing this station. Are you here to offer help, or are you in need of medical assistance?"

Washuu shook her head, wishing that it were as simple a problem as that. "Ah, no… I'm Hakubi Washuu, and this is Saotome Ranma, and Masaki Yosho… we need a bit of room to work with. For one thing, Nuku-san was damaged, and I'd like to try and repair her, and for another… er… Ranma needs a place to sit down for a while."

Keitaro stared for a moment, then nodded. "Okay, Koalla-san's inside right now, along with a few others. She should be able to help you out. He glanced to his feet, frowning, and Washuu followed his gaze. A small pile of watermelons, previously hidden from her sight came into her view, and she sighed, seeing Ran-oh-ki valiantly attempting to push one towards Ranma. "Uh," Keitaro said, staring at the creature in confusion, "is this yours?"

Washuu nodded, crouching down to collect Ran-oh-ki, and placing him in Ranma's unresisting hands. "Yes. Sorry about that."

Keitaro shrugged, turning back to his papers. "Don't worry about it. I've got more than enough…. Otohime-chan keeps bringing them over. If you want one, please, help yourself."

Yosho shrugged, collecting one of the large fruits before following Ranma and Washuu inside. "Yosho, could you bring Nuku-san for me?" He nodded at her request, juggling the melon idly and walking back towards the car, while Washuu's eyes adjusted to the dim interior lighting.

Ran-oh-ki's eyes nearly glowed, soft, golden amber, and he loosed a quiet, "Miyah…."

Washuu smirked, relaxing as Ranma absently scratched its ears. "Yeah, yeah, rat…" she whispered half-heartedly. Washuu's smile faded, noting the luminescence of Ranma's own eyes… which meant that Ranma had managed to lose enough mass to be replaced that she was actually becoming less human. First the eyes, and then the other secondary characteristics — ears, teeth, the hair had already changed — and then the internal organs…

She had talked about it with Ranma while they journeyed to Tokyo, but wasn't certain how much of it had stuck. "Ranma?" she asked worriedly. Ranma slowly looked at Washuu, her eyes painfully, piercing blue.

"Yes?" she asked, listlessly.

"It's… it's okay, Ranma…." Ranma nodded, turning to look around blankly. Washuu sighed, blinking and looking around once her eyes had adjusted. Tables, scattered everywhere, most of them nearly buried under half-disassembled machinery, and a few people poking through them, occasionally adding parts to bins. At the far end of the chamber, near the generator, a young woman with pale white hair and loose-fitting garments was slowly assembling some small device.

The light from the doorway dimmed for a moment, Yosho entering with Nuku. He glanced around, blinking, and stood near Washuu expectantly. "Well?" he asked.

Washuu frowned at him, then moved over towards the young woman — she looked to be in charge. "Koalla-san, I presume?"

She looked up wearily, pausing her assembly for a moment and rubbing her hands, wincing at the sensation. "Yes, that's me. Are you here to help? We're fighting a losing battle with this, I think they're learning to ignore the decoys…."

Washuu blinked, studying the objects. Smallish projectiles, probably self-sustained. That would distract the reavers, if they behaved at all like living things, simply dodging about…. "This is the… uh… defensive screen, Koalla-san?"

Koalla nodded, still rubbing her hands. "It's okay if you aren't going to help," she said slowly, "and you can just call me Suu."

Washuu shook her head. "No, I'll help. I need to repair Nuku-san here, first," she said, pointing back towards the girl, still carried by Yosho.

Suu looked at Nuku for a long moment, then shrugged. "Do you mind if I help you? If I build another decoy, I think my head will explode."

Washuu nodded, eager to start putting things back together — and not just the damaged redhead in Yosho's arms. "Certainly. I might be able to help you, once we have Nuku-san operational again."

Nuku-Nuku opened her eyes slowly, seeing the dim light, and knowing that her injuries were repaired. "Papa-san?" she asked hopefully.

"No, Nuku-san, my name is Washuu, and this is Suu. How are you feeling?"

She sat up, looking around, and said the only thing she could think of. "Ryunosuke still can't play with Nuku-Nuku?"

Washuu shook her head sadly, and whispered, "I can't fix that, dear."

Washuu stood on one end of the long building's roof, near the generator, feeling it rumble and make the area vibrate gently. The reverberations passed through her feet and upwards, nearly a pleasant, soothing sensation. But…

There were just some things she couldn't fix. And it hurt. Ranma sat on the other end of the roof, near the chimneys, ignoring the smoke, since she knew she didn't have to breathe anymore. Washuu bit her lip, wondering what she could do.

It hurt her to watch, remembering Ranma's normal attitude — the boisterous smile and raucous laughter… gone now, sealed away behind the mask of pain and rejection. Washuu wished that there were some way to summon Tsunami, but both of the Juraian trees were gone, and the fleet still hadn't sent a signal. Ran-oh-ki would know, and tell Ranma when they arrived, but until then…

She sighed, slipping down to sit on the peak of the roof and wonder. Tsunami might be able to cheer Ranma, since Ranma and Tsunami had gone through such similar ordeals, but…

But Ranma didn't like to open up to people. She didn't like to be vulnerable to anyone. Maybe she'd never learned how. Washuu cocked her head to one side, looking at the girl. She didn't even seem to want to regain the mass to become male again. Irony… she had people who did care about her, Washuu knew. Herself, Yosho… probably the two traffic policewomen, and even Nuku, were Ranma willing to ask. Momiji, too, wherever she was.

And yet she didn't open up to any of them.

Washuu shook her head, wishing she could help… it wasn't that Ranma was her only hope against the reavers. Seeing the defense that the survivors of Tokyo had already mounted showed her that. It was more personal. Ranma was… a friend. At least. Ranma had protected her, but more importantly, she'd laughed with her, talked with her…

And she would let Washuu heal her body, and would willingly throw herself into danger to protect those around her… but why wouldn't she let Washuu try to heal her other hurts? Death was something that Washuu could not undo, but sometimes the pains of living grew great as well.

Sighing, she crept over to Ranma, sitting within touching distance, and somehow hoping she could get Ranma to open up. "Ranma?" she asked softly.

"Yes?" Ranma said, mechanically, with less life and emotion than even Nuku had used. Her blue eyes didn't move from Ran-oh-ki, her fingers idly batting at his paws, as he tried to counter Ranma's attempts to tickle his chin.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah," she said quietly, still hunched in on herself, lazing with her partner. "I'm fine. Just playing with the rat."

Washuu shook her head, searching for something to say. "You know," she said quietly, "I hate being alone."

Ranma nodded. "I don't like sleeping alone." She sighed. "Pops… me and Pop used to always sleep in the same room."

"I was once trapped on the Soja." Washuu shivered, wrapping her arms around her more tightly, glancing at Ranma out of the corners of her eyes. "I was trapped… half-asleep, for…" she heaved a shuddering sigh. "For nearly five thousand years." She was almost ashamed at the way her voice cracked, and spent a long moment inspecting her hands, unable to meet Ranma's eyes. "I hated it. It was so cold… and I couldn't see… or touch… or hear… and I couldn't dream… It was so lonely… and I was only allowed to wake so rarely…."

She shuddered again, calming when she felt Ranma's soft hand pressing into her back. She slid herself towards Ranma, putting one arm around the girl and pulling her closer. "I remember that when I sleep. I hate to sleep alone, too. Ranma… what I'm saying is… you don't have to be alone. Do you understand?"

Ranma nodded silently, her face twisting as tears spilled from her eyes, rolling down her face. "I'm so… I don't know what to do… I… I can't blame you. If it weren't for you I'd be dead… but it hurts… it hurts so much!"

Washuu soothed Ranma, as the redhead clung to her, finally letting it out, more than the brief interlude earlier, letting all of the emotion free, a tide that swept out, nearly overwhelming her with its intensity. "You aren't alone, Ranma. You'll always have me, and Yosho… and Tsunami cares for you dearly…."

Ranma nodded, burying her face in Washuu's shoulder, and releasing a wracking sob. Tsunami was right, Washuu decided. Ranma really did have a beautiful heart. One that deserved so much less pain to have to endure…

Keitaro frowned at his watch, then shook his head. "Suu-ch— Koalla-san?"

The woman emerged from the building a moment later, looking even more weary than before. "Yes, Keitaro?"

Keitaro squinted at the map, sighing. "How many decoys are active?"

The young woman checked a counter on her bracelet, and mumbled. "Forty… thirty-nine."

"How long do you think that'll hold?"

"Same as before…." Suu sighed tiredly, only glancing upwards as a pair of redheads drifted down through the air slowly, laughing softly together.

Ranma set Washuu on the ground, and grimaced, rubbing her stomach. "I should eat…."

Keitaro snorted, turning back to his papers and gesturing to the ever-present stack of watermelons. "Help yourself."

Washuu nodded, taking Suu's hand. "Yes, you do that, Ranma. Suu-chan, let me help you for a bit. I might have a few ideas that will help out…."

Ranma sat on the ground rolling a watermelon into her lap and examining it for a moment. Ran-oh-ki bounced off her head, then landed on the watermelon from his height on the roof. "Hey, rat," Ranma snickered.

The creature sniffed imperiously, looking away.

"Well, I'm going to cut this open, and then eat it, so you're gonna have to sit somewhere else." Ran-oh-ki pouted, as Ranma set him to the side, then cut the watermelon in half with a single swipe of her hand. "Hah!" she exclaimed, setting half on the ground before her partner, and taking the other for herself.

Nabiki jumped off the back of the truck, waving to the two men in the front who were driving first-aid supplies down the harbor. She dusted herself off, frowning at a loose thread in her jeans. Could be worse, she decided, ignoring it for the present. She could have had much worse.

She looked up at Central Defense East, noting the operator's room on the second floor, above the machine shop. She blinked, seeing Ranma sitting in the yard, looking relatively calm, and passively eating watermelon. Along with some small animal that rapidly seemed to consume several times its own volume in fruit. But it was Ranma. And something about that, after everything that had happened, beyond what she had heard from Mousse and Ryouga… unsettled her.

She walked towards the redhead, noting another man sitting near her and chatting casually. Yosho, she remembered suddenly from seeing him at Central. She heard Yosho's voice first, as Ranma hadn't noticed her. "So he likes watermelon? Saves us trouble with carrots, in that case."

"Hah!" Ranma retorted, wiping some watermelon juice from her chin. "He'll eat anything. Seems to like scrap metal best. I'll be damned if I can tell where he puts it, though."

Nabiki stared at Ranma, absorbing the details. She was so much the same, but… the eyes. Kami, she shivered to herself. Her eyes were so… so breathtaking and ethereally beautiful. And yet… so… not human. The way they irised, more like a cat than a human, slim, oval shaped pupils in the light, and luminous… almost enough so to glow in the sun's intensity. She caught herself, and tried to sound cheerful, forcing back her nervousness, "Ranma!"

Ranma was on her feet in an instant, the last few pieces of her slice of watermelon falling, quickly snatched up by the little animal near her. "What do you want," she asked sullenly.

Nabiki raised her hands in a placating gesture, her heart skipping a beat. "To apologize for what happened, Ranma. I wanted to ask you how you were." And ask you to come back, she said to herself.

She stared at Nabiki for a long moment before relaxing, and sitting down, motioning Nabiki to do the same. Nabiki took a seat, eyeing the furry creature apprehensively as it climbed into her lap and sniffed at her for a moment before returning to Ranma. "What… what is that?" she asked, trying to identify it.

"The rat?" Ranma asked, smirking, and wincing slightly as the creature bit her hand by way of return. "This is my partner, Ran-oh-ki. He can show me what he sees and hears. Washuu says he can fly through the stars, but I don't know what good that does me, yet." She shook herself suddenly, gesturing to Yosho. "This is Masaki Yosho… he and Washuu traveled with me from Okayama."

Nabiki nodded. "Tendo Nabiki. Nice to meet you. I'm Ranma's fiancée's sister."

Ranma frowned at that, but said nothing. Yosho merely raised an eyebrow, commenting, "Pleasant meeting you. I think I saw you at the central office." He offered her a slice of watermelon, which she accepted. Ranma idly teased Ran-oh-ki with a watermelon rind, the furry creature claiming large bites whenever it could.

Nabiki stared at the slice of watermelon in her hand for a long moment. On the one hand, she had no idea what to say to Ranma, anymore. On the other hand, as easy as things seemed, she wasn't sure she needed to say anything. After a long moment, something came to her. "Ranma?"


"Thank you."

She blinked at Nabiki, oblivious as Ran-oh-ki managed to devour the dangling melon rind bite-by-bite. "What are you thanking me for?"

Nabiki smiled, taking a bite from the fruit, and staring at the sky, a few stray clouds dotting it. "Thanks for taking care of Akane, Ranma. I don't know what Daddy's going to say, but thank you. I think you were brilliant."

Ranma colored slightly, managing a sheepish grin. "Uh… well… I couldn't ditch any of them. I mean… I had to take care of all of them. Honor, and…" she trailed off shrugging, but still smiling. "I live to protect, I guess. Now, anyway." Her gaze hardened instantly.

Yosho nodded knowingly. "The path of the warrior is never a friendly path, Ranma. We walk it because we must, not because we choose to."

Nabiki giggled, "You sound a lot like someone I used to know…."

Ranma snorted, waving a hand dismissively. "This guy's a lot brighter than Kuno."

Sobering, Nabiki nodded. "That may be true… but you shouldn't speak unkindly of Kuno-san."

Ranma sighed, shaking her head, as Ran-oh-ki climbed into her lap and dozed. "Him too?" she asked softly. At Nabiki's nod, Ranma hung her head sadly. "Every time I think things can't possibly be going any worse, I… damn." She stood suddenly, and seemed to shimmer for a moment, then shook her head again. "Need more mass. Watermelon isn't filling enough."

Nabiki rose slowly, along with Yosho. "Ranma?" she offered hesitantly. "Would you like to come back with me?"

Ranma blinked, frowning. "Why?"

Nabiki frowned, crossing her arms across her chest. "I'd… we'd like you to come back. Your mother…." She winced at Ranma's pained expression. "She'll understand better… it's… just the shock. And I know some people who owe you an apology, too."

The man stretched, then sighed. "Ranma, I'm going to go see where they need help. You should do whatever you feel is best." Ranma nodded after the old man, staring thoughtfully at the ground for a long moment.

"I… guess so, Nabiki…" she said, uncertainly, still not meeting Nabiki's eyes. Nabiki was secretly thankful for it. Her… alien eyes were so… unsettling. She simply couldn't put it into words.

"Okay, Ranma, let's go see about catching a ride back to Nerima."

Ranma adjusted the small blue gem hanging near her ear, and shook her head. "Washuu? I'm going to be in Nerima for a while…. Call on me if you need me." She turned her attention back to Nabiki, as Ran-oh-ki leapt into her hands. "No need for a car, Nabiki. I'll show you something neat."

Ranma swept Nabiki off her feet, secretly pleased with the seemingly imperious girl's yelp of surprise. "See?" she said, raising her voice slightly to be heard, while Ran-oh-ki floated to rest in Nabiki's lap.

Nabiki schooled her expression after a moment, giving Ranma a very cool and calmly collected look, arching one eyebrow slightly upwards, though she could see a glint of apprehension in the girl's eyes still. "When did you learn how to do this? Or the… other things?"

Ranma felt her smile slip slightly, and tried to shrug it off, scanning ahead for a familiar landmark from Nerima. "I'm not completely human anymore, Nabiki. When I get hurt, I get… replaced… with… well… other stuff. Washuu could explain it better, but it doesn't really matter."

The girl in her arms was silent for a long moment, only the thin wind against them making noise, Nabiki's shirt snapping occasionally in the breeze. Ran-oh-ki sighed, settling down for a nap, and Nabiki patted him absently after brushing a strand of hair from her face. "I'm sorry," she said after a moment. "You must really hate whoever did that to you."

Ranma stopped suddenly, hovering in midair, and looked at Nabiki, thinking. "Hate her? I… I don't. I can't, really. I would have been dead otherwise." She nodded slowly, looking down at the city below her.

Nabiki bit her lip. "How… you'd rather be a monster than dead?" She winced a moment later, realizing what she had said.

Ranma sighed, the life fading from her eyes for a moment. "'Monster'? I… I don't care. I can protect people, like this. I'm strong enough to save people… or at least try. I didn't ask for it, but I don't care. Even if it costs me everything I have…. Damn it, Nabiki! I already gave up Shampoo, Akane, and Ukyou! I don't… I don't think anything else matters as much." She laughed bitterly, shaking her head. "I bet this is going to cost me my mother, and I already lost Pops.

"So what? I still got people to protect, things to live for. I'm going to fight, and I'm going to protect everything I can. Those stupid bugs killed me. They destroyed everything I really cared about…" she trailed off, glumly remembering Yosho's words on the reavers, on the trip from Yokohama. "I'm not alone… I just… lost a lot of what I had.

"I don't know. I'm probably boring you. But I don't know if it really matters… you know? I mean, I'll still do what I can to protect. That's what I live for, like I said." Ranma blinked a few times, thinking about her words, then shook her head, and began drifting forwards wordlessly.

Nabiki remained silent for a long moment, looking at Ranma oddly. After a time, she asked, "What… what did you used to live for?"

Ranma shrugged, lowering herself to the ground and setting Nabiki down gently. "Dunno, really," she said, as Ran-oh-ki bounced up and rested on her head. She patted the creature softly once, then frowned, considering. "I guess… just getting better at martial arts. I wanted to be the best, you know? And now… I guess… I just have to stand by what Pops always said. 'It is a martial artist's duty to protect the weak!'" She shook her head, glancing towards the Tendo home, at the end of the street, and gestured. "Anyway. Doesn't matter, now. So let's go in and say hello, or whatever."

Nabiki nodded, looking at Ranma with deep consideration etched in her features. After a slight pause, she sighed, and strode down the street to the house, Ranma trailing her.

"We're home!"

Kasumi groaned wearily, padding from the kitchen, towards the front door. She paused for a moment, listening for sounds from the side yard, then shook her head. She was nervous, and distracting herself. Smoothing her expression, and running her hands across her apron to smooth it as well, she answered the door.

And there was Ranma, the strange animal perched on her head and blinking at Kasumi warily with its wide, aware, golden-amber eyes… so similar to Ranma's. Nabiki stood slightly behind Ranma, and to the side, leaning over subtly to study her reaction to seeing Kasumi again. Ranma nodded at Kasumi, blinking once, and causing the housekeeper to force down a shiver. "Hello, Ranma…" she trailed off, struggling, and wondering if a 'san' was warranted. Or perhaps…. But the moment was lost, and Ranma seemed pleased to hear it as just 'Ranma'. "How have you been?"

She shrugged, looking around as though expecting someone to jump out and accost her at any moment. "'Bout as well as you can expect, considering everything that's happened. How is everyone here holding up?"

Kasumi stepped to one side, gesturing Ranma inside. No sense treating Ranma like a stranger… she was clothed practically indecently in the skintight bodysuit, and her eyes had changed… but she was the same person. "Oh, we're not holding up too badly, Ranma… are you hungry, at all?"

Ranma nodded quickly. "Very."

"Would you like some hot water?"

The redhead shook her head, following Kasumi as she led him to the table. "No… don't need it right now. I have to eat before I can change back."

Kasumi shook her head, suppressing a giggle. "Ranma… you look very well, even with what you've done to your hair. You haven't changed at all, have you?"

Her eyes flashed momentarily, as she served herself a bowl of rice, but she shrugged. "I guess not. Where are Ryouga and Mousse? And… Mom?"

Kasumi sobered, sighing. It had been only an hour or two since Ranma's father had…. "Auntie is lying down at the moment. She had a bit of a shock earlier today."

Ranma said nothing, eating glumly for a long moment. "Oh," she said after a second bowl of rice had disappeared. "I guess I understand."

"I can fetch her, if you'd like…" Kasumi began, wondering how the household dynamic would change with Ranma's reintroduction to the scene. Then, too, she had heard rumors that they were going to be forced to abandon their home, and flee to the ocean.

Ranma set down her bowl and chopsticks, seeming to struggle for a long moment. "Nah… that—"

"Won't be necessary, Kasumi-chan," Nodoka's voice interrupted Ranma. Ranma was on her feet in an instant, a certain vulnerable light shining in her eyes as she looked upon her mother.

"Mom?" she breathed worriedly.

Nodoka stiffened at hearing Ranma address her so, and shook her head slowly. "You are not Ranma. You are not my son," she declared.

Ranma opened her mouth, seeming to choke on something, then straightened herself, one hand plucking the creature perched on her head and tucking it into the crook of her arm. She shimmered slightly, then seemed to shift suddenly, as though hot water had been poured on her. Him, Kasumi corrected herself, since he was male again, the bodysuit with the single blaze of blue around one arm seeming to shift with him. "Mom," he stated, more confidently. "I am Saotome Ranma. I… have a curse that makes me change—" He cut himself off, waiting for her to react. Nodoka reached forward slowly, one hand trembling, unsure, and slowly drew it back.

"No!" she hissed, swinging it around, and slapping Ranma across the face with all her might. Ranma barely seemed to flinch from the physical blow, but was left stunned, only able to stare in abject shock. "My son is a man! He left this planet with his fiancée!" She glared, putting one hand on the handle of the katana she carried with her ritualistically and drawing it with a trembling grip. "And most importantly," she yelled, pointing the sword at Ranma, mere inches from his throat, "YOU are not my son!"

Ranma was only able to stare, the point of the blade slowly drawing closer, and unable to find the words for the situation. Nodoka stepped forward, raising the sword over her head threateningly. Ranma took a deep breath, steeling himself, awaiting whatever would happen next.

Kasumi shook, trembling with worry and sympathy for the horrible hurt Nodoka was carelessly inflicting upon her only child. She opened her mouth to cry a warning to Ranma, as the blade began to descend, and Ranma unleashed a single, bitter bark of laughter. Her eyes clenched shut, not able to bear watching the inevitable, while she belatedly noticed Nabiki's arms around her, comforting. And then, there was horridly loud 'snap' noise, followed by a metallic clatter.

For a long moment, there was silence, and Kasumi heard a low, almost sobbing sound. Finding the courage to open her eyes again, she hesitantly looked upon the scene.

Ranma stood, unharmed, shaking his head sadly, while Nodoka stared at the handle of the katana in shock, and…

On the floor, Ranma's little pet glared at Nodoka balefully, angrily chewing — and eating — the Saotome family blade. Ranma slowly began to chuckle, quietly at first, and then more loudly, a pair of tears trickling from his eyes slowly. Only a pair, but tears none-the-less, and Ranma laughed, a hollow, bitter noise.

After a moment, he quieted, shaking his head. "No, Washuu," he mumbled to no one in particular. "Everything's just fine. I thought my mother was here, but I was mistaken. Ran-oh-ki!" he snapped, as the creature picked up the few remaining inches of unconsumed blade in its mouth, still glaring at Nodoka spitefully. "Let's get out of here…." And with that, he marched towards the door, turning his back on the woman.

"W… WAIT!" Nabiki cried out, chasing after Ranma.

He paused, turning to look at her. "Yeah, Nabiki?"

Nabiki seemed to struggle, then blinked, shaking her head. "I'm sorry… I'm very sorry, Ranma… it wasn't supposed to be like this. I… I didn't know…" she trailed off, not finding the words she wanted. "I'm sorry," she concluded lamely.

Ranma shrugged, patting the creature on his shoulder absently as it finished eating what was left of the Saotome blade. "Doesn't matter to me anymore. I have something to do, though. I'll do my best to make sure everyone's safe. I…." He looked distant for a moment, then shrugged. "I gotta get back to Washuu. Ran-oh-ki thinks he hears something."

Nabiki bit her lip, turning to look at Kasumi, as Ranma strode away, tossing back, "Thanks for the meal, Kasumi."

Kasumi bowed her head, shaking the tears from her eyes. "Everything," she whimpered, "everything is going so wrong! Poor Ranma…."

Ryouga paced nervously, occasionally turning back to check that he hadn't wandered too far, though Checkers would call him back if he began to stray. He sighed, turning towards the house again. "Mousse?" he asked curiously.

The Chinese boy looked up, blinking as he cleaned his glasses. "Yeah?"

"Um… how… how are we going to apologize to Ranma? I mean… we… we really made a mistake there, you know?"

Mousse blinked repeatedly, then nodded, donning his glasses again. "Ranma… made the right choice, I think. He saved… he saved all of them and left himself behind. That's respectable. I would rather that Shampoo be safe among the stars than… here…" he said distastefully.

Ryouga considered that, and nodded. "That's… true. But… how are we going to apologize to him?"

Mouse scratched his head, shrugging uncertainly. "I… don't know. Just tell him we're sorry, I guess." At Ryouga's blank stare, he amended, "Unless you have a better idea."

The lost boy considered that for a silent minute, a dry breeze rustling down the street. He didn't. "Okay, we'll just have to tell him we're sorry…."

Mousse nodded, turning towards the house. "You think he noticed us before he entered?"

Ryouga opened his mouth to respond, but closed it again when Ranma strode out of the house, face set and grim. His features darkened when his eyes settled on the two other martial artists, and he crossed his arms over his chest, remaining silent, standing still and waiting for one of the others to speak first.

Mousse found his voice first. "Saotome-san—"

"You must be thinking of someone else," Ranma said snidely. "I'm not Saotome. Just Ranma. Just… Ranma….." He stared at his feet for a moment, then rubbed at one ear, where a sky blue gem hung. Ryouga had to wonder at that. Ranma had never been taken to jewelry before….

"Ranma…. We… we wanted to apologize for our mistake. We, uh, didn't really think about things, and we hope you can, you know, forgive us for what we did wrong." Ryouga managed to stifle a laugh. Him, of all people, apologizing to Ranma!

Mousse nodded slowly, seeming much less galled than Ryouga himself felt. "We are sorry, too…. You… you did a noble thing."

Ryouga snorted, shaking his head. "I bet those girls are calling you an idiot right now, but… you managed something we didn't expect. And they're going to be safe, which we can't say for everyone else. So… um… thank you." Ryouga shuddered slightly, a feeling of relief passing through him. That was it, he thought to himself. He had to admit that this once, Ranma was in the right.

Ranma stared at the two for a long moment, his eyes… his odd, inhuman eyes… seeming distant. He snapped them onto Ryouga suddenly. "Yes, Washuu. I'm on my way." He shook his head, looking away again. "Doesn't matter now, Ryouga. Looks like help came through. I'm staying, but some of you are going to be getting a ticket away… to safety." He shrugged, not even leaping, simply… drifting upwards… and away.

Mousse stared after him, minutes passing before he found his voice. "He's got a chance to leave again, and he's staying behind?"

Ryouga frowned. "Is that what he was talking about? If… If he's staying, then I am too. I want to help make sure that Ranma's okay. I… owe him, I think."

Mousse nodded slowly. "As do we all. I'll help also." He hesitated a moment, before nodding, and looking eastward. "We should tell Cologne that he's back."

Ranma flew through the skies, looking down at the city, spread beneath him, and further south all the way to the harbor, his view partially obscured by the mass of gleaming metal and glass that were the Tokyo skyscrapers. And only on the fringes were there the lines of destruction and ravaged property where a reaver had made inroads, only to wander out of the city again. To the northeast he saw small, barely visible even with his trained eyes and whatever enhancements his new form had given them, objects, swarming around a pair of black specks that he guessed were reavers.

The defensive grid, he remembered. The reavers were too distracted by the things to destroy anything else, or hunt any humans…. Which was probably just as well. He debated briefly rushing them, but held off, instead heeding Washuu's request that he return, and Ran-oh-ki's insistence that 'something' was coming.

He landed before the building, 'Central Defense East', according to the hastily painted sign. Keitaro had given up on the papers for the moment and was leaning against the table, idly munching on a watermelon. He didn't look up to Ranma until the boy landed near him, and then he simply blinked, frowning. "You're with Defense?"

Ranma nodded, looking around. "Long story. Washuu?"

The redhead came out of the central building a moment later, flashing a smile at Ranma. "Ranma! We have some good news."

Ranma scratched his head, while Keitaro glanced between the two of them. The bespectacled boy pointed at Ranma, surprised. "You mean… you're…" he fell silent, considering, then shook his head, turning away.

Washuu coughed delicately, her smile filled with self-assurance. "We've managed to increase the reaction time of the decoys. We're not sure how long the defensive screen will hold now, but with us here, another eight hours or more seems like a safe bet."

Keitaro brightened somewhat, grabbing for his radio. "Why didn't you say so? I need to relay that to Seta-san — there's no way we could manage with just six hours, and this could help prevent a major panic."

Washuu nodded, not taking her eyes off Ranma. Ranma shook himself suddenly, patting Ran-oh-ki. "The rat thinks something's coming, though."

The scientist's eyebrows rose slightly, and she snapped her fingers. "Excellent!" she crowed. "Just the bit of luck we needed. That will be the first wave of rescue ships. We need to get in touch with them, and find out how much of a capacity they have… hmm…." She paused, frowning sharply, then nodded. "Ranma, I'm going to try and get into touch with them… I just wanted…" she trailed off, her smile fading. "Are you okay?"

Keitaro glanced over from his radio. "Is something wrong… Saotome-san?" he asked, guessing at Ranma's identity.

The boy flinched slightly, shaking his head. "Not anymore. Just Ranma. Tell Seta that, too. I don't want to have to tell everyone my name…." He rose slightly, Ran-oh-ki perched on his head as he hovered above the ground, and sighed. "Washuu, I'm going to see if they need help anywhere, like Yosho is doing."

Keitaro piped up again, after listening to the radio crackle. "Ah… Ranma-san, if you're going to help, you should take a radio with you, to keep in touch with Defense."

Washuu shot Keitaro an annoyed stare, then beckoned Ranma close, leaning forward so their faces were near, while her hands seemed to fiddle with the jewel near Ranma's ear. "Here we go… Ranma, you should be able to pick up radio signals with this, now. You can send if you touch it with one hand. I'll be able to hear you like always…" she trailed off, staring into his eyes, then shook her head, backing away. "Um… I'll help here. Be safe, Ranma."

He nodded, trying not to think about the closeness too much, and touched the jewel. "This is Ranma, I'm new to this whole thing…. Tell me where we need help."

A burst of static sounded, muted by some mechanism of the stone, and a voice followed. "Ah… okay, Ranma-san, we've got noises of incoming north of Toda, but that's a bit out there. What is your present position, over?"

Ran-oh-ki made a plaintive sound, as Ranma began to rise, and he responded, "I'm at Central Defense East. I guess I can probably be there in a minute or two." After a moment of silence, Ran-oh-ki leapt to Ranma's shoulder, and batted at his ear, reprimanding him. "Uh… over."

The voice responded. "Roger that, Ranma-san. Give us any updates as necessary, over."

Tsunami stood on the deck of the largest of the ships in the initial rescue wave outside of the Throne itself. She did not approve of Azusa's opinion on the matter, and the young Captain, Yohito, seemed more amiable to her. The tingling rush of the Throne's Gate caused dizziness and nausea in non-treebound Juraians, but Tsunami was more than simply treebound, and didn't notice.

Directly before her, above the command deck, a huge viewport allowed her to see the Earth in its entirety, a sparking jewel of life, of hope…. And one that betrayed no clue of the creatures that ravaged the planet's surface. The Captain of the vessel stood nervously at one edge of the wooden platform that composed the command deck. "Ah," he said after a moment, "Saryu-oh says that we can monitor—"

Tsunami cut him off smoothly, giving him a placating smile. "Do not worry, Captain. I can hear Saryu-oh, as well. He tells me that he senses the reavers, and he is scared. He also knows your determination to help, and is proud of it, so will not waver."

The Captain stared, flabbergasted for a long moment before nodding slightly. "It is… as they say it, Tsunami-sama. You are the voice of Jurai." He swept a low bow to her, awe etched on his face, while she hid a grimace of irritation. Bad enough the man was scared of her… why could no one ever simply be comfortable around her?

"Are we ready to go to the planet? Every second is precious."

Nodding, the Captain gestured, and the ship lurched forward, nineteen other ships in formation about it as it descended. "We are receiving a transmission." Tsunami turned to look behind her, where Tenchi was standing stiffly, uncomfortable in the overly formal robes that Ayeka had picked for him. The Juraian princess and Ryouko each stood behind him, one to each side, and Ryo-oh-ki sat near the boy's feet, bright eyes gone dim with boredom.

Seeming to snap to his senses, and realizing that the Captain was addressing him, Tenchi cleared his throat. "Ah, what's the message?"

Nodding slightly, the Captain made a gesture and a screen flared to life, near the massive projection of the Earth itself. A familiar face, blinking curiously and surrounded by chaotic swirls of red hair appeared, giving way to a wide grin as she saw everyone in her own screen. "Ah! Tsunami, Tenchi-dono, it's good to see you!"

Tenchi stepped forward, his features relaxing somewhat, and some of the tension draining from his face. "Washuu-chan!" he said, eyes shining bright with hope. "We've brought some reinforcements, and we don't have much time. We should be able to grab about twenty million people and bring them to safety. The Juraian government has set aside a smaller colony, not too far from Jurai itself, for the refugees. Is everyone okay?"

Washuu sobered somewhat, drawing back from the screen a short distance and looking over her shoulder. "Ah," she said slowly, "your grandfather is well, but…" she trailed off, shaking her head. "We're in fairly dire straits."

Tenchi seemed to catch the lack of reference to his own father, and stiffened. "Oh," he said quietly. Sighing, he did not even seem to notice as his hand sought out Ryouko's.

The Captain interjected suddenly, frowning, "This transmission is being traced."

Washuu waved a hand dismissively, shaking her head. "Don't worry about that; it's just Ranma."

Tsunami smiled softly, but bit her tongue, deciding that there would be time enough to ask after him later. He was active, though, and Washuu seemed unconcerned. Likely, he was just fine. Tenchi nodded slowly. "Well, we need to coordinate the effort to evacuate. Let's get to work."

Ranma shook his head, sparing a moment to glance upwards to the ships from the transmissions that he could hear faintly, buzzing from the jewel on his ear. "Well," he said softly, hearing Washuu speak with someone else. Tsunami was there also, that much had registered, but…

He cleared his mind, instead focusing on the distortions that Ran-oh-ki was picking up. Reavers, he knew, though the creature's whiskers were trembling, and it sniffed as though it could smell them. He could tell when Ran-oh-ki sensed them, though, and feel them himself as he drew closer.

A lone reaver, chasing after a pair of cars. Ranma snorted, diving towards the reaver, and wishing the drivers of the cars the best of luck. The reaver sensed his approach, rolling to one side as he prepared to strike, its legs spinning about and promising swift death should he get too near. Ranma rolled through the air, plowing into the earth to dodge, and Ran-oh-ki tumbled free.

His partner darted away to chase after the cars, clearing the battlefield for Ranma and checking to make sure that the vehicle's passengers were safe. The boy shrugged, pulling himself out of the ground, and eyeing the reaver balefully. It looked just like any of the others he had faced, fearsome and dangerous. It skittered away, leaving some space between itself and Ranma, as though it was considering its next action.

Ranma summoned his blades effortlessly. It wasn't even a challenge, he thought, the more that he did it. Surviving intact, however… he hadn't managed to destroy a single one without cost to himself, yet. The things learned damnably fast, though, and the last had hurt him badly even with Yosho's help. That meant that Ranma was going to have to use a different tactic against this one from before. But what?

"Hmm," he mumbled, shifting from stance to stance, finally drifting upwards and out of the thing's range to consider. Incredibly, the reaver began to edge away, slowly at first, then breaking into an all-out run, abandoning the field and ignoring Ranma. "Uh," he managed, staring at it as it receded. He didn't know what had made it run, but he didn't like seeing it.

Shivering, he asked, "Washuu? What could make these things run away? I thought it was going to fight, but it just… ran off…." Ran-oh-ki drifted back to Ranma, breaking his pursuit of the cars and making a curious noise. He grabbed the creature out of the air, setting it on his shoulder thoughtfully.

"…yes, Tenchi-dono. That would be for the best. What was that, Ranma?" He repeated the question, watching the reaver disappear over a hill, and fade from his senses. "It ran away?" she asked worriedly. "Maybe they're smarter than we thought. Ranma, be careful, and don't leave the city. The Juraian fleet is descending now — there's not enough room for everyone, but we can evacuate the people here." She was silent for a long moment, then added, "If… if you want to leave, and find your fiancées…."

He sighed, shaking his head. "No, Washuu. I'm not abandoning this planet until everyone else is safe. I think Yosho feels the same way, too."

Tenchi frowned, his arms crossed across his chest while 'Ranma' distracted Washuu, whoever he was. The scientist seemed saddened by something he said, though she didn't let it show in her voice.

The boy tried not to eavesdrop, as the ships drew closer to Earth. It would take less than an hour to reach the planet, though the Throne remained where it had jumped, in the shadow of the moon. Tenchi tried not to think about that. Twenty million people weren't enough, but it was a step in the right direction. All he needed to do was bring his grandfather back.

"…Yosho feels the same way."

He blinked at that, as Washuu frowned at something Tenchi couldn't quite see. "You may be right, Ranma," she said. "The evacuation will begin soon… I have a suspicion that the reavers are up to something… I'm going to see if I can get something more efficient to monitor them. In the meantime, I have to help Tenchi-dono finish planning."

Ranma's voice came through the connection, though there was no visual. "Oh. Right. Tell him I said thanks for the clothes."

Washuu shook her head, turning back to Tenchi, and smiling apologetically. "Sorry, Tenchi-dono…."

Tenchi shrugged, trying to ignore the nagging question about 'Yosho', and the more present ones about Ranma…. "Um… right. Now…."

Ranma scanned the area about him idly, passing over an abandoned apartment building on the northern edge of the city. The general populous, he had learned, had migrated towards the heart of the city, leaving the extremities as a sort of 'buffer' zone, which the reavers could raze with minimal loss of life.

Largely abandoned, he thought, as Ran-oh-ki sensed something. "It's an animal," Ranma muttered, receiving the creature's impressions in his mind like an extension of his own senses. "Probably a big rat, or something." Ran-oh-ki stomped a foot on Ranma's head irritably, and the boy sighed, lowering himself to investigate the building he had just passed over.

Ranma grumbled, drifting down through the ceiling. It was odd, he decided, actually being able to simply… pass through solid things. The way it had became nearly second nature sometimes unnerved him, reminding him of what he'd lost.

He froze for a moment, on one of the upper floors from the ground, surrounded by an abandoned home. A home he would never fit in, he realized. There was a pile of toys in the corner, a television, a stack of musical records… a photograph of a man and his wife.

He reached for it tentatively, tracing a line across the picture. He was a very tall man, and she very short, dressed in the traditional clothing for their wedding, both smiling at the camera, a slight hint of redness in their eyes. He blinked, setting the picture down, and moving to the next room. Some clothing, escaped from a prior hasty packing, some other mementos, an abandoned guitar stand, and more pictures.

The man, dressed in a business suit, smiling awkwardly, and holding a child in his arms. Ranma set that photograph back down, allowing it to remain, and sighed. Things he could probably never have… even if he could find the girls… would they accept him as he was? No longer entirely human?

He shook his head, trying to dismiss the scene, and walked out of the house, latching the door behind him. Ran-oh-ki remained quiet, understanding his feelings, as he rested one hand on the banister momentarily, and sighed deeply. No, he decided. He'd never been normal anyway; all that this had done was make it more obvious. Sighing, he vaulted over the railing, staring down some seven stories, and gliding slowly to the bottom.

"Lower," he muttered, sensing something through Ran-oh-ki. Much larger than a small animal. He frowned at that worriedly, as Ran-oh-ki focused his attention outward. "What… you think there's a kid around here, or something?"

Ranma shook his head, sinking through the floor, not sure where the basement entrance was. He blinked, allowing his eyes a few moments to adjust to the dimmer light that filtered in through the darkened windows. In the corner…

He sighed, hearing a faint, rasping breath coming from a corner. "Hello?" he called softly.

A voice weakly reached him, frightened and small. "Don't eat me!"

Ranma blinked, slowly edging closer. "A kid?" he murmured, genuinely surprised, despite the fact that Ran-oh-ki had sensed it. "Hey, I'm not going to eat anyone. What are you doing here?" He drew towards the corner that the voice emanated from, slipping around a tall stack of boxes. Cowering beneath a ragged blanket, he could make out the form of a small child, and nearby, a box of surplus rations and a small collection of bottles of water. "Whoa…" he murmured. "You okay?"

The child — a little girl, he guessed — slowly peeked out from beneath her blanket, her large eyes blinking at him in fright. "Are you one of the monsters?" she asked.

Ranma blinked, scowling slightly. "Yeah, but I'm a good monster. I'm here to take you some place safe. Where are your parents?"

The girl bit her lip worriedly. "Daddy is a policeman, and Mommy said she was going to get Gramma. She said to wait here where it was safe until she came home." She shivered weakly, though Ranma wasn't certain if it was from fright, or something else. "Mommy… Mommy and Daddy never came back."

Ranma tried to keep the anger out of his eyes — he didn't want to scare the poor girl. "Okay. How long ago was that?"

She shook her head, not knowing, and Ranma glanced towards the pile of discarded ration wrappers. He knew enough English to make out the letter 'k', but the rest of the meaning eluded him. Seven packets. Which could mean anything, since the girl was thin to the point of starvation, in Ranma's eyes. "So… a few days, you think?"

The girl nodded, drawing her blanket up to her chin. "Okay," he said, setting Ran-oh-ki on the ground between them. "This is my partner. His name is Ran-oh-ki, and my name is Ranma. Now, can you tell me your name?"

"Nonoko," she stated confidently. "My name is Nonoko."

Ranma grinned, as Ran-oh-ki hopped towards the girl, and she tentatively patted him on the head. "Okay, Nonoko… I'm going to talk to some other people for a few minutes. Can you keep Ran-oh-ki company while I do that?" The girl nodded enthusiastically, and Ranma stepped back slightly, touching the gem on his ear. "This is Ranma, I've found a girl out here, near Toda. Uh… where can I take her to be safe?" He belatedly remembered the protocol, and hastily tacked on an, "Over."

The response came back shortly, "Uh… this is Central. A survivor? Well, we're pretty much packed to the gills around here ourselves, and most of the people here are headed south. Um… go ahead and take her to Nerima, we'll have… team one pick her up, over."

Ranma grimaced, shaking his head. "Um… anyplace else aside from Nerima? I can take her to the harbor, over."

There was a long silence before he heard a response. "If… you really want to… it's up to you, but it'd be more efficient to drop her off in Nerima, over."

Ranma sighed, shaking his head, and lowering his hand. "This sucks," he muttered quietly.

Washuu's voice broke off from her current conversation, and she addressed him. "Ranma? Don't worry about it. Go ahead and bring her here. We'll be able to evacuate her shortly, so it shouldn't be an issue." Ranma sighed, unable to hide a grimace. Not that she could see it, he realized belatedly. He simply didn't want to return to Nerima yet…

"Nonoko?" he asked, stepping towards the girl. She looked up expectantly, Ran-oh-ki sitting in her lap and being patted slowly. "We're going to have to leave — I'm going to take you to a friend of mine. She's a nice lady. Now, don't be scared, okay?"

She nodded slowly, as Ranma picked her up, a warning flashing on the edge of his perception. He pressed the girl to himself and flew backwards as the wall behind the girl exploded in a sudden storm of masonry and earth. A mass of black claws followed, a reaver slowly backing out of the depression it had dug, then quickly running along the perimeter of the building and smashing everything. "Shit!" Ranma whispered as it disappeared, leaving him alone with the girl, and one entire wall of the basement simply torn out. "That's not good…."

The girl whimpered softly, not moving. Ran-oh-ki squeezed himself out from between Ranma and the child, scampering to Ranma's head, and sniffing the air cautiously. Given more warning, Ranma dashed away, crouching low as another wall was destroyed. "Oh…" he groaned, understanding what the reaver was trying to do. "The bugs are smart. They're trying to knock this building down on us!"

"Ranma? What's going on?" Washuu's voice was worried.

He edged towards the corner that was entirely knocked down, preparing to dash to freedom — then he saw it. The entire basement was lined with cement columns, and each one had claw marks on it, scores through the pillars that were nearly enough to sever them… but not quite. He stared at the nearest column dumbly, as another wall was demolished, and the building above them began to shake and groan violently. "They set a trap for us…" he breathed, crouching over the girl protectively, while Ran-oh-ki hissed at the last remaining wall.

"Ranma! What are you doing? Get out of there! Ranma!"

"Nonoko," he said, matter-of-factly, "this is probably not going to feel too good. Try and trust me, and hang on, okay?" She nodded, whimpering into his chest, as the last wall exploded away, and the building above began to collapse. If only he could abandon the child, or phase through things with her, he thought sadly, watching the ceiling descend, slowly at first, then more quickly.


Tenchi stared blankly, as Washuu broke off her conversation again, to shout at someone else worriedly. Whoever this Ranma person was…

He snapped his head around as the ship suddenly lurched, everyone but the captain and Tsunami sent tumbling. Tsunami glanced back at him, and for a moment his heart nearly stopped. He had never seen the woman look so… angry… in all his life. It was only a small frown, and a slight furrowing of her brow, but it was enough to distract him even as he was sent sprawling.

The captain of the ship merely looked surprised, his stance automatically shifting to take the lurch into account, as Tokyo began to fill their viewport. "Saryu-oh," Tsunami's voice rang out, each syllable clearly pronounced even then. One delicate hand rose, a slim finger pointing towards something Tenchi couldn't make out yet. "Fire at that target!"

A slow hum began to build from around them, a whir that rose, deepening in pitch until it passed beyond Tenchi's hearing range and merely made his teeth rattle. He jammed his tongue against his teeth to muffle the sensation, and sat up to stare at Tsunami, confused.

The view changed, suddenly, the screen showing a targeting graph and a target, a point of blackness near a collapsing apartment building. A brilliant — nearly blinding — shaft of white-yellow fire emerged from some place behind the viewpoint, and lanced through the spot of darkness, boiling it away, and leaving a decimated crater that Tenchi guessed to be some thirty meters and more wide behind, thick, yellow smoke rolling off it. A subsequent flash from the crater expanded, enveloping the entire block of hopefully abandoned buildings, and reducing them to rubble before it faded.

The entire crew was only able to stare, stunned, as Tsunami schooled her expression, allowing the ship to return to formation with the others. "Thank you, Saryu-oh." She straightened her robes as though nothing had happened, and nodded to Tenchi, still sprawled on the floor. "Washuu-chan?" she asked, turning to face the screen again, as Washuu flinched from an explosion in the distance. "Is Ranma-dono safe?" Tenchi blinked, seeing the raw worry in her eyes, if she hid it from the rest of her face.

Ranma groaned, not quite understanding how he had survived, but thankful for the small bubble of space that contained him and the girl beneath him. Ran-oh-ki made a soft noise, his eyes seeming to shine in the darkness. "Yeah," Ranma whispered. "This is really my day, isn't it?"

Nonoko shivered, still beneath him, and whimpered, "What happened?"

"Not sure. But we're alive, so now I have to get you out of here and someplace safe." The ceiling above them suddenly rattled, and Ranma screwed his eyes shut, bracing himself as he felt a tremendous force reverberating through the layers of smashed concrete and apartment building overhead, but not collapsing yet. He breathed out a sigh of relief at that, smiling weakly. It was dark, probably too dark for the girl to see, but he could make her form out below him, and Ran-oh-ki was peering around himself attentively.

Ranma frowned, as the sensation of 'reaver' passed from his mind, and Ran-oh-ki made a soft noise, confirming that it was gone. "Well," he said, frowning, "the monsters around us are gone for the moment. We're just stuck down here now… Washuu? Can you hear me?"

Her voice seemed muffled, faint popping noises obscuring parts of her speech. "Ranma? Where are you? Are you okay? What's going on?"

Ranma grunted slightly, hearing the mass of concrete and twisted wreckage above him settle ominously. The rumbling stopped after a moment, and he frowned worriedly. "I'm with Nonoko, we're trapped under a building. The reavers are smart, and they set a trap for someone. They knew how to knock this building down. Something hit nearby afterwards — I don't know what, but the reaver is gone."

The popping faded out, and Washuu's voice strengthened. "Well, Ranma, congratulations. You've just been fired on by the Juraian Home Fleet."

A voice sounded, faint and more distant, relayed through another communications device before it reached Washuu's. "Saryu-oh wishes you well, Ranma-dono. We are going to lock on your position and evacuate you. This will take but a moment."

Ranma blinked, his head slowly turning to look behind him at the darkened wreckage, a large and flattened piece of the ceiling above him, with a slowly lengthening crack forming. He blinked, watching the small crack creep along passing from somewhere near his ankles and then upwards, towards his back. He turned to follow the crack with his eyes, studying how much space remained before the support ultimately split. "Um," he said, subconsciously pitching his voice low, "we have a problem here… I think I recognize your voice, Tsunami. Don't want to sound pushy, but, uh… can you hurry, at all?"

Washuu made a thoughtful noise, while Tsunami spoke across the pair of links. "Yes, Ranma-dono. I will ask Saryu-oh to hurry."

The crack disappeared beyond the range of Ranma's vision with a low, grating sound at the very edges of his perception. "Lovely," he muttered, patting Nonoko on the head softly, and arching his back upward against the stone. He doubted he could hold it long, but he could try

Ran-oh-ki remained silent, his whiskers twitching as he glanced between Nonoko and Ranma. The little girl stilled somewhat at Ranma's touch, though the occasional muffled whimper escaped yet. Sighing, he braced himself, placing his hands to either side of Nonoko, and splaying fingers widely against the cracked concrete floor.

He released a breath, trying to find a martial technique that fit for the occasion… perhaps if he had had some of Ryouga's endurance, or the lost boy's raw strength… but his own style was suited more towards evasion and dodging. A sudden and sharp breaking noise sounded, and the pressure against Ranma's back slowly increased, causing him to grunt as he tried to resist the crushing force. "Ugh… collapsing…" he gasped out before directing all of his strength to resisting the oppressive stone as it pressed against him.

"Ranma? Hang in there, okay?" Washuu's voice sounded calm and controlled, but it was a thin veneer, and his ears detected fear beneath her exterior tone. He scowled, trying to escape the distraction, as the force on his back increased from a slow pressure to a nearly unstoppable force.

His arms trembled with the resistance they were putting up, and the crumbling concrete beneath his hands slowly began to sink into the packed earth below. He groaned at the stresses, feeling his body about to give way to the massive pressures, as the distance between him and Nonoko slowly lessened, and the girl whimpered worriedly.

A soft, nearly imperceptible glow sprang up around him, a faint tingling as his ears began to buzz, and his vision dim from the exertion. "Unnng…" he managed, his body finally giving way and forcing him to collapse.

Sipping his coffee, the Captain of the U.S.S. Louisiana grimaced, detecting a faint hint of cream. He dismissed it for the moment, trying to savor what little time he had free from trying to locate a safe haven or plan to destroy the theoretically invulnerable enemies. He had heard that nuclear weapons had been effective, but not before the ragtag fleet had already put to sea.

Sighing, he took another sip from his coffee cup, glancing around at what was left of the fleet. To his left, the Maine, another nuclear submarine, much like his own Louisiana. To the right, the Chancellorsville and the Cowpens, though the bulk of the Kitty Hawk concealed them from his sight at the moment.

The pair of cruisers had little effect on the enemy, ultimately being reduced to massive passenger ships, crammed to their capacity with refugees. The Kitty Hawk itself was the largest surviving vessel in Tokyo, and likely all of Japan, though he knew of other carriers in Singapore and Australia… tactically, they were worthless at the moment, much like the surviving navy in the Atlantic.

A lesser officer scurried to his side, breathing heavily, and managing a hasty salute. "Captain!" he gasped, standing at attention.

Sighing, Norris set his coffee cup down, and turned to face the younger man. "At ease. What is it?"

The man held a note to him in a trembling hand, and Norris took it, scanning over the flawless English, before blinking, and turning to look at the harbor. "Oh," he whispered, "shit."

Raising an eyebrow, the petty officer looked over his shoulder at the harbor, and saw the same sight that Norris had. People, lining every available surface, trying to remain calm and avoid shoving one another into the sea, packed tightly into as little space as they could fit. "I was also asked to relay this message to you, Sir. 'Congratulations, Commodore. Your new flagship awaits.' Captain Wellington was last seen in Washington, before we left port, so command has been passed to you."

The note slipped from Norris's fingers, and he shook his head numbly. "They want to try and evacuate over ten million people?" He shook his head again. "God save us… and what about our own refugees?" He glanced over for a moment at the Kitty-Hawk, its surface nearly completely covered with emergency structures and housing.

"God save us all," he whispered again. Ominously, the sky overhead began to darken, a number of gargantuan shapes descending from the heavens and threatening to blot out the sky.

Ami stared upward at the gargantuan vessels as they descended from the heavens, streaming mist and vapors behind them as they approached the city. "I have a feeling that Setsuna's plan would have suddenly found itself heavily challenged," she observed aloud.

"Um… yes," Rei agreed, staring upwards in shock. "Are they here to help, do you think?"

"I sure hope so. I've not seen any of the monsters myself, since they haven't gotten to Juuban yet, but I understand they're quite fierce."

Rei hang her head, sitting on the stone steps of the temple with Ami sitting not far away. "I wish we could have helped the defenders more."

"It's late for that now, but not too late to make a difference, perhaps."

"Do you miss your mother?" Rei asked suddenly.

Ami smiled softly, and shook her head. "I do, but I worry about her more. She must be in a panic, thinking that I was leaving with her, only to vanish once it was too late…"

Wincing, the dark-haired girl allowed, "That's pretty bad. I'm sorry you had to do that to her."

"She's safe, so I think it was worth it, though if I ever see her again, she will be quite upset with me, I imagine."

"How much longer do we have until we're supposed to meet Setsuna again?"

"If she shows up today, it will be shortly after sunset."

Tsunami's eyes softened instantly, as Ranma materialized on the deck, collapsing atop the child he was protecting the moment he arrived. Ran-oh-ki wormed his way out from underneath, and sniffed at the boy worriedly. "Ranma-dono?" Tsunami asked softly, as he rolled to one side, gasping for breath.

"Building," he wheezed, "heavy…."

She smiled softly, crouching near him and the bright-eyed and frightened child, covered in tattered and dirty clothing. "Be well, little one. You are safe now." She turned her attention back to Ranma, momentarily ignoring the stares of those around her. "Ranma-dono?" she asked again, gently laying one hand on his chest. He stopped heaving for breath suddenly, simply lying still, as she let a trickle of her power flow through him, restoring his lost strength.

"My back," he groaned, "hurts like you wouldn't believe… where are we?"

Tsunami couldn't help but smile, despite everything she knew was going wrong. "We are aboard the Juraian dreadnought, Saryu-oh." She paused, feeling the ship's thoughts as it sent them to her. "Saryu-oh says thank you, for saving me."

"Oh, uh… well, tell Saryu-oh that I, uh, said any time. And thanks for saving me."

Tsunami nodded, stepping back and to her feet as Ranma rose, shaking his head as though to clear it. "Washuu?" he asked, his eyes turning distant.

Washuu sighed, shaking her head from her vantage point on the main screen. "Ranma? I did say to be careful, did I not?" Ranma frowned, looking at Nonoko as she warily scrambled to her feet and latched onto his leg.

"Yeah," he said, ruffling the girl's hair slightly. "But I think I made the right choice. Um… thanks again for saving me, Tsunami, but, uh, I need to get back down there, in case…" he trailed off, seeing the mass of cratered rubble that remained of the city blocks above where he had found Nonoko. "What… what is that?" he asked worriedly.

Tsunami blanched slightly, coughing. "I was, ah, worried for your welfare."

Ranma stared at Tsunami long and hard, then nodded slowly.

Tenchi nearly choked, hearing the other boy's whispered words, even as Tsunami missed them, and Washuu shot Ranma an amused look. "I will never understand women."

The boy glanced at him for a moment, and Tenchi found himself studying the newcomer — the one that seemed to so thoroughly distract both Tsunami and Washuu. He was slightly taller than Tenchi himself, and moved with a bizarrely natural grace, seeming more to float on his toes than stand.

Ryouko blinked, leaning forward to examine the boy, and her eyes widened slightly. Tenchi turned back to face Ranma, as he shook his head and glanced at the screen. "Thank you again. Hopefully we'll have time to talk later, but I want to help make sure there's no one else trapped like Nonoko was."

The boy nodded respectfully to Tsunami, and she gave him a deep bow, worry playing in her eyes, though swiftly hidden. "Be well, Ranma-dono."

He scowled at that, shaking his head. "Just Ranma, please. And I'll try. You take care of yourself, too." He offered a small smirk, then tensed himself, freeing his leg from the little girl's grip.

Tenchi opened his mouth to ask a question, but Ranma simply sank through the floor with Ryo-oh-ki, disappearing like yesterday's mist, and causing Ryouko to gasp in surprise. Not Ryo-oh-ki, Tenchi noted, seeing Ryouko's partner bounce over to where Ranma and… his own partner had sunk through the floor to sniff at it curiously.

Washuu coughed softly, whispering, "Ranma? Come back here, please." She turned her face back to the screen and smiled apologetically. "Sorry about that, Tenchi-dono. Now, as we were discussing…."

Ranma paid attention to Washuu's words half-heartedly, his eyes scanning through the massive rubble-filled crater as he drifted southward, back towards the scientist. His eyes picked out massive throngs of people much further south, a carpet of humanity pushing their way further, into the harbor.

He sighed, a pricking sensation on the back of his neck alerting him, and making him stop, turning to glance behind him.

A woman floated some distance behind him, dressed in a loose fitting kimono with shortened sleeves, her arms crossed over her chest. He blinked, noting her eyes, amber, cat-like, and very faintly luminous. He frowned, noting her hair, so like his own, only much longer. "Who are you?" he asked, wondering that he wasn't more surprised by the appearance of a woman who could fly, and the massive bulk of the Juraian ships in their loose formation above the harbor.

She frowned, drawing slightly closer before circling around him slowly, her eyes taking in his features, as a wary, confused look marked her face. "I could ask you the same," she drawled, her eyes finally meeting his. "Where did you come from?"

Ranma gestured to the city below him. "Down there, somewhere. Been around a lot, but that's where I'm pretty much from. I'm Sa…." He trailed off, remembering, and cleared his throat. "My name is Ranma. Just Ranma."

She nodded, relaxing slightly. "Hakubi Ryouko. But you haven't answered my question… how did you learn to do that?"

Ranma shrugged, grimacing. "Washuu showed me… why?" He flinched suddenly, noticing her ears, and her teeth. " I get it. You're… part-Masu, like me, right?" He frowned, looking the woman over. She smirked, allowing him to stare, and practically preening under the attention, until he nodded. "Wait… I'm going to turn like you…. Turn more Masu…."

Ryouko shrugged in return, relaxing somewhat. "Something like that," she admitted. "And parts of a whole lot of other things." She pointed towards Ranma, smirking. "I can see some of the signs in you. Why did Washuu choose you?"

Ranma grimaced, pulling the jewel near his ear away. Ryouko stiffened in response, one hand shooting to a red gem hanging from her own ear, but relaxed after Ranma paused to look at her. Ranma's eyes widened, seeing another red gem on her wrist. "I think I get it," he said slowly. "I just… don't worry. I just wanted to have a little privacy. Washuu and I use this to talk," he explained, staring at the gem in his fingers. He shook his head, sighing. "Anyway… Washuu did this to me because there wasn't a choice. I hate it… but I owe her, and from what I understand, Tsunami. They both keep saving me…. It's embarrassing."

Ryouko shrugged. "Well, whatever. I was just curious." She frowned, a thought seeming to strike her. "How old are you?"

Ranma glanced at the city below him, noting a stray breeze slowly pushing both of them southward, towards the harbor. "Sixteen. Why? Is it important?"

She shook her head, glancing at Ran-oh-ki, now lazily perched on Ranma's head. "I suppose not. I'm just curious about meeting someone else… like me."

With a wry grin, Ranma nodded. "I guess. It's nice to know I'm not alone, I just hope…" he trailed off, frowning. "Just wonder if… if I can be accepted like this. Mostly I worry that people think I'm some kinda monster. Heck, that little girl I saved… I told her I was. 'One of the good ones'. Feh." He grimaced, shaking his head. "What… what is out there for… things like us, anyway?"

Ryouko blinked, clearly taken aback by his words. "'Like us'? Heh… the universe is a large place. Trust me, just because you'll find a few narrow-minded purists of any race, there's always people willing to accept you. You just need to know where to look…."

He shrugged, staring away moodily. "Maybe you can help me, then. You seem like you would know. What do you do when the people you want to accept you the way you are… don't?"

Ryouko winced, visible even in Ranma's peripheral vision. In a sympathetic voice she said, "Well… that's… not always easy." She loosed a quiet, rueful laugh. "Persistence isn't always the best answer, I can tell you that much." She sighed, drifting forward to place a hand on Ranma's shoulder.

He turned slowly to face her, still deep within his thoughts. "Should I even bother trying to salvage my past?"

She shrugged, drifting away idly. "Can't really help you with your own heart's healing…. All I know for sure is sometimes it's best to just let the past go."

He sighed, placing the gem near his ear again. "Maybe you're right…. Sorry if I bothered you. Anyway, I need to get back to Washuu. Maybe I'll see you later."

Ryouko nodded, drifting away and backwards towards Saryu-oh, waiting overhead. "I'll see you around," she commented, before streaking away and rising back through the ship.

Ranma sighed again, picking up his pace and heading back towards Washuu. "Sorry," he said again, quietly. "Just… wanted to talk."

Washuu sighed back, audible across the link, and he could almost hear the sad smile in her voice. "It's okay, Ranma. Your privacy is yours, and I can… I respect that. "

Ranma shrugged, drifting down towards the building, Washuu visible beneath him, sitting on the steps and tapping at a computer while everyone else in Central Defense East shuffled themselves around, preparing to leave. Keitaro stood to one side, talking with a pair of similar young women in low voices.

Ranma glanced at them for a mere moment before glancing at Washuu, who smiled at him softly, before turning back to tapping at her computer. Curled up on the ground near Washuu, head in the scientist's lap, was a small girl wearing a much looser version of what Suu had been wearing earlier. Ranma frowned, whispering, "Who's this?"

Washuu sighed, shaking her head and finishing what she was typing. "That is Koalla-san. She needed a little rest." Ranma nodded, dimly recognizing the similarities in the younger girl. She was hardly the first girl that Ranma had seen to change her apparent age…

Glancing back at the house, and momentarily ignoring the indistinct radio chatter from the gem, he asked, "So… what's the plan? Those ships are going to take everyone away?" Washuu stretched, making sure not to disturb the sleeping child, and the screen and panel before her vanished. Ranma blinked, then sat on the steps near Washuu.

Washuu frowned, tapping her chin thoughtfully. "It would be nice if it were that easy. What we have right now in those ships is the ability to carry about twenty million people." Ranma nodded, scratching Ran-oh-ki's chin absently. "We have about twelve million people in Tokyo at the moment."

"I don't see the problem," Ranma drawled.

Washuu raised a finger, making a 'tsking' noise. "It's not that simple, Ranma. There are more people all over the world, still. It's hard to get an exact count, but from what we can tell… most of the American continents are left… deserted." Ranma flinched, and Washuu sighed again, looking up at the Juraian ships, continuing their slow orbits around the harbor. "There are still countless other people left alive in Europe, the southern part of America, the rest of Asia…" she trailed off thoughtfully. "Truth of the matter is, this is only going to make a small dent in the number of people we need to save.

"I expect that when the Galaxy Police cruisers arrive, they'll be much more efficient about it — they have a greater capacity in general. But their forerunners are another weeks or so away at best. The plan, then is to get as many people onto ships to drift until they can be rescued. The reavers seem to have a slightly more difficult time tracking over water."

Ranma scowled, shaking his head. "No, they're smart, Washuu. They set a trap, maybe for me, maybe for someone else… but they know how to, and they did. They're up to something, and I don't trust them. The one that ran away from me earlier probably has a plan, like they're all going to attack later, or something."

Washuu grimaced, shaking her head. "That's true. That's true. We can use the ships to help us monitor while they're here. The real quandary is how to decide who to save…." Ranma nodded, frowning, slightly, as Washuu sighed again. "I'm staying," she said quietly. "I have to help Yosho, and…." She trailed off unhappily.

Ranma's eyes narrowed slightly, and he cocked his head to one side. "Washuu?" She glanced towards him, her hand patting the sleeping Suu. "You didn't… make them, did you?"

Washuu shuddered, shaking her head. "I hope not," she said quietly. "But it's been too long… I can't remember. I… I don't know." She bit her lip, blinking away moistness in her eyes. "I never would want to be responsible for something like this. I hope it's not me. I couldn't stand that."

Ranma's frown lessened, and he bit his lip, wondering how he could apologize for the accusation that had been in his voice. He didn't think she could have created something like the reavers…. And there she was trying to comfort Suu, who was sleeping. But who to comfort her? He slid slightly closer to the woman, carefully putting an arm around her, and tried not to jump in startlement, as Washuu clung to him, holding him tightly, only barely managing to avoid dislodging Suu. "I don't think you did," he said after a moment. "They seem to be designed to give you trouble, you know?"

She nodded slowly, not releasing him for a moment, and sighed. "Ranma…. Thank you. Thank you for helping even after everything you've had to suffer through."

Ranma shrugged, preparing to dismiss the entire thing in his typical offhanded manner, when a pillar of light flashed through the skies, tracing a line in the distance to the northeast. A moment later a vast stream of explosions followed the traced line, though it took several seconds before the sound reached them. Washuu raised a hand towards it, still keeping one arm about Ranma, and a faint… force… seemed to impact against a barrier that surrounded them for a few heartbeats, before Washuu dropped her hand. "What was that?" Ranma asked, slowly climbing to his feet.

Washuu released him reluctantly, and shook her head, making the panels that composed her computer reappear from wherever she had dismissed them. "I'm not sure… it looks like one of the Juraian warships fired at something. Yohito-san?" she asked as a face appeared on the screen. "Can you tell me what that was?"

The man nodded, looking away for a moment, and then back at the screen. "That was the Freya-oh, there seems to be a number of reavers headed towards the heart of the city. I'm afraid that the plan's going to have to be changed. The civilian fleet should be capable of bearing about five million people away, so we're going to start grabbing refugees from the reavers' line of advance."

"Where is Tenchi-dono?"

"Ah… he is looking for his grandfather, Washuu-sama."

"Er… just Washuu-chan. But what did that blast accomplish?"

Coloring slightly, Yohito tugged at his collar nervously, managing a weak laugh. "Um, I'm afraid that no reavers were destroyed, though they have gone to ground… sensors track them going deeper and away, but more moving in. They're deeper than we can strike without damaging the planet to some degree."

"We shouldn't be using such powerful weapons against them, either. The Terran people wisely decided against using their own weaponry yet. What's the situation?"

Yohito straightened suddenly staring at a reading somewhere out of Washuu and Ranma's view of the screen. "We have a problem. A number of reavers are massing north and east of the city — at least twelve — and we're tracking at least two more beneath the bay. They're waiting for something, where we can't strike them."

"I told you they learned," Ranma whispered.

Washuu swallowed nervously. "We're going to need help, then, aren't we?"

Ranma shrugged, glancing at Yohito's image on the monitor briefly. "Where are we going to get it?"

A dry chuckle sounded, causing Ranma to shiver involuntarily as he recognized it. "Help, Muko-dono?"


To be continued.

Author's Notes: Actually, I cut this short. Was getting kinda unwieldy as it was…. So some chapter three elements are being pushed back to chapter four.

Thanks to Bjorn, Nanashi, Mage Ohki, and most of all, Dark Alpha for pre-reading.

Part 4
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