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Part 12

A Ranma ½ / 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.

Additional credits: Takada Yuuzou and Kodansha (3x3 Eyes), Takada Yuuzou and A.D. Vision (Bannou Bunka Nekomusume Nuku-Nuku), and Tatsuya Egawa (Golden Boy).

Notes: Diverges from Ranma after volume 24, continuation for OAV 2 in the Tenchi universe (well, one of them). Nuku Nuku is from the OAVs, not TV. Sailor Moon occurs, well, at some point in the series, but it's something of an alt anyway. 3x3 Eyes diverges just before OAV2. This fic uses the bizarrely vague 'Pick One!' scenario. Enjoy.

"I have heard it said that 'pride goeth before a fall', and have found this to be true. For that, I would consider humility to be one of the greatest wisdoms that we can learn. I find solace in the fact that I was not the only one who had difficulty learning this lesson."

—'Prince' Herb, former dignitary of Old Terra — Old Terran Year 2005, July 27th.

Power crackling in the air between them, the two combatants stared one another down. "This is all about your pride, isn't it?" Ranma accused, throwing the first punch towards Herb's face.

The prince deflected the blow casually, countering with a foot-sweep. "Of course," he commented, backpedaling as Ranma leapt upwards, launching a simultaneous punch to Herb's shoulder and a kick to the prince's thigh. Both were deflected, as Herb lifted himself off of the ground to float level with Ranma. "I am royalty, Ranma. What is this about for you? Last, it was a cure for the lock on your curse."

Ranma smirked, shifting, and trading strength for speed. The air whipped about her as her female form launched a short salvo of blows towards Herb's shoulder, spinning behind the prince to follow up with a back-kick to the prince's leg.

Herb deflected the blows — barely — and the kick more easily, countering with a fierce elbow-jab that Ranma was unable to block, slamming the girl in the sternum hard enough to throw her backwards.

Ranma caught herself, tumbling in an airborne somersault and springing back from a stone that sat higher above the ridge to streak towards Herb like an angry meteor. "This time," Ranma spat out, narrowly avoiding a kick from Herb. "I'm fighting to protect!" She glided along Herb's outstretched leg and spun sharply, extending her own leg to slam into Herb's thigh and throw him to the ground violently.

The startled Musk prince smashed into the ridge hard enough to leave a shallow crater, but bounced out of the depression only a moment later. "Then we share a goal," he retorted, hands aglow with ki-flame. "I will protect my pride, Ranma."

Ranma slid through the air towards Herb, maintaining her offensive and streaking through his defenses before he could prepare himself again. "I don't plan on losing!" she cried, shifting back to male form as she reached him. Balancing the exchange between strength and speed again, Ranma launched a kick at Herb with enough force to shatter rock — or crack the hide of a reaver.

Herb grunted, bearing the strike on crossed arms, and coming to rest on the ground again. "Neither do I," Herb retorted. Gesturing towards Ranma quickly, he exclaimed, "Hitou ryuu-zan-ha!" From the flames of ki about his hands, blades of energy sharp enough to shred stone shot towards Ranma.

The boy dodged backwards, extending one hand towards the blade and stopping atop the boulder that he had rebounded from only moments prior. The blades of energy met with an intangible wall, giving Herb momentary pause, as his attack was unsuccessful.

He dismissed the exception after a moment, and charged towards Ranma on foot, not wanting to waste the energy to float above the ground anymore. Ranma met his charge, surging forward — again becoming female. "You've learned quite a bit," Herb commented, landing a savage kick to the inside of Ranma's thigh. "Your control of the curse impresses me."

Indeed, no sooner had Ranma been launched backwards by Herb's kick, had he changed forms again, the male body taking the impact and cracking the stone behind him. He coughed weakly, pulling himself from the rock fragments about him. "Yeah, I did," he said, grinning cockily. "I haven't seen you do anything new yet," he taunted.

Herb grinned in return, stepping back, and bracing himself — tapping into the energy of the Earth beneath him. "I'll show you," he said menacingly, drawing more power.

Ranma braced himself, as Herb unleashed a torrent of raw fire from his outstretched hands. A coruscating flood of crimson-and-white heat, washing out from his fingertips to spread like a wedge, screaming through the air and eating into the Earth forcefully. Fire and ki-flame, nearly pure destructive forces borne of life-energy.

Releasing the tide of power, and recovering his strength, Herb blinked worriedly, seeing that no trace of Ranma remained among the glowing and softened stone.

"Not bad," a voice taunted from behind Herb. "But I know you've got more than that, don't you?"

Herb turned slowly, smiling as he saw Ranma behind him, unscathed. "I'm impressed," the prince allowed. "I had thought for a moment that…." he let the comment trail off, shaking his head. "No matter. We fight."

Ranma nodded curtly, uncrossing his arms, and dropping into an offensive stance. "Yes, we do."

And with that, the two flew at one another again.

The battle had shifted from the initial testing blows where they felt out one-another's defenses and offenses, and then the brief bout of showy power to attempt to cow the other. Ranma was impressed by Herb's attack. Perhaps fire wouldn't damage a reaver, but Yosho's blade could cleave into them — there was no reason that Herb's couldn't, as well.

From that, the two had flowed together, and the battle had changed from careful, cautious strikes and attacks to blindingly fast and recklessly powerful blows. Kicks that could break a normal human, and punches that made the very air about them scream in protest, flew between the two liberally.

Strength that most humans envied even while fearing it was spent carelessly.

The two came apart, and Herb shifted subtly from one stance to another. Ranma led in with Vapors off the Lake, gently grazing past the prince's defenses until he countered with Fall of Leaves.

Fall of Leaves led into Hail of Stone, which Ranma countered with Drifting Winds, and then Drifting Winds gave way to Roaring Gale.

Herb countered by not being there for the finishing kick, instead soaring upwards in a maneuver that Ranma didn't recognize, and lashing out with his foot to tag Ranma's head before he could react. Ranma flew backwards, righting himself before he struck the ground, and flying back into the battle once more. Herb was waiting for him with Stone Fan, but Ranma darted past the defense with Dewdrops on Armor.

Staggered from the four punishing blows that penetrated his defense, Herb waved an errant hand, slashing a tide of flame across Ranma. He teleported behind Herb and launched and elbow slam towards the other boy's back, but Herb somehow expected it, and smashed a devastating Buddha's Palm Strike into Ranma's sternum, eliciting a sharp crack as Ranma was thrown to the rocks below.

Herb sneered, leaping upwards and descending towards Ranma with both arms in a double-arm hammer-strike. Ranma rolled out of the way, as Herb's attack left a crater where his chest had been. While rolling, he lashed out with one arm, pushing himself completely off the ground, and from there teleported to Herb's side as the prince was recovering. Not giving Herb enough time to prepare, he launched a swift uppercut into the boy, throwing him a good four meters up the ridge, to land closer to the peak.

"Give up?" Ranma asked, panting.

Painfully struggling to his feet, Herb spat blood, and shook his head angrily. "Not hardly."

Steeling himself once more, Herb glided down the slope, even as Ranma surged upward like an angry tide. Ranma's charge was met with a wave of fire and anger, and even though Herb didn't understand how he had done it, Ranma vanished again.

He spun, ducking low and extending one foot behind him as he did so. His impromptu foot-sweep was successful, and Ranma collapsed to the ground, surprised, behind Herb. The prince wasted no further time, and fell on his opponent, blade of ki extended, and digging into the stone next to Ranma's neck. "What about you?" he asked, using the moment to catch his breath. "Do you give up?"

"Not on your life," Ranma said, sinking beneath the stone and out of Herb's pin.

The prince leapt upward, startled, and cast about him, staring in consternation. Ranma had learned far more than he had let on — did the boy carry the blood of demons in his veins? How had he managed to become something so much more than what he had been? Disappearing and reappearing elsewhere, seemingly at will, sinking through stone without pause or trace — it defied sense. "Where are you?" Herb asked, spinning to ensure that the boy hadn't appeared behind him again. Though Ranma had shifted between his forms with such alacrity and ease that Herb was confused on that issue, as well.

As if on cue, Ranma rose from another stone, ascending to Herb's level with ease and smirking. "Right here," he said. "Rethinking your surrender?"

"No," Herb said dryly. "I've one last card to play." And with that, Herb tapped into that dangerous, heady power that was his right by birth, training, and the hardships he had endured in the name of becoming better at the Art. Coruscating sheets of flame sheathed his body, a living aura of raw fire, hot enough to melt iron and angry enough to boil away flesh in an instant. He raised his voice, unable to know if he could be heard over the roar of the hungry flames, "I do not think that you can counter this, Ranma."

Ranma stared at him, jaw slack, but shook his head firmly, righting himself and declaring firmly, "I don't know for sure, but I'm willing to try." With those words, the unnatural blue aura about Ranma intensified, sucking what little heat there was about him from the air, leaving the moisture to fall about him in frozen droplets.

The two studied one another carefully, neither entirely willing to make the first move. The fight had indeed escalated beyond Herb's expectations, becoming more than a simple — if showy — sparring match and rapidly entering an easily lethal level. "Wait," Herb said, sinking to the ground, and allowing the fire about him to dissipate.

Ranma lowered to the ground a small distance away, uneasily. "What?" he asked warily.

"What are those two doing?" Washuu snapped irritably. "Ranma can't tap that much power without severely injuring himself! If he keeps this up, he might die!"

"Die?" Yosho asked guardedly. "From pushing himself too hard? I thought he was stronger than that."

Washuu waved a hand, grumbling, "The gem he has allows him to draw more power than his body has the maturity to process. If those two…."

She fell silent, as Herb erupted into flame, glowing like a small sun in the distance — outshining the true sun, as it set, not far from view. Ranma paused a moment, and about his small, faraway form, the aura of deepest blue expanded, much dimmer, but matching Herb's for menace easily.

Washuu leapt up, Yosho only barely managing to restrain her as she shouted, "No! That's too much— Far too much! Yosho, you idiot, I have to stop him!"

The two martial artists faced off, and the prince was the first to look away. "No more," he announced. "This is foolish and petty — your cause must indeed be great, and as much as it wounds my pride, Ranma, I would call you friend. We cannot fight like this and both emerge unscathed. For all of that you appear to bear the blood of demons… I yield."

Ranma merely blinked, dropping his aura, and smiling victoriously. "I knew you were a good guy," he declared, only a half-second before he pitched forward, crashing to the ground and lying prone after shifting to female form.

The prince of the Musk stared at his fallen opponent, and began to laugh, slowly at first, and then more deeply. He continued laughing until the somewhat older warrior who had accompanied Ranma arrived. Then the prince of the Musk, loser of the duel, collapsed to sit next to one who he would call a friend; struggling for breath, and exhausted from his use of a trick he had not yet truly mastered.

From the depths of an inky darkness, voices spun in and out of her perception.

"… okay?"

"I think so, we just need to make him rest until he can recover."

"I will see that he is carried, then. He has won our favor, after all."

"Later. Just leave him here for a bit, please."

"As you wish. Ask my servants if you need anything."

There was a resounding silence, then, until it was broken by the sound of cloth rubbing gently across stone, faint enough to nearly be unnoticeable. Her perception was entirely dulled by a faint, but present pain that echoed through every part of her being, rough and abraded.

Her tongue was thick and uncooperative, refusing to allow her speech; her eyes resisted opening, too heavy to move. A muffled, sorrowful whimper sounded, and twin points of warm heat struck her cheek. Too weak to flinch, she could only wonder at the source, until a gentle, soothing warmth enveloped her, and she passed from her semi-wakeful state, to dream.

Following the lead of the trio of women whom Cologne had told to show them to the Joketsuzoku village, Norris tramped along through the forest, his men trailing him. They arrived shortly after sunset, greeted by curious and doubtful stares from the women of the village, and dull, unimpressed stares from the men.

His men fell into ranks in the courtyard, Ranma's cohorts and the girls that followed him to one side. Norris shifted uncomfortably, looking around, and asked, "Where's Miss Hakubi?"

Cologne reappeared, emerging from one of the larger houses bordering the main square. Norris allowed himself to relax slightly, regarding the woman with frank curiosity.

She answered him in English, explaining, "Washuu is with Ranma, fetching more allies. In the meantime, we've set aside a lodge for your men to set up."

Norris frowned, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Well, let's get the men settled in, and see about seeing what kind of intelligence we can get on the enemy," Norris suggested.

Cologne nodded her agreement, gesturing to Yakumo. "Please join us," she said, switching back to Japanese. Turning back to Norris, she explained, "This could be awkward because of the language barriers, but I think we've got the best chance of getting your men to work with our warriors by planning out activities in advance."

"What about us?" Usagi asked suddenly, stepping forward from the group of girls. "We can still help, too, you know."

The old woman nodded. "Very well then, come into the meeting hall, and let us speak." Cologne waited until Norris was near the door before stopping him, tapping his knee with her staff, and explained quietly in English, "Men are seldom, if ever, allowed to attend our meetings, Mr. Norris. Please be respectful, and understand that some women are not quite as tolerant as I."

Norris nodded, frowning thoughtfully. "Understood. Ray, set up a communications center with the radio set we brought with us, Eric, see if you can find that lodge where our troops can bunk down. Pavel, I want you to set up a shift rotation so that we have a good spread of battle-ready Marines at all times." The three Marines nodded, saluting before dashing off to do as instructed. "The rest of you, at ease until Miss Hakubi or Ranma return, and be sure to respect the local customs here. We have to work with these women, and pissing them off isn't a good way to do that. Am I clear?"

In unison, all of the other Marines replied, in unison, "Sir, yes, Sir!" The precision garnered a few raised eyebrows from the watching women.

Norris grinned, managing to reduce to expression to merely a pleased smile as he nodded again at the old woman. She snorted, motioning him to enter the meeting lodge.

Across the palace of Jurai, servants scurried about madly — there was much to be done before Tenchi and the Home Fleet jumped again to Earth. For his part, the emperor lay across the foot of the massive bed in his chamber, a day of seemingly endless meetings finally finished and over with.

Seiryo had been dealt with; the arrogant prince apparently too confused by Tenchi's apology to press the issue, and content to leave once the boy had explained that he was sorry about the last time. The rest of the meetings had been completed with either mind-numbing attention paid to details that Tenchi wasn't sure were important, or fawning devotion to concepts that he regarded as outdated.

Then too, the council attempted to ignore Karau and his views on every issue, much to Tenchi's annoyance. He had finally pointed out that unless a majority could be achieved — and without Karau, it could not — that the Emperor would have the final say in every vote brought to the Council. Mollified, somewhat, the councilmen then resorted to trying to coerce the young Laruma.

Tenchi and Karau had exchanged mutually unimpressed gazes, and the meetings bore on with Karau eventually earning a begrudging measure of respect, and Misaki assigning a small contingent of the Royal Bodyguard to escort him home once the day was through.

So, once it was all done and behind him, Tenchi realized that he was given about an hour to himself — nominally to eat, wash up, and then spend his time as he saw fit with his apparent fiancées. For his part, he enjoyed some quality time with the comforter on top of the Emperor's bed (his now, since the old one had been destroyed) and stared at the ceiling.

Ayeka and Ryouko, equally exhausted, had flopped to the bed on either side of him, joining his contemplation of the upper reaches of the room. Supposedly, they were to be discussing matters of government with one another. The reality was far different.

Finally breaking the tired silence, Ayeka murmured, "That pattern of leaves there looks rather like Yosho, don't you think?"

"Just what I needed," Tenchi groaned. "Jiji watching over me in bed, since Dad's not around."

Ryouko snickered softly, and consoled Tenchi, "I think it looks more like Mihoshi."

"Oddly enough, that doesn't help much," Tenchi groaned, shutting his eyes.

A silence fell over the three of them, oddly comfortable, then.

Tenchi stifled a yawn, and murmured, "This isn't so bad."

Ryouko nodded her agreement, though Ayeka had already drifted off after rolling over and trapping one of Tenchi's arms in her own.

"Maybe not," Ryouko agreed, snuggling herself close to Tenchi, and phasing the blanket to be atop the three of them. Planting a gentle kiss on his forehead, she murmured, "Maybe we just need to do this more often. Goodnight, my sweet Tenchi."

The boy shook his head ruefully, before exhaustion finally claimed him.

A firm knock at the door roused Tenchi the next morning, and he sat up blearily to regard the source of the noise. Already fully alert, Ryouko sprang from his side, blades in hand as she flew towards the door. Ayeka yelped faintly, falling out of the bed, and summoning her guardians to her side as she landed, hands extended towards the door menacingly.

The servant that had entered the room stared with wide eyes, the tip of Ryouko's blade only centimeters from his nose. "Maybe the emperor isn't hungry yet?" he offered, his voice cracking as he nervously backed away, the tray in his hands rattling with his frightened trembles.

Ryouko dropped her hands to her sides, allowing her blades to vanish, and mumbled, "Come back later."

Bobbing his head eagerly, the servant turned and fled, dashing down the stairs just outside the door, and quickly disappearing from sight. "Oops," Ayeka managed, climbing to her feet and brushing a mussed lock of hair from her eyes. "That probably didn't look very good."

"Oh, I'm sure it looked very good," Ryouko countered, grinning. "Just imagine the rumors that will start spreading."

Ayeka sighed, shaking her head. "My reputation is ruined," she intoned theatrically. "The stories of me being found in the emperor's bed will never end. Oh, horrors, how will I live with myself?"

Tenchi blinked, scratching his head. "Anything I can do?" he asked hopefully.

"Marry me," Ayeka offered, jumping on the bed to kneel at his side.

"But I already promised to do that!" Tenchi protested.

Ayeka pouted dramatically, before her expression gave way to a grin, and she shook her head. "Silly," she told him. "I was merely teasing you. This isn't a problem, honestly; I'd been living with you for months before we returned here. The rumor already persists that…. Well." She seemed content to leave it at that.

"The image of unity won't harm you in the least, Tenchi," Misaki stated dryly, stepping through the still-unlatched doorway, and masking a faint smirk.

Ayeka froze instantly, eyes going wide. "This isn't what it looks like, Mother!" she protested, backing away from Tenchi and waving her hands nervously. "I just, uh, well, you see—"

"Oh, you're so cute!" Misaki exclaimed, clasping her hands together adoringly as she gazed at her daughter.

Scratching the top of his head, Tenchi hesitantly asked, "Is every morning here going to be like this?"

"Probably," Ryouko answered, drifting to his side, and wrapping one arm around him affectionately.

Sighing, Tenchi rose from the bed, and stretched. "I need to go take a bath and change before we leave," he explained.

All of the women stared at him expectantly.

Blinking, Tenchi motioned towards the bathing room, managing, "Um, I don't want to be rude, but I, ah, would like some privacy…."

"That's nice," Ryouko said, clinging to him more tightly.

Sweating nervously, Tenchi looked around, unsure of how to deal with the situation, until Ayeka managed to regain some of her confidence, and pried Ryouko away, explaining, "Now, now. We'll have plenty of time for… that… later, Ryouko. For now, we should get ready, too."

Misaki giggled at Tenchi again, shaking her head as she left the room.

For her part, Tsunami had nothing to pack aside from some clothing of Sasami's that might fit her current shape, and thus was waiting aboard the Throne, eager to be away from Jurai. And with Ranma, though she quelled that thought for the moment — likely, he had his hands full fighting.

Unbidden, the memory of what felt like so long ago rose again to her mind, Ranma grabbing her then-smaller form protectively, and carrying her to safety in Washuu's lab. She spent a moment remembering the comforting warmth of the embrace before banishing it, knowing that as all else had changed, Ranma might have, too.

A quiet footstep sounded, and she turned, watching a lone figure approach. Jakugo, dressed as was appropriate for a Councilor, both hands clasped behind his back. He nodded, still some distance away across the deck, and called out, "Greetings, Tsunami-sama."

She nodded back, saying nothing until he was only a meter away, and halted, regarding her curiously. "And greetings to you too, Jakugo-san," she offered. "What brings you here so early?"

"Oh, I thought I'd find you here," he said offhandedly. Looking up at the branches of the Throne, he commented, "Though, I do wonder what it says for Jurai that its goddess chooses to abandon it."

Tsunami suppressed a grimace of irritation. "I would never abandon those I love, Jakugo. It is my prerogative to give my blessing as I see fit, and I think that there are valiant warriors and noble souls in battle on that green Earth that deserve my attention more than comfortable people seated about a table who bicker about things that mean nothing to me," she chastised him.

Jakugo's eyes flicked briefly to Tsunami, studying her with a cold, calculating light, before he ducked his head, nodding. "It as is you say it, Tsunami-sama — I forget my place. I would not question your choice, merely worry that if you are needed near, and are away, the empire may suffer," he explained.

Her own eyes becoming distant, Tsunami clasped her eyes behind her back, and looked upwards. She remembered well enough how the empire was founded, all those centuries ago. Perhaps a small history lesson for Jakugo's benefit would not be amiss. She nodded in confirmation of that thought, and gestured to the Throne, which obligingly emitted pale beams of light to play about the goddess.

"In times long forgotten to you," she explained, "the people of what is now Jurai were not at all the noble figures you see." Jakugo stepped back, eyes wide, and Tsunami was distantly aware of more people stepping onto the deck — likely Tenchi and his entourage. Raising her voice for the newcomers' benefit, as the Throne wove an illusion above her, she continued, "In the days when I was new to this realm, and unsure, I was discovered by a lone traveler of the stars."

The light above her wove into a field of inky blackness, a single point of glimmering blue light floating in the massive void, slowly intercepted by a small craft of clunky design — the ship appeared to be nothing more than a patchwork, truly. Tsunami's narrative began again, as the light vanished into the ship, "I'll not say his name — for if you've forgotten it, then shame on you — but the man was little more than a scoundrel, a thief, and on top of that, a pirate."

She allowed herself a small smile at the memory. "For all of his failings, however, the man bore a noble spirit, and believed that there were rights, and there were wrongs. He believed that his piracy was acceptable, because in his own words, 'I only attack people who've got something to spare'." The small craft on the Throne's hologram approached a much larger, sleeker craft of what looked like spun sugar and crystal. "He treated me well, unsure of what I was, and afraid of knowing more. But as men often do, one day, he made a mistake."

The craft of spun-sugar and crystal, looking as fragile as though a vagrant wind would topple it, pivoted suddenly, panes of crystal folding away to reveal weapons ports that rapidly aimed and unleashed blazing bolts of energy towards the smaller ship. "It was not entirely his fault, I would say," Tsunami added, as the small ship detonated in a blinding display of pyrotechnics. "But in that moment, I chose to respect the man's morals, and his beliefs, and more than that, I had faith and trust in him that he would do the right thing."

From the heart of the fiery explosion, emerging unscathed and attended by the ten Wings of the Light Hawk, the ship Tsunami emerged, returning fire and quickly disabling the opposing force. "But the man, whose name you should know by now, was wounded in the battle." The image shifted, the ships disappearing as the bridge of Tsunami appeared, the man as she remembered him, slumped over the control yoke, one arm dangling limply, the other pressed against a slowly expanding patch of red. "He was not strong enough to wield my power, but I felt he was worthy."

In the hologram, the goddess — as she had been, not as she was — knelt at the man's side, and brushed a thick shock of black hair away from his eyes. Her hand pressed against the wound on his side, a faint blue glow building, and when it vanished, he was unscathed. From the image, and given voice by the Throne, her memory-self said, "I give you my trust, my faith, and the key to my power. Use it well, and use it justly."

The memory-man nodded, eyes wide with awe. "I'll do just that, li'l girl," the memory-man said, managing a roguish grin.

Tsunami smiled fondly at the memory once more. The images vanished, showing instead a barren planet of dusty brown, and murky, acidic waters. Tsunami said, "From there, he founded a city based on the principles of justice as he perceived them, proud and upstanding, and his fame as a pirate slowly faded with his new reputation as a builder of a new future." Green slowly began to creep across the globe, acidic and reddened waters paling, turning blue before the green hid them from sight.

Turning her attention to Jakugo, Tsunami lectured, "The man had many sons, as you should well remember. Can you name them, Jakugo?"

"Of course," the man said, shaking his head as though to clear it. "Jurai had five noble sons who served the law in his new city as it grew. Masaki, Amaki, Tatsuki, Kamaki, and…" Jakugo grimaced distastefully, and mumbled, "…and Amatera."

Tsunami sighed, shaking her head. "There were more brothers, Jakugo," she said sadly. "You mustn't forget that he had sons who built and labored long and hard for the bright future that their father looked towards. Jotai, the carpenter, Manamasu, the ship builder before the Ouke-no-ki were matured, Gareki, the farmer, and brave Laruma, who labored for years and months to turn the vermin that ate at the roots of the trees docile and harmless."

Jakugo nodded, his expression placid. "You are ever wise, noble goddess of Jurai," he offered, bowing. "I will remember those names."

The display of light vanished, allowing the deck before the Throne to assume its normal brightness. Tsunami sighed thoughtfully, looking upward and thanking the tree.

"But what does this say for you choosing to leave Jurai now?" the man asked suddenly. "If you've given us your love, your guidance, and your approval before, why do you take it away now?"

Tenchi cleared his throat noisily from behind the Councilman, and offered, "Because she can. I don't know about you, Jakugo, but it seems to me a lot like the moral of the story is that she trusted them to do the right thing without interfering. She didn't do anything until Jurai was in danger, right?" He turned to look at Tsunami questioningly.

"Exactly right," she confirmed.

"So I guess it's like she's there when we need us, but she's not here to hold our hands through every problem that we ever have to go through," Tenchi concluded, grinning.

"Ah, of course," Jakugo said, managing a weak smile. "The emperor, much like the goddess of Jurai, is ever wise."

"Oh, I'm not that smart," Tenchi said, shaking his head quickly. "Just lucky. But I do have a question, Tsunami."

She inclined her head to him, raising her eyebrows curiously.

Taking the cue, Tenchi asked, "Did Jurai have any daughters?"

"Of course, Tenchi-san," she said, holding her hand over her mouth to hide a quiet laugh. "Who else planted the trees that Laruma protected?"

Jakugo shrugged indifferently, mumbling, "By your leave."

"As you will it," Tsunami dismissed the man.

"Huh," Tenchi mumbled, crossing his arms over his chest. "Nobody told me that part."

Ayeka frowned thoughtfully. "That is most strange," she admitted. "When I was young, I was told that Laruma was a foundling, adopted by Jurai out of pity."

Karau snorted, shaking his head, but otherwise remaining silent.

Tsunami sighed, taking a moment to observe everyone who had approached while she was wrapped up in her story telling. Tenchi, of course, still attended by Ryouko and Ayeka; then Karau, Misaki, and Funaho. For her part, Funaho seemed impressed, and even Misaki looked somewhat mollified.

"Well," Funaho announced brusquely, "we have a copy of that wonderful story recorded just now — I'll see to adding it to our educational system. I don't suppose many would remember it as clearly as you, would they, Tsunami?"

"Oh, the First and the Throne remember most of the story," Tsunami offered. "Anyone with a master key can see the stories as they remember it."

"I'll have to try that some time," Tenchi mused. "Regardless, there's a large force of Galaxy Police transports that should be reaching Earth soon. If they're delayed, then we can stop before them, and cut their journey short a bit." He nodded as if to confirm something to himself, adding, "Funaho says that we need to take the Throne to the Masagiri sector again — there's a stellar observation platform there that was going to be used to watch a sun that had gone nouveau or something."

"That's 'nova' Tenchi," Ayeka corrected mildly.

The boy frowned, mulling that over, before shaking his head to dismiss an errant thought. "Er… Right. But the platform's got a tree on it, so we can have faster communications between Earth and here, and it's pretty good as an observatory for Earth."

"You must take care not to strain yourself when you open a Gate with the Throne, Tenchi-san," Tsunami advised. "Once your own tree has grown strong, you can afford to use your power without the threat of burning your own life out."

Tenchi blinked, then scowled. "I've got to do this, Tsunami, even if it means that I'll be hurting myself," he warned.

Ayeka and Ryouko's expression clearly indicated that they thought otherwise. Tsunami raised a hand to forestall their complaints, and offered, "I will lend you my strength this time, Tenchi. What you've done already, helping the Laruma move their monopoles, that was coming close to costing you, and this may exceed that."

Relaxing slightly, Ayeka suggested, "After this time, I really think you should wait until your own tree matures, Tenchi-sama."

Ryouko nodded emphatically, and Tenchi reluctantly bowed his head. "Fine," he mumbled. "We'll just need to do our best to make sure that we do as much good as we can while we're there today, won't we?"

Long hours in what Norris thought to be cramped chairs in the poorly lit hall generated a lot of arguments, and too few solid answers. The language barrier wasn't helping in the slightest, and it was already near dawn.

Rubbing his eyes, Norris groaned, and said, "Look, this is what's going on. My men will fight with anyone if they have to, but my men alone aren't as effective as I'd like them to be. The truth of the matter is that your plan leaves my men as cannon fodder. We need to work together, and you're asking us to serve as human shields. I don't like it."

Cologne translated dutifully to Chinese, and the assembled women mumbled unhappily. Finally, Cologne returned, "They ask what you would suggest."

"Oh, great," he groaned, shooting Yakumo a glance. The other man looked completely indifferent at the moment. "Okay, how about this. We divide the women here up into whatever you think is a capable squadron size, and then we have my men join those groups as support. It's not much, but that's about what we can offer at the moment. Ranma's friends, and the girls over there—" He broke off to gesture to Usagi. "They can then be further divided to supplement those groups. You've seen them in action, so we know that they're all capable, but the whole idea of 'men go this way, women go that way'… well, it's not going to cut it."

Smirking, Cologne nodded. "I agree wholeheartedly," she encouraged him. "Now let's see if I can convince them of the same." She frowned, a flicker of doubt crossing her face, and turned to regard Yakumo. "What would you suggest?" she asked.

He answered in Japanese, offering, "I think Norris-san's got the idea — this stuff is mostly over my head. I'm probably best at telling you where they are, 'cause I can still feel them in my head."

"And you?" Cologne asked, turning her attention to Usagi.

"I can heal people," she offered after a moment. "Hotaru-chan can help, but some of the other girls are really good fighters, even if they can't heal, and Mamo-chan's very good with his sword, too!"

The old woman snorted, nodding. "Of course," she muttered. Turning her attention back to the other women, she rattled off a long explanation in Chinese, leaving Norris to sit idle.

After some short exchanges, the elder women at the table nodded, and Cologne sagged with visible relief. "They agreed," she said in English once more. "Jian-Di will divide our warriors into teams. Will you manage the division of your own forces yourself?"

"Eh… no," Norris grumbled. "I'm tired. Pavel's already cut them into shift rotation for sleeping, so we'll have men ready around the clock. Have her talk to him and sort it out. I haven't slept since we arrived in Shanghai."

Cologne snorted again, nodding. "Very well," she allowed. "Your men should already have bunked down in one of the older lodges by now." Rising from her seat, she shook her head, groaning. "I'm tired, too. Let's get some rest while we can, hmm?"

"Yeah," Norris mumbled, standing, and knuckling back a yawn. "Once I tell Pavel to work out the troop divisions. Everything's finally falling into place."

Sixty four of the Galaxy Police's largest transports arrived simultaneously with a non-standard issue craft, dropping out of hyperspace in a near-lunar orbit, just in time to witness, some two hundred thousand kilometers away, the arrival of the Home Fleet's second wave. Twenty large cruisers emerged from a portal situated on Lagrange point two, behind the moon. Following them were a large orbital platform, easily fourteen kilometers across, and the secondary pride of the Juraian fleet, the Throne.

The leader of the second wave of Galaxy Police transports raised an eyebrow at the coincidence, and flipped on the communications panel. "Come in, task force one operational leader," she called out. Her ship was hers alone, and had been willingly lent to the task. Because of that, she was given the honor of being the leader for the second wave of Galaxy Police craft.

Coming to life suddenly, the viewscreen allowed her to see a rather masculine figure from the waist down, clad in non-standard issue blue trousers, floating in apparently null-gravity and tinkering with something outside of the frame. One eyebrow rose, wondering at the meaning of the sight, and she asked, "Um, hello? Anyone there?"

The figure spun sharply, drifting upside down so that she was able to see a rather handsome yet unassuming man, who blinked at her in surprise. "Huh?" he asked intelligently.

"This is Makibi Kiyone, leader of the secondary wave of GP transports, and detective first class." She regarded the figure, who stared at her blankly. "And you are?" she prompted him.

"Oh!" he exclaimed, righting himself and sinking into the cockpit before activating the gravity again. Saluting her neatly, his expression became stern, and he called out, "Cadet Oe, Ma'am; aide to Detective First Class Mihoshi." He fidgeted for a moment, then dropped his salute, offering, "Nice to meet you!"

Kiyone sighed. "I didn't know that Mihoshi had an aide," she grumbled. "Or that cadets were allowed on this mission. I need to talk to Detective Kuramitsu about the operation, Cadet."

He nodded, quickly vaulting out of his seat and dashing from view. A few moments later another Galaxy Police officer was seated in the chair, smiling winsomely. "Hi! I'm Mihoshi! What did you need to talk about?"

"Uh…." Kiyone shook her head, pushing away the questions that had formed in the back of her mind. "Detective Mihoshi, do you have instructions on where we need to begin retrieval?"

The blonde cocked her head to one side for a moment, her eyes distant as she considered. After a long moment of thought, she nodded, and said, "Washuu-chan asked that we pick up people in a spiral pattern starting from point, um…." She trailed off, squinting, then rattled off a long stream of numbers, which Kiyone dutifully typed into her navigational computer. "There are some people there that are supposed to be distracting the reavers, until we can evacuate everyone else, so start one hundred kilometers away and work your way out."

"Understood," Kiyone returned, relaxing slightly. While Mihoshi and her cadet had seemed unprofessional at first, they both seemed to know how to do their job. The question of who, or better, what could serve as a distraction to a reaver worried her — not even highly trained Galaxy Police shock troops would be willing to take on a duty like that. "Relaying those coordinates and beginning evacuation sweep in about… an hour and a half. It'll take us a while to move into position," she explained, nodding.

Another connection buzzed into the conference, and Kiyone patched it in curiously. One of the officers from the Home Fleet, obviously. "This is Tatsuki Yohito, captain of Saryu-oh. We request permission to join ranks with the current sweep pattern," he stated simply.

"Understood," Kiyone answered again, consulting her computer briefly. "The Yagami will relay an optimal formation to avoid any unnecessary delay, and we'll place the Juraian dreadnoughts at the periphery of the convoy. Is this acceptable?"

"Easily," Yohito answered, bowing to the screen. "Thank you, Detective Kiyone. I'll relay the directions to the rest of the Home Fleet. Yohito out." His presence vanished, while Mihoshi stared curiously.

"What are your current plans?" Kiyone asked Mihoshi, already punching in the commands to bring the fleet — still in formation — about, and towards the planet.

"Just moving people to the big continent in the south. Oh, and Kintaro-kun was repairing a damaged shield circuit," Mihoshi offered. "He's a quick learner!"

"I see," Kiyone remarked absently, her fingers expertly flying across her control panel. "How did you manage to get a cadet on a mission this dangerous?"

"I found him here," Mihoshi stated simply. "But he's really good at piloting — Yukinojo said that he managed a difficulty-rank-two maneuver without any prior training!"

Breaking away from her control panel, Kiyone spared a moment to laugh aloud. "Without any training? That's a good one, Officer Kuramitsu. Seriously, though, I thought that I was the second-highest rated officer to graduate from the Galaxy Police Academy in three years, and I know for a fact they wouldn't let me on this mission if I hadn't made Detective First Class."

"But it's true!" Mihoshi protested. "Yukinojo, tell her!"

Kiyone blinked, as a dossier was transmitted between the ships, explaining in detail how Kintaro had been accidentally grabbed, and then proven himself in an emergency situation. She turned her attention back to Mihoshi's face on the screen, impressed. "I was wrong," she admitted. "If they honor the field recruitment, you might have yourself a very impressive partner."

"Hmm," Mihoshi noised thoughtfully. "Partner. I didn't think about that! I'll go ask him what he thinks about that now!"

"Hey, you forgot… to turn off the communications link," Kiyone mumbled, as Mihoshi vanished. She shook her head, and broke the link from her end. "I guess I should just be happy that I'm not her partner," she mused.

Frowning, Tenchi quietly asked Misaki, "Why is the Home Fleet asking the Galaxy Police for permission to help?"

The woman glanced at Tenchi for a moment, then explained, "The Galaxy Police works within Jurai to enforce certain interstellar laws, and certain Juraian laws. The Juraian police force is completely inadequate for dealing with this kind of problem, even though the Home Fleet is truly very powerful. But if we allow the Home Fleet to work independently of the Galaxy Police while they're here, it becomes a military operation, and the Galaxy Police treaty states that they will aid in civil issues, but not military issues."

Tenchi nodded slowly. "I guess that that makes sense. Um, if it's not too much trouble… could you help me look over the treaty I'm supposed to revise with the Galaxy Police? I'm not familiar with all of the laws, you see…."

Misaki smiled, embracing Tenchi and giving him a powerful hug. "Of course! For my cute great-grandson!"

"Urk," Tenchi noised.

Clearing her throat, Ayeka interrupted the moment. "Tenchi-sama, something's happening," she warned, gesturing towards the main viewscreen.

Tenchi blinked, as Misaki released him to regard the screen.

"Oh, dear," she breathed. "That's not good."

"What's happening?" Tenchi asked, squinting at a faint glow as it built up about the edges of one of the cruisers.

"Overload, of some sort," Misaki murmured. "Tenchi-sama, are the Throne's defenses active?"

Awake early due to her nature, Ami had crept a short distance away from her sleeping allies, and turned her attention to her terminal. Various warnings and readings were lit, reminding her of when Washuu's friends from the land of the stars had fallen to offer what support they were able to gather.

She rubbed at her eyes, blinking as the screen before her resolved into a targeting reticule, clearly labeled, 'Juraian forces'. The default fire action was 'off', and Ami made no move to change that, merely wondering how badly the relations between the Amatera and the other Juraians must have been strained.

A few experimental taps permanently shut down the system that targeted Juraian ships, taking all of the remaining power from one of the non-functioning Ethos array cannons and transferring it to targeting and observation, instead. The zoom and panning speeds were great, allowing her to examine the Earth below in detail, but she didn't let that distract her. Instead, she focused the gear on one of the Juraian ships, admiring the odd, almost flimsy looking architecture.

Fine, thin vanes surrounded a thick, rigid hull, while planes of force pulsated rhythmically, shedding soft blue light about the ships in some kind of defensive formation. Twenty of them glided along in majestic detail, one of them flagging slightly.

Ami adjusted the focus on the lagging starship, pursing her lips thoughtfully. "This is strange," she mumbled. "Why is it lagging?"

A flickering icon warned her that something was amiss, and she investigated momentarily, establishing a connection with the source of the intrusion. To her surprise, she found the image of a young man in loose fitting robes regarding her curiously. "This is Tatsuki Kohito, captain of the Fehdo-oh." He leant forward into the frame, squinting slightly. "Is there a reason you're monitoring us?"

Blushing in embarrassment, as though she had been caught spying, she stuttered, "I was just curious about, um, er, you see, I wanted, that is—"

He cut her off, waving a hand, and chuckling softly. "No harm intended, then. Good enough." He straightened up, and asked, "Is there anything I can help you with, then?"

"Um, yes, Kohito-san. I was wondering if you could tell me why your ship is slower," she said softly, ducking her head slightly.

"I can answer that," he responded, grimacing. "But can I have your name, first?"

"Um, Yosho-san said that we were Amatera, but my name is Mizuno Ami," she replied, offering a shy smile.

Kohito stared blankly, then shook himself, coughing. "Amatera, you say? We'd heard rumors about that, but… Er… Sorry about that, Ami-san. Our ship is lagging because there's an imbalance between the fusion grafter and the power distribution, resulting in a somewhat unreliable energy flow."

"Is that dangerous?" she asked quietly.

"Not usually. It could be, if we were in a combat situation, but we've got drones working on repairing the issue right now."

"Interesting. What—"

Ami's next question died in her throat, as Kohito's window vanished in a flash of reddish white, and the ship on her screen exploded violently, a massive gout of starfire venting from the rear of the damaged mass into space. Her eyes widened, watching sparks — escape pods, likely — explode from the still-flaming wreckage in sequence, shooting Earthward from the tumbling wreckage.

More lights and warnings began lighting up in sequence, telling Ami the likeliest path of descent for the wreckage. Unsurprisingly, the computer illustrated a target area several hundred kilometers across, with the village near the center. "Oh, no," she groaned, biting her lip. "What now?"

The communication screen sparked to life, though the background of the image was blackened, and Kohito's image was obscured by static. She could readily discern the telltale red across his face when it flickered briefly into focus, however. "Hey," he wheezed, static echoing across his voice with pops and squeals. "This is Kohito, requesting the Home Fleet to destroy the Fehdo-oh—" The static flared up, obscuring the message, as another pair of faces joined the conference. A woman in a sharply pressed uniform, and a slightly older version of the same man, both of them scowling.

"Kohito — get to an escape pod. I'm bringing Saryu-oh around to rescue you. You can use your tree to teleport yourself aboard once we're in range."

The woman nodded quickly. "There's no reason to make this more costly than we have to," she advised. "Now, if you can, bring your ship into alignment with—"

"Frayed fusion pathing," Kohito managed, his face coming into view, creased with concentration. "Me and Fehdo-oh are working together." A message popped onto the screen, informing Ami that the link between the four was secured, even as bright meteorites — escape pods, actually — began to descend through the sky to the south. "Can't hold it off for long. Weapons locked into over-charge cycle. This was sabotage. I got everyone else off, but if I leave, the discharge takes out me and whoever comes close."

"Kohito," the man said, subdued. "Who… who could do such a thing?"

"Dunno," the man said, shaking his head. "We gotta destroy my ship, and soon. I got my Light Hawk Wings constraining the plasma storm, but I can't hold them up for long."

"If you're using those as defensive shields," the woman muttered slowly, "then none of my weapons will do enough damage. Yohito?"

"The Home Fleet can't destroy him and get out of range in time," Yohito said quietly. "The sabotage is too deliberate. I want to find out who—"

"Shut up, Onii-san," Kohito snarled. "You're going to have to take care of it later. We need to destroy my ship before it explodes in Terra's atmosphere, and kills everyone underneath it!"


Eyes squeezing shut, Ami allowed a pair of tears to trickle down her face, and interrupted, "I have the Ethos array, Kohito-san."

Dead silence rang out, Kohito nodding his terse approval, while the other two blinked in confusion.

"Washuu-sensei said that it was a phase dispersion cannon."

"That'll do it," Kohito said quietly. "I trust you to make the right choice, Amatera."

Trembling, Ami reached for the controls again. "Ethos four is online," she said, her voice cracking. "I'm sorry, Kohito-san! I wish—"

"You have to do it," he said, glancing over his shoulder at something, and scowling. "Not much… time left," he choked out, groaning. "Hard to concentrate."

"Citizen," the woman warned, "this isn't an easy situation, especially for a child, but what has to be done, has to be done. For what it's worth, you have the authorization of myself as a Galaxy Police officer to do it." Her eyes were solemn, offering what support they could to Ami.

She nodded as bravely as she could, and typed, with trembling fingers, the commands to bring Ethos four about, and target the ship. "I'm sorry," she whispered, banishing the other windows momentarily to offer her last words to Kohito alone.

He grinned rakishly, brushing some of the stray blood from his face, and hid the pain as best as he could. "Mercy from an angel," he stated. "It's okay, Amatera. I thank you for it."

And then Ami pressed the final command in, and the mutual destruction of two infinite spheres of non-space echoed, a twenty-kilometer sphere of reality simply ceasing to exist.

Yakumo wasn't entirely certain what had happened. He was also tired, annoyed, and feeling largely unenthusiastic about the meeting with Cologne's tribe. In that state, searching for the lodge that the Marines had been put up in, he intended to grab what sleep he could, and prepare for whatever was to happen next. He was not prepared to stumble across Ami, and have the girl literally fling herself at him, slamming him to the ground as she babbled something hysterically, and sobbed into his shirt.

Soothing her reflexively, he brushed her hair out of her face, and made calming noises. "Hey," he whispered, the fingers of his other hand stroking across her back. "What's wrong?"

So she told him.

Trudging away from the escape pod, Jakugo held one hand to the stream of blood that trickled down his face from a cut hidden in his hair. He glanced around, grimacing distastefully at the surroundings. "Lovely," he muttered.

The small communicator on his wrist would alert the fleet to his location, and he would be retrieved shortly. It was simply a matter of setting things into motion before that happened. "Too much interference," he declared, scowling. "This hackneyed plan has failed in nearly every possible way yet."

As if to underscore his statement, a large, black shape rose from the ground some distant away — looking much like a giant black tick, with large, sharp mandibles. The mandibles trailed off a stream of faint yellow ichor, eight narrow and tapered limbs clacking across the rough stone that lay strewn about the territory.

Fighting down the surge of fear that rose from the presence of the beast, Jakugo snorted, reaching into his robe. "But what's one planet, when the good of the empire is concerned?" he asked, pulling a fist-sized globe of green crystal out and holding it aloft.

Slowly, hesitantly, the reaver approached, black glittering eyes fixed firmly on Jakugo. He nodded again, and crouched to the ground, setting the crystal in a small hollow of rock. "A gift from your mistress, beast," he said, backing away. "Now get the hell out of here before someone shows up to rescue me."

The creature ignored him, trundling forward to snap up the crystal in its mandibles as it lay on the ground, and then drew closer. Extending one hand before him, as though he could push the creature away, the man scowled. "Promises are promises, and harming me know would make your mistress… angry."

Seemingly mollified, the reaver backed off a pace, and vanished instantly into the stone beneath him, just as the communicator on Jakugo's wrist crackled to life. "Hello?" he asked, none of the fear in his voice feigned. "Can someone help me, please?"

He was surrounded on all sides by a warm, encompassing darkness. Occasionally the inky blackness would give way to a face, a pair of eyes, and a snatch of some word would pass through his perception, then vanish.

As time wore on, the eyes remained longer. First, the curious, hesitant eyes of a girl he couldn't quite remember. Then the trusting eyes of another, one that was close to the first, he thought, though he wasn't certain why. Finally, another pair of eyes, fierce determination and devotion radiating from them.

And yet, there was no color, no definitive shape, only emotion. The eyes vanished, leaving him in a heady swirl of light throughout the darkness, until three vaguely familiar faces returned from the darkness, all of them staring in shock towards him, separated from him by a thick pane of glass. He watched, as though from miles away, as his hand came forward, smashing through some emergency panel or another to strike a button on a wall, and then the three faces, crying with worry, vanished in a flare of white light.

Another set of eyes, these vibrant with color and some unknowable power peered at him from the darkness as he watched, still feeling detached, unable to control anything. A pair of pink eyes that rapidly shifted from an innocent rose to a worried and caring red. A pair of green eyes that shifted in size and depth, staring at him with a full range of emotions. And two pair of purple eyes, one pair inhuman, one completely so.

The eyes vanished, and the darkness about him shattered, giving way to a darkness that was more complete, this time with words echoing through it.

The first voice, feminine and worried. "… fine. Just be gentle with him."

"Of course, but…" A second, more masculine and haughty. Who did those voices belong to?

Another voice emerged from the darkness, resonant and angry, the timber tickling some memory that was locked away yet. "Amatera, you displease me."

" I was a fool, and wrong to follow you, ever." That voice was fainter, again a woman, sounding as though she were in intense pain, but bravely fighting it.

"And for that, you think you can shun what I have given you? What I have bestowed upon you?"

"No… No utopia that you promised," the other voice countered, anger overriding pain. "You offer nothing but slavish devotion and the destruction of will. I was wrong to not see it before, but I can see it now."

"How else…."

The darkness was again complete and silent; this time only the sensation of gentle touches about his face to notify him that he was not alone. Still, his tongue refused to cooperate, though his struggles lessened as soft singing, too low for him to make out the words, reached his ears, relaxing him. Drifting off into slumber again, he wondered what was happening.

Tenchi stared at the screen for a long moment. The fire that had consumed Kohito's ship echoed a fear of flame through him from the Throne, but the chilling blackness that had eaten the flame, and everything else near it was even more frightening, before it vanished.

"Where's Ryouko?" he asked suddenly, rousing himself, and looking around. Sure enough, the woman was gone, nowhere in sight.

Flustered, but regaining her composure, Ayeka apologized, "I'm sorry, Tenchi-sama! I was too distracted to say anything… She left, in order to…." She broke off, swallowing nervously, and moved her eyes from the nearest viewscreen to meet Tenchi's. "She left to help Kohito, Tenchi-sama."

"Where is she now?"

The viewscreen zoomed in on a plummeting craft as it tumbled through the atmosphere, Ryo-oh-ki's spines cracked and worn, not able to take the force of reentry well. "Well," Tenchi muttered, "at least she made it. Can we get someone there to help her out?"

Ayeka shook her head slowly. "Not in time, Tenchi-sama, but Ryo-oh-ki appears to be recovering. I'd guess the blast that destroyed Kohito's ship upset her. She's homing in on another navigation point — I can't quite get a lock on it—"

Washuu chose that moment to contact them, appearing on the main viewscreen, obviously concerned. "Tenchi-dono?" she queried. "What's going on?"

"We're not entirely sure," Tenchi admitted. "But I'd sure like to find out. Ryouko's coming in for a landing, but I don't know what she's zeroing in on."

Washuu glanced up, allowing Tenchi to see something of the room behind her. Stark stone walls, with torches providing illumination, while a bed was visible at one corner of the screen, apparently occupied, though Tenchi couldn't tell by who. "Ran-oh-ki," Washuu explained, turning her attention back to the screen. "He seems to try and tell everything that falls into orbit where he is, now."

"Who is Ran-oh-ki?" Tenchi asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Ranma's partner," Washuu offered, a secretive smile forming upon her lips.

"I've been meaning to ask who that was," Tenchi muttered. "I think you mentioned him before. Who is he, exactly?"

"More importantly," Tsunami added, her hands clasped together hopefully, "how is he?"

Washuu didn't reply immediately, instead staring at Tsunami with one eyebrow raised. When she did respond, she thoughtfully regarded Tenchi, and explained, "Ranma is the defender of Earth, for all intents and purposes. I saved his life after he killed a reaver, and gave him what he needed to keep fighting. In exchange, he protects me, and does everything in his power to kill every reaver he can." Turning to Tsunami, and smiling slightly, Washuu completed, "And he's not woken up yet, but the damage he's done to himself is regressing. He should be well and awake within a day or so."

Tsunami pursed her lips, frowning, and nodded judiciously. "The orbital observation platform is moving into position, Washuu-chan. Once it's placed above China, perhaps you can have Ranma-dono or any other injured warriors sent up to recuperate?" she offered.

The redhead looked evasive for a moment, then nodded grudgingly. "If you think that would be good," she mumbled. "Ryouko should be here any minute, anyway. Once we make sure that Ryo-oh-ki's okay, we'll see about moving Ranma. Until then, he should just rest."

"Very well, Washuu-chan," Tsunami answered happily, clapping her hands together. There was a flash of blue light between her and the Throne, and then she was gone.

"She's become a very excitable girl," Washuu mumbled.

"I don't think I've seen her to be that lively in some time," Funaho returned. "Washuu-chan, do you mind if I discuss something with you on a private channel later?"

Eyeing Funaho dubiously for a moment, Washuu permitted a small nod. "I need to take care of things here. I'll contact you later," she answered, terminating the connection.

"This sure are getting complicated," Tenchi mumbled. "What about Ryouko? Or Kohito? Was she able to save him?"

"Time will tell," Funaho mused. "I must speak with Yohito." With that, the woman marched away, purposeful and swift.

Washuu shook her head, banished the terminal, and sat on the side of Herb's bed where Ranma was still asleep. Due in no small part to her interference, and the necklace she had placed about him while sleeping. It would regulate his energy flows, and see that even though he had hurt himself, that damage needn't be permanent.

Sighing, she reached a hand to his face, fingers gently stroking his cheek, and running through his hair. He stirred, almost as though he wanted to wake, but was kept from doing so. "Not yet," Washuu whispered to him. His sword sat on a chair at the side of the bed, atop his robes, which had been neatly folded. Everything else he had owned, he had given away, save the robe that Herb had had him dressed in when Ranma's battle-suit had faded. Thankfully that wasn't until after Ranma had been stowed safely in the Prince's bed.

Ranma stilled at her words, as she sang softly from memory; a song she couldn't remember learning, only knowing. It brought her to mind of a time and place faraway, a field of green grasses and a loving man with blond hair… She broke off the song, closing her eyes, and shook her head sadly. "It didn't hurt this much last time," she whispered.

Still asleep, one of Ranma's hands fumbled its way into hers. Washuu opened her eyes to stare, but found her vision obscured by forming tears. "And it didn't feel this good last time, either. It's just not fair."

The boy remained asleep, his fingertips resting against hers.

"It's not scientific," she protested, closing her eyes and allowing her tears to trickle across her face, hot points splashing Ranma's.

He didn't react, other than for his fingers to curl slightly, tightening their gentle grip on her hand.

"And I still don't know if you even care about me," she sobbed quietly, bending down to place a kiss against his forehead, while he slumbered. "I wish you would give me some sort of sign, some answer… Oh, Ranma. This is why I stopped being grown up!"

She shook her head sadly, another pair of tears trickling their way across her face. But hiding as a little girl…. The time for playing around was long past. She could hide from Kagato like that, Kagato being the ultimate product of her adulthood. But she couldn't run from Ranma the same way. Ranma had needed her to be an adult, and she could no more deny him that than she could deny Ranma a choice in whether he fought or fled.

A knock sounded at the door distracting her from her ruminations, and she quickly straightened herself up, wiping away the signs of tears, and concealing them behind a more guardedly neutral expression. "Yes?" the scientist called out, rising from the bed, and businesslike, as Ranma's fingers slipped from hers to fall to the bed.

The door opened, and Herb strode in, frowning. "He is still not awake?" the prince asked, obviously upset.

"No," Washuu said coolly. "He needs to rest for a while, yet."

"Fine," Herb muttered. "A star has fallen in the valley. Yosho said you would want to investigate it."

"Of course," Washuu mumbled. "My wayward daughter."

That got Herb's attention, and his haughty anger gave way to curiosity. "Your daughter?" he asked, surprised. "She lives in a star?"

"Actually," Washuu answered thoughtfully, "she used to destroy stars."

The comment was calculated to unnerve the prince, but it only served to make him smile. "From beyond the stars?" he mused. "This could be interesting."

"Don't make her angry," Washuu warned. "We don't have a lot of time."

Herb merely grunted, pacing out across the vast hall of his palace, and stopping atop the massive stone staircase. He gestured into the valley below, where Ryo-oh-ki had stopped, not quite touching the ground. "There is the star," he stated. Indeed, unable to properly control herself until the last moment, she still retained most of her heat from reentry, glowing a dull red.

Washuu frowned, narrowing her eyes slightly, as a beam of light swept out, teleporting Ryouko and someone else to the space just before the stairs. Ryouko drifted there, bearing the newcomer in her arms, though he was unconscious at the moment. A Juraian starship captain, from the looks of things. A wounded one, at that.

"What happened here?" Washuu asked, surprised.

"Not sure," Ryouko answered tersely, ignoring Herb. "His ship blew up, so I thought I'd rescue him for Tenchi."

"Interesting," Washuu mused, frowning. Behind Ryouko, the ship hissed suddenly, shunting its remaining heat outward before collapsing into a small point that fell to the ground below, and vanished in the tall grass. "Let's see about getting him some medical attention then, hmm? Tsunami suggested that there was an orbital platform that would be safe from the reavers that we could use as a medical facility. Until that's operational…." She left the rest unsaid, instead shrugging and turning to Herb. "Do you have a place where we can put him to rest, Herb?"

The man shrugged indifferently, and gestured to a side-passage, his eyes fixed firmly on Ryouko. She ignored him, bearing the man in the indicated direction, while Washuu strode ahead to test the door. The room was clean, if it looked unused, and had a single window, though all of the lights were extinguished. Setting the man on the bed, Ryouko shifted uncomfortably, stooping as Ryo-oh-ki tiredly hopped into the room, and gathered her partner in her cupped hands.

Washuu ignored the pair for the moment, focusing her attention of the man's wounds. "I'd guess he tried to use too much Jurai power," she offered, doing what she could with her limited medical supplies to staunch the internal bleeding. "He's lucky, I think. Some internal burning from the emergence points, blunt force trauma, minor, and multiple lacerations about his hands — what was he holding?"

"His key blew up," Ryouko offered. "I had Ryo-oh-ki turn into a starship again inside the bridge of his ship, and just ran for Earth, but whatever took his ship out disrupted Ryo-oh-ki so badly some of her slave crystals shattered."

"That would be a broken phase valance," Washuu murmured, completing her ministrations of the man. "Well, let's have a look at little Ryo-oh-ki then, shall we? Where did you put the slave crystals?"

"They're outside," Ryouko answered. "She left them hidden under the grass, I think."

"Okay. Let's make sure you didn't lose too many, hmm?"

While Washuu plucked the creature from Ryouko's hands, she allowed herself to rotate — still floating off the ground — to face the strange man who was still staring at her. "Something wrong?" she asked, baring her teeth in a grin.

He shook his head, ignoring Washuu as she strode away. "Not at all," he said quietly. "You look much like Higurashi Ranma. Are you related to him?"

"No," Ryouko answered flatly. "We're both Masu, if that's what you're asking."

"Masu," Herb mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Is that some form of demon?"

"I've been called that," Ryouko responded, frowning at Herb darkly. "Why? What's this all about?"

Herb shrugged, hiding a small smile. "Merely idle curiosity, I assure you." At Ryouko's blank stare, he conceded, "Ranma has always had something that's earned my grudging curiosity."

"What's that?" Ryouko asked, furrowing her brows.

Herb paused, as though unsure that Ryouko was worthy to hear his reasons, before allowing, "Ranma is not one who is given to allowing a fight to end if he doesn't believe that the battle is resolved. I threatened him with death and worse, at one point, and yet, he wasn't refusing to give up the fight. Even when his life ran weak in a battle that neither of us could control last night, he clung to what he had, and refused to give in."

Ryouko nodded grudgingly. "I know what you mean," she mumbled, remembering her own fight with Ranma with some regret. "So, what's wrong with him right now?"

"I am not completely certain," Herb admitted. "We both came near doing something foolish, but I conceded the fight to him. I believe that Washuu said he had pushed himself too hard."

Blinking in understanding, Ryouko nodded. "That would be bad," she said quietly. "Well, you take care of yourself, and him, too. I need to talk to Washuu about something."

Herb opened his mouth to comment, but Ryouko sank through the stone floor, pretending to not notice, and give herself some time alone with her thoughts. Whatever else Kohito had said in the single heartbeat she'd had to grab him, she clearly heard him say, "Sabotage." Someone needed to be talked to about that, but Ryouko wasn't sure where it should begin. Probably with Ayeka, or Funaho. That would be a good start, yes….

Kiyone rubbed at her eyes tiredly, her ship on autopilot for the time being. Queries from the other ships had come, leaving Kiyone and Yohito alone to figure out what to say.

Thinking quickly, Yohito suggested, "Detective Makibi, why don't we simply say that we believe it to be an accident or a malfunction, until you can launch a more thorough investigation? Once the Home Fleet leaves the system, I will return through conventional space as soon as possible to aid your own work."

She nodded grudgingly. "It's hardly by the books, but if there was ever an operation that required a certain amount of secrecy, then this would be it. I'm going to have a lot of questions for you later, but since I'm going to be leaving the system with as many refugees as I can carry, the investigation will need to be passed on to Detective Kuramitsu."

"Right," Yohito confirmed. "I'll tell the Home Fleet what happened, Makibi-san."

Kiyone allowed a bitter smile to cross her face. "Cheer up, Yohito-san, there was another ship before your brother's ship got destroyed — he might have lived."

"I remain ever hopeful," Yohito said softly, severing the connection.

Relaying the explanation to the rest of the fleet without breaking from formation, Kiyone turned her attention back to the girl with the phase dispersion cannon. Whoever she was, she had access to ordinance that violated more treaties than she could think of. Kohito called her 'Amatera', and that name was something Kiyone thought should ring a bell, though it didn't. More than likely it meant it was one of the things that Juraians didn't like to talk about.

That girl, for the time, was also likely a part of the mess, and would need to be found and questioned about those weapons. Until then, there was a lot of work to be done. "I sure don't envy you, Detective Kuramitsu," Kiyone mumbled to herself, drawing up a file on her computer and preemptively labeling it 'secret'.

"Kintaro, why didn't you try to contact that ship?" Mihoshi asked, frowning as she leaned over him to peer at the screen.

"Oh," he said belatedly, shaking his head. "Sorry, Kuramitsu-san, but the guidebook said that since she was commanding the fleet containing that ship, Detective Makibi had the prerogative on contacting us. Or not contacting us." He frowned, considering that, then shrugged.

Mihoshi nodded slowly, a thoughtful expression on her face. "That's right," she said quietly. "I forgot."

Kintaro smiled, turning his attention back to the battery of tutorials that the computer was throwing at him. "Oh," he called out, as a flag appeared on one corner of the screen. "You have a message, Kuramitsu-san."

Her voice was distant as she puttered about the living area in the booster section, "Can you check it for me, Oe-kun?"

He nodded absently, punching in the buttons that would retrieve the message, and decrypt it; absently checking some scans of the fleet as it continued in formation, minus one Juraian dreadnought. After a few seconds of the computer ticking away the time, the document popped up, spelling out the situation in bold letters.

Kintaro blinked, his brows furrowing as he scanned through it. "Sabotage?" he murmured. "Who could do such a thing?"

Moreover, what should he do about it? He was not entirely willingly introduced to his role as Mihoshi's assistant, but hadn't been disappointed in the chance to learn more — and he'd learned quite a bit, too. But working on the case that Makibi had sent him…. That would entail more than a brief stint learning about Galaxy Police law and piloting.

Was that a career move he had wanted to make? On Earth he had left college after gathering all of the credits needed for a Law degree, and set about learning. Learning everything. The end result was that as much as he knew of science, of laws, of martial arts, and more…. He knew his education was lacking in some areas, and one of them was the basic art of 'life' that many seemed to take for granted. It hadn't taken him long to see that Mihoshi, despite her subtlety, was a master of that art.

So many choices to weigh. He had always been a big fan of justice, and this would further a number of goals for him. Firstly, justice, of course. Secondly, he would be settling down into a career, and that meant if he could find his father, that Kintaro might eventually be able to go home. Lastly, of course, he would get the chance to study the thing he understood the least, through Mihoshi.

These thoughts distracted Kintaro as his eyes scanned across the missive, unseeing for the moment. He was distracted by Mihoshi peering over the top of the chair, staring down into his eyes. "What's wrong?" she asked out of the blue.

"Just been thinking," Kintaro responded honestly, craning his head back to stare upward into the innocent pools of blue that Mihoshi directed down at him. "Um, Kuramitsu-san, I know that you made me a cadet, but I wasn't sure how serious you were about me joining the Galaxy Police."

"Oh?" She frowned worriedly. "Are you having second thoughts?"

"Yes, but in a good way. Kuramitsu-san, if it's possible, I really would like to learn how to be the best Galaxy Police officer I can. With you." She blinked at him, eyes widening very slightly. "And I'd like to start by figuring out what happened here, if we can," he finished, indicating the document that was onscreen with one finger.

She smiled, eyes narrowing joyfully. "I knew you'd want to join!" she exclaimed happily. "I knew it! And you've done a really good job of learning, too! You want to work on this case with me?" she asked, leaning forward precariously, squinting at the screen.

"Um, that's the one," he mumbled, eyes fixed upward as the chair leaned back under Mihoshi's weight. "Kuramitsu-san, if you're not careful—" His warning came too late, and Mihoshi leaned against the chair a trifle harder, which caused the reclining back to knock her legs out from under her, sending her sprawling atop Kintaro. "Mrph," he concluded, unable to speak as Mihoshi's body muffled him, a pleasantly suffocating weight.

"Oops!" she exclaimed, crawling about as Kintaro extricated himself.

"Eh, not a problem!" he dismissed cheerfully, his attention momentarily distracted from thoughts of great justice by thoughts of supple female Galaxy Police officers, and close quarters while training. "Don't worry about it at all! I'll make some tea while you read that." He spun in the narrow walkway between the sections of the ship. Mihoshi, he'd learned, loved warm drinks. He'd learned a great deal about making tea, once, shortly before he challenged a girl on a motorcycle to a race on his bicycle….

"…ko, if you can, ask her to take us to the platform."

"Not a problem, but…"

Again the encompassing darkness, and the warmth, but the voices quickly faded. A dull roar ripped the sounds to shreds, leaving him to wander about, lost.

His wandering lasted only a moment, before he staggered free of the cloying black, bracing himself against an all-too-familiar ivory column. The barriers between the sealed off memories corroded slowly as he stared at the pillar in dumb shock. "What's going on?" he asked tiredly, his tongue working, but slowly.

"Hush, Higurashi-san — she is coming, and I can't allow her to find us here like this. Please, sleep."

Ranma turned to regard the woman in the pristine white, her face marred with a vicious cut beneath one eye, slow trickles off blood working their way across her face. She moved slowly, cautiously. As though she had worse hurts that she refused to show. "I remember you," he mumbled, wishing he could banish the muzzy, thick feelings that suffused his head. "Hurt, for me?"

She nodded solemnly. "I don't know what time I have, Higurashi. Please, let me send you away, to sleep."

One of his hands reached out, seemingly of its own accord, and brushed gently at her wounded cheek. She flinched away as a spark of blue leapt from his fumbling fingertips to her cheek, the actinic spark bearing the blood away. A thin streamer of crackling blue force connected them, flowing into her and repairing more of the damage.

"Higurashi!" she protested, crystal tears welling up in her eyes, as she clasped her hands over his, pushing it away from her face. "You can't do that here! She will know, and if she knows, she will come!"

Ranma shook his head belligerently. "I'm not going to have some lady send me away to fight in my place," he warned. "I don't know who you are, exactly, but I don't think you're dressed for combat."

"You must leave here!" she pleaded, voice edging into hysteria. The diamond tears spilled from her cheeks and sailed through the air, oddly crystalline tinkling noises echoing from their impact with the floor.

"Then come with me," he said simply. "Let's go somewhere else. I'm not going to let you fight the crazy chick alone."

The blonde's eyes widened, and she gasped, but only hesitated a moment. "Very well, I will go with you — but we must leave now, Higurashi."

"Okay," he said, drained from aiding her, and collapsing once more into the darkness.

The Amazon village was oddly quiet and subdued while Ranma was still gone. Ryouga found the stillness was not to his liking, and sat atop the lodge that had been set aside for the Marines, and any other hangers-on. Part of the reason he had chosen to climb the thing was his fear that his direction sense, which he'd evaded problems with for so long, would strike back with a vengeance.

Another part of it was just that Ryouga felt restless once the fighting was — for the moment — dealt with. There would be much more fighting, he was sure, but just then, it felt so far away as to not be an issue at all. Still, there had been days of peace on the ship, and Ryouga had enjoyed those, as the Kitty Hawk was simply too small to get completely lost on, and the crewmen were all more than willing to escort him to the deck if he had wandered too far.

In Shanghai, it had been easier still, since he hadn't had to move at all, save to pace alongside the refugees. But only the day before, his curse had finally caught up with him. The timing was harmless, as there were no reavers nearby, and there were other immediate dangers… but it did serve to highlight just how vulnerable he really was.

A few inopportune minutes of wandering around, and a stray rainstorm, or a puddle, or any of the other countless things that his curse nearly seemed to call upon to happen, and he would be snout to claw with a reaver. As strong as Ryouga was, and as badly as the last few fights had gone, he had no illusions as to how that fight would go.

He sighed, rubbing at his temples. The irony. Even his dog was lost, somehow. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen her clearly. "I hope she's safe," he mumbled aloud.

"Thinking, are you?" a voice called out from behind him.

Ryouga twitched slightly, but allowed a rueful smile to come to his lips, and glanced over his shoulder at the old woman. "Yeah, I guess so," he admitted, studying Cologne for a minute before turning his attention back to the other houses he could see from his thatched perch.

She snorted, and ambled to sit a short distance away, leaning against the slowly smoking chimney. "What about?" she asked. "Normally you've been hanging about Mousse, or Ranma, lately."

"Stuff," Ryouga replied evasively. "Mousse is hiding from someone he knows from the village, I think, and Ranma's gone at the moment. So I'm sitting here and thinking."

"Ah," Cologne returned, allowing silence to dominate as she gazed at a particular distant mountain.

"What are you doing here?" Ryouga asked, frowning.

"It's said that the source of Jusenkyou is somewhere beneath that mountain," Cologne replied, not answering the question. "We, as Amazons, don't go there, of course."

"What else is there?" Ryouga asked, interested.

Cologne made a thoughtful noise, her eyes still fixed on that distant peak. "Well, it's said the Phoenix people live there — so it's Mount Phoenix, of course." She sighed, sparing a glance towards the boy. "The truth of the matter isn't honestly known," she murmured. "But it's said that a phoenix-god lives there, and uses the waters that feed Jusenkyou to provide for his people."

Squinting to see the mountain in the distance, Ryouga asked, "Is that true?"

"Who's to say?" Cologne asked, shrugging. "It's likely a legend, and not a very popular one, at that. Most of the children wouldn't even know of it — only a handful of my own generation would, honestly."

"Why's that?" Ryouga pressed. Cologne must have brought it up for a reason, after all.

"Ah, well, that's where it is said that the hiryuu shouten ha was created," the woman offered. "But the truth may be much more mundane. I hope to never need to find out." A smile played about her lips, and she eyed Ryouga. "Of course, I bring it up because once, when I was a child, a woman of our tribe tried to scale that mountain."

Ryouga raised an eyebrow, turning to regard Cologne curiously.

"She returned a few days later, claiming that the climb was impossible," Cologne said. "And for many months, the contest to prove who the strongest warrior was to see who could best that mountain."

"Who finally did it?" Ryouga asked, frowning.

"No one ever did," she admitted. "The technique I taught you, Ryouga, that was devised to defeat the mountain, but before we foolish girls could throw ourselves at it, a better use was devised, and we used our newfound skill to battle the People's Republic of China. This distracted us, and by the time it was over, none of us warriors had time for foolish little mountains and false legends."

Ryouga scratched at his head in confusion. "What are you saying?"

"Ryouga," the woman said levelly. "When we are at peace, we train. When we are at war, we fight. Right now, we prepare for war, and this means the time for training is over, and whatever disabilities we have, we must get rid of, if we can."

"My curses?" he asked bluntly. "You said that you would get me and Mousse water from the spring of drowned man, right?"

The woman nodded, drawing a small wooden cask from her robes. "I had someone run to fetch this last night," she admitted. "Along with some spring of drowned dog, and a few other harmless springs. This cask is for you, and there is another for Mousse. The rest, I expect, we'll have to use on the reavers."

Ryouga accepted the cask with trembling hands, staring at it in wonder. "Do you know how often I fought and battled just for a chance at some of this?" he asked quietly, setting the cask between his knees before the trembling in his hands grew too violent. "Of course you do — you saw some of it. But… But this…" he said hoarsely, clenching his eyes shut. "You know what, Cologne?" he asked suddenly.

"What's that?" the woman asked gently.

"This isn't fair," he said quietly. "I fought and battled and stabbed someone who called me a friend in the back—" he cut off, laughing, hysteria cutting into his voice deeply. "I betrayed Ranma for a chance at a cure, to leave him stuck as a girl forever!" He shook his head, eyes still closed. "And after that, he forgave me, and saw to it that me and Mousse got our curses unlocked first, when he could have…." He swallowed. "I don't deserve this," he concluded in a monotone, opening his eyes to regard the cask. "If anyone does, it's Ranma."

"While you may feel it's true," Cologne warned, "your curse is too much of a liability here. We need you to fight, and I don't think you can do it nearly as well with your curse."

"And Ranma has to keep his, because it makes him stronger," Ryouga said softly. "It's not fair."

"Not at all," Cologne agreed quietly. "But don't take too long, Child. What must be done, must be done."

"She cannot protect you any longer," the woman said, irritation echoing in her voice.

Ranma blinked, the motion seeming unreal somehow — he was certain that he hadn't even been there a moment ago, and yet the strange woman from before was addressing him as though he'd been there for some time. The hall was as pristine and undamaged as the first time he had seen it, and the woman lounged in her customary position on the dais.

Ignoring her, he turned, squinting at the pillars in the distance. He remembered shattering a number of them with his own body clearly enough. But the pillar was restored, somehow. No sign of damage. The only trace of any disturbance was from behind the woman, where a pair of chains dangled from a pillar, a thick red liquid oozing down them slowly. He didn't need to guess to remember what the blood was from.

"She was in your way, so you beat her up?" Ranma asked, staring at the chain.

"Your mind is weak, and changes the actions from what I do to something you can more easily comprehend," she offered. "It is a fault of your own weakness."

"So whatever makes sense to me is right?" he mumbled, furrowing his brow.

"Something like that." The woman pursed her lips in a smile. "You realize, of course, that by now I've already won. All you can do now is delay the inevitable. Unless you can bring my sister to me."

"Save it," Ranma advised. "You say that this place makes things so that you can understand them, right? So does it work both ways?"

"Of course not," the woman said, straightening to sit atop her dais, and scowling distastefully. "I understand you as well as I need to."

"Yeah, well, I don't speak 'crazy bitch', so I'd disagree," Ranma grumbled.

The woman stared at him blankly, then began to scowl darkly. "You disobey me still?" she seethed, raising one hand.

Ranma shook his head quickly, taking as step back. "Wait up a minute!" he protested. "You said you understand me well enough, right?"

The woman nodded, her hand not moving, her expression unchanging.

"So you understand that I'm never going to do what you ask me to do, right?" he pressed.

She scowled, shaking her head, but dropped her hand back to her lap harmlessly. "You confound me," she said at length. "What must I do to convince you to do as I wish?"

Ranma shook his head. "The way you're asking me, I ain't ever going to do what you're asking. If you're so smart, then tell me this. Do you know what loyalty is?" He stepped towards her menacingly, doing his best to look imposing despite the woman's superior height.

"Loyalty is devotion," she murmured. "My servants are all devoted to me, and you should be too."

"That's not right," Ranma protested. "Yakumo said… said…. Yakumo told me that they only have fear and hate. I got a lot more than that, so what you're asking for… I ain't never going to do it, plain and simple."

"Ah," the woman said, nodding knowingly. "Then I must remove from you the capacity to do more than I need. Intriguing."

Ranma shook his head swiftly. "You still don't get it!" he protested. "You think for a heartbeat that you can just grab me 'cause I'm not doing exactly what you want, and then fuck around with the way I work until you're happy?"

"You are mine to do with as I see fit," she noted, scowling. "Your rebellious nature only serves to irritate me. It is a flaw that I must remove to make you the perfect tool."

"I guess this whole 'talking' thing is way overrated," Ranma grumbled. "So you just think you can force me into doing what you want? Answer me this question, if you can, then."

The woman was taken aback by Ranma's directness. "You would ask a question of me?" she managed, shocked.

"Yeah," Ranma answered, grinning. "If making people to do what you want is the answer, how come it's not working?"

And then the dream ended.

Kintaro eyed the controls, Mihoshi puttering about in the back room. Getting ready to ask some questions, she had said. While the Galaxy Police ships and the remnants of the Home Fleet worked on sweeping up as many refugees as they could, he turned his attention to the orbital platform that had been stationed over Earth's atmosphere.

The investigation was likely to be quite difficult, given that he was only a cadet, but Kintaro had faith in Mihoshi's skills. "Attention orbital platform," he announced to the communications system. "This is Cadet Oe of the Galaxy police, assistant to Detective Kuramitsu."

A voice answered, the accompanying image springing to life in one corner of the screen instantly. "Greetings Cadet Oe, this is Maintainer Shiname. Are you in need of medical attention?"

"Negative," Kintaro answered, smiling. Nice to see that they were concerned, at least. "We need to make some inquiries and check some data against the observation gear on your platform."

"Understood, Cadet Oe. Please allow the auto-piloting system to bring you in."

"Auto-pilot engaged," Kintaro responded, relaxing. "Thank you for your assistance, Maintainer Shiname."

The channel's security increased a notch, and the woman on the screen bowed her head slightly. "If you and Detective Kuramitsu don't mind, Cadet Oe, one of the Juraian delegate aboard the platform wishes to have a conference with you in private once you arrive."

Kintaro nodded his understanding. "That would be good," he replied politely. "I think we've got a lot to talk about. I look forward to meeting you in person, Oe out."

The woman flashed him one last smile before her image vanished, and the connection was terminated.

"This should be interesting," he mused quietly.

His eyes fluttered weakly, finally gaining the strength to part, and leaving him staring at a leafy copse. He blinked, finding his energy flowing back into his limbs as he waited. The tree-leaves above him rustled very faintly in an invisible breeze, and a faint humming echoed through his hearing.

"Hey," he said tiredly, allowing his eyes to drift shut as he gathered himself.

"Ranma-dono?" a voice called to him worriedly. "Are you awake?"

"Yeah," he answered, opening his eyes. "Where am I?"

"You're aboard an orbital platform, Ranma-dono." The speaker came into his sight, peering down at him… apprehensively. He squinted, blinking. Her hair was darker than Sasami's, and slightly lighter than Tsunami's, but there was some undeniable feature of her that was both. "Tsunami?" he ventured, struggling to a sitting position.

The girl positively beamed at him, nodding happily. "You know who I am!" she said excitedly. "I was afraid you would forget, and then, that you would forget what I gave—"

"I remember," he said cautiously, completely alert.

She was silent, hope fading from her eyes, and worry taking its place.

"And…. And what do you make of my gift?" she asked quietly.

Ranma fidgeted for a moment, realizing that the blanket covering him had fallen about his waist, and he was otherwise naked. He concentrated, summoning the skin-tight battle suit to him, and managed a weak smile. "It's something I can't have, because of what I am," he said softly. "I wish I deserved it, but I don't."

She relaxed very slightly, raising her eyes to meet his again. "But it is for me to decide if you are worthy or not, Ranma-dono."

He winced, unable to deny that, at least. "I made a promise, didn't I?" he asked quietly. "To you, and…. I…. I can't answer your question yet," he said apologetically, dropping his gaze to the floor. "But I promise you that I will have an answer for you once this is all over."

"No," she insisted, stepping forward, wrapping her arms about him, and pressing his face to her chest gently. "That won't do at all. You must promise me that you will tell me before it's all over — if you wait…." She sighed, her voice thick with tears, and when she spoke again her voice was slightly subdued. "You must tell me before it's over, or you must tell me that you don't accept me. That you don't accept my gift," she amended.

"I will tell you," he said quietly, raising his arms to hug he girl gently. "I don't…." He sighed, closing his eyes, and allowing her to comfort him for the moment before rising from the bed suddenly, catching the girl before she could fall. "Okay. I don't like being put on the spot like this, so I'll answer you when I can, and I promise that it'll be before this is all over. Is that good enough?"

She nodded, hugging him tightly, and relaxing. "It's been so horrible, Ranma-dono," she murmured. "I was… I was so afraid you'd reject me right away."

He struggled, wanting to answer, but knowing he couldn't. "You're not alone," he said after a moment. "There's…. There's lots of people, you know."

Still leaning against Ranma, standing on her tiptoes, she sighed, eyes closed, and the side of her face pressed into his chest. "Please, Ranma-dono…. Please just let us be like this for a moment."

He sighed, arms still supporting her. "It wasn't supposed to be like this," he breathed, too quietly for her to hear. Blinking, he tried to distract himself by studying the room. The entire thing looked to be made out of a single living tree, and a window near the foot of his bed revealed a sea of stars swimming slowly past.

The walls were covered with leaves, which rustled softly, as if in the passage of an errant breeze. A single open doorway betrayed a fleeting hint of red hair, and echoed faintly with hurried footsteps. "Oh, no," Ranma groaned, pushing away from Tsunami.

She gasped in surprise, and backed away, eyes bright and vulnerable. "Ranma-dono?" she asked tremulously.

"Gods above, this is not what I wanted to wake up to," Ranma grumbled. "I'd rather still be fighting Herb! I promised I would answer, but I need time! I'm sorry." But he could tell his words hurt the girl, even as another had already been hurt. "This really sucks," he swore, concentrating for a moment, and finding the power to teleport.

His senses — and Ran-oh-ki's — allowed him to do so flawlessly, and he appeared before her just in time for the scientist to crash into him, sending the pair sprawling headlong. "That didn't feel too good," he noted, using his own body to break her fall.

The woman scowled at him, climbing to her feet in the otherwise deserted corridor. "Why are you here?" she asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Because I saw you running away?" Ranma hazarded.

Washuu relaxed slightly, allowing her arms to hang at her sides. "Normally you're supposed to deny that what the woman ever saw happened."

"Why?" Ranma asked, scratching his head. "I don't really get a lot of this stuff — Tsunami's hurting and alone, and she wants me to say something I'm not ready to say yet." He sighed, shaking his head, and pointed accusingly at Washuu. "You wanted me to say something too, but you said you'd wait, and that's what I need. Time, you know?"

The scientist smiled slowly. "Of course," she admitted. "I suppose I was jumping to conclusions a bit."

"Uh," Ranma answered, frowning. "I get the feeling I just made things worse. Um, look, I don't want to hurt anyone, you know?" He sighed, floating a few centimeters over the floor, and called his partner to him. The furry creature darted from near Washuu's ankle, to leap into his hands. "So, let's not worry about this now, okay."

"Of course," Washuu replied, frowning. "This has to be the strangest relationship—"

"No! No! Not that word," Ranma protested. "We ain't, uh, nothing. Yet. Um. You know. Time. Reavers to kill. Stuff like that?"

The redheaded scientist actually burst into laughter, unable to deny the humor of the situation. "Okay, Ranma," she said agreeably, voice tinged with amusement. "But…. It occurs to me, aren't you already making a choice by chasing after me, instead of speaking with Tsunami?"

Ranma grinned, waggling a finger at Washuu. "Ah! Way ahead of you there. See, I can be in two places at once." He frowned slightly, then shivered. "Didn't used to be quite so tiring, though."

"Stop that right now," Washuu chastised, the humorous glint vanishing from her eyes. "You are not allowed to strain yourself after what you nearly did while fighting Herb."

"Uh," he mumbled, scratching the back of his head. "What did I do?"

"You pushed yourself far too hard," she accused, grabbing his hand and leading him purposefully down the hall. "There are limits to your abilities that you're going to have to respect, unless you want to end up killing yourself."

"What limits?" he asked. "I'm the best!"

"Not for long, if you're careless! You have to take care of yourself, Ranma. You promised."

"But Herb's a damn good fighter," Ranma protested. "And he's got way more ki energy than anyone else I've ever met! The risk is worth it." He frowned, allowing Washuu to tow him down the corridor. "Where is he, anyway?"

"He's with Yosho, leading Herb's men to the Joketsuzoku village. And _you_ are recuperating from what could have been permanent damage to yourself, if I hadn't gotten to you faster," Washuu grumbled, shooting a dark glance at Ranma over her shoulder.

Ranma shifted uncomfortably, holding Ran-oh-ki in one hand. "Um, Washuu, you worry about me too much."

The woman stopped suddenly, and turned around to glare at Ranma. "I seem to remember a certain speech about someone who wasn't strong enough and had to push themselves harder. Do you remember that?"

Ranma nodded uncomfortably. "Yeah, I remember."

"So why is it that you can push yourself as hard as you can to try and save a life here, a life there, and I'm not allowed to fret over you when you do something stupid and put your own life on the line for what could be no good reason at all?"

"Hey, that's different!" he protested. "I mean, it was a fight, Washuu. I don't lose."

"Of course not," Washuu noted acidly. "I trust you remember what happened when you fought Ryouko?"

"That was a fluke!"

"And never mind all the wounds and close shaves you've had in combat with reavers—" She broke off suddenly, smiling grimly, and began reciting from memory, "Lacerations, shoulder, left, twenty. Lacerations, upper arm, left, forty-six. Lacerations, lower arm, left, thirteen. Lacerations—"

Ranma flinched, somehow trapped by Washuu's hand, and looked away. Ran-oh-ki studiously cleaned non-existent grit from between his toes, pointedly not meeting Ranma's eyes. "Okay," he said quietly, prompting Washuu to stop. "So I get scratched up from time to time."

"Hurting yourself so badly that even Tsunami can't fix it without spending hours working on you is not 'scratched up from time to time', Ranma. Need I remind you of how I found you?"

He flinched again, and admitted, "I… I don't remember."

She tapped his torso gently, shaking her head. "Right about there," she indicated, tracing a ragged shape against his bodysuit. "And the tip of the reaver's claw came out the other side. You're lucky you made it too cold to flood your body with its toxins. You took major internal damage because the fumes degraded your lungs to the point where they just couldn't provide enough oxygen." She shook her head resolutely. "No one else on Earth, or even throughout most of known space could have saved you at that point, Ranma. You simply cannot take surviving something like that for granted."

"Why not?" he countered. "I've always been pretty lucky."

"You can't take it for granted because it's disrespectful to the people who didn't make it," she said quietly. "Like Terry. Or your father."

Ranma reeled from the words, which struck him harder than any physical blow, leaving him to collapse to his knees and gape at the woman in shock. Not releasing his wrist, she knelt before him, staring directly into his eyes. "Do you understand what I'm saying, Ranma?"

"Life is a gift too precious to throw away," Tsunami said, emerging from the doorway behind Washuu. "Washuu is right, Ranma-dono. You must take better care of yourself."

"But—" he protested, choking, and unable to continue.

"Your other half disappeared," Tsunami offered, kneeling at Washuu's side, and taking Ranma's other hand. "Please, Ranma-dono, respect my sister's words."

Ranma closed his eyes, Ran-oh-ki scurrying up his arm to nuzzle against his cheek. "Yeah," he said quietly, a pair of blazing sigils appearing to his still-closed eyes. "I… I guess I screwed that one up. Oh, man, I'm… I'm sorry." He opened his eyes, regarding the pair — one woman, one girl — and offered a weak smile. "You're sisters? I never… I never would have guessed."

"Sisters?" Washuu asked, frowning, then dropping Ranma's hand to regard Tsunami. "Well, we're close, but we're not related that I know of, Tsunami."

"And ever we forget what we once took for granted," Tsunami noted sadly, shaking her head. "It's not important, Washuu. What's important is that Ranma-dono understands."

"Of course," Washuu agreed, nodding.

Ranma scratched his head, confused. "Okay. But, uh, Tsunami, you really don't need to call me Ranma-dono."

The girl dropped his hand, laughing lightly. "As you wish, Ranma… Ranma. Yes." She giggled again softly. "I like the sound of that."

"Er," Ranma mumbled. "I guess. I'll take better care of myself, but I can't stop fighting." He turned to regard Washuu frankly. "When can we go back to Earth? Even if I can't fight today, Ran-oh-ki is great at detecting where the reavers are."

"Agreed," Washuu said after a moment, looking less pleased than her words suggested. "I prefer to be where I can monitor the tactical situation more closely, and the Galaxy Police is going to need days with the next few waves of carriers to evacuate the planet."

"Right," Ranma mused softly. "So one way or another, this is going to end in a few days, huh?"

"I believe so," Tsunami allowed, nodding. "I will, of course, remain here and help aid the medical facilities. If you have any wounded, please bring them here, Ranma." She smiled again, at his name. "Just a few more days."

"Of course."

Upset by the loss of one of the Home Fleet, Tenchi sat on the great seat beneath the Throne, rubbing at his temples and listening to Funaho's whispered explanations. What he was hearing didn't please him at all, but he knew better than to react loudly with so many of the Court scattered about within hearing distance were he to shout.

"So the Galaxy Police will take care of it?" he asked quietly.

"Yes, and when we find out who is responsible, we'll deal with them," she responded, her mouth hidden behind a small folding fan.

Tenchi guessed there was a reason for the fan, and chose his words with care. "And how is this normally dealt with?"

"The murder of an Ouke-no-ki is usually something that Tsunami will define a punishment for, Tenchi." Funaho paused, considering something, then added, "No Juraian lives were lost, though we would prefer to keep Kohito's condition secret for the moment."

Offering a slight nod, Tenchi rubbed at his chin, momentarily concealing his own mouth. "Just a costly setback, and more treason."

Funaho nodded curtly, snapping her fan shut. "I'll go ahead and start working on that immediately, Tenchi-sama."

Tenchi nodded at her as she walked away, sighing softly. Ayeka trailed after the woman, shooting Tenchi a smile before the pair vanished through a stairwell, and into the interior of the ship. Misaki stood a short distance away, unobtrusively watching the Court, while Ryouko hovered over the woman's shoulder, far less subtlety evident in her scan of the crowd.

Juggling a trio of rocks anxiously, Ryu focused his attention on balancing; maintaining an easy rhythm while balancing on a slim bamboo pole someone had stuck in the earth before the Marine's lodge. Though it wasn't just for the Marines, of course — it was also for the girls, and himself, and Ryouga. Likely Ranma, once he came back.

"Hey," someone called out.

Ryu grunted, ignoring the voice, and closing his eyes. Juggling with closed eyes was a difficult exercise in concentration, but rewarding in terms of coordination.


"What," he asked, not opening his eyes, but sure that he was going to drop a rock at any moment.

"Ryu, we've got to get moving. One of the scouts said that they saw some kind of movement not far away, and we need to send some people to check it out."

"Oh," Ryu answered, still continuing his practice. "Who all's going with us, Fearless Leader?"

"You, Kino-san, Mousse, Aino-san, Hino-san, Ray, the three Amazon women we met yesterday, and me."

Ryu missed a catch, and bounced a rock off of his wrist. "Right," he drawled, opening his eyes, and turning to face a slightly more somber than usual Ryouga. "Something bothering you, Fearless Leader?" he asked, frowning.

"No. We should gather everyone here and get going, though. Kura-Wan will lead the way."

Ryu frowned, watching Ryouga stand across from him. The boy still had the masses of white linen wrapped around his arms — within easy reach for reaver attacks — but his shoulders and hair looked oddly damp. "Uh, yeah," Ryu mumbled, unsettled. "I'll go get everyone else, I guess. Where are the weapon chicks?"

The other boy snorted at that, shaking his head. "Kura-Wan will be here in a minute, Ryu. I'll wait here until you get everyone else."

"Right." Ryu dropped the two rocks he had caught, jerking his head in a nod at some of the Marines that were loitering outside the lodge, watching him practice his balance. They nodded back, trading some money between them. He hid a smile at that — likely the men knew just how little value the green pieces of American money were, but they still chose to gamble it on something as frivolous as his ability to balance on a pole.

Shaking his head to banish the distracting thoughts, he trotted towards the back of the lodge. The girls — and women — had set up their own little area there to get some privacy from the men. Makoto spotted him the second he rounded the corner, jumping to her feet from her discussion with the other girls, and waving cheerfully at him. "Hello, Ryu!" she greeted happily.

"Yo," he replied, drawing to a halt and surveying the rest of the girls. Rei was there, apparently fascinated by the still-sheathed weapon on her lap, and not far away Mamoru sat, Usagi asleep with her head in his lap. "Hey, girls, Fearless Leader says that there are some bugs we need to smack around." Ryu paused, as though he were considering something, then added, "So, Mako-chan, you, Minako, and Rei are with us. And some others."

"Okay," Makoto said, her voice becoming slightly more subdued. "Why do they think there are reavers there?"

"Because I can feel them," Yakumo answered, drawling close to the group, Ami at his side. "I'm playing messenger boy for the old women, and they asked if Hotaru and Usagi could go to the main hall to be ready to work whatever healing they can."

Usagi roused at the mention of her name, obviously still groggy, and mumbled something about a snooze button before dozing off. Mamoru sighed, and set about waking her.

"Where's Meiou?" Yakumo asked, frowning. "Cologne wants her in on the planning."

Makoto nodded, while Minako and Rei climbed to their feet, moving to stand behind Ryu. "Setsuna is… ah… discussing something with Artemis and Luna, Fuji-san," Makoto offered.

"Oh, hey, I hear you can summon monsters," Ryu commented. "Is that true?"

"Yes," Yakumo said quietly. "Tou-Chou and Chin-Kuu. Why do you ask?"

Ryu grinned, nodding slightly. "So they're like pokémon, only evil, right?"

"Pokémon are already evil," Yakumo returned flatly. "My servants are merely vicious."

The boy was left blinking, as Yakumo wheeled, and marched away.

"Uh," Ryu managed. "Well, let's get going."

Banishing the sword as she followed Ryu around the lodge, Rei sighed, closing her eyes. "I still never managed to tell Ranma-san about the dream," she murmured.

Minako turned to look at her curiously. "What's that?" she asked.

"I had a dream about Ranma-san…" she trailed off nervously, and offered Minako an embarrassed smile.

"Oh, I don't know if you want to tell him about that," Minako said, shaking her head resolutely. "I mean, boys like hearing about those kinds of dreams, but it gives them the wrong idea, doesn't it?"

Rei rolled her eyes, sighing. "Not like that, Minako," she chastised. "I dreamt that he… that he…." She shook her head, swallowing nervously, and in a quiet voice, finished, "I dreamt that he froze the world to stop the reavers."

Minako's eyes widened, and the girl stumbled in her steps. "Freeze the whole world?" she asked quietly. "I thought that would take a lot of power. A real lot of power. Does he have that much?"

"No," Rei said, shaking her head, and urging Minako to continue walking with a gentle push on the back of her shoulder. "At least, I don't think so. He needed the help of Hotaru, and… and a man with wings."

"Oh, I guess. Who's the man with wings?"

"No one I know of," Rei said, shaking her head. "Hopefully, we'll never find out."

Ryu glanced back at the pair of them, Ryu frowned, then stated, "I've seen enough weird stuff for a lifetime already, thanks. Let's keep winged men that let Ranma freeze a whole planet out of it, eh?"

Rei nodded, rounding the final corner, and stopping next to Ryouga, who was already conversing with the three Amazon women they had met near the destroyed tanks the previous day. "Okay," Ryouga said, his voice rumbling with a slight, sullen edge. "Kura-Wan, you, Pei-Lin, and Jian-Di will lead the way. Ryu, you're pretty sneaky from your training, so I want you to scout ahead about fifty meters. If you find anything I want you to come back to us so we can coordinate. Aino, Hino, Kino-san, I want you to follow about ten meters behind me and Ray. You're used to fighting together, so you'll be a group if it gets down to it."

"Sure thing, Fearless Leader," Ryu grumbled, unfurling the bolt of cloth at his wait about himself, and vanishing from sight. His voice called out, disembodied, a moment later. "Where'd you get so good at this, anyway?"

"The world's a lot different if you stop and think about things before doing them," Ryouga offered simply. "Let's start moving — Kura-Wan, can you lead us?"

The Amazon woman nodded, her spear in her hands. Her red locks of hair flowed loosely about her, as she gazed upward at a distant mountain, gaining her bearings, then lowered her face to regard Ryouga. "This way," she said, stabbing southward with her spear. "Many trees, some valleys, a stream. Maybe three kilometers to the enemy."

"Okay… Um, let's stick to the trees. If we're lucky, the reavers will have trouble — all living things have ki in them, and if the reavers can sense ours, then the trees might hide us." He smiled, shrugging, and gestured towards the direction that Kura-Wan had indicated. "After you."

Kura-Wan grinned, and broke into a sudden run, Pei-Lin and Jian-Di pacing her a few steps back and to either side. Ryouga dashed behind them, Ray keeping up with him. Sighing, Rei offered a hopeful smile to Makoto and Minako before holding up her henshin wand. "I hope we can keep up with them," she said quietly.

Enveloped safely within the cloak of the Umisenken, Ryu scouted back and forth between the trees ahead of Kura-Wan and her spear-sisters. It was interesting, he thought, that Ryouga trusted him enough to send him off on his own, since there was nothing truly binding him to the group.

He might die on his own, but he expected the Umisenken would hide him from the reavers. It had worked in Shanghai, after all. But he remained where he was, ahead of the Amazons, and trying to see if anything were amiss. He could vaguely feel something, when he remembered fighting the reaver beneath the hotel in Shanghai. The strange feeling that he got when he was near a reaver in Shanghai wasn't immediately present, though.

So there were no reavers immediately nearby, though there might be some further off… He tried not to think about that, instead wondering why he was staying with a group he knew he could escape without worry. Not honor, though he had told Ranma that he would fight, because watching the world die didn't appeal to him. Still, there was something to seeing all of the refugees through the Gate that warned him of the finality of the situation. Things were bad, and there was no way around that fact.

There was every possibility that everyone who was fighting would die. But what good would running do, now? He couldn't get to Australia very quickly, and he had no idea how long things would last — Ranma had disappeared to seek out 'Herb', whoever that was. That might help the tide of battle, but Ryu wasn't certain. Even if they could win, there was still the risk and chance of failure.

He shook his head, glancing back at the Amazons. And behind them, to Makoto.

It wasn't something he wanted to think about, but the girl was too damnably likable to simply forget. She had remained loyal to the idea of him for longer than he would have thought possible, still thought highly of him, and… and seemed to like him. A lot. Even if the odds were against them, and even if he knew he could get away, he wasn't sure if he could just abandon that.

Smiling, he shook his head and sighed. It would be interesting, one way or another.

He froze, as he sensed something, something that stood out against the ki surrounding him. The faint energy passed through him without touching him, thanks to the Umisenken, but it left him able to sense things without ki even more easily, and the reavers, as Washuu had said, completely lacked it. He leapt back landing a few paces before the Amazons, and dropping the guise of the Umisenken.

The three women stopped abruptly, glowing at him. Ryu merely flashed them a grin, waiting for Ryouga and the others to catch up. They did, Ray, Makoto, and her friends slightly winded, everyone else unaffected by the exertion. "Got something ugly about thirty meters that way, Fearless Leader," Ryu said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. "Don't know why they're just sitting around, but that's what's going on."

Ryouga nodded, crossing his arms over his chest and frowning, staring at his feet for a moment. "How many?" he asked, looking upwards to regard Ryu frankly.

Ryu grimaced. "At least four," he said, concentrating. "I can go closer and look, if you want."

Hedging uncertainly, Ryouga considered the offer. "It's not a good idea to put yourself in too much risk," he said quietly, staring in the direction of the reavers, though Ryu doubted he could see them at that point. "Okay. Aino-san, you and Hino-san wait over there," he said, pointing at a nearby clump of ferns. "If plants mask our presence, we'll hope that you can hide there. Kura-Wan, you and your, uh, spear-sisters should wait over there with Ray," he said, pointing to another stand of ferns. "I'll wait right here," he said, marching to a point between where he had ordered the other groups, but tending towards the Amazon village.

Ryu raised an eyebrow. "We're going to try and ambush them?"

"No," Ryouga said flatly. "At least, not yet. But if they chase you, we'll try and make a stand here. If things get bad, then I'll try and hold them off while everyone else runs. Go ahead and scout, but if they see you, come back here as quickly as you can."

"Gotcha, Fearless Leader," Ryu said, offering Ryouga a mocking salute as the other groups hustled to hide where the boy had indicated. Shaking his head, he turned away, swirling his cloth about himself, and once more disappearing into the cloak of the Umisenken.

He heard Makoto protest loudly, demanding, "How can you send Ryu-chan out there alone? Hibiki-san—"

"Hey," Ryu cut her off, dropping his cloak before Ryouga could defend his decision. "I offered. Don't worry about it, Mako-chan. I'll be back before you know it." She closed her mouth, unhappy about the decision, but nodded her acceptance. Ryu offered her a grin, winking before he assumed his cloak once again.

Clearing his mind, he leapt upwards, bounding off a tree branch, and giving himself a little extra height for his scouting. Likely, the reavers couldn't manage to climb the trees, as much as they weighed. If they spotted him, it would give him that much more time to get away. Hopefully.

Then again, he had no idea what the reavers were doing, just sitting around idle. That part worried him, too. He paused, clinging to a branch, and keeping the loose, natural aura of the Umisenken to maintain his cloak. From his position he could just sense the blight of ki of the reavers, though they were out of sight.

Through the foliage, he could glimpse what looked like the exterior edge of a crater lip, which would put the reavers at the center, if his estimation were correct. He slipped forward a few trees, timing his leaps to roughly coincide with the slight breeze. He could sense them only vaguely. At least four of them, but something… a larger mass, devoid of ki at their center.

Unnerved, he slipped forward again, stopping at the tree at the edge of the 'crater'. Not a crater, really, as much as a bowl-shaped pit that the reavers had carved in the soft earth of the forest floor. Four of them stood at corners about the center, where another two milled about slowly.

Ryu narrowed his eyes, leaning forward to peer at what they were doing. Between the central pair, like giant black marbles, easily a half-dozen spheres lay, clumped into a pile. One of the black orbs shifted suddenly, rolling off of the pile, and towards the exterior of the pit. The nearest reaver deftly caught it with a pair of its spindly, dangerous limbs, and herded it back onto the pile.

Numbing in shock as he realized what he was seeing, Ryu's grip failed him, and he slipped off his perch, cursing under his breath and catching himself on a lower branch. Dangling by one arm a few meters over the forest floor, he concentrated, his control of the Umisenken slowly escaping him. The nearest reaver had shuffled about to face him, and emitted a brief, low, keening noise.

"Fuck it," Ryu muttered, yanking himself up and flipping over. Planting his feet against the trunk of the tree as he tumbled, he yelled, launching away and narrowly evading a pair of reavers rushing at him. He flew true, rolling in midair, and bouncing off of one of the central reavers before slamming into the pile of what he guessed to be reaver eggs. Unlike the reavers themselves, the eggs were soft, smooth, and without jagged edges. He twisted his body around, finding cautious purchase, and knee deep in the morass. Drawing in a deep breath, as the reavers paused, he roared, "Kijin gun-dairanbu."

Ryouga flexed his hands about empty air, wishing that he had his umbrella with him. Still, he was nominally in charge of the group, and he felt it was his duty to present a confident image… as impossible as that really was.

He shook his head, glancing to either side. Makoto and her two friends crouched in the ferns, peeking out at him dubiously, the bright colors of their uniforms standing out easily against the forest's soft green. Opposite them, Ryouga could see Ray, already kneeling, his gun at the ready. His uniform stood out much less, but the bright colors that Kura-Wan and the other Amazons wore had vanished completely.

Ryouga frowned, considering that, and unwrapped some of the white linen wrapped about his arms. It was there for easy access, should he need a weapon, but allowing it to dangle loosely provided what would hopefully be a good distraction for the reavers.

Sighing, he tried to banish that thought. The only reason that the reavers would attack them would be if Ryu were to be caught. Ryouga didn't believe that Ryu would have offered to do something he wasn't confident he could do.

As that thought crossed his mind, the forest half of a kilometer away exploded. Ryouga blinked, unsure of what he was seeing, as a massive column of dust was sent up, and the all-too-familiar shriek of the reavers rang out. "Ryu-chan!" Makoto yelped, jumping to her feet.

Rei and Minako restrained her, turning questioning eyes on Ryouga. He glanced over his shoulder to see Ray, too, looking at him in worry.

"Okay," he said levelly, "let's wait for a bit — Ryu's not dumb. Let's give him about thirty seconds. If that fails, we'll go in."

Ray nodded, tapping a wristwatch silently. Makoto trembled with an emotion that Ryouga couldn't immediately identify, but nodded at him, and stared at the source of the dust. Clearing his throat, the boy knelt, closing his eyes.

He was a horrible leader, he realized. He had probably just consigned one of the few people who trusted him to death. A failure — unable to do anything right, and undeserving of the role he had been given. Undeserving of the cure he had finally accepted for his curse.

The burgeoning clouds overhead chose that moment to release their loads, as if to emphasize the point, and cold droplets of water began to sprinkle onto him through the thick foliage of the forest. "Time!" Ray announced, rising to his feet.

Ryouga nodded, turning once again to regard the direction that Ryu had left in. "Stay where you are," Ryouga managed, feeling the tiredness entering his voice as he spoke. "I see him."

Indeed, in the distance, bounding through the tree branches, and clutching an arm to his chest, Ryu bounded along, chased by six reavers.

Six of them. Ryouga knew that was more than they could handle — far more. He had consigned them all to death. Ryu made eye contact as he drew close, crimson droplets of blood trailing behind him as he leapt, passing Ryouga, and the reavers approached, crashing through the forest and knocking down the trees in their rush.

They ignored Ryouga, stampeding directly after Ryu. He wasn't even worth their notice, standing there like he was. "Perfect Shishi houkodan," he said quietly, a haze of green fire obscuring the world from him, as a deep pain bit into his soul.

Trotting across the landscape towards the Joketsuzoku, Yosho drew to a sudden halt, staring at a nearby forest, as a column of dust billowed upwards from it. He turned to look at Herb, who scowled at the sight. "Something wrong?" he asked, as the assorted Musk warriors drew to a halt, staring about curiously.

"I sense someone's ki," Herb said slowly. "Someone familiar, and someone who I don't know… nor can I tell what he's doing." The prince scowled. "This troubles me greatly, as I am the master of all ki techniques. There should be no ability that I do not know of."

Yosho grunted, surveying the warriors, then turning his attention to Herb again. "Let's go see what it is, then. Someone might be in danger."

"Yes," Herb said, breaking into a run, and trailed by his warriors. Yosho paced him easily, and Herb grinned, adding, "This will be interesting."


To be continued.

Author's Notes: This chapter was shortened from what was originally planned…

Part 13
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