Rursus Iterum Chapter Three

Part A

Strike! Sink or Swim?

Disclaimer: Takahashi provided us with the paint, property
of her and Viz video, and additional colors borrowed from
Soeishinsha Co., Ltd. and U.S. Manga Corps. this time around. I'm
simply a peasant with an easel.

Previous chapters can be found here:
http://members.tripod.com/lwf58/fan_fiction/durandall/index.html

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Eiko gaped at the boy in front of her as he offered a
nervous smile, hands fidgeting absently with the staff slung across
his shoulder. His eyes were still the same cerulean blue that she
had expected to come to accept she would never see again -- the hue
so full of that warm love and trust that she had thought she would
have to learn to live without. Her heart skipped a beat, seeing that
the glow from his gaze hadn't dimmed, and that -- however it had
happened...

Ranma was back.

Flushing, he lowered his gaze to his feet, dropping his hand
to his side and letting the jo tap against the ruined carpet below.
"Um," he muttered, before pausing to clear his throat. "Um, I'm
_really_ sorry about this." Swallowing back further words, he bit
his lip, allowing his empty hand to rise and scratch the nape of his
neck.

The redhead slowly smiled, realizing that the situation was
real, more than a passing dream or cruel fancy. Wrenching her ankle
free of its concrete confinement, she took an unsteady step towards
him. "Ran... ma?" she whispered, unable to summon the strength to
speak any louder. That whisper turned to a muffled sob, as she
managed, "Ranma? Is that... you?"

He nodded, raising his eyes to meet hers again. "I... yeah,
it's me, Eiko. I'm... really sorry."

She blinked, taking another slow step, and coming to a halt
just before him. Looking up into his face, she could see the lines
of worry and more recent lines of anger in his face -- lines that
had not been there before he... he...

"Aren't you supposed to be dead?"

Ranma flinched at that, and shook his head. "I'm sorry," he
muttered plaintively. "Pops... Pops told me that you were dead. I
mean... I woulda come back, but..." He trailed off, biting his lip.

Eiko slowly began to smile. "But you're not dead," she
stated. "Right?"

The boy shook his head quickly, still staring at his feet
and unable to meet her eyes for the moment. "Not last time I
checked..."

Releasing a whoop of joy, Eiko grabbed him in a hug,
spinning him around quickly, and barely restraining the urge to jump
up and down in a madly gleeful dance. "You're back! You're back!
YES!"

He returned the embrace, emitting only a muffled sputtering
noise until she set him down -- but did not release him. "Finally,"
she managed, nearly at a whimper. "I missed you... oh, Ranma, you
don't want to know how horrible it was thinking you were dead and
trying to go on without you..." She released him, looking up into
his flushed and smiling face. "I always somehow hoped... that you
would come back. Ranma? Do you..." she trailed off, her warmly
glowing eyes peering into his and nearly brimming over with moist
affection.

Ranma swallowed, blinking, and suddenly appearing to
remember something. "Uh..." he began, slowly. "There's a lot we have
to catch up on..."

***

Agent CD138621 S113, code-named 'D', was unable to restrain
a smile of delight. True, the injuries taken in pursuit of the
princess had pained the agent horribly... but sacrifices had to be
made in the name of duty.

And those sacrifices had paid off, because today D was
planning on returning to the people that had been left behind in
pursuit of the mission. The princess had been found at last, and
would be returned to her people! She sniffled, wiping away a stray
joyous tear.

Thumbing the com-link active while the engines to the Leota
Class Scout warmed up from their long disuse, the agent considered
the vehicle. D smiled again, thinking that the machine had gone on
too long without being piloted. A hand patted the navigation console
tenderly, as D's deep rumbling voice asked, "Did you miss me? I'm
back! And we're going home, soon..."

The com-unit finally finished negotiating the connection
through a now heavily scrambled ionosphere -- a good sign in D's
book. It would mean that the Egota Class Cruiser was on the descent,
and its point-defense systems would be creating heavy disturbances,
most likely disrupting the relatively primitive communications
technology of the natives.

A perky seeming green-haired girl was on the moderately
distorted viewing pane, her image blurring out at short intervals.
"Agent CD138621 S113?"

D nodded, answering, "Code name 'D.' I'm bringing the
princess home."

***

Captain Napolipolita smiled, rolling a bottle idly around in
one hand. The native barbarians had been repelled by the automatic
defenses so far, but the Egota Class Cruiser was low enough in the
atmosphere for the captain to deploy their ship's own units in
response. The fighters would throw the natives into disarray,
providing D enough cover to escape without risk to the princess.

Nodding curtly at the communications officer who had relayed
D's message, the Captain's voice rang out to the bridge crew. "Ready
the Widows for launch. We'll destroy these barbarians yet." Slurring
slightly, the tone shifted from one to formal command to an
indignant whine. "And someone get me another bottle of bourbon, damn
it all! This one's empty."

***

Ranma cleared his throat, glancing behind him towards the
hall that Biiko had disappeared down mere moments ago. "Um, well...
you see, Eiko... uh... Pops screwed up a few other things, too..."

Eiko shook her head, pressing her face into Ranma shoulder.
"I don't care," she declared. "It can't be anything really bad.
You're back, right?" She broke off and stared up at him in worry.
"What could he have done?"

Looking nervous, Ranma admitted, "He, uh... engaged me to
some other girls..."

Eiko stepped away sharply, peering into his eyes and hoping
to see a trace of humor. "You're kidding. Right?" Shaking her head,
and trying to keep a certain hysterical edge from her voice, she
asked, "What does this mean?"

He scratched the back of his head, looking away. "Um...
don't mean nothing, yet. I mean, I ain't married or anything, just
engaged, you know... Er... well..." he trailed off with a frown,
unsure of what to say.

After a moment of consideration, the redhead grinned again,
her golden eyes shining with hope. "But you came back for me, right?
That's great!"

Ranma ducked his head meekly. "Err... it's not quite that
easy, you see, 'cause... well... you haven't met 'em yet." Eiko's
cheerful demeanor persisted, as he continued. "See, first off, I'm
supposed to marry this girl that Pops engaged me to before I was
born, and inherit her dojo and stuff..."

The girl nodded, maintaining her hopeful smile.

"Then there's this girl I met when we were kids, and I'm
supposed to marry her, too. Er... she's a good friend, though... she
makes okonomiyaki." Ranma released a puff of air, his hands
fidgeting with his bo uncertainly. He wasn't even sure why he
included that detail, but the way Eiko's face darkened at the
mention of okonomiyaki worried him. "Er... anyway, and then there's
this Chinese Amazon that I beat in a fight..."

Eiko shook the frown from her face, smiling hopefully again.
"But," she said, poking Ranma in the chest, "you came back for _me_,
right?"

Ranma stumbled back a step at Eiko's prodding, catching
himself and fidgeting uncertainly for another moment, before he
nodded apologetically. "Yeah, and... 'cause I... uh... there's some
other stuff too, ya see-"

"I don't know who you are, but you'll pay for messing with
me!" The shout rang out, surprising both of the teens. Further
conversation was interrupted by the arrival of one slightly singed
and very angry Daitokuji Biiko, flying down the corridor towards
Ranma.

Eiko clasped her hands under her chin, her eyes flying wide
and sparkling with joy. Ranma was going to fight to protect her? It
was all she could to keep from jumping up and down from the sheer
elation the moment inspired within her.

The pigtailed boy made a face and leapt into the air, neatly
arcing his leap over Biiko bringing himself to a position to strike
the girl-become-airborne-projectile.

Biiko stared in shock as Ranma stabbed towards her left arm
with a single finger. After striking a point not protected by
Biiko's armor, Ranma curled himself into a ball and flipped free.
Tumbling in midair, the pigtailed boy managed three seemingly lazy
flips before he came to rest on his feet, arms low and jo clasped
loosely in his free hand. He smirked, facing Biiko in a relaxed
ready-stance. The battle-bikini-armored girl flew down the corridor,
missing Eiko by mere inches as the redhead belatedly ducked to avoid
an unpleasant impact.

Ranma's eyes followed Biiko's course as it shifted from
straight line to slowly expanding corkscrew, and he winced in
sympathy as she slammed into the far wall. "Well," he remarked to
Eiko, watching the bluish-gray-haired girl struggle to regain her
feet, "I guess she had it coming after everything she did to you."

The normally haughty girl staggered forward, bits of wood
and masonry sloughing off of her arms as she removed herself from
the indentation in the wall, smaller clouds of dust rising as the
falling chunks of debris struck their larger cousins on the floor.
Clutching one arm in shock as it hung limply, she stared at it for a
moment uncomprehendingly before the reality of the situation
registered. "What did you do?!" she shrieked. "My arm! I can't feel
my arm!"

Ranma's smirk grew wider as he nodded and leant against a
not-entirely-ruined wall. "Shiatsu paralysis. You won't be able to
move that arm for a few hours, unless someone else unlocks it."

"There's no such thing," she sputtered indignantly.

Scowling, Ranma tensed, releasing his aura, and causing both
girls to stumble back in alarm. "And I suppose there ain't anything
like ki, either, huh?" The blue ki-flames bled easily into the
visible spectrum, their uppermost reaches licking at the ceiling
while its width was easily three times Ranma's own.

Biiko said nothing, only able to gibber at the display. The
pigtailed martial artist nodded, glad that the girl was unable to
know that while Ranma could sheathe himself in an aura of ki... he
couldn't do anything with it, yet.

That aspect didn't bother him, though. There was time, and
he could come up with something if he had to. Aside from which, as
Ranma had learned, good bluffers didn't get called often.

Eiko merely blinked, taking a tentative step forward.
"Ranma?" she asked, wonder apparent in her voice.

He suppressed the essentially harmless light show, still
staring at Biiko. "And if you want to do anything to Eiko, you gotta
go through me first. Got it?"

Biiko said nothing, merely growling as she stabbed a button
on the bracer she wore about her paralyzed arm. Dismissing her, the
pigtailed boy turned towards Eiko again. "Anyway," he said, losing
some of his bravado. "Um... Oh yeah. What I wanted to talk to you
about... you see-" He threw himself to the floor suddenly, a brief
volley of missiles passing over his head narrowly, the searing heat
from their exhaust making Ranma wince. He tried to roll away as they
arced sharply downward after he dodged, forcing them to slam into
the floor and scattering debris across him as they tore up more of
the swiftly deteriorating school. "What the-" he gasped, spinning
again to search out where they had come from.

He groaned, seeing Biiko smirk at him, her arm no longer
paralyzed. Raising her voice in a haughty tone, she sneered, "You
underestimate the power of technology, whoever you are. You're a
mere peasant, and cannot hope to combat the mighty Akagiyama M-line
23's internal diagnostics and intensive care functions!"

Ranma rolled to his feet, swiftly sidestepping the next
barrage of missiles, and ducking another hail of blasted masonry.
Growling, he charged forward, only to change direction and leap,
narrowly avoiding yet another salvo. "Geez!" he exclaimed, hanging
onto the nearly smooth ceiling, and causing both girls to gawk. "How
many of those things do you _have_?"

Biiko shook her head, trying not to wonder how Ranma managed
to cling to the ceiling with two feet and one hand, still holding
his jo in the other. Eiko sighed longingly, causing Ranma to look
down and momentarily distracting the boy with the view that his
vantage and Eiko's uniform provided.

Seizing the opportunity, Biiko leveled her wrist to fire the
next burst at the pigtailed boy.

***

"Well," Ukyou panted, leaning against a skyscraper, and
peering at the sky with worry. "What now?"

Akane shook her head, more winded than the okonomiyaki chef,
and wheezed out, "Don't know... we safe... here?"

Swallowing, the taller of the girls let herself sink to the
ground, one hand going to the stitch in her side. "Think so."

Gulping for breath, Akane sank to the ground opposite her,
and groaned weakly. "Oh, no..."

Ukyou let out a slow breath, frowning. "What?"

Akane rifled through a pocket intently, her face a mask of
concentration, and produced the newspaper clip again. "I just
thought... of something..."

Ukyou eyed the clip, having memorized the picture already.
"Yeah? What's that?"

Akane managed a sickly grin. "I think this article's just
about a girl... er... 'Eiko' it says here."

Blinking, the okonomiyaki chef took the paper tentatively,
reading the article. "Um..." she began, uncertain. "Well, Ranchan
wouldn't wear a dress... would he?"

Rolling her eyes, the youngest Tendo complained, "He has
before, hasn't he? But I don't think that this is him."

Ukyou grimaced at the article. "Yeah, you're right. So you
think we came here for no reason? Just chasing after a girl?"

***

Biiko managed an indignant squawk, as her attack
preparations met with a sudden and fierce tornado, a giant column of
battle-aura fueled wind bore her upwards, tearing through the
ceiling and upper floors of the school with frightening ease. The
concentrated maelstrom shrieked in fury for a long minute, shredding
everything above it and flinging debris around recklessly, before it
shrunk and faded, leaving a huge fall of dust to cloud up and
obscure the end of the hallway.

Emerging from the cloud of dust, a grizzled and ancient
amazon hobbled forward, balanced precariously on her staff. Her
knowing smirk complemented her tone of voice. "So, my dear Ranma-
chan... Impressed by my Amazon lore, hmm?" She addressed the
question to Eiko, who was staring at the display with wide eyes. "I
trust everything has been well for you?"

Ranma looked up towards the voice, managing to lose his grip
and fall, landing awkwardly atop Eiko. He blinked, before looking
down to see Eiko's startled eyes peering back at him, wide and
shimmering golden. "Ack!" he sputtered, leaping up and landing in a
defensive stance, facing the Amazon elder.

Flushed, the redhead climbed to her feet, smirking at
Ranma's mirroring blush before she turned to watch the display. Eyes
widening further, she thrust a finger towards the elderly figure,
exclaiming, "That's my competition?!"

Ranma looked at Eiko and winced, coughing slightly. "Um...
no." Turning to face Cologne again, he scowled, addressing the oddly
shocked Amazon. "What are you doing here?"

Cologne collected herself, ignoring the 'thud' as Biiko
landed roughly, as well as the subsequent groans. "Ranma..." the
Amazon said slowly, eyes darting between Ranma and Eiko. There were
many possible explanations for why her Son-in-law was standing next
to a nearly identical copy of his girl-form. None of them were good,
in her estimation. "So... you came here for her?"

Ranma nodded tersely, holding an arm in front of Eiko as
though to protect her from the ancient Amazon. "Yeah," he muttered.
"What's it to ya?"

Cologne grumbled, simply shaking her head, as Biiko regained
her feet behind her. The armor-clad schoolgirl glared, and waved her
fist threateningly, shouting at Eiko. "What's going on here? Have
you no honor? Bringing all these people into the fight -- Eiko!
Prepare yourself!"

So saying, the girl launched herself over the still-dazed
Cologne's head, catching Ranma off-guard and slamming into his
chest. He had enough time to dazedly wonder at the similarity to
some of his father's beloved techniques before he had the wind
knocked out of him.

Grabbing onto the pigtailed boy tightly, Biiko increased her
acceleration, plowing straight through the already damaged wall
behind him, where Eiko had impacted previously. The redhead gawked,
then turned to follow, Cologne trailing her closely through the
newly created and dust-filled aperture that led outside.

***

Miss Ayumi narrowed her eyes, trying to avoid staring at
Shiko, as the young blonde gazed out the window, lost in her
thoughts. Her students, not being as diligently devoted to her
curriculum, began to shuffle around in their seats uncertainly. She
ignored them, lecturing, "And so we can see that the inverse of the
square is proportional to the events of sixteen-fifty-three, where,
if you consult your math-books, we discover that it is in fact, a
combination of the base alkaloids..."

A sudden tremor shook the building violently, causing all of
the schoolgirls to look up in alarm. Struggling to maintain her
balance, Miss Ayumi shot a glare at the window, wondering what had
caused the event. "Everyone remain calm," she ordered. "It's
probably just another little accident from the chemistry lab."

Shiko's eyes flew wide, and she turned away from the window,
crying out, "Eiko!"

The teacher frowned, wondering at the little blonde's shout.
Before she could reprimand Shiko, the diminutive girl was on her
feet, and charging towards the classroom door, a second yell of,
"Eiko!" trailing behind her.

Ayumi shouted after her, "Shiko-san! Come back here!" She
halted her pursuit of Shiko, seeing other students begin to edge
towards the doorway.

Asa, a reasonably becoming girl with her hair in a ponytail
and sporting a bandage about her temples led a secondary charge,
taking Ume and Ine with her as she followed Shiko out the door.

The confused teacher chased them to the hall, whereupon they
increased their pace. "Hey! What do you think you're doing!?" Miss
Ayumi shouted after them. Any response was cut off in a clatter of
shattered glass and crumbling masonry as Mari smashed through the
wall, her powerful muscles rippling beneath her school uniform.

"Eh..." Ayumi managed, watching Mari shed her bandages and
join the chase. The final girl was a real behemoth, and Miss Ayumi
gave in to the temptation to remain silent, rather than risk the
schoolgirl's 120-some kilo ire, as Mari's inarticulate bestial cry
echoed down the corridor.

***

Ranma choked, struggling for breath against the crushing
force on his ribcage. "Damn," he wheezed, resisting the urge to
simply club Biiko about the head, as another stone barrier smashed
apart, the brunt of the force directly on his spine.

Taking stock of his options, he swiftly struck several
shiatsu paralysis points, numbing her arms and dropping painfully to
the ground. He rolled along the asphalt of a street, momentarily
thankful that he didn't land in someone's house, and slammed into a
final cement barrier.

He was distantly aware of Biiko passing through another part
of the same concrete wall, yelping something indignantly.

Eiko and Cologne followed the line of destruction that
Biiko's charging assault had left, following the swath of
destruction closely. The redhead slid to a stop near him, and helped
him to his feet, worriedly asking, "Are you okay? Ranma? Are you
okay?"

He nodded, patting the side of his head as though to
dislodge the sudden fit of dizziness. "Believe it or not," he
stated, wobbling unsteadily, "I've had worse."

Eiko nodded weakly after a moment, not quite sure how to
interpret the remark. Ranma shook his head a few more times, then
settled for watching Cologne warily as she visually inspected him.

The aged Amazon clicked her tongue and sighed, tossing
Ranma's jo to his feet. "You dropped this, Son-in-law," she
commented. Her scrutinizing gaze picked out the way Ranma was
moving. Confidently. Like a fighter. The fighter he'd always been,
simply... more cautious. She knew that Ranma was resourceful, but
she had never expected him to simply take something like the
strength-sapping moxibustion in stride.

Ranma took the staff, wincing slightly as he rubbed a
shoulder, while Eiko glanced between the two of them, confused.
Shaking her head, the girl looked behind Ranma, at the bowl-shaped
indentation he had left in the wall, right next to the irregularly
broken segment that Biiko had smashed through, littering the ground
behind the wall with rubble and filling the air with dust. "Wow,"
she commented, wondering how sturdy Ranma was. He was strong, fast,
and tough when she had known him those long twelve months and more
ago... had he gotten stronger, too?

She smiled at him brightly, even though he was intent on
staring the Amazon down. If he was faster and tougher, then it stood
to reason that he would be stronger, too. Maybe even stronger than
her. Strong enough to let her feel normal, at least.

Cologne shook herself out of her reverie, frowning. Who had
taught Ranma to deal with it? Was he just more adaptable than she
had thought? "Well, Son-in-law, you seem to be doing quite well for
yourself."

Ranma nodded guardedly at the old woman. "Yeah? What's it to
ya?" he asked crossly.

Frowning irately, Cologne said, "Wouldn't you like to know a
trick that even a weakling like you could use to defend himself?"

Eiko's smile faded, turning into a reproving glance at the
old woman, while Ranma raised an eyebrow speculatively. "What do you
mean?" the redhead questioned, curious to this development.

Glancing towards Eiko momentarily, Ranma sighed. "I, uh...
got this strength sapping... thing... on me that makes me weak." His
gaze focused back on the old woman. "So what are you trying to sell
me, ol' ghoul?"

Cologne walloped Ranma over the head with her staff, hiding
a relieved grin. "Who's an old ghoul?" Ranma scowled, rubbing his
head and saying nothing. "At any rate," Cologne continued, still
shooting the occasional glance at Eiko, "I know a technique that
even someone as weak as you can use..." she trailed off, staring at
something behind Ranma blankly.

Ranma swallowed nervously and turned around, not entirely
surprised to see Biiko standing atop the wall, heaving for breath,
and holding a tank over her head. A large tank, covered in cannons,
treads, and other massive, heavy pieces of steel. He had never tried
before, but was willing to bet it weighed much more than he could
deflect on his best day.

"Oh boy," he muttered. "This just keeps getting better and
better."

***

Shiko stared uncertainly at the rope ladder dangling before
her. Asa, Ine, and Ume all peered down at her expectantly, and after
a moment, Mari joined them in looking down from their perches in the
giant-schoolgirl-powered gyro-copter.

She bit her lip nervously, looking towards the line of
destruction tearing across the city in the distance. Another look
towards the hot-pink craft hovering above her decided her, and she
grabbed onto the rung dangling before her, hauling herself upwards.

Ine and Asa began hauling the ladder up, while Shiko
struggled to climb, and Mari began pedaling faster. Smirking, Ume
took the controls, and began accelerating slowly, giving Shiko time
to board before using the maximum speed they had available to them.

Shiko squinted, just barely able to make out a trio of
fleeing figures followed by another, this one hefting a... tank?
"What's that?" she asked, worriedly.

Ine stared intently forward, grabbing a pair of binoculars
from beneath her seat. "It looks like Biiko, and she's chasing Eiko
and some other people with a tank!"

Shiko blinked at that, before frowning unhappily. "She's
having fun without me?"

***

Ukyou winced as another blast rocked the city, and her eyes
widened at a giant spider-like tank scurrying down the street,
bearing a familiar redhead and an even more familiar pigtailed boy
as it fled. "Um... Akane?"

The youngest Tendo looked up, climbing to her feet wearily.
"Yeah, Ukyou?"

Ukyou wordlessly pointed at the pair on the oddly shaped
spider-tank as they receded down the street, tailed by an ancient
Amazon on a walking stick. "I think we found him."

Akane's eyes widened as another girl rounded the corner,
this one dressed in a metallic version of Kodachi's normal mode of
dress, and hefting a giant tank over her head. "Hey!" Akane shouted,
chasing after the tank bearing girl and joining the procession.
"What do you think you're doing!?"

Ukyou sighed and joined the chase, trying to ignore the hot-
pink gyro-copter that was following _her_.

***

Ranma looked back from his perch atop the spider tank, next
to Eiko, where she was gasping for breath, and groaned.

She caught the groan over the rushing of the wind, and
looked back with Ranma. "Who's that?" she asked, pointing towards
the enraged girl chasing Biiko.

Wincing, Ranma coughed. "Er... that's Akane, she's my, ah...
fiancee."

Eiko narrowed her eyes, seeing someone running behind the
schoolgirl. "That's the boy that kissed me this morning!" she
exclaimed, pointing at Ukyou as the okonomiyaki chef came into sight
momentarily.

Ranma lost his grip, stunned, and fell from his perch,
rolling with the fall and coming to a rest on the street as Cologne
paused near him. Dazedly, he asked, "Huh?"

The redheaded girl leapt from the moving spider-tank and
landed near Ranma, watching Biiko hurl the tank towards them in a
fast, low arc. "Ranma!" She shouted, "Look out!" Ranma rolled to one
side as Eiko threw out her arms and caught the tank, the recoil
forcing her to slide backwards and tear long gouges in the street
beneath her where her feet tore through the pavement.

Cologne blinked again, saying nothing for the time, as Eiko
grunted, and threw the massive tank back at Biiko.

Biiko leapt over the hurled tank, firing another salvo of
missiles at the apex of her leap. Unnoticed by Eiko, Akane slid to a
halt, seeing the eight-ton tank swiftly descending towards her. Just
before impact, Ukyou leapt in a low tackle and bore her to the
ground only centimeters from the edge of the new crater.

Ranma and Eiko regained their footing, scrambling backwards
defensively, as Cologne stabbed her staff into the street before
her, throwing up a defensive spray of rubble which detonated the
missiles harmlessly.

Eiko swallowed, unconsciously grabbing onto Ranma's arm as
she watched Biiko pause in befuddlement. The armor-clad girl's face
twisted from confusion to anger in a moment, as she cursed at the
ancient Amazon, rubble still raining down about the ancient figure.
"Not fair! Not fair using your weird little friends, Eiko!" Biiko
heaved for breath, seething in rage, and was oblivious to the
muffled explosion in the distance.

Ranma turned swiftly in response to the sound, seeing the
walls of a building down the street explode outwards to spray more
rubble onto the road. People began streaming out of a wide, gaping
hole in the wall, the crowd failing to keep level enough heads to
not fight each other and evacuate in an orderly manner. A massive
spider-tank moved about slowly above the crowd, outlined by the
massive gap and occasionally knocking additional chunks of masonry
free in its scan of the surroundings.

A man emerged from the panic-stricken crowd for a brief
moment, running a short distance towards the teenagers and yelling,
"FLEE! The Hottentots are running amuck!" before disappearing into
the rush of people.

Biiko took advantage of the pair's confusion, sweeping down
towards Eiko and Ranma while they were distracted, only to be
deflected by a metallic blur striking her bracer. She somersaulted
backwards to a more defensive position as she registered a
projectile disrupting one of her suit's power systems. The girl's
eyes widened in shock as she stumbled backwards to halt on the
pavement several meters away, frowning at the implement wedged into
the steel bracer of her armor. "What the..." Growling, she tore the
spatula free, dropping it to the ground and turning towards the
latest distraction.

Akane stomped forward, a furious expression on her face, and
snapped, "What do you think you're doing, beating up someone who
can't protect himself!?"

Ukyou nodded righteously, grabbing her large battle-spatula
from her back and brandishing it menacingly. "If you think that you
can beat up _my_ fiance, you've got another thing coming!"

The shorter girl shot her a glance at that statement, but
said nothing for the moment, instead taking another step towards
Biiko. "It's a martial artist's duty to protect the weak, after
all."

Ranma stared at the pair blankly, along with Cologne and
Eiko. "Um," he commented. "I can take care of myself, you know..."

Eiko nodded, smiling at Ranma to give him encouragement
before turning to watch the current debacle. Cologne sighed
wearily, observing the proceedings dourly, and wishing that she
could get Ranma's attention long enough to talk to him.

Biiko took a step back as the two angry fiancees drew
nearer, trying to ignore the short spray of sparks from the damaged
armor followed by a writhing tendril of electricity. "What are you
talking about?"

As it occurred to her, Eiko turned back to Ranma, asking,
"Why did that boy say that your fiancee was his?"

Ranma groaned, shaking his head. "Oh, man," he lamented.
"This is just as bad as Nerima!"

***

Shiko's hands clasped the edge of the cockpit as she peeked
over the rim and down onto the street, watching the people below
squabble. Frowning, she noticed that Eiko was standing next to some
boy she'd never seen before. A new friend, maybe?

Shaking her head, she waved over the side of the gyro-copter
and shouted, "Eiko-chan!"

The redhead and her pigtailed companion looked up, while the
aged women next to them simply folded her arms across her chest and
began to stare upwards darkly.

Before Eiko could respond, Shiko added, "I've got lunch
ready for you!" So saying, she waved a bento at the girl excitedly.
The boy next to her just shook his head, spreading his arms in a
helpless 'what next?' gesture.

Shiko drew in her breath to add more, but paused as she
heard a low rumbling noise, as a craft completely unlike the claw
tanks, F-15Js, and spider-tanks drew near, an odd protrusion of
metallic tentacles reaching towards her. The other girls on the
gyro-copter panicked, Ume veering away sharply to try and evade
while Mari's growling intensified, pedaling harder to provide enough
power to escape.

The tentacles darted forwards quickly, one of them nicking
the rotors in their pursuit of Shiko. The blonde shrieked in terror
as the gyro-copter violently rocked to one side from the rotor
damage. "Eiko! Help me!" she cried out, as the cold steel
protrusions grabbed her and bore her upwards. "Heeeeelp!!"

***

Ranma stared along with the other combatants on the street,
slack-jawed. "What the..." he began, uncertainly. "That was weird."

Eiko blinked in surprise. "Shiko?" she asked worriedly.
"What..." The girl trailed off, looking at Ranma for support as he
stared upwards.

"What," he asked, pointing upwards, "is that?"

The others turned to look, seeing a gigantic distortion in
the clouds, vapor sweeping aside and parting to make way for the
immense bulk of a spacecraft of some sort. It descended slowly, its
bulk blotting out the sky as it's halo of flashing light from the
SDF craft and the invaders battle intensified.

Biiko said nothing for a long moment, simply gaping at the
light-show until one thought managed to make itself known. "Shiko!"
she gasped, slapping yet another button on the bracer of her power-
armor and activating the self-repair feature. While the bracer wove
itself shut quietly, Biiko stomped towards Ranma and Eiko, waving a
finger beneath the redhead's nose in an admonishing manner. "You
fools! Eiko, if you hadn't brought all your weird friends here to
distract me, this never would have happened! I'll go save Shiko
myself -- I'll save her and win her heart! Ha!"

With those words, she gave a self-satisfied nod and launched
herself skyward. Ignoring Ranma's weak gestures towards her, she
activated the boosters on her power armor, and took flight, her
laugh trailing her ascent.

The pigtailed boy shook his head, sighing. "Now what?"

Eiko stared as Biiko ascended past the recently stabilized
gyro-copter, nearly causing it to crash again as her wake swept
across it. "Shiko," Eiko breathed. More urgency returning to her
voice, she turned to Ranma and insisted, "We have to save Shiko!"

Ranma stared upwards, seeing Biiko vanish in the distance.
"Well," he drawled. "That's going to be kind of tricky, isn't it?"

***

Agent D grumbled quietly, wishing that there were a way
readily available to quiet the shrieking blonde. "Hey!" D exclaimed.
"What's wrong? I'm taking you home!"

Shiko shook her head violently, whipping tears across the
craft's cabin. "I don't wanna go! I wanna be with Eiko!"

D grumbled, thumbing the com-link active again. The perky
green-haired girl from before answered, wincing at the exposure to
Shiko's shrieking. "Er... I've gotten the princess and am bringing
her back."

Nodding quickly and cringing as the static briefly died
down, enabling Shiko's voice to come across more clearly, the girl
answered, "Understood!"

Sighing, D closed the link, sparing a moment to eye the
wailing girl before increasing the craft's pace slightly.

***

"Shiko..." Eiko collapsed to her knees, staring upwards at
gargantuan craft, still-descending towards the city.

Ranma scratched the back of his head, looking around for
something to give him an idea. "Dang..." he muttered, not finding
anything. Sighing, he looked up, as Akane and Ukyou drew near.
Wincing, he said, "Uh... hi?"

Akane opened her mouth to say something, but was cut off by
the spider-tank down the street finally smashing through the wall
completely, dislodging the large, hand-painted, "Gravi-con!" sign
above the aperture that crowds of people had escaped from mere
moments prior.

Ranma pointed at the tank as it scurried towards them,
exclaiming, "Got it! Let's hijack that crawly-thing and have it take
us up there!" The girls simply stared at Ranma in confusion for a
long moment, while Cologne raised an eyebrow in a considering
manner. Ranma nodded, more to reassure himself than anything else.
"See," he began again, pointing upwards. "These things can fly. We
just gotta get one, and make it take us up there!"

Ukyou shrugged, and drew her battle-spatula, standing in the
path of the still advancing machine. "Hey," she said, winking at
Ranma. "If Ranchan thinks that it'll work, I trust him."

Akane nodded after a moment joining Ukyou. She glanced at
Ranma, her expression clearly stating, "We've got a lot to talk
about once this is over."

Eiko snapped herself out of her stupor and joined the other
pair of girls, as the tank drew closer. "Right," she stated. "If
Ranma thinks we can get up there and save Shiko, then I believe him
too."

The tank began to slow, seeming hesitant about confronting
the determined trio. Eiko darted a few worried glances towards Ukyou
before edging away uncomfortably. The Okonomiyaki chef was
resolutely trying not to blush while failing to meet Eiko's worried
glances. Akane, however, was trying -- not very successfully -- to
keep from giggling at Ukyou, remembering when the chef had kissed
Eiko earlier that day.

Ranma shrugged, bounding forward along with Cologne and
landing astride the vehicle. The three girls followed a moment
later, Ukyou giving it a passing whack with her spatula, and
yelling, "Up! Take us to your leader!"

The boy groaned, tossing his jo to the ground, and managing
to hide his look of surprise as the spider-tank actually began to
rise.

***

Japan's Self Defense Forces Pilot Yamamoto Kobato swallowed,
throwing his plane into a steep incline, hoping that he could
momentarily rise above the combat and get his bearings. He patted
the control console with one hand affectionately. "You'll see me
through this one all right, won't you, Princess?"

The plane gave no answer, but he smiled in gratitude anyway.
He made a note in his head to learn the proper English word for
'Princess' and have it painted on the plane when he made it back.

The last time it had occurred to him, he had forgotten the
spelling, and had the name of the plane -- his 'little princess' --
shortened to the few English characters that he knew. 'Little'
because of his own first name, and 'Princess' because she carried
him to heights he would never be able to reach alone...

He grinned, leveling out, preparing to reenter the fray.
"You're holding up great, P-chan!" He whooped, diving back into the
dogfight, before he noticed that he was out of fuel.

***

Ranma gritted his teeth, trying to convince himself that he
knew what he was doing, while the spider-tank they had managed to
semi-commandeer hurtled upwards, passing a startled and furious
Daitokuji Biiko.

The power-armor clad girl caught up with the vehicle's
flight, latching onto a leg as the craft juked around a passing
fighter plane, and rose above the giant ship as the larger craft
continued its descent. Changing direction abruptly, the small flying
vehicle darted across the surface of the much larger craft, passing
a mere thirty meters above, as though it were searching for
something.

Ranma coughed weakly, gripping onto a handle-like protrusion
tenaciously, while the three girls clung to him even more
tenaciously. "Can't... breathe" he wheezed out, prompting a snort
from Cologne, where she had driven her staff through the tank's hull
and was clinging to it with a casual attitude.

Deploring whichever kami had seen fit to consign him to such
a fate, he rolled his eyes upward beseechingly, only to see an out-
of control F-15J veering towards them unsteadily. He continued
watching as the craft adjusted its course, aligning itself on a
direct collision course with the small pod.

"Oh, man," he gasped, releasing his grip and sending himself
and all three girls rolling in a loose tumble to knock into Biiko as
she laboriously tried to clamber up the side of the craft.

The pilot activated the ejection seat before the impact, and
a similar pod ejected from the tank. The five teens scattered to the
gale-force winds, Cologne abandoning the craft moments before it
slammed into the F-15J with a resolute 'thud,' instead of the
deafening explosion all had expected.

***

Ranma found himself tumbling, and loosely attached to one
shrieking girl, though he wasn't able to ascertain which one due to
the violent and sudden motion. Grumbling to himself about the
indignity of it all, he wrapped himself around the girl, quieting
her struggles instantly, and braced himself for impact.

Flying backwards, he idly tried to compare the situation to
something safe, like leaping from a speeding train. He focused his
vision forward, seeing the halted hulks of the F-15J and the spider-
tank fall. A single, black projectile burst free of the debris,
arcing in a long trajectory.

Ranma tracked it distractedly, as all of his attention and
skill was focussed on bracing for impact, and protecting the girl in
his arms.

He slammed into a wall -- harder than steel, but far more
forgiving than he had expected -- with enough force to daze him,
rattling his teeth and rendering him nearly unconscious. Belatedly,
he raised one hand, catching the soft black projectile in one hand,
eliciting a startled and nauseous, "Bwee!"

The girl in his arms shifted, slipping from his grip and
down to the ground, peering up at him worriedly. "Ranchan?"

***

Akane shrieked, wondering what was going to happen next, and
grabbed for the nearest support as she broke free from the disaster
area. She found soft but firm arms encircling her, and looked up to
see Ranma -- no, a girl that _looked_ like Ranma -- holding her,
looking ahead with a determined expression. "Hang on!" the girl
shouted over the wind, whipping her body around to angle towards a
swiftly approaching bulkhead feet-first. "This might not work very
well."

Swallowing nervously, Akane braced herself. "Uh-oh."

***

Biiko looked up, seeing a tangle of the combatants from the
street all slam into her, knocking her free of her hard-won
purchase, and sending her spinning free. She righted herself, and
increased her altitude to evade an approaching barrier, wincing as
something impacted with it forcefully enough to override even the
sound-dampers built into her armor.

Turning away from the distraction, she focused on a vaguely
familiar building set amid the vast fields of protrusions. Weapons,
communications... she could only guess at the their functions, but
the anomaly of the building ahead was too interesting to pass up.

She darted forward, once-again in control of her flight,
peering at the almost Greek construction in confusion. "Hmm..." she
mumbled, glimpsing a figure between the pillars.

***

Japan's Self Defense Forces Pilot Yamamoto Kobato stared at
the ruins of his beloved craft as he drifted away on his parachute,
unable to resist the urge to wipe away a tear. "P-chan," he
whimpered, staring at the smoking wreckage of the plane.

***

"Ranchan? You okay?" Ukyou peered up at Ranma worriedly,
seeing him suspended in the center the giant bowl-shaped depression
he had created to shield her. She bit her lip, worriedly, seeing his
dazed expression shift to a tired one, then watching his eyes drift
closed.

Grunting, she leapt up the three meters to the bottom of the
bowl, grabbed his leg, unceremoniously yanking him free and catching
him before jumping back down onto the plated deck below.

She lay him down, wondering where on _earth_ the piglet that
he had caught had came from. The animal squirmed free of Ranma's
grip, and marched resolutely in a tight circle, confounding the
okonomiyaki chef further as it dragged a chain of knotted clothing
behind it.

"Okay," Ukyou said. "This is starting to scare me. Ranchan?
Wake up?" She patted him on the cheek a few times to rouse him.

Shifting slightly, he murmured, "Aw... Tofu... sleep more...
train later..." Slowly sitting up, he blinked at Ukyou. "Ucchan?"

She nodded, beaming her best and brightest smile at him.
"Hey, Ranchan! You okay?"

He peered about, nodding dazedly. "Where's everyone else?"

Ukyou shrugged, standing up and looking around. "I'm not
sure... What should we do?"

Ranma climbed to his feet slowly, wincing as he pulled
himself upright. "Oww... Find Eiko and Akane, then find her friend,
then get away."

"Um... okay. Where should we start?"

The boy grabbed the trailing article of clothing from its
tangle around the piglet, and hefted it up to eye level. In a very
solemn voice he stated, "I'm not sure I even want to know how you
got here." Grunting at Ranma in annoyance, the piglet looked
resolutely away, its eyes still seeming to spin dizzily. Ranma
snorted, slinging P-chan over one shoulder. "Let's get some hot
water, and get inside this thing."

Ukyou nodded obediently, falling into step behind Ranma.

***

Unleashing a 'Kiyah!' Eiko struck the bulkhead with enough
force to tear it wide open, leaving both herself and Akane
unscathed. Stumbling once awkwardly, they come to rest in the middle
of a large, abandoned corridor, both of them breathing heavily.

Akane gasped for breath, wheezing, "That was... scary..."

Eiko nodded, her eyes still wide. "Yeah, it was."

"Can you put me down now?"

Flushing nearly dark enough to match her hair, Eiko set the
other girl down, while they caught their breath. "So," the redhead
began, "how did you meet Ranma?"

Akane groaned, frowning uneasily at the other girl. "I met
him the day we were engaged. What about you?"

Eiko shrugged, eyeing her theoretical competitor guardedly.
"We met over a year ago, before he... left."

Frown deepening, Akane asked, "Why did he leave?" She knew
Ranma wasn't half the womanizer she claimed... was he?

Eiko's eyes took on a pained tinge. "His father," she
muttered, "told _my_ father that Ranma was... was... dead..."

Akane winced, mulling things over. Had Ranma, then, not been
fully over her when she had met him herself? "Oh," she said softly,
considering things. "That... explains a lot..."

The redhead smiled brightly, driving back the upset and the
depression. "But he's back now."

A twinge of pain assaulted Akane, an unfamiliar pinch near
her heart. "Oh?" she said uncertainly. "What does that mean?"

Eiko shrugged, taking a step forward, Akane falling in
behind her. "I don't know yet. I hope he still wants me... I mean,
he did come here for me, so that means something, right?" She shook
her head, smiling softly. "Maybe... maybe things won't work out
perfectly, but he's not dead, and I'd rather he was with someone
else than... that..."

Akane winced again, considering things. Did she have a
chance? This, at least, was enough to make her reconsider. She knew
_now_ that she wanted the chance, but it was certainly going to be
harder...

She sighed, smiling at Eiko warmly. At least Eiko was good-
natured about it. "Well," Akane stated, peering around at the
unfamiliar and alien design of the hallway. "Where should we start
looking?"

***

Biiko grumbled, feeling the plate of... glass?... that
separated her from Shiko. Her suit's visor could not identify the
composition of the substance, but she expected that it would break
easily enough.

Nodding to herself, she hovered back a few steps, leveling
her bracer at the window, and pressed the activation switch.

And nothing happened.

Blinking, she read a flashing notice on the edge of her
visor warning her that she was out of ammunition. She reached behind
her, to where the extra packs would be clipped to her armor with a
shrug.

They were missing.

Biiko blinked, trying to twist and turn, to see behind her
and where the clips should have been. "Argh!" she yelled, beating
her fists ineffectually against the barrier. "Where the hell did
they go?"

A voice from above her dryly informed the frustrated girl,
"It would appear as though Son-in-law has taken them from you."

Biiko shrieked, batting herself about the head frantically,
as Cologne nimbly leapt off of the armored girl's helmet. Heaving
for breath, eyes wide in alarm, Biiko asked, "What?"

Cologne smirked, shaking her head. "Son-in-law doubtless
thought that you were being too childish in your behavior, and took
away your toys."

Biiko's eyes narrowed, and she pouted. "I am not childish."

Sighing, Cologne jabbed at the barrier with her staff,
causing it to detonate inwards. "Personally," she said in a
conversational tone, shards of glass raining down behind her, "I
don't think there's a real need for weapons like that. A stick or a
bare hand seem to work just as well, wouldn't you say?"

The armor-clad girl stared at the Amazon, dumbfounded, then
sighed, and floated into the building, settling to the floor and
marching towards Shiko. "Whatever," she muttered, shaking Shiko
gently. Biiko frowned, calling, "Shiko? Are you alright? They didn't
do anything... sexual... to you, did they?"

The diminutive blonde yawned hugely, shaking her head. "Huh?
What? Where am I?" She blinked at the armor-clad girl before her,
and then the old woman that was staring at her with a patently bored
expression. "Oh, now I remember... I cried myself to sleep."

Biiko groaned, rolling her eyes. "Right. Well, let's steal
one of their vehicles and escape."

Cologne raised an eyebrow at that. "Can't fly down on your
own?"

The girl grabbed Shiko's wrist, beginning to tug the girl
away. "Too risky," she snapped at the Amazon. "We should be safer in
one of their craft."

The old woman shrugged, following as Shiko began to prattle.
"Where's Eiko? I want to see Eiko..."

***

Ranma shook his head, wincing slightly as the pain began to
fray at his self-control. "That was some landing," he groaned,
rubbing his shoulder. The pig dangling over his opposite shoulder
made a non-committal grunt in response.

Ukyou bit her lip again, then gestured towards the ruined
remains of the F-15J and the spider-tank. "Well," she said
uncertainly. "What do you need hot water for?"

The boy muttered, saying nothing, and began to poke through
the wreckage. After a moment he emerged from a particularly dense
pile with a slightly worn -- and oddly familiar -- brass kettle in
one hand. He stared at it dubiously, then shrugged, and looked Ukyou
in the eye. "Can you turn around for a moment?"

Ukyou turned around, uncertain, but trusting of Ranma. There
was a splash and some muffled cursing, but she resisted the urge to
look until she heard Ranma's voice, "Okay, you can look again."

He looked incredibly weary, eyeing another boy speculatively
and nodding to himself. Ukyou's eyes tracked to the other boy, and
she rolled her eyes, muttering, "Of course. Ryouga."

Ryouga glanced over towards her from his irritated glare at
Ranma. "What?" he said, sounding hurt.

Ranma waved a hand at them both dismissively. "We can fight
later. Right now, we have to find our friends, and hopefully get off
of this thing."

Ukyou bit back her tongue, falling in step next to Ranma
with Ryouga trailing just behind. After a moment, she asked, "Where
did the little pig go?"

The pigtailed boy's laugh -- echoed shortly by Ryouga's --
contained little humor, and there was a highly strained note to it.
"Dunno, Ucchan. He gets lost easily, I guess."

Ryouga interjected, halting that line of conversation, "When
did you two join the S.D.F.?"

Ukyou snorted, shaking her head. "We didn't; we just ended
up on this ship... But we're trying to find Akane, that girl and her
friend, then escape."

The lost-boy nodded knowingly, marching towards a vaguely
door-like structure. "Akane's in danger and Ranma's too weak to save
her. So... do we need to get inside?"

Ranma muttered something under his breath, but bit it back,
nodding. "Yeah, whatever. Now, break the door down and we'll get
inside and rescue her. "

***

Eiko trotted forward, as she scanned around for some clue to
lead her to the others -- or Shiko. "So," she said, wondering at the
lack of any personnel in the corridor. "What next?"

Akane skidded to a halt, pointing towards a glowing disk
inset into the floor. "What do you suppose that is?" she asked, a
faint frown creasing her face.

The redhead blinked, scrambling to stop and backtrack to the
alcove that Akane was indicating.

The pair eyed the panel for a moment before nodding once at
each other and stepping forward.

Akane yelped briefly, startled, as it began to rise, bearing
them with it. A flash of color and movement caught her aye, and she
smirked at Eiko, struggling with the skirt of her uniform and
momentarily glad that she was wearing a more sensible T-shirt and
jeans.

Eiko giggled in embarrassment, as an unseen breeze wafted
her skirt upwards, nearly revealing her panties. Akane turned away
studiously, leaving the pair back-to-back as the alien elevator
ascended. The redhead muttered quietly, wrestling with her skirt for
control. "You know," she commented to Akane, "the next time aliens
attack, I'll wear jeans, too."

Akane's grin widened, and she nodded. "Normally I don't wear
things like this, but it's colder here than Tokyo, so..." she
trailed off, kicking herself backwards and knocking Eiko sprawling
behind her as the elevator reached its peak. "Eeep!" she finished,
as a gigantic sword cleaved through the space that she had occupied
only a moment prior.

***

Ranma stared down the corridor for a long moment, unmoving.
Then he winced, shaking his head. "Do you hear that?" he asked,
gesturing down the empty hallway.

Ryouga shook his head, after exchanging a glance with Ukyou.
"I don't hear anything. Say, Ranma? Where is Akane, anyway? I know
you're too weak--"

Ukyou whacked Ryouga upside the head with one fist. "Hey!"
she hissed. "Don't you talk about my Ranchan that way."

Ranma sighed, looking at both of them irately. "No," he
stated. "I came here to try and fix some of the things Pops screwed
up."

Ryouga and Ukyou both shut up, the chef not able to meet
Ranma's eyes. Ryouga shifted his weight from foot-to-foot uneasily,
then shook his head. "Er... right. Well," he began, "what next?"

The pigtailed boy shrugged, then pointed down the corridor.
"I don't know exactly where were going, but I think I got an idea.
Follow me." He turned and began to trot down the corridor, leaving
Ukyou and Ryouga barely able to match his pace.

"Oh, yeah, almost forgot," he said, almost as an
afterthought, glancing back at the pair following him. "Duck."

The trio ducked, sliding forward as a barrage of bright
lights flashed overhead, searing the air where they had been and
melting the bulkheads behind them. "Ack!" Ukyou squealed, mimicking
Ranma's next motion as he rolled to the right, evading another laser
beam, and then another as he hopped high and to the left again...

***

Biiko dragged Shiko behind her, darting her head quickly
back and forth, searching for... searching for...

Cologne sighed, wondering why she had chosen to follow this
girl in particular. "You're lost, aren't you?"

The armor-clad girl glared at Cologne for a moment, coming
to a halt at a cross-shaped intersection. Smoothing her features
back into a mask of control, she stated haughtily, "I am not lost."

The Amazon sighed, nodding at Shiko as the young girl
glanced between the two in confusion. "So you're just taking the
scenic route, hmm?"

Biiko scowled, grabbing Shiko's wrist and dragging the girl
down yet another corridor. "I know what I'm doing," she huffed.

***

Eiko climbed to her feet, Akane slipping off the redhead's
back and taking up a ready stance next to her. "Hey," said Eiko as
she turned to face the gargantuan warrior in battle-bikini. "I
recognize you!"

Agent D grinned, hefting her sword. "I'm sworn to defeat you
and protect the princess!"

Akane could only stare for a long moment in befuddlement.
"Um," she began uncertainly, "what princess?"

D frowned, eyeing the two uncertainly, while Eiko prepared
for battle. "What do you-- You mean... you didn't know?

Eiko shook her head in negation, not lessening her ready
posture. "I have no idea what you're talking about. We want Shiko."

The agent-turned-armed-guard shrugged in a dismissive
manner, her glance shifting between the two girls before she settled
on Eiko. "Whatever," she said offhandedly, "neither of you are
getting past me to the princess."

Eiko grit her teeth, leaping above a sword-strike as it
descended towards her, arcing over D's back, and elbowing the giant
as she descended. Grunting in pain, D spun, smashing her sword
towards Eiko again, as the redhead caught the blade between her
hands, straining to keep the edge from striking her.

Her grip began to slip, the slick metal working its way free
of her hands, inexorably drawing down. The redhead snarled in
determination, wishing she had thought to remove her bracers first
-- but then the pressure was gone, leaving her holding the sword
while the overly-bulky agent rolled away, colliding with a narrow
railing with a painful sounding 'thump.'

Akane scowled, reassuming a defensive posture, as Eiko
flashed her a grateful smile and reversed the blade, gripping the
hilt easily in both hands. "Thanks." The martial artist nodded once,
eyes remaining trained on the giant woman as she climbed to her
feet.

"Hey," rumbled D, "that's not fair!" She scowled at the pair
of girls, somehow producing another sword from her shield, and
advancing on them again.

"Neither is the way you ambushed us!" Eiko snapped, using
her sword to deflect the giantess's blade as Akane slipped beneath
her guard and delivered a powerful palm-strike to the massive woman.

Wincing, D drew away, nearly unbalanced by the blow. "Hey!"
she complained, lowering her sword momentarily and rubbing at a
quickly growing bruise with her shield hand. "I promised to defend
the princess with my life, and I'm going to do it!"

Akane shrugged, commenting to Eiko, "She's strong but I
don't think she's very skilled."

Eiko nodded noncommittally, muttering, "Then again, we do
outnumber her..."

D fumed, producing another blade from somewhere, and tossing
aside her shield. "Okay," she declared, "No going easy on you this
time!"

Akane blinked, as Eiko shoved the heavy blade into her
hands, whispering, "Watch out, she's a lot stronger than she looks."
The Tendo girl could only wince at the thought, as the gargantuan
muscle-bound woman stomped towards them.

"This can't be good," Akane observed, stepping to one side
as Eiko moved the opposite direction.

***

Ranma ducked, coming to a quick halt. Not having enough time
to duck, Ukyou tripped across him, falling to land in his lap, the
pair of them then tripping Ryouga into a large steel door. Startled,
the lost boy only had enough time to yell a single panicked,
"Aaarg!" before barreling into the door and smashing it out of the
way.

The pigtailed boy blinked at the now-open door, and
shrugged, while Ukyou dazedly peered about. "Ranchan?" she asked.

"Yeah?"

"Did you do that on purpose?"

He nodded, still looking towards the dark doorway. "Yep."

Ukyou flushed darkly, clinging to Ranma, and hugging him
tightly. "You do love me!" she squealed.

Ranma blinked again, struggling for breath. "Huh?" he
wheezed. "I just made Ryouga smash into the door."

The lost boy called back from the dim recesses ahead of
them. "Ranma! We don't have time for you to play around with your
fiancee. Why don't you move her off your lap, and hurry up?"

Ranma snapped, "Because I _can't_, you moron. She weighs too
much."

Ukyou's smile lessened drastically, as she turned, loosing
her hold -- but not leaving Ranma's lap -- to stare at him. "What?"

The boy shrugged uncomfortably, looking away. "You weigh too
much. I can't move you."

Ryouga snorted, rolling his eyes. "Of course it's _her_
fault; it's not like he was too _weak_ to move her," he muttered
sourly.

***

Biiko turned yet another corner, wondering if her guidance
system were failing her, and she was lost... but no, the monitor on
her visor would tell her if she were crossing familiar territory.
She sighed, glancing at the old woman easily keeping pace next to
her. "So," she said, addressing Shiko as the blonde trotted next to
her, "I don't suppose you would know the way out from here?"

Shiko blinked twice, then shook her head, offering only a
cute 'I'm sorry' expression. "Nope. I don't know the way out."

Sighing, Biiko came to a halt, and consulted the map on her
visor again. "Well," she grumbled. "What now?"

Cologne snorted, "You could always ask your betters."

"Elder, maybe, but not better." An inarticulate cry of rage
and a loud 'smack!' rang out from the bowels of the ship, causing
both Biiko and Cologne to pause before the argument could escalate.
"Um," Biiko continued, unnerved. "Okay, how in the hells do we get
out of here?"

The Amazon elder nodded knowingly, brandishing her staff.
"We take the path of most resistance."

***

Ryouga chuckled at Ranma, who was scowling irritably, and
rubbing at a throbbing, red, handprint-shaped mark on the side of
his face. "What the heck, Ucchan... what was that for?"

The okonomiyaki chef sniffed disdainfully, remarking, "It's
horribly rude of you to tell your cute fiancee that she's
overweight."

He groaned, rolling his eyes. "Great," he muttered, "now can
you get off me so that I can stand up?"

Ukyou flushed darkly, but stood, rubbing at her sore hand
when the pigtailed boy wasn't looking. He sighed, clambering through
the opening and into the darkness. "Hey!" he said after a moment.
"Ryouga!? Do you know what this stuff is?"

Ukyou frowned, climbing into the darkness after the pair,
and waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. Ryouga's
voice rumbled from near the dimly illuminated entryway. "Um... no?"

"Oh man... look." With that, Ranma's body erupted with fire,
blue tongues of ki-flame flaring outwards and illuminating the pair
of panties that Ryouga was holding to his face.

The lost boy blinked, turning the article over several times
before comprehension struck him like a bolt of lighting. His eyes
widened suddenly, turning eerily blank as he fell stiff on the
floor, blood trickling freely from his nose.

Ukyou stared around, first in shock at Ranma, who had never
presented as much focus in his aura, then at the mounds of feminine
undergarments littering the room. "Dang," she muttered, glancing
around and shivering. "It's all girls' stuff..."

Ranma nodded absently, peering at the dim recesses, and
grinning as he found another door. "Great," he muttered, eyeing the
door. After prodding it for a few moments, he nodded to himself
again, and walked back to Ryouga. "Wake up, Ryouga. We need you to
open another door."

The lost boy roused slowly at the mention of his name, only
to pass out again at the sight of the panties he still clutched in
his hand. Groaning, Ranma set about untying one of the lost boy's
bandanas. Ukyou watched attentively, as the pig-tailed boy re-tied
the bandana over Ryouga's eyes. "Wake up!"

Ryouga woke with a start, turning his head about in alarm.
"Arg!" he said, a panicked edge to his voice, "I can't see!"

Ranma exchanged a pained glance with Ukyou, before taking a
step back. "It's okay, Ryouga. Just come here and open a door for
us." Nodding obediently, the lost boy stumbled around at random
until Ukyou led him to the door.

Making sure Ryouga was facing the right way, Ranma removed
the bandana, commanding, "Knock it down, Ryouga."

Ryouga pulled back his hand and slammed a single finger into
the door, reducing it to a hail of shrapnel as Ranma and Ukyou
ducked behind him. The lost boy nodded in a self-satisfied manner,
oblivious to the jagged pieces of metal as they rebounded from his
hardened skin harmlessly.

Ranma slipped past the lost boy, rubbing at his cheek again
absently as he peered around. Ryouga trundled after him, frowning.
"What now?" the lost boy asked, absently retying his bandanas.

"Well," Ranma stated, pointing towards a glowing disk on the
floor. "That looks good."

Ryouga and Ukyou exchanged a puzzled glance, following the
pigtailed martial artist as he dashed towards the glowing
impression.

***

Akane stumbled away, one hand sliding from the handle to the
unsharpened back of the blade instinctively to improve her chances.
"Ugh," she grunted, straining against the immensely powerful
swordswoman. Slowly, she felt her footing begin to give way, and
edged back. Only the fact that D was primarily occupied with Eiko,
who seemed able to match her blow for blow had saved her, so far.

Eiko struck quickly, each attack being deflected by D's
speed and skill. "Well," the redhead grunted, launching a kick into
D's ribcage between exchanges, "I think we can win this!"

Akane nodded dubiously, wishing she didn't have to rely on
the weapon, but not trusting her bare hands against the woman's
brute strength and naked steel. Slipping back, she overbalanced, one
foot going behind her and finding... no support. Her eyes widened as
she flailed around blindly, dropping the sword, and managed a single
startled shriek before she disappeared from sight.

Eiko's eyes widened in alarm, and she suddenly found herself
harried, trying to evade both swords at once, without one of her
own. She feinted a leap to one side, hoping to buy some time, and
dove beneath the woman's legs, rolling onto her back and landing a
vicious kick to the inside of D's thigh as she tumbled away.

D bellowed in pain and wheeled about, spinning to bring both
swords to bear on the redhead -- but Eiko wasn't there. She dashed
around to remain behind D, tagging her kidney with an elbow smash
before the giantess spun, a forearm crashing into her and sending
her tumbling to land near the elevator.

She whimpered, realizing that as hard as Biiko had hit her,
the alien had hit her _much_ harder. Staggering to her feet, she
squared off again, ready to continue the fight. "I'm not going to
let you kidnap Shiko," she declared resolutely.

D scowled, swinging the swords at Eiko in a pair of diagonal
slashes. "And we'll never let you take the princess from us!" she
retorted.

Eiko staggered back, the sword's edges missing her narrowly,
but slashing through her flimsy clothing easily. "Gaaah!" she
sputtered, windmilling at the edge of the elevator as she belatedly
noticed the tear in her clothing that ran all the way from the hem,
and clear through to... nothing.

A pair of hands supported her from behind at the last
moment, and an irate voice announced, "Okay, now I'm angry." Eiko
flushed, looking down at the cut in her skirt that lay it open from
the waistband on.

She spun, seeing -- of all people -- Ranma standing behind
her, leaning in an odd stance to support her before shifting his
position back to a more normal one.

Behind him was a boy she didn't recognize, wearing a hot-
pink bandana, and the boy from that morning, looking stunned and
carrying Akane in his arms. Akane looked equally stunned, and Eiko
had to admit that they made a cute couple, with Akane clinging to
the okonomiyaki chef so tightly.

Ranma stepped forward, joined shortly by the bandana-clad
boy. The new boy nodded, eyeing D distastefully before declaring,
"For your crimes against Akane-san, I can never forgive you!"

Snorting in response, Ranma pointed the boy towards the
discarded sword. "That's right, Ryouga. Anyway, you don't mess with
_my_ friends and get away with it." Ryouga glanced at Ranma
uncertainly, then nodded, the pair breaking apart to encircle D and
attack from both sides.

D growled, "I will halt you at all costs!"

Ranma snorted, easily ducking a blow and eyeing D carefully.
Ryouga deflected an incoming strike with some effort -- snatching up
the discarded sword at the last moment -- but he did deflect it,
leaving the pair of fighters momentarily unbalanced. Ranma charged
behind D before she could completely rebalance, and struck her back,
the air snapping with the speed of the blows as he struck too
quickly for the girls to count the number or blows. The pigtailed
boy gave a self-satisfied nod and stepped away, smirking.

Ryouga sweated, wondering how long he could hold D's swords
at bay as her swords held against his, the edges grinding together
slowly. He clenched his eyes shut, straining to keep the sharp
death-dealing implements away from himself, grunting and pouring as
much strength as he could gather, halting the inevitable strike.
"Ranma," he grunted, feeling his strength ready to give out. "I
can't... hold her... back... long..."

The pigtailed boy gave an annoyed sigh, rubbing at the
discolored patch on his check. "She can't move, Ryouga. I paralyzed
her."

The girls blinked, as Ryouga slowly, uncertainly, and with
no small show of embarrassment, stepped back. D worked her jaw,
trembling at her inability to move, while the swords remained in the
same position.

Ranma grinned, looking around. "So," he said casually, as
Ryouga dropped the sword, "where next?"

"Um," Akane said after a moment. "I'd like to be set down
now."

***

Shiko and Biiko dazedly wandered behind the amazon as she
destroyed the obstacles before her with casual grace, smashing
through metal bulkheads and alloy barriers in a straight line.

She paused after coming across an oddly shaped room. Peering
about, she asked, "What's this, now?"

Biiko stumbled in, making sure not to trip over the rubble
that lay scattered about, and eyed the room. "It looks like... an
elevator."

Cologne nodded knowingly. "I see, I see... and can you make
it take us where we want to go?"

The girl stared at the old woman blankly, while Shiko simply
observed the pair. Shrugging, Biiko turned to study what looked like
a control panel of some sort. "Probably..."

***

Captain Napolipolita raised an eyebrow as a sudden explosion
reduced the elevator door to shrapnel.

She was left with a view of a gaggle of teens in various
states of irritation. The redheaded girl with the indecently torn
skirt stepped forward first, her face carrying mixed messages of
worry and anger. "Hey!" she shouted. "Give Shiko back to us!"

Standing next to her, a thin, nearly invisible blue aura
visible about him, a pigtailed boy stepped forward, offering his
silent support. He was joined by another pair of boys, once with a
hot-pink bandana, and another with a massive, unfriendly looking
spatula. Behind them was another girl, this one with short, bluish-
black hair, glancing at the pig-tailed boy briefly and emulating his
stance.

Swallowing, the captain considered her sidearm, frowning. "I
can't do that..." she complained, eyes nervously darting between the
opposition, while the bridge crew stared in apprehension.
Straightening herself to her full height, the captain proclaimed,
"She is the Fourth Princess of the Fifth Queen of the Lepton Kingdom
of Alpha Cygni. We will never abandon her!"

Eiko shook her head angrily, complaining, "Maybe she is, but
most importantly, she's _my_ friend! I'm not going to let you just
take her away!" She nodded once in affirmation, wiping at a stray
tear.

The captain edged away a step, shaking her head before
slumping to the floor, kneeling awkwardly. "Arg..." she muttered,
clutching weakly at her side. "Can't... fight... need..." She raised
her head slightly, a frown twisting her visage. "Need..." As her
voice dropped to a whisper, the teens crept closer, trying to make
out her words. Nearly whimpering, Captain Napolipolita managed, "...
booze..."

Ranma opened his mouth to say something, but caught himself,
and spun towards the elevator as it whirred to life. "Uh-oh," he
muttered, as D reached the top of the lift, snarling angrily. Eiko
winced, as the mammoth warrior stomped forward heavily, seething in
rage and snarling incoherently. The pig-tailed boy shifted his
position, preparing to dodge. "Guess her pressure points are
different from humans. That should have held her for a few hours."

The redhead nodded, spinning again as the central elevator
in the control room activated, bearing Biiko and her traveling
companions into the bridge. The girl's voice carried, augmented by
her power armor, "Well this isn't the right way either!"

The old woman next to her shook her head, pointing with her
staff. "No, I'd say it worked."

Shiko broke away from Biiko, dashing towards Eiko. "Eiko-
chan! I found you!" she cheered.

Eiko leapt forward, calling out, "Shiko!"

Ranma shrugged, sparing only a glance as she darted away,
and he squared off against his much larger adversary. Ryouga
solemnly removed a bandana, spinning it in one hand and reducing it
to a hot-pink blur before hurling it at D.

Everyone froze, wondering what the hot-pink projectile was,
as D batted it out of the way. It landed on the deck at her feet.
Soft, frilly lace trim, and hot-pink decorated with occasional blue
hearts. It was a pair of panties.

Ukyou snorted, rolling her eyes. "Figures," she muttered
under her breath, as Ryouga goggled in embarrassment.

The lost boy turned to Ranma, his features paling nearly
white. "Ranma," he squeaked out. "Did I have... _that_... tied
around my head the entire time?"

Grimacing, Ranma nodded. "Yeah..."

The lost boy nodded solemnly, "I see," and promptly fell
over backwards, rolling down the stairs to come to a halt near Eiko,
as she swept Shiko into her arms and dove for cover. Biiko belatedly
joined them, and after a moment of hesitation, Cologne sent Ryouga
rolling behind another bit of cover, standing idly to watch what
would happen next.

Ranma nodded, gesturing Akane and Ukyou back. "Be careful,"
he warned.

Akane bit her tongue, simply nodding, and mirroring Ranma's
stance, while Ukyou nodded, readying her battle spatula.

Surveying her options and finding them lacking, D dove for
the captain, snatching up her sidearm and turning to face the teens.
Ranma, Ukyou, and Akane shared a confused blink before springing
away and diving for cover themselves.

The ailing captain clung to the agent weakly, trying to
dissuade her from shooting blindly. "Careful!" she shrieked. "You'll
hit the princess!"

Ignoring the captain, D grunted, firing recklessly.

Akane huddled to the port side, cowering next to Biiko,
Shiko, and the redhead, while Ranma and Ukyou joined the prone
Ryouga and Cologne. The ancient Amazon regarded Ranma inscrutably.
"Well?" she asked. "I hope you have some sort of plan?"

Ranma winced as a hail of energy beams lanced through the
floor nearby, narrowly missing him, and tearing long molten gouges
in the floor. "Kinda," he said after a moment. Waving towards the
group of girls, he yelled, "Why don't you shoot back at them?"

Biiko glared, but settled for a rude gesture in lieu of
speaking.

Shaking his head, Ranma turned his attention towards Akane,
shouting, "Catch this!"

Akane nodded, raising her hands to catch a small black box
wrapped in yellow-and-black tape and large, garish warning labels.
Biiko stared at it, snatching it from the other girl's hands and
frantically slapping it into her wrist bracer. Grinning viciously,
she popped up, firing a salvo of small missiles in retaliation of
the energy beams.

D squawked in terror, avoiding being hit directly, but
singed by the explosions regardless. The captain took the brunt of
the attack, and was flung backwards into a smoke and debris filled
cloud.

Biiko grinned, offering Ranma a begrudgingly respectful nod
before turning to glare further at the singed alien. Emerging from
the smoking rubble, and cackling like some hell-borne demon, the
captain hauled a large assault weapon into place, kicking the brake
and leveling the multitude of barrels towards the teens.

Ranma groaned, ducking behind his source of cover again.
"This day just keeps getting better," he remarked bitterly.

Cologne shrugged in a consolatory manner. "I've had worse."

"Really?"

"No, not really."

"Great," he deadpanned.

Ukyou latched onto him, whimpering, "Ranchan! I'm scared!"

He sighed, rolling his eyes beseechingly again. "What next?"

Eiko glanced over, seeing Ranma and his other friends
huddling for safety. Biiko was holding herself tightly to the
ground, having blanched after looking down the many barrels of the
engine of destruction that was even then tearing apart the bridge.
Shiko made a frightened noise, and Eiko held her close, preparing to
shield the little blonde with her own body, should it become
necessary.

The fire tapered off, after one central column of
instrumentation was destroyed, and a faint, "Oops," echoed about the
suddenly quiet control room.

Ranma sighed, trying to disentangle himself from Ukyou.
"C'mon, Ucchan, I have a feeling we should move." Seeing him eye
Ryouga, Cologne nodded and prodded the boy with her staff.

Ukyou let go of Ranma unsteadily, as the ship gave an
alarming lurch and shudder, followed by the activation of a
shrieking alarm system. The two groups of martial artists poked
their heads up over the control panels to look, only to see a
flustered looking D trying to console a wailing captain.

Ranma groaned, looking out the front of the bridge's wide
windows. "Oh look," he commented dryly, "we're going to crash."

The boy shook his head, bracing himself near a console
beneath a bulkhead, and gesturing the others near. They crowded
around bracing themselves in similar positions. Eiko squeezed next
to Ranma, Shiko in her lap, while Ukyou claimed the space on the
opposite side of Ranma.

Ryouga sat next to Ukyou dazedly. Biiko wedged him into
place firmly, before sitting next him. "You'll protect me, right?"
she asked. He blinked, unable to do much more than goggle and nod at
the scantily clad girl.

Akane stumbled, sprawling loosely across Ranma and Ukyou's
laps, staying there when Ukyou grabbed her wrist and tried to nod
reassuringly.

The craft began to vibrate violently, so Ranma turned to
Biiko, shouting to be heard across the low -- but building -- roar,
"Why don't you just fly away?"

Biiko scowled, then pointed towards Shiko, curled up in
Eiko's lap and seemingly unalarmed. Ranma shrugged, bracing himself
again, while Cologne subtly found a spot near Eiko and braced
herself as well.

Ranma closed his eyes, preparing to take yet another impact.
"Too many," he muttered under his breath. "Too many for one day."

Eiko turned to face him suddenly, and yelled over another
roaring explosion that sent the deck angling sharply, "Ranma?"

He nodded briskly, still wincing at the remembered pain from
the last impact. "Yeah?"

Staring him in the eye, she yelled, "Thank you for coming
after me, Ranma."

He nodded again, unable to resist smiling. "Glad to help!"

Flushing slightly, and shifting from her braced position,
Eiko planted a kiss firmly on his cheek before settling down to
await the impact again.

Akane and Ukyou's eyes widened as they stared, while Ranma
simply reddened, stunned.

***

Eiko skipped towards her house, lighthearted. Her clothing
was signed, torn, and her skirt was torn open to the point of
indecency, but she wasn't going to let it get her down.

She hummed lightly, traipsing through the doorway. "I'm
home!" she called out.

Her mother blinked, adjusting her spectacles and taking in
the various signs that her daughter had been in battle recently.
"Oh?" she said, taking in her daughter's condition. "How was your
day?"

The redhead giggled, saying nothing and dashing upstairs to
the shower. Her mother frowned crossly, setting aside a laundry
basket with a blue-and-red costume. "Now I'm worried..." she
muttered, making a note to discuss it with her husband.

Safely ensconced in the cleansing warmth of the shower, Eiko
smiled again, and whispered, "Today was great."

***

Ranma limped towards the ruined remnants of what he had
dubbed 'the ugly yellow building,' using a new staff and shaking his
head wearily. Tofu looked up from the corner of the street, grinning
as he saw Ranma approaching, and largely intact.

"Ranma! How was everything?"

The boy smiled widely trying to ignore the trio of red,
handprint shaped marks on his face. "Pretty good so far," he
managed.

Tofu shook his head, looking towards the sunset, oddly
offset by the massive bulk of the alien warship above them, balanced
on the central spire of Graviton City. Tofu sighed, then offered a
hand to Ranma. "I know you've got your own plans, but I found a
place, if you're looking.

Ranma nodded hesitantly. "Might be good to find a place to
stay... what do I have to pay you?"

The doctor began walking down the street, Ranma trailing
him. "Well, I figure you can help me set up my sand garden, and
chores around the clinic..." After a moment, he added, "And I think
you could probably use living around someone to patch you up, hmm?"

[End Chapter Three]

------------------
Author's Notes:
5/11/01 -- pre-reader draft.
5/14/01 -- secondary draft. Removed the completed Grand
Unification Theory due to its irrelevance. In this story.
5/20/01 -- Tentative final.

Thanks to all of the pre-readers who helped with this
project: Nathan Shuker, Bjorn Christianson, Donald Mc, and last --
but not least -- Corwin, and Ginrai.

And I shouldn't go on without thanking the real source of
inspiration... So thanks to my muse, Rouge-hime, because this would
never have happened without her.